Essentially Unbalanced: For Better or Worse

I am again preempting my planned column.  It feels a little odd to write about the specifics of encounter design when I am sitting here with newly purchased goodies in the D&D Essentials line: specifically the Red Box D&D Starter Set, Rules Compendium, and Heroes of the Fallen Lands.

When the Essentials line was announced, the usual Internet-fueled hyperbole about the end of the gaming world as we know it erupted.  When such a reaction is so prevalent, immediate, and sadly expected, it is difficult to weed out the legitimate and well-reasoned concerns amid so much venting of spleens and gnashing of teeth.  I will admit right now to being neither a revolutionary nor a reactionary.  I don’t consider all change bad, and I don’t embrace change for its own sake.  With that mindset, I held off on forming an opinion of Essentials until I got a look at the goods.

Of all the new (or changed) rules that Essentials brings with it, the most controversial is probably going to be the new character class builds.  These builds, particularly the rogue (thief) and the two new fighters (slayer and knight) deviate from the well-established class structure that we’ve seen with previous 4e classes.  As you know if you play 4e at all, the classes (until now) are on equal footing in terms of structure.  No matter what class you choose, you have access to roughly the same number of at-will, encounter, daily, and utility powers.  While the powers may differ, the basic structure is the same.

The reasons given for the new structure of class powers in 4e were many, but one of the big reasons discussed was the discrepancy between the power levels and play of the classes.  In previous editions of D&D (and its many clones) lower-level spellcasters in the Vancian magic system could easily run out of spells in the first encounter of the day.  This led to the dreaded phenomenon known as the “five-minute adventuring day.”  The first encounter would end, the spellcasters would be out of spells, and the players would immediately want to rest for the day so they could regain their spells.  This system also tended to make the non-spellcasting characters more powerful at lower levels, as they never ran out of their favorite attacks: fighters could always power attack, and rogues could always sneak attack.  Certain classes had to play a resource-management game, while others really did not.

I was happy with the direction that 4e took with the structure of the classes.  People who never played wizards in the past because they didn’t like the spell system could now put on the pointy hat, and people who only played spellcasters because fighters were “boring” could now use martial powers that were just as exciting as many spells.  I liked the balance.  But as someone who has played since well before the original Red Box set was released, the superior balance did come at the price of uniqueness.  There was something special about playing a fighter in 1st Edition D&D as opposed to a cleric or a wizard or a thief.  I think the Essentials designers must have asked themselves after the release of 4e if there wasn’t a way to keep most of the balance while still making things unique within the classes.  I think Essentials, as we are beginning to see it, is the answer to that question.

However, I think a more important question is this: does D&D really need that balance at all?  Let’s answer by looking at games in general first.

To put it simply, the reason games like Monopoly and Candy Land and Snakes and Ladders work is because everyone uses the exact same rules. The player who chooses the thimble does not get to re-roll dice if they are unhappy with the results.  A player cannot ignore cards that send them back to the gingerbread man.  No player can climb up a snake once per game.  Most competitive games work in this way.  All the players are on equal footing at the start, and only skill, luck, or strategy differentiate the players as the game progresses.  Hell, many would say that “Rock, Paper, Scissors” is the perfect game because of its symmetry.

A competitive game where the players start on unequal footing, like Talisman for an example, can show how unbalanced a game can be.  Don’t get me wrong, I have played and loved Talisman for many years, but if you have to play the elf, you are pretty much assured to get your pointed-eared ass kicked by the prophetess, who is discarding adventure cards right and left.  And yes, a game can still be unbalanced and fun.  But I am looking at functionality.  I can use my head as a hammer; the nail still gets in the wall as long as I can stay conscious long enough, but that doesn’t make my head a good hammer.  (Insert your own hammerhead jokes at my expense here.)

But D&D, at its heart, is not a competitive game; it is a cooperative one.  The game can certainly be played different ways, and there are different types of players and player expectations within the game, but for the most part one player does not “win” D&D at the expense of other players.  If all the players have fun, they win.  If one character is more effective or powerful, that often helps the team move through the encounters more easily and effectively, which generally means more fun.  That is, as long as the lack of balance does not get too severe.

What girl? You pushed Orcus down the Well of Many Worlds?

In earlier versions of D&D, and especially in 3rd Edition, there were some design issues which made it possible for one character to get way too powerful.  It is one thing to have a character make a greater contribution to the success within an encounter or adventure.  It is another thing to have the character complete the encounter or adventure without needing the other characters to participate.  When the druid’s animal companions and summoned creatures can push aside the rest of the party and splatter all the bad guys in a couple of rounds, while the druid is still dishing out wizard-like spells, then something is amiss.

