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Setting the Bar
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked about an approach to D&D that focuses on modularity. Players and DMs can choose to opt into complexity, either in terms of options or specific rules sub-systems added to the game. A DM might use a detailed, tactical combat system for a combat-heavy campaign. One player can optimize his or her fighter by making lots of feat and class feature choices, while another can choose a core character with all of those choices predetermined.

All of those options might sound nice, but there’s one key question that remains unanswered. With all of these dials, switches, and knobs—how do you make sure that the game still functions correctly? It stands to reason that giving characters lots of new options and abilities makes them more powerful. On the other hand, how do you make sure that the basic idea of D&D means something important without splintering it into dozens of factions, each using different rules?

Game Balance through Superior Firepower

Let’s first tackle the concept of balance and how it interacts with scaling complexity. Of course, that spawns a big question: What does R&D mean by balance?

To R&D, balance means two things.

For the player, it means that characters of the same level are all at roughly the same level of ability regardless of class or race. There might be overlap, in that a fighter and barbarian are both good at fighting with weapons. There might also be divergence. The fighter has more hit points than a rogue, but a rogue can sneak up on monsters, disarm traps, and slip away from an enemy unharmed. The fighter might outshine the rogue in some situations, and vice versa, but overall the two classes feel like they can both contribute to an adventure.

For the DM, balance means that the DM can make a good estimate on the difficulty of a monster, trap, or other obstacle. The system lets the DM compare the characters to a green dragon and get a good sense of whether the dragon is a deadly fight, a fight that might beat up the characters but not kill them, or a pushover. The DM can still throw whatever she wants at the characters, whether she plans things out with a painstaking attention to detail or just rolls on a random encounter table. However, the rules give her a benchmark to compare characters to obstacles.

With that in mind, the easy answer to the balance question would be to focus everything on one scale, with character power defined as a set value based on a character’s level. In other words, characters power never changes because of the rules modules you use.

To be blunt, this is kind of a lame solution. It puts players on a treadmill, giving them lots more choices without any payoff beyond cosmetic customization. It also works against the idea of allowing a DM to flavor a campaign based on the characters’ power. Finally, the issue of cosmetic changes works both ways. A group that is happy with streamlined characters but that wants some power neutral options to flesh them out is stuck using the same rules module as a group that wants to focus on optimization and combat ability.

Instead, let’s imagine a world that works like this. The core classes—and let’s continue to use the fighter as an example—look a lot like the classes from Basic D&D or AD&D. Our fighter’s attacks improve in accuracy, he gains more attacks, and his hit points steadily increase. That’s the basics of a D&D fighter.

Now, let’s imagine that a group wants more tactical options for the fighter. They want to incorporate 4E-style maneuvers. With the addition of that sub-system, the fighter becomes more powerful.

If the group wants to keep the power level balanced between classes, each other class also gains access to a rules module that makes it more powerful (wizards might get more spells, clerics gain access to domain abilities, rogues could get maneuvers like fighters or a trick or stunt system). The DM might pick out systems to add, or she might tell each player to choose a favorite optional rule for their characters. The characters have all gained, in the abstract, a similar amount of power. Let’s arbitrarily call that one unit of power.

In response, the DM simply dials up the campaign’s difficulty by using tougher monsters or greater numbers of enemies. In broad terms, the DM treats the party as if it was more powerful than normal. In 4E terms, the DM has a bigger XP budget to create adventures. In 3E terms, the encounter level increases. If the DM wants to keep the advancement rate the same, she simply requires the characters to gain more XP to gain a level.

From a design standpoint, each optional rule needs to be balanced against the other optional rules. If you wanted to get fancy, you could extend the difficulty setting to account for adding multiple options. That could also allow you to stack the same option multiple times. For instance, a fighter could gain access to action points and maneuvers, or the DM could use the feat rules but allow the characters to take double the number of feats. In either case, the characters received a two power unit upgrade.

If that isn’t fancy enough for you, some options might be two or three times better than our baseline ones. The gestalt character rules from 3E’s Unearthed Arcana might be worth three times power units.

With this approach, a DM could create a campaign with a very different feel or one that focuses on the specifics of what the players want. If you wanted to go the opposite direction, making the baseline characters even weaker for a grittier game, you could extend the XP guidelines downward and decrease the characters’ power level.

Keep in mind that these alterations focus on character power in combat. In terms of roleplaying, exploration, puzzles, and other activities, the DM has much freer rein to devise obstacles. Of course, a formal system of social combat could also provide XP tables that would then shift if the DM added optional rules to make the characters better at that form of conflict.

Other optional rules would be XP neutral. Going back to our core fighter, if he gains a castle and followers at high levels that might not affect the class’s combat abilities. When a DM adds those rules to the game, they have no impact on the XP charts. Followers and men-at-arms might need to remain at the fighter’s keep to run things. Taking them on an adventure might lead to a peasant revolt or treachery back home. On the other hand, you could take the opposite approach and balance them at a power unit cost. Perhaps the rules module includes both options to let DMs decide how a title and land ownership interact with adventuring.

On top of all this, a DM who isn’t worried about balance between characters and monsters could just wing it. A high-level fighter with a keep could take his retainers on an adventure, and the DM just rolls with it. The penalty of losing men-at-arms and followers in combat is enough, and if the adventure is easier that’s just part of the game.

Away From the Campaign

If a DM could then sculpt a campaign with a good understanding of the characters’ relative power, what does that mean for how different groups interact?

First, we’d need clear names for any new sub-systems. You’d want to tell a new player that you’re using feats and skills for all characters, martial maneuvers for fighters and rogues, domains for clerics, and school specialization for wizards, or whatever your specific mixture of options looks like.

Second, from a design perspective there would be two types of modules. Some modules are generally useful across all campaign types. Feats, skills, or personality traits are new options to layer on top of a character, areas that grant increased customization and/or power. R&D would need to keep a close watch on those modules to stop them from proliferating. On top of that, each module would need a clear identity. If a DM says she’s using a module, the player should have a really good idea of what that means about the campaign.

The other type of modules serve to create a unique type of campaign. For instance, rules for sailing ships and commanding a crew are useful for a pirate campaign. They might even include a new type of ability that all characters can choose from. However, that rules module has a clear utility for a specific type of campaign; there’s an obvious use for a game inspired by The Odyssey or pirate movies. In contrast, a Dark Sun campaign or one that focuses on dungeon crawls doesn’t need such detailed rules. The basic, core rules for ships and water travel are enough.

With this approach, rules modules serve to help a DM define a campaign. Some of the options apply to the core, but others are tools to customize a game and create a unique setting. Ideally, using these options is no different for a DM than explaining to a player that her campaign is set in renaissance Italy combined with air ships, dragon overlords, and magic.

By tying options to how they affect character power, and using that increase as a tool for DMs, we can create a menu of options that allow a DM to sculpt the rules to match a campaign. If those options are conceived, designed, and presented correctly, they become useful identifiers that DMs and players can use to describe their preferences and campaigns.

Poll Time

The third round of the Creature Competition has now opened for voting. This week's match-ups include:

  • Were-Chimera vs. vs. The Displacer Cube
  • Intellect Tyrant vs. The Displacer Dragon
Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.

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