Monday, January 30, 2012

Balance and Complexity in the New D&D

As tidbits of news are released by Wizards of the Coast about their D&D Next playtesting and the ideas behind the design, I can't help but be excited. D&D was, after all, the game that got me into gaming. I've played a few other RPGs and plenty of other games, but AD&D got the ball rolling and regardless of the breaks I've taken over the years, I always come back... usually when a new edition is released.

For me, this means that there is definitely a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in my future, even though I won't know when it will actually take off until I'm contacted for playtesting (fingers crossed) or we get a release date. In the meantime, I'll just have to keep checking the spoiler page on EN World and provide my commentary here and there.

Let's start with the promise that might be most exciting to me.

Characters can be built with as little or as much detail as the player wants, but will be relatively balanced with other characters despite level of detail (my paraphrasing). I cannot even begin to describe how awesome this would be if they can make it work. I loved Player's Option: Skills and Powers from the 2E era, but I bought it so close to the 3E release that I never really got to use it. I'm just concerned that this might be a promise that is a little too difficult to keep. How do you give one character access to more perks/options/abilities without that character growing more powerful than the others? There are only three ways I can see this working out:
  • Option One: Include character templates or packages for the most common archetypes so that anyone can just pick up the game and play. While I personally find this option boring, I do understand its appeal. Where I think this option fails is in the long term expansion of the game, as more and more accessories are released, these options eventually pale in comparison. These are also relatively middle of the road when it comes to optimization, so if they follow the same trends as previous editions, it will be very simple for even the least competent optimizer to outclass these templates.
  • Option Two: Rather than bonuses, themes and rules modules could make characters more flexible without having any major impact on their power level. While this sounds great in theory, I don't think it will hold up in practice, and I think players will be complaining if this is the route WotC takes. This would just be a lot more difficult to implement without creating balance issues down the line, because in reality, flexibility is its own form of power. As more splat books are released and more options become available, the highly customized characters will end up more powerful mechanically than the more simplistic characters. Some amount of power creep is inevitable (and, I would argue, almost necessary in order to sell splat books to a certain niche of consumers). You can say whatever you want about characters being limited by the number of actions they can take in a round, but assuming that more options does not equate to more power just seems a little foolish to me.
  • Option Three: Keep track of the number of rules modules that each character incorporates. At the beginning of the session, if all are on the same level, proceed as usual. If one character has more rules modules than another, the character with the least gets some kind of static bonus to all primary abilities based on the difference. Let's assume Player #1 is just using the bare minimum when it comes to customization. He wants simplicity, so he rolls up a human fighter with no special rules at all. In the same group, Player #2 has spent hours writing a complex character history and customizing his character to match. He winds up with a half-elf druid, with both the planetouched and potion maker themes, as well as a rules module that he picked up in a splat book that was just released. Compared to Player #1's character, Player #2's character has three extra rules modules from which he can gain bonuses, and he got to pick and choose where those bonuses went because he spent so much time fiddling with bonuses in character creation. To keep things simple for Player #1 but still keep both characters on relatively equal power level, the human fighter with no additional rules gets a static +3 bonus to strength (or maybe all strength related rolls). This seems a little wonky in explanation, but I don't think it would be that difficult in practice.
At least in the last option there is some rules-based compensation given to the simpler characters. In addition, I can see this little option as a DM tool to help balance encounters. Got a group of characters who used a ton of rules modules and you're worried that your orc won't stand a chance? Just find the difference between his level and the number of modules they used, and add difference to some of his key scores (strength and hit points, for example). It's quick and dirty math, but it's great for DM's improvising.

What do you think? Which of these options has the design team chosen? Is it something else altogether or a combination of these? Have they already revealed the system they're using and I just haven't read about it yet?

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