So can a designer somehow tame the pendulum and create a system where the structure of character classes isn’t identical, but still keep the game balanced enough so that one type of character does not shine above the rest on a regular basis?  Can each class have a little more uniqueness without unbalancing the game too much?

What I have seen so far from Essentials moves in the right direction.  Playing a slayer fighter or thief rogue is going to be a very different experience than playing an existing fighter or rogue.  But no matter which class you play, there are still plenty of options for each character in each round.  There are still fun choices to be made during character creation and leveling.

I am a little concerned that we might see the return of a dilemma along the lines of the five-minute adventuring day, though.  The move to 4e, as I noted earlier, made players of all character classes relatively equal in the resource-management game.  Healing surges and powers were something everyone had to keep an eye on, so generally everyone was ready to rest at about the same time.  With the release of the new rogue and fighter classes, which have no daily powers related to the class at lower levels and rely on basic attacks that are modified by at-will and encounter powers, you are now looking at a situation where some characters are ready to rest relatively quickly while the others have not used those resources.

On the other hand, I like how easy to teach these new classes are.  I played in the Red Box D&D Gameday last weekend, and the younger players at the table were able to pick up the rogue and fighter characters pretty quickly and be just as effective—if not moreso—than experienced players playing the warpriest and mage.

Of course, that in itself worried me.  Newcomers dropping loads of damage on the bad guys with the characters relying on basic attacks outshining those that had to deal with resource management at low levels began to sound a lot like something terribly familiar.

I am not smart or prescient enough to know if, as these characters increase in level, one flavor is going to be much more powerful than another.  It will be an interesting experiment to see how these character types compare as they move through heroic-tier play and into paragon and heroic.


  1. I think these classes will offset their ‘directed capabilities’ with their lack of flexibility.

    I play 4e with 6-12 year olds and they pick it up real fast. I feel that what Essentials offers with its limited builds is characters are easy to build paper and pencil style.

    My son, 8, has been having a hay day with a 4e archer. His utility power “Archer’s Staircase” has constantly shown up as being really cool. Pit trap? Climb over! Wall in the way? Climb up!

    If the Essentials classes don’t simply share their powers into the regular 4e pool, or at least receive access to the regular pool of powers for their classes, then they will be quite limited. I think that’s a fair offset.

  2. Roy McMillion says:

    I liked 1e because it was unbalanced. But then, all my games tended to emphasize the roll playing rather than the combat. To me, the combat has always been there to add flavor to the story, the 4e systme seems to be adding story to get you between combats.
    Yes, a low level thief or wizard was not going to be very useful for combat after one or two encounters, but the balance they provided was in the aspects of the game that exist outside of combat.
    As someone that jumped from 1e to 4e without having played any of the in-between versions, I find the homogenization if the classes takes away some of the non-combat roll playing. To a certain extent, the skill system makes up for this, but ultimately, does it really matter which flavor of controller you pick?

  3. Alphastream says:

    Thought A) I love Shawn Merwin. There I said it. You are so good for this hobby.

    Thought B) Yeah, and what you closed with is my beef. My beef (part 2, really) is that this is being communicated as the 4E development schema from here on out. And yet, it is clearly an untested experiment. Somehow we are told this new magic item rarity system fixes problems, when we have never seen evidence that they at all comprehend what causes problems with 4E rarity. The same can be said of powers and how they interact with feats, or even how basic attacks are exploited. So, my beef (part 2) is just that horrid feeling that this should all be behind closed doors instead of loudly advertised as the new reality.

    Beef part 1, by the way, is just the atrocious way in which they communicated all of Essentials. The shifting slider of what the line would do and for whom it was for has caused so much confusion. I rest my case with the endless articles, tweets, blogs, and interviews where they try to clarify it endlessly. This all could have been done better and if they learn anything I hope it is around communicating their next development shift in a much better way. They could have really used this as an opportunity to sell to new people and bring in the 3.5 stalwarts in, all while not offending the existing fans. I’m not sure they have done a good job on any of those fronts (except the brand new people that have no exposure to their communications).

    That said, I do love my 4E and have tons of respect for WotC. I do think everything will be fine. And I do reserve judgment on the actual quality of Essentials until I get to see more of it. Red Box and DM’s Kit, which I have seen, are not very impressive as DMG/PH replacements. I see little gain so far and no real efficiency for achieving the stated goals. I hope the two new player books are improvements.

  4. Roy: I’ve been in plenty of games with unbalanced non-combat monsters, with absurdly high bonuses to diplomacy and such. 1e avoided that by not really having skills, so then the imbalance was more in “who, in real life, is the better talker? The better spacial thinker?” etc.

