Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "Charting the Classes"

One of the characteristics of what I call the Silver Age of D&D is an obsession with mathematics, using it for a wide variety of purposes, from determining the best way to model falling damage to proving if one's dice "be ill-wrought." In issue #69 (January 1983) of Dragon, Roger E. Moore offered up yet another new field for mathematical analysis: class "balance." Many old school gamers think worrying about such matters is a peculiarly modern notion, but it's not. For almost as long as I've played the game, I've known players who fretted over whether this class or that class was "overpowered" or "underpowered" compared to the others. It's a concern I've never really worried about myself, partially because I think all but the most egregious mechanical differences take a backseat to what actually happens at the table. Nitpicker and hair splitter I may be about many topics relating to D&D but this isn't one of them.

However, I'm hardly representative of anyone but myself and I expect that, when Moore wrote this article he was speaking on behalf a sizable number of gamers who had a sneaking suspicion that some AD&D character classes were better (or worse) than others -- and he was going to prove it. Moore's analysis hinges on comparing the classes according to accumulated experience points, not level. His thesis is that, by examining the relative strengths and weaknesses of each class at certain XP benchmarks, he might get a sense of which classes are more (or less) potent than others. In doing this, Moore discovers that, for the most part, AD&D's classes are reasonably balanced against one another, with two significant exceptions, along with a third point of discussion.

The first anomaly concerns druids, which Moore says are unusually tough compared to other classes. Compared to clerics, they advance very quickly and, more importantly, they continue to gain full hit dice all the way to 14th level, which also nets them more Constitution bonuses as well. Druids thus wind up being comparable to fighters at mid-levels and even surpassing them at higher levels. Consequently, he recommends increasing the druid's XP requirements to compensate. The second anomaly concerns monks, which Moore says are too weak in terms of hit points for a class that is supposed to fight hand-to-hand. He recommends that they have D6 hit points. Finally, Moore says -- along with nearly every AD&D player I knew back in the day -- that bard, as presented in the Players Handbook, needs to go. He recommends Jeff Goelz's bard as a replacement.

In the end, "Charting the Classes" is actually a very modest and limited analysis of AD&D's character classes and Moore's suggestions are all quite reasonable. I believe I even adopted his recommendation regarding druids, as I know from experience that they were more potent than they had any right to be. Still, I largely find the idea of "balance" between the classes a Quixotic obsession that's played a lot of mischief with D&D in its later incarnations. But it is, unfortunately, a long and deeply held concern of many gamers and I don't expect it to ever go away.

24 comments:

  1. Except "balance" calculated only according to the mechanics does not take into account the roleplaying restrictions the classes have. This is particularly relevant for the classes which are perceived as more powerful, e.g. the druid, paladin and ranger.
    Only if you remove these restrictions then balance can be more or less mathematically addressed (see e.g. what happens with 4e.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I never really bought "roleplaying restrictions," as balance IS a math issue, & separate from whether or not you are Lawful Good or whatever.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow. I just wrote about OD&D level progression a couple of days ago here and have been in the middle of writing up level progression charts for other systems, BECMI and AD&D. I tried various schemes of XP progression with OD&D and finally hit upon one that I feel shows the relevancy of differing XP (or lack of relevancy). I put all the information on google docs and made it publicly available, OD&D Level Progression BECMI Level Progression Now, I will promise to stop posting here so much! It was just so relevant I couldn't help myself.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Role Playing restrictions are only balanced if they are used as written, and i find that, at least in the case of the druids weird "i have to duel someone to level" progression, it never was cause it got in the way of the game being fun. We did bump up the Hit die of the monk, but no one ever played one because, to borrow a term that doesn't get much play in OSR circles but they are super M.A.D. , and no one ever rolled the right stats to play one. Or a paladin for that matter.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm not well versed in playing Druids, or DMing games in which they are played. However, I'm guessing that in AD&D 1e, the restrictions on mistletoe, holly, and oak leaves as material components and the reduced efficacy of spells cast without using greater mistletoe, coupled with restricted numbers at high level, keep Druids in check.

    ReplyDelete
  6. One of the characteristics of what I call the Silver Age of D&D is an obsession with mathematics,

    As someone well versed with the mathematics of RPGs, I 100% disagree with this.

