Thoughts on Balance (or: How much damage does Invisibility do?)

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Pretty unrelated to the article, I just thought this image was funny

I’m currently working on some homebrew changes to a popular OSR system. As part of that, I’m hacking in something similar to GLOG-style magic. In short, spells can be made stronger by spending more resources on them, but otherwise all spells are equally expensive. I was explaining this to a friend when I remarked that 1st level wizards would get 2 castings — effectively allowing them to cast two spells or a single stronger spell.

The friend, bless his heart, comes from a D&D5e background, and so pointed out that 2 castings seem awfully few. Ostensibly, this is true. Casting two spells and then having to rely on your crossbow doesn’t quite fulfil the fantasy of playing a mage. “Why would anyone ever play a wizard?”, lamented the friend. “Fighters and clerics do way more damage. A wizard would be useless in a fight!”

What is “Balance” anyway?

It’s not strange that my friend focused on combat efficacy. After all, D&D5e largely concerns itself with fights. It assumes that the party will encounter groups of creatures that are roughly matched to the power level of the party. They fight, and the party hopefully but largely inevitably comes out victorious. The party does that between four and eight times a day, and that is the adventure.

D&D and games like it are concerned with codifying combat. Everything can be abstracted to either a damage number or a number of hitpoints. Monsters must be classified by power level. Spells and abilities should be equally strong, and classes should do roughly the same amount of damage for any given party composition.

But it isn’t just modern TTRPGs. Balance is extremely important in shooters, MOBAs, strategy games, MMORPGs and other multiplayer games. Inevitably, balance always means “the numbers are roughly the same”. But numbers are a metric, and not necessarily a goal. In A Book of Lenses, Jesse Schell discusses 12 types of game balance (ch. 11). “Things being approximately equally strong” is only one of them. There are many ways to balance a game. Is there a balance between elements of skill and chance? Are there complex and simple options? Or what about when a gun “sounded” too overpowered?

As a final example to show that game balance is more than just numbers, here’s a question. In World of Warcraft, feral druid is considered one of the most difficult specializations to play well. On the other hand, fury warriors are generally considered quite easy. Assuming that both specializations are played perfectly, should a feral druid do more damage than a fury warrior? Should higher skill be rewarded, or something that players only seek out for their own satisfaction? Should there even be specializations that are more or less complicated?

The Futility of Numbers

Ultimately, balancing numbers in TTRPGs isn’t that important. After all, these games are cooperative, and it doesn’t matter much if a certain class is technically stronger by a few damage points. Balancing in TTRPGs is notoriously difficult because the game is very asymmetric. In a shooter, all guns have a rate of fire, a clip size, and a damage per bullet. But the class structure of TTRPGs is built around the fact that different classes can do different things. And so, that leads to some very strange questions that we would need to answer, like the one in the title.

I posed my friend the following scenario when we were discussing this topic. “You’re in a cavern, around the corner lies a dragon. The dragon sleeps in front of a hoard of 10,000 gold pieces, and she has 100 hit points. However, instead of fighting her head-on, the wizard makes you all invisible. You sneak over to the mound of gold, fill up your sacks and pockets and leave. How much damage did the Invisibility spell do?”

Depending on your perspective, it either did 100 damage (you accomplished your goal and got the gold) or 0 damage (the dragon still lives), and either answer is equally valid. The idea that every ability and spell can be abstracted to a number is, quite frankly, ridiculous. But even if we could, is that desirable? Why must everyone be good at the same thing when we can be good at different things?

In many OSR games, this is made explicit: Fighters do the most damage. Because combat is no longer a given but rather merely a component of the larger game, other classes fill up different niches. Thieves navigate and secure dungeons. Clerics heal, cure and protect. And wizards solve problems. For that reason, *Niche Protection* is a much more valuable idea in TTRPGs. The best way to make sure that every class is fair is to ensure that each class can do different things.

The reason why that works so well is that the concepts become incomparable. When you encounter 1d6 x 10 orcs in a forest, would you rather have a fighter that can kill swathes in one strike or a wizard that summons an image of the orc god Molok to demand their submission? Both sound appealing, but it’s difficult to say which of those is “better”. That is a far more interesting choice than “Fighter does 1d8 per attack, Wizard can Fireball for 4d6 damage”.

Of course, some overlap is okay and even expected. All classes should be able to defend themselves – it’s an adventure game after all. But it’s okay to give the wizard a relatively weak attack they can only use occasionally. If you’re designing content for a game, especially player-facing, ask yourself where that content belongs. Why would anyone pick this race or class? What does it do that no other class can? Having a strong identity ensures that something is unlikely to feel weak or obsolete. That way, we don’t need to worry about the numbers so much.

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  1. Anonymous

    While I do understand the point you’re trying to make, the problem with giving every class something that gives it ‘a strong identity’ is that once a class is chosen, the player is also locked in that identity. While there should always be something special to each class, like that a warlock should be able to talk to eldritch beings while a fighter cannot, making this completely exclusive to the warlock forces the player to lean into the ‘identity’ of that class.
    While this can help with roleplaying, and making everyone unique, it also stops a druid to try to find a way to communicate with the eldritch, or a wizard to be a buff dude that looks more like a fighter than a wizard.
    In other words, the chaos players can create and the freedom they have while roleplaying and creating their character is severely limited.
    This might balance each class, but a *strong* class identity brings with it the risk of reducing player freedom, something essential in TTRPGs.

    1. Ighton

      Thanks for your comment! When I’m talking about identity and niches, I’m mainly coming at it from the perspective of ‘roles’. In most OSR games, fighters are the best at killing stuff. However, there’s no reason why the ‘killing stuff’ role couldn’t be taken by a warlock or a druid or a shaman in your game. It just means that any ‘fighter’ class – in so far as they exist – need to have a different role.

      That’s nothing to say of any flavor or narrative identity a character might have. Maybe your fighter made a pact with an evil god to earn their prowess, or they are blessed by the Fey Queen. That choice of identity remains, and I would argue is only stronger in games with fewer classes and more coherent roles.