  5. Roy McMillion says:

    Dave: Yes I agree, but that goes back to roll playing for me. I’d rather have an articulate player do the talking and make and convincing argument, than have a character with a high diplomacy say “give me your stuff and crap” and roll a natural 20.

  6. Sure, but your original comment listed the dichotomy as being between role-playing and combat. Clearly, even from your own example there, it’s not always one or the other. You can have a non-combat game where people might want balance. YMMV, but sometimes, I want to play a character who is a smoother talker than I am. I ran into this very situation just last night. And I was certainly role-playing my character.

  7. Shawn Merwin says:

    @UHF Interesting perspective. I think your final paragraph is the major question I have. I have attended seminars where the designers that said that the Essentials characters can take powers from the previous sourcebooks with no problems. I am assuming they meant only utility powers, because if they meant you should be able to take 7th-level attack powers instead of an extra trick at 7th level, then we have major problems. 🙂

    @Roy I have to admit that you lost me with what you were saying. Perhaps you can elaborate. At one point you seem to say 1e was fun despite the lack of balance in combat because wizards and rogues did more outside of combat. But you also imply that that it is the roleplaying that mattered most, so really the mechanics, balanced or not, don’t really matter. I really want to understand your point, so could you explain? Thanks!

  8. Shawn Merwin says:

    I think part of the issue, when you are discussing game design and balance in a game as complicated and as “something different to everyone” as D&D, is that there are so many vertices to keep in mind. When a designer creates the rules, those vertices that he or she focuses on the most are going to dictate design the most. For example, if you bring in a designer that does not keep in mind the history of D&D, and only looks at the design as a game, you might get a system where each class has to be balanced perfectly against every other class, or each defender against every other defender. Then you bring in a designer who grew up playing 1st edition D&D, and that designer might say to herself, “This game rocked when I played it as a kid, and it wasn’t perfectly balanced then, so it doesn’t need to be perfectly balanced now.”

    The whole crunch vs. fluff debate falls along these lines. A company puts out a book chock full of all nice crunchy rules and player options, and half the customer base complains because they want background information, tips of roleplaying, NPCs to encounter, and stories to interact with. So then a book comes out with mostly fluff, and the other half of the customer base complains because they can make up their own fluff; they just want the rules options for the game. Depending on where you place yourself along the line of “D&D is defined by the rules” vs. “D&D is defined by the flavor” often determines where your focus is.

  9. Yeah, I mean, much digital ink has been spilled over the topic of balance, and two people arguing for or against it aren’t necessarily arguing about the same thing- encounter balance not being the same thing as class balance and so forth. Ultimately, it’s about play style and what your group wants, but to say that no game should be balanced is simply untrue: there’s a large audience out there who want it, as evidenced by any number of people on message boards who complain when things are “broken.”

  10. Shawn Merwin says:

    @alphastream I love you too, man! 🙂

    I hear where you are coming from on your beefs. (I think that is the first time I have ever had to pluralize “beef.”) I am always caught in the middle of my two selves on these issues, which is why I wanted to start writing about them. As a fan of WotC and the RPG/gaming industry as a whole, I just want to like everything. I want to read it, play it, experience it. But even as the right-brain part of me is intoxicated with the possibility, the left-brained part of me keeps clearly his throat and trying to get my attention. “Something is wrong here, ” the bastard says, ruining my enjoyment.

    I don’t even want to think about the magic item rarity issue yet. I’ve already stated my concern about how Essentials classes and previous 4e classes are going to interact. If I were only running home campaigns, I really wouldn’t even care that much, because house-ruling is always an option. But having been involved in administering so many organized play campaigns, where the rules had to be followed or adapted pretty much to the letter, I still get a little twitchy whenever new rules are released. A few of the players are a little too much like Augustus Gloop: if they just moderate themselves a little, they don’t have to end up in the chocolate pond, trigger another oompa-loompa song-and-dance routine.

    I don’t even want to think about the communication issue right now either. I have been on the business end of having to communicate changes and decisions to a less-than-accepting community, and there is no good way to do it. If you share your logic and reasons, you are an idiot. If you don’t, you are hiding something. In my case, I am an idiot hiding something.

  11. Roy McMillion says:

    Clearly, I rarely play the articulate character.

    First, I’ll start by saying that there are no absolutes. I’ve never thought that 4e eliminated roll playing, or that 1e didn’t have any combat. It’s that in the balance of these two aspects, each seems to be weighted differently dependant on the version.

    Take the article above, the emphasis seems to be in what classes with less combat skills could not do, and not what those classes bring to the table in other aspects. It’s the mechanics that inform and color the roll playing. Like it being easier for an actor to get into character once he’s in his costume.

