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An Essay by Justin Alexander
While writing my essay on "Revisiting Encounter Design", I kept drifting towards a related topic: The fetishization of balance that appeared in 3rd Edition's fandom.
"What's wrong with balance?" you may ask.
Nothing. In fact, there are lots of perfectly valid reasons to seek balance. However, if you fetishize the pursuit of balance in a way that needlessly limits your flexibility, then you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
THE IRON MAN PRINCIPLE
Let's back up for a second: The designers of 3rd Edition wanted to provide DMs with some basic guidelines about what challenges would be appropriate for PCs of a given level. In order to do that, they first had to make some baseline assumptions about what the power levels of the PCs would be at each level. And in order to do that, they had to understand the Iron Man Principle.
The Iron Man Principle is simple. As long as:(A) There are magic items which are useful (particularly in combat); and
(B) The PCs can have those items; and
(C) The designers care about game balance at all; then
(D) There will need to be guidelines for how many items the PCs should have.
Because there is a difference between what Tony Stark can do and what Iron Man can do.
A lot of people get frustrated by the Iron Man Principle. You'll hear them say things like, "All the classes should be equally powerful with or without equipment!" or "I should be able to run a low-magic campaign without changing anything else!" Sorry, folks, but it just doesn't work that way. If you take two perfectly balanced twin brothers, tell them to fight, and then stick one of them in the Iron Man suit... well, that guy's gonna win.
A COUPLE OF BIG MYTHS
Myth #1: Older editions didn't feature as many magic items.
Myth #2: In 3rd Edition, PCs level up much faster than in older editions.
A couple years ago, Quasqueton at ENWorld posted a detailed analysis of the classic modules from the 1st Edition era. His conclusions shocked many people: If you played through those classic adventures by-the-book, you would level up at pretty much the same pace and you would have roughly the same number of magic items.
There is a slight caveat with Myth #2, however. In older editions of the game, XP was rewarded for treasure. For every 1 gp of treasure a character got, they were also supposed to receive 1 XP. The vast majority of groups, however, considered this to be a "stupid" rule and didn't play with it. The result was that almost everybody remembers advancement in previous editions being slower than in 3rd Edition (and those memories are quite accurate... insofar as they weren't actually playing by the rules).
(I'm going to take a tangent for a moment here and defend the GP = XP guideline. Experience points are, fundamentally, an abstraction that exists almost entirely in the metagame. This is often misunderstood, which is why you'll hear people saying things like "you shouldn't get better at jumping because you killed some orcs". But the reality is that the rewarding of XP -- whether it's for overcoming combat challenges, surviving traps, achieving story goals, or exceptional roleplaying -- is ultimately a dissociated mechanic. In the case of classic D&D campaigns, treasure wasn't just laying around. You gained treasure by exploring dangerous dungeons, surviving traps, and solving puzzles. Rewarding XP for treasure was a proxy reward: It wasn't about rewarding someone for picking up a gold piece, it was about rewarding them for the effort it took to get that gold piece. But I digress...)
So what the designers of 3rd Edition basically did was simple: They looked at the older editions of the game, broke down the expected style of play (as represented in the classic modules), and then hard-coded those values into things like the Wealth By Level table.
Now, your personal experience with previous editions may have varied quite a bit from what 3rd Edition hard-coded into its expectations. That's because pretty much everybody extensively house ruled the older editions in order to cater them to their personal tastes and (in some cases) just to make them playable at all.
THE FALSE FASCISM
With 3rd Edition, however, a kind of false fascism arose. It looked like this: Older editions were easier to house rule. Why? Because in the new edition if you make a change you'll screw-up the game balance!
There is an iota of truth here: The previous versions of the game were so badly balanced that the entire concept of "game balance" was pretty much a joke. Anyone trying to convince you that dual-class characters were balanced compared to multiclass characters, for example, should be taken immediatey to a detox center.
So it wasn't that the extensive house ruling of AD&D wasn't changing the balance of the game... it's just that the "balance" of the game was already so screwed up that nobody could tell the difference if you screwed it up a little more. (And it was pretty easy to make it a little better without a lot of effort.)
But the fact that the designers of 3rd Edition actually did a lot of work to improve the balance of the game doesn't mean that house ruling had suddenly become impossible. For me, the firmer foundation of 3rd Edition made it a lot easier to tweak just the stuff I wanted to tweak to achieve whatever effect I was aiming for. But, for other people, the firm foundation became a kind of golden handcuffs -- discouraging them from tweaking the game to match their personal tastes, while leaving them feeling trapped.
