Sunday, March 18, 2012

Balancing Act

It's the classic mystery novel setting. A dark and stormy night rages outside the country manor. Inside 4th Edition D&D lies dead.

I've gathered all the suspects in the study. By the fire is General Roles, puffing on a pipe and looking indignant. Mrs. Powers is pacing and railing about her dignity and good name. Professor Healing-Surges nonchalantly thumbs through a musty old tomb. There are others in the room but I haven't bothered to learn their names.

I also haven't bothered to truly investigate the murder. Diligently hunting down clues and gathering ironclad evidence is for pussies. I'm all about baseless accusations and finger pointing. So, once the dramatic tension has peaked, I point my finger squarely at...


The butler ... Balance.


Or maybe everyone shrugs and says that they figured that out way back in chapter six.

Regardless; the quest to balance all the classes was above all else, the thing that killed 4E for me. I probably could have adapted to the card game/tabletop miniatures emphasis of the game over time. But there was no getting past the fact that all the classes under each role felt alike. They had different names and flavor text but at the end of the day we were playing Controllers, Strikers, Leaders, and... that other one. Tanks?

Everyone had healing surges and At-Will powers and lots of Hit Points. Everyone was self-sufficient and independent. Everyone was great but no one ever stood out. All because of balance.

Now, balance has its place. It's good to have in computer games and MMOs. It's nice to have when crossing the Grand Canyon on the back of a bear riding a unicycle across a tightwire. It has no place in a tabletop RPG.

Why? Because balanced characters are no fun. In fact, it's downright boring.

There were exactly two times in our several months of playing 4E where I remember being excited. One was when someone chained together a series of power cards in a really cool way. The other time was when we started dying off after a grueling gauntlet of encounters. Otherwise, the only thing I liked was the role-playing portions, and those had nothing to do with the rules.

I suppose the video-game-ification of 4E required that the classes be balanced. No one wants to login to their D&D based MMO and have one player run around and kill everything before you even hit the key to draw your sword or cast your first spell. That sucks.

But in a tabletop game that's simply not a factor.

As I see it, the idea behind balancing all the classes is to ultimately prevent any one player from min/maxing their character and dominating the spotlight. The fallacy there is that it's up to WoTC to police everyone who plays the game. The reality is that every gaming table is different. We all have our inside jokes and our unspoken policies on what is okay and what is not. All without any heavy handed help from WoTC, thank you very much.

In a good tabletop game with my friends, I want the spotlight. I want my character to shine and show off every now and then. I revel in those moments when I cast my biggest hardest hitting splashiest spell at the big bad guy, and have all the dice fall the right way and have it fall in glorious defeat. Those moments where it all comes together are the best.

At the same time, I want the spotlight to shine on the other characters too. I want to cheer when the rogue disarms that trap or lands that brutal sneak attack. I want to clap when the paladin executes a devastating cleave, or when the cleric vaporizes a room full of undead, or when the druid hits the vampire lord with a sunbeam spell.

Those moments are exciting and thrilling and memorable. Those are the moments that make the game fun. Those are the moments that are lost when every character can do a bit of everything and where all the classes are balanced.

So, leave the talk of balance for the computer games and let the players deal with any spotlight hogging munchkins that show up at their table.

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