    Second, I’ll admit that “non-combat monsters” is a concept quite foreign to me. It implies to me (and I’m certain that this is not true in you games) that the roll playing has been reduced to a set of numbers. “They must roll XX to meet the Y skill check.” Be it for diplomacy, streetwise or other skills. That seems terribly dry to me. As a GM (my group rotates this duty) my non-combat encounters rarely have a strict threshold for the players to meet when interacting with NPC’s. For purely mechanical stuff, picking locks et all, that is fine. But the players in my group enjoy the game more when the roll played conversation between the PC and NPCs has added value.

    Naturally all, this is colored by that fact that I had a 20 year gap of not playing between 1e and 4e and that I never thought of 1e as a rule set, but as a toy box where pieces were taken and discarded at will.

  12. It’s all up to the group’s playstyle, but most groups I’ve played in do the “Oh brave King, I would like to convince you to give us all your stuff” and then roll diplomacy to see how effective it is, with the DM adjusting for general pitch. When you have one character with a +8 to diplomacy making a good pitch, and another with a +40… well, that’s where I prefer there to be some balance. There will still be differences in rolls and such, but at least there’s some tradeoffs to get there.

  13. Roy McMillion says:

    It should be noted that in our latest campaign, we have over 25 hours of gaming in and have had 3 combat encounters. In 4E.

  14. Alphastream says:

    Roy, there is a world of difference between home campaign 4E run by DMs (and players) that love RP and what happens when you have limited time and breadth as in LFR or Encounters play. (Or if you just try to emulate some of the early 4E published mods…)

    On the topic of game balance, I offer up the example of 3rd Edition Legend of the Five Rings. You just smoke everything else if you are a courtier from clan x, a duelist from clan y, a samurai from clan z, etc. There are just vastly stronger choices. This is so “real”, because they are historically better, but the balance is a major drain on enjoyment (both in living play and home campaigns). My play experience and those of many of my friends was really hurt by that over time. And the designers eventually acknowledged it (and I understand worked harder on L5R 4th edition). And this is a huge RP/setting game, where you have almost 1/3 of the living play adventures without any combat! Balance really matters.

  15. Non-casters overpowering casters? That would be amusing…

  16. I’ve had some time to look through Heroes Of The Fallen Lands a bit more and It states quite clearly on page 57 that characters in Heroes Of The Fallen Lands can take any power from another book. They may add more powers in other Essentials books.

    On page 152, the Slayer gets Fighter stances. The Fighter Stances are At-Will Utility Powers. Soo… are they in the regular pool of class powers regular 4e Fighters can use?

    I think yes… so my Fighter can now get some of these stances if he wants (it augments Combat Challenge). And in that case, I also think that Slayers will get full access to all the At-Will powers.

    I don’t think these classes are unbalanced by 4e standards. It may seem odd that a fighter might actually do a bit more fighting, but this guy is just a Striker build, and you can build a character that way in regular 4e. This guy has a sleight edge over an offensive Fighter build because he has Weapon Talent. Nothing more.

    My 2nd level barbarian dished out 60 points of damage with an Avalanche strike (crit) twice in one adventure. I don’t see a horrendous imbalance here. A fighter Striker? Phffftt! That Slayer is going down if an archer catches him in the open.

    Rogue backstabbing.. bah! I play a Rogue, how often is he getting extra attacks? Even if there is a Warlord around, it comes at a cost of a combat action. Power is conserved.

    Now to the meat of it. Essentials is Basic D&D. No one seems to want to say it (certainly not WOTC because it comes with our beloved full 4e rules), but I think it is. It was introduced with the Red Box. It is a complete game in itself. But it also augments existing 4e. Much of its contents is in many ways errata, but its also just trimmed out 4e so kids can get using it right away.

    Now, using my time machine… I could probably get my Basic D&D Elf circa 1979 (for those that don’t know, Elf is a class not a race in Basic) and play it in an AD&D setting. It could be done. TSR didn’t market it that way, but they could have.

    I think that WOTC has cleverly released a compatible Basic D&D. These heroes books are really just more ‘Powers’ books in disguise for the regular 4e folks. In short, these classes are just more builds for 4e. Even better, they come with complete examples.