CHALLENGE RATING OCD
Let's see if I can explain this as concisely as possible. The designers of 3rd Edition:
(1) Set certain expectations regarding the capability of an average party of level X.
(2) Used those expectations to create a rough ballpark determination of what type of challenges a party with average character level X could face.
(3) Classified encounters using a challenge rating and encounter level of X, where X equals the average character level of a typical party that would find that encounter challenging.
For me, this seems pretty clear-cut. The CR/EL system is not a cure-all. It doesn't allow the DM to turn off their brain. But it does provide a pretty useful tool for quickly narrowing in on the particular range of encounters that would be appropriate for a given party.
But some people just don't seem to get it. And this is where the fetishization of balance takes hold, causing people to respond in one of two ways:
First, there are those who bash the CR/EL system because it isn't a cure-all. They argue that because it's possible to create a party of characters who are either less powerful or more powerful than the expected standard, the CR/EL system is useless.
Second, there are those who feel that any deviation from the expected power levels for group X is a sin. If a party of level X isn't capable of taking on challenges of EL X, then somebody has screwed up. It's simply not acceptable for the party not to have a meat-shield; or for the rogue to take Knowledge (nobility) instead of Disable Device; or for the arcanist to specialize in non-combat spells; or for a 15th level character not to have a cloak of resistance.
MOVING PAST THE FETISH
Here's one way in which we can move past this fetishization of balance:
(1) Understand that the CR/EL system measures capability along an expected baseline.
(2) Understand that, if you deviate from that expected baseline, the CR/EL system will become increasingly less useful.
(3) Don't worry about it.
Seriously. The CR/EL system has a lot of nice utility, but there's no reason to let that utility needlessly handcuff you.
For example, I frequently hear people complain about how "difficult" it is to run a 3rd Edition campaign without giving the PCs the magical items the designers assumed they would have. This just isn't true. If you want less magical equipment, just do it. This means that you'll have to use less powerful monsters to challenge the party, but that's hardly the end of the world.
As another example, there was a recent thread at the Giant in the Playground forums in which a DM was fretting because one of his players had chosen to play a plain-vanilla fighter from the core rulebooks instead of pursuing the more tweaked out options from some of the supplements. In a similar discussion a few years back, a different DM was worried because the fighter in his party was making sub-optimal feat selections (including Skill Focus).
And, once again, the solution is simple: Just do it. If the relative weakness of the meat-shield is reducing the party's ability to handle combat encounters, use easier foes. If the concern is one of the player not being happy because their character isn't performing well compared to the other PCs, then you can talk about letting them redesign the character. But the truth is even that problem is less likely to arise in 3rd Edition because of the niche protection afforded by the design of the game.
(Short version, which I discuss in greater length in the "Death of the Wandering Monster" essay: Fighters can perform consistently and constantly across many encounters. Wizards, on the other hand, get larger bangs than the fighter -- but can't use them as often. The fighter will only feel out-performed by the wizard if (a) the player of the fighter would prefer to be playing like a wizard or (b) the overall style of play in the group is favoring the wizard instead of the fighter. But those will become issues regardless of the overall optimization of the fighter or wizard.)
One of the great things about 3rd Edition is the broad range of power levels it's capable of handling -- from low-powered commoners at 1st level all the way to insanely high-powered demigods at 20th level. (This is something I also talk about in "D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations".) One of the nice things about this range of power levels is that it gives you all the tools you need to easily customize your campaign based on the actual (and not expected) power of the party.
If you were somehow mandated to use only CR 5 creatures when building an encounter for 5th level characters, then the fetishization of balance might have some point to it. But if the PCs are under-powered for 5th level (because you've limited their magic items; because their equipment has been stolen from them; because their characters haven't been optimized for combat; because there is a non-standard mix of classes in the group), then you can simply use less powerful foes. And if the PCs are over-powered for 5th level (because the PCs managed to loot more treasure than you expected; because they have higher than normal ability scores; because the players are just really good at the game), then you can simply use more powerful foes.
(And it should be noted that, even though I talk about monsters and foes a lot, this advice applies equally to other aspects of the system as well -- skill checks, environmental hazards, traps, and so forth.)
In the final analysis, of course, there's nothing wrong with playing straight by-the-book D&D, either. The standard party compositions, typical combat optimization, expected wealth and equipment, and the usual focus and pace of dungeon-crawling activities have made the game beloved by millions, after all.
But, on the flip-side, there's no need to be stitching up arbitrary straitjackets for yourself when the game has plenty of flexibility to cater to your needs.
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