  17. About the balance issue, I don’t think that you can draw to many parallels with older edition for a various reason

    1) martial subclasses still take utilities (from essential and previous books)

    2) yes non martial have daily and encounter ATTACK power
    2.1) but this can be balanced with slight more damage or powerattack and the like

    3) in previous edition spell-caster could have a spell for every situation (in and out of combat), and the worst part was that beyond certain levels they got LOTS of spells
    3.1) in fact the problem of spell-caster power usually rise somewhere beyond 9th level

    4th) in 4th edition at it’s best a spell caster pack 4 encounter attack and 4 daily attack spell this is not a lot of it

    so I suggest not to draw conclusion on previous edition experience because the game is so different

    Furthermore I want to point out an important thing of the “essential philosophy”: it opened a LOT of space for game design, just to list a few

    1) new magic items (the rare ones) can be thrown in game and used to make for memorable items (see the new staff of the magi for example)

    2) new class concept, since the class-role-power source are now all free from one other you can have a lot of new space for designing cool classes (e.g. see the new Essential Assassin, or the Slayer)

    now you can have:
    1) a Leader Druid and a Striker Druid
    2) a shadow/arcane Illusionist*
    3) a martial/arcane striker Mage-Knight*

    and whatever will came

    *mere personal speculation

  18. OK… So from Essentials, most of the class abilities are not actually swappable powers since they don’t have a level. As per page 57, it must have the same Class, Level, and Type.

    So… Essentially your characters will only get access to new powers. I assume its both ways and these powers go in the common ‘pool’.

    I suppose its logical in way. WOTC can’t just keep polluting the power and name space for powers with ‘kewl’ new stuff. At the very least, they need to find a way to staunch the creation of these powers. It was also byzantine in a way trying to figure out how to build a character (I liked it though). It also contributed to the classic edition war complaint of, “Its all the same.”

    So… for regular 4e, we get Cleric Utility and Daily Powers, Fighter Utility, All Mage Powers, and Rogue Utility Powers. (Note that this is in a way an olive branch of peace to regular 4ers, since we’re short a Divine Power Book, and an Arcane Power Book.)

    I really think that what they are doing with 4e is creating a core engine of rules around which they will perpetually drop in stuff… encounters, adventures, campaign settings, characters, etc. I think this is in fact an actual paradigm shift for RPGs.

    This is a lot like Magic The Gathering, and we should enjoy our ‘Black Lotus’ Rogues while we still can.

  19. I think Dave is seeing things very clearly when he speaks about the different types of balance.

    Top down, one can reverse this and look for where the rules ARE balanced to understand the type of game the authors were trying to adjudicate. Literally reverse-engineer the process to understand the balance-spec the physics engine was designed to create.

    “The first encounter would end, the spellcasters would be out of spells, and the players would immediately want to rest for the day so they could regain their spells. This system also tended to make the non-spellcasting characters more powerful at lower levels, as they never ran out of their favorite attacks: fighters could always power attack, and rogues could always sneak attack. Certain classes had to play a resource-management game, while others really did not”

    The early game wasn’t written to be be encounter balanced. OD&D was written to be ‘Exploration’ balanced, while AD&D was written to be ‘Adventure/Campaign balanced’. The above statement is, to me, a clear misunderstanding of the kind of balance that the game was written for, and therefor the type of game it was primarliy designed for.

    What do I mean by ‘Exploration-balanced’?
    The fighter was supposed to be the most useful in combat. in almost all combat situations. The other’ weren’t ever supposed to be his equal here. At almost any level. Combat was one facet of exploration.
    Let’s look at the OD&D first level and second level spells for Magic-users. Yes, there were combat spells, but the mere presence of spells in the vein of ‘read languages’, ‘wizard lock’, and especially ‘Detect Magic’, spells that the mage HAD TO MEMORIZE, shows that they were supposed to be as important to the game as ‘Magic Missle’.
    When the thief was added in, it was more towards balancing the game based on the exploration, with the idea that an advance scout (the hiding skills) who could climb and take care of traps, and maybe do some fighting (everyone did some fighting, it was and is still a cooperative game, as Shawn and Dave both mention).

    I’m not saying this at any attempt at game purity or what people should be doing. The very fact that the rules change edition to edition is evidence that players enjoy games with different foci, and even the same players like to dabble with different games with diferent foci.
    But looking at the OP, I wanted to respond to what exactly created the uniqueness of each class, the specialness Shawn mentions. Each class was special and different based on a different quadrant of the exploration, not the combat.

    Or at least, that is my opinion.

  20. Alphastream says:

    Interesting, LordVreeg! I would instead bet on the OD&D being along the lines of “I think a fighter is bad-arse and the best at combat and I have no idea about balance… it just is.” I don’t see evidence of really strong attempts to balance the classes for roles or exploration back then. In this edition, the idea of balance is very clear and has pretty decent impacts on play. While some say it is too similar and that they can’t tell elements apart, I don’t feel that way. I am also ok with the game fundamentally changing. It keeps things interesting. What I do see with Essentials is an unproven experiment. That’s a big problem when it is sold as being a clear future development path. It is almost the same logic as OD&D, game design “because” instead of based on proven and tested concepts. Meshing those with an existing edition is pretty risky. Luckily, 4E is stable and open enough it is almost certainly going to survive it… but the audience may not.

  21. Having recently run a “Red Box” session myself, I think what UHF is right about one thing: “Essentials is Basic D&D. No one seems to want to say it (certainly not WOTC because it comes with our beloved full 4e rules), but I think it is.”

    There was a real Basic D&D “feel” to the amount of powers and utilities each class had, with the Slayer being the most simple to play, then the Thief, then Warpriest and Wizard. Which is pretty much how things were in Basic D&D, with the caster classes being much more complex than the melee classes. This is a serious throwback to the “old days”.

    And while I also agree that having classes that can dish out big damage without having to resort to “resource management” might be problematical, I also saw how there was a little bit of jealousy at the table in the opposite direction! The Slayer looked at his options compared to that of the Warpriest and Wizard, and seemed a little chagrined. This new Fighter build is designed for people who literally don’t want to have to do much thinking, or for younger players who just want to roll some dice and kill stuff. The long term satisfaction level of a class like the Slayer will probably drive more advanced Players into more complex builds pretty quickly, out of sheer boredom if nothing else. And I think that’s working as intended by the marketing team – get them hooked on an easy class, but make them want something more.

  22. I have no problem with people who like playing older versions of D&D or do not like 4E. The problem I have is that Essentials is changing a version of D&D to please people who do not like it and probably will not play it anyhow. In addition, WOC is saying it is not a new edition and 4E is staying the same. They go on saying this new line is just 10 products that will make it easier so bookstores know what to stock. They continued saying, before the release, there is some new material to add to 4E. I feel this was just propaganda to minimize people upset that there is a new edition.

    What they should have said is that since 4E sales are tapering down we are releasing this new edition based on the 4E rules to sell more books since the early books sold in an edition sell the most. This new edition is essentials. It will start with 10 core products we plan to release. You will be able to use some of your 4E races and classes in this new game but we will be changing many mechanics so that they will not be the same. We are changing the game to give it a retro-D&D feel to get some of the older fans back that did not like the 4E rules as they are.

    I will not outlaw Essentials classes and races from the 4E game I DM and are glad for the people who like it. In addition, I will buy the new rule compendium. I need to do this since the rules have changed so much of the old core books are no longer useful when I play or DM Living Forgotten Realms.

    My beef is, if WOC wanted to sell books to people that did not like 4E they should just write and sell new 1E, 2E, 3E books, or develop a new edition and leave 4E foundation alone.

    Finally, as I have said before, this may just be a marketing test for 5E. They are testing to see if people prefer complexity to simplicity and are testing the new paperback format.

  23. All this talk of balance is really off base. Wizards do way way more damage than Slayers do, all the time, and they always have in 4e.

    Most people don’t seem to realize that what is balanced about 4e. So listen up.

    What 4e really balanced is that we all get to play all the time. We all participate. Its a group activity and its group fun. We all struggle to finish the fight. We all cheer when the boss goes down. Even the guy gurgling his second to last breath.

    Skill challenges? What do you think they are for? …group role play and problem solving. Everyone gets to contribute. We all get to play.

    No one is equal in this. My character might be better than yours… (too bad my rolls suck.)

    Benensky: I have similar fears to what you’ve expressed, but I’m really hopeful that they will just use Essentials to draw in more of the 3.5Pathfinder crowd. I sincerely hope that dumbed down simple Pathfinder classes are not the way of the future for 4e.

  24. Essentials are here and they are okay. Mostly. At least I am by now okay with them, because I understand what the Wizards want to achieve: A choice in acessability of the game. The balance issue worries me and I think there might have been other ways to address most of the problems, but what makes it okay for me:
    You don’t have to play an essentials character. You can play one of the old base classes. At least for now.

    What did bother me in the past of D&D is, that you don’t really get a freedom in your choice. You want an easy game without much resource mangement? Play a fighter. Or a rogue, if you want some more skills and some less fighting. You want it complex, want to be able to really take control through your abilities (and not “only” through your player’s abilities), you want resource management? Play a wizard, cleric or a sorcerer.

    But I never got the choice to play a melee-based character with a lot of mechanical complexity. Or the other way around: I never got the choice for a spellcaster without needing to worry about the resource management. I might never be able to play the character I really want to play, simply because of the mechanical choices connected to my character choice. And with essentials this could have been the same … it still could become the same, depending on where things are heading after the essentials line. But as for now? I do have the choice and so I am going to be okay with it.

    But I do not think, this change was necessary. And I do not think this change was a good idea. In the long run the essentials-approach to class design will make the game as a whole harder to maintain for the developers and harder to control for the DM (because the balance the system does _possibly_ not offer, the DM should create. Unless you’re in the lucky situation that your players don’t care. Mind you, balance doesn’t have to be perfect.)

    And I really disagree on one thing: Whether a game is cooperative or competitive makes no difference to me. When I get to the point that for equal contribution to a problem solution, I have to work harder than other classes, and I start to notice it, things go awry for me.

    We’ll see where this journey takes us. Things will be interesting.

  25. David Fiorito says:

    Some quick background … I have played D&D off and on since 1975. Missed 2nd Ed completely. Stopped playing 4e just before the PHB2 came out. Loved 3.5 and Living Greyhawk (played with Shawn at WiK a few times).

    Now I want to help a friend introduce his kids and a couple of their friends to role playing. I figured 4e was the way to go, and picked up the Essentials (box and both books) at my FLGS a couple weeks back (my FLGS is a premier retailer and gets to sell D&D books early).

    I like what I have seen so far. However … sigh … after a visit to the WotC boards it seems that the notion of class balance (or lack thereof) has only confirmed the notion that 4e is just a glorified board game.

    Why does balance matter?

    In my opinion, and based on years of experience, combat effectiveness is not the hallmark of a role playing game. I saw LG characters that were “sub-optimal builds” save the day because the character had the right organizational connections, or was from the right culture, or had the favor of the right patrons.

    There was a time that race and class choices had different repercussions in different worlds. Being a Wizard in Keoland, or a Half-Orc in Ulek were bad things. Now it seems that no matter the setting all races and classes need to be equally accepted. And based on the reactions to the Essentials the relative “power” of different classes must also be equal.

    Maybe I should just teach my friends kids to play a role playing game where the choice of race and class matters outside of combat. It seems that D&D 4e is saying that combat and rolling dice are all that matter, and further more every class and race should be equally adept at contributing at all times, and under all conditions.

    I hope the Essentials break that mold.

  26. @David, I think that a lot of that is up to the DM. He should make darn well clear that certain things have consequences. I’m DMing a campaign where Fae magic is heavily suspected by people, feared, and hated. That has dire consequences for certain races. There’s also a character from a country that abhors non-divine magic. Those sorts of things can be slotted in anywhere, and it makes sense.

    Essentials (and the rest of 4E) makes sure that the game is ‘balanced’, so as to give opportunity to everyone. Think of it as a well-crafted toolset, aiming to avoid a situation where some tools are vastly inferior to others. By making all the tools attractive, it opens the game up for the DM to work with.

  27. Alphastream says:

    Shawn’s good question is whether D&D needs the balance. Is it ok to have vastly stronger Prestige Classes like 3.5’s Radiant Servant or Initiate of the Sevenfold Veil? Is it better to have 4E’s “I’m playing a leader” and everyone at the table knows healing is covered?

    I find a lack of balance to really be detrimental to a game’s staying power. This is even more true in this day and age where so many compare builds on the Internet. In the LG days, you heard only roughly about a powerful build. Today you can easily figure out all the top LFR builds. Just one look at the before/after Bloodclaw scenario shows how players are connected and how they respond to balance. The game seems to play much better, to me, with balance between classes and between PC options.

    Balance should not be related to RP. We don’t have to see one player run Conan and the rest run supporting PCs. There is a big RP difference between a Warlord, a Cleric, and an Artificer, even if they are all roughly equal leaders.

  28. David Fiorito says:


    I agree. I like that 4e avoids the Vancian 5 minute adventuring day. I like the ability of each class to keep the adventure rolling along.

    I guess what I was hoping to see out of 4e was the end of (or at least a diminishing presence of) munckinism and the min/max madness. Instead 4e seems to have taken its original attempt to end munkinism (through the elimination of free form multi-classing) and re-enabled it, or even enhanced it, with hybrids, and an ever expanding pool of swapable powers and feats.

    Maybe the real question is not about balance. Maybe the question is – do the Essential classes get 4e back to its original intent to eliminate the munchkin.

  29. @David I can definitely sympathize. I think, though, that munchkinism isn’t something that can be addressed by the system. No matter what the system is, there will be a munchkin in one form or another. Burning Wheel and similar indie systems might manage to avoid that, but it’s still possible even then.

    I think that munchkins are simply a matter of culture. If your culture includes minmaxing, powergaming, and munchkining, those aspects will find their way into the game regardless. 3.5 munchkins relied on weird combinations and fishing through layers and layers of rules; 4E munchkins are more straightforward.

  30. Alphastream says:

    Munchkin play is really enabled by games providing build choices. The more choice, the more that a series of individual options will create something broken. I look at Skills and Powers in 2nd Ed as the real birth of this. This is different than class balance, in that we can talk about whether the Rogue and Warlock are comparable to each other separate from whether there are broken feats for classes.

    In OD&D you had very little class balance. But, you had little that was truly broken (largely because you had fewer options). In 4E you have plenty of cheese but the classes are more or less balanced. If I say I will bring “my broken PC” you will have no idea what I might bring to the table. There is equity balance to the options, just a lot of power.

    I think the munchkin nature is desired in today’s game by most players and most designers. There is the perception (and evidence) that the game is more enjoyable if you can hunt for strong combinations. It mirrors video games as well. And, it makes for easy publishing. Publish lots of options and then errata the ones that cause unforeseen problems. Because you publish so often, you will often be unable to foresee the problems, of course. Is this good? Debatable. I suspect it is far better, today, than the OD&D and early AD&D idea of having virtually no options at all.

  31. David Fiorito says:


    Bingo. You hit the nail on the head. The trouble we had back in the bad old days was gamers coming to the table with an 18 (00) strength. You knew it was BS but couldn’t say much without blatantly accusing someone of cheating.

    In the 70s munchkins were just cheaters but now they are just rules enabled cheese weasels.

    @Andy – very good points.

  32. I definitely agree that the balance metrics have changed. Whoever was commenting about campaign balance, versus encounter balance nailed it. In 1E, the characters importance to the party was all equal, as opposed to the characters importance to combat. They’ve tried to replicate that balance, but with a focus on combat in 4E. In 1E, you needed a fighter for combat. A group without a fighter would struggle.
    Likewise, you needed thief to disarm trapped treasure chests and unlock doors, or climb walls, or listen to conversations. The fighter simply couldn’t do those things well. You needed the cleric to heal and to be the “front man” for the group since clerics were generally the most respectable classes. You needed a mage to do all the weird stuff, like scrying, or jump, or grease or web. Every group was incredibly useful through the course of adventure and incredibly balanced in their usefulness. But as time went on and RPGs focused more and more on combat and less on story, that existing balance no longer made sense. In a game where you hardly every have to pick locks or disarm traps, it starts to make sense that a rogue should be a striker. Think of the roles in 4E D&D. There are 4 of them and all of them refer to COMBAT roles. I’m not saying this is good or bad. I think it’s mainly in response to HOW people play these games. 1E is and always will be my favorite edition, but I’ve been having a damn lot of fun playing 4E lately. I even like what the essentials are doing. I say keep up the good work.

  33. Banesfinger says:

    I definitely agree with mbeacom.

    I think 4e had a great idea proposing class roles, but the lines became blurred.
    In previous editions, (especially at low levels), you NEEDED a fighter to protect your wizards. They were tanks. At higher levels, this line became blurred because the wizard had spells that took away from the fighter’s role (e.g., summon monster, stone skin).
    Likewise 4e “says” a fighter is a defender, but you can make striker builds with better AC, or leader builds with more HPs, etc. Likewise a cleric’s role is diminished now that everyone has personal heals (second winds).

    IMHO, if you want a great cooperative game, make sure there is very little overlap in the role/classes’ abilities. Imagine if fighters were the only ones with high ACs, or that only clerics could heal, etc…each role would definitely shine. In this way you would not need to keep balance metrics, since every party member has completely different jobs (unlike 4e where balance seems solely dependant on damage output).

  34. I want to play D&D with Banesfinger.

    I personally wish that 4E was not so designed around combat. But it is. Our group still RPs a ton and we still do lots of adventuring and investigating, but now, it doesn’t really matter what class you are in those portions. It used to and I liked that. I loved being the thief because I could do all the sneaky things outside of combat. Once combat got over, I would come into “my world”. Listening, sneaking, picking pockets. I’d play a mage almost strictly for things like Feather Fall, or the Secret Servant. Being a cleric was a joy because you really had abilities that made you unique. Now, with 4E, the difference in classes is mostly defined by the flavor around your power source and which stat you use as a modifier. Mechanically speaking, a vast number of powers are simply tweaked versions of the same thing. Thats ok, I love the game. The tactical combat is amazing. However, I feel I’m in the same headspace as the designers and I feel like we’ve run this model into the ground. I say give them a chance to expand the design space and see what comes of it.

  35. Thank you, Mbeacon. Nice that other people see that there are other types of balance! 🙂 All based on what kind of game you play…


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