    There was an attempt to be more mathematical in Silver Age. However, the mathematics in Silver Age was laughably bad. It was not until Wizards took over and 3e was designed that real mathematicians took ahold of the system.

    Indeed, that is the way I characterize 2e: a game with overly complicated mathemtics by people who did not know what they were doing. Remember, these brilliant mathematicians gave us a "create your own class" rule system that allowed you to make a God class (a character that had access to the Wish spell that needed only 0 XP per level).

    ReplyDelete
  7. Role Playing restrictions are only balanced if they are used as written

    This is very true and I think at the root of why some character classes might appear "imbalanced" when looked at it in the abstract.

    ReplyDelete
  8. owever, I'm guessing that in AD&D 1e, the restrictions on mistletoe, holly, and oak leaves as material components and the reduced efficacy of spells cast without using greater mistletoe, coupled with restricted numbers at high level, keep Druids in check.

    I think you're right: that was probably the intention. Unfortunately, in play, I always found wrangling over material components incredibly tedious as a referee, so I tended to downplay or outright ignore those considerations.

    ReplyDelete
  9. There was an attempt to be more mathematical in Silver Age. However, the mathematics in Silver Age was laughably bad. It was not until Wizards took over and 3e was designed that real mathematicians took ahold of the system.

    Sure, I'll readily grant that, but it doesn't change the fact that every other article in Dragon for several years was a purported mathematical analysis/critique of some aspect of D&D.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I suspect James that the reason that you don't see a need for mathematical balance comes down to how you were introduced to the game combined with personality type. I know that's the case for me. Despite my own mathematical bent in "real life", the obsession with character balance in D&D never really bothered me, except perhaps that 1st level magic-users were a bit too wimpy and could use a leg-up (like the ability to use a crossbow, or d6 instead of d4 for hit dice).

    But I put that down to my introduction to the game. The DM who showed me how to play was big on "play whatever you want, we'll make it work", so none of the character classes really felt like "bad" choices. I know other folks who were introduced to the game via very strict, rules-oriented DMs and who glommed onto min-maxing as a "survival skill" early on in their introduction to gaming, and who resented the fact that they couldn't play the character they wanted without making the character they wanted to have a "sub-optimal choice" for the style of game they have in mind.

    (I also know a lot of folks in that second camp who would argue whether Champions or Mayfair's DC Super-heroes as the "ultimate" superhero game, while my "ultimate" superhero game was always TSR's Marvel Superheroes - random character creation and all. Similar sort of thing, I suspect.)

    ReplyDelete
  11. But I put that down to my introduction to the game. The DM who showed me how to play was big on "play whatever you want, we'll make it work", so none of the character classes really felt like "bad" choices. I know other folks who were introduced to the game via very strict, rules-oriented DMs and who glommed onto min-maxing as a "survival skill" early on in their introduction to gaming, and who resented the fact that they couldn't play the character they wanted without making the character they wanted to have a "sub-optimal choice" for the style of game they have in mind.

    This is a very good point and, I suspect, probably true. Back when I was playing 3e, most of my friends and I would make our character generation decisions based solely on what made the most sense for the kind of character we wanted to play and didn't worry about making "optimal" choices. We had a couple of players who did make their choices that way, but, given that the referee wasn't a "system mastery" kind of guy, our "sub-optimal" characters didn't noticeably suffer because of our choices. Any suffering we experienced was due to bad dice rolls or bad in-game decisions -- as it should be.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Balance is an illusion. If I have a game which consists entirely of picking locks and climbing walls a thief is going to be a very powerful class. And in a sandbox campaign the beauty is that if you are not playing a thief you don't have to do that kind of adventure - you have the option of doing something that is more useful for your character to do.

    Although if you are looking at earlier (1977) "rigorous" mathematical analysis of D&D, I point you to Don Turnbull's Monstermark system (which actually predates White Dwarf #1, although first introduced to most people there), which attempted to do a rigorous mathematical analysis of the level value of the various monsters (and could also be turned toward the characters, although wasn't in the actual article).

    ReplyDelete
  13. The deductions presented in this article where common knowledge to us at the time. I always just surmised that was from our play experience but now I wonder if it was something ingrained into the D&D community due to this article. Except for the Bard of course, everyone knew that was unplayable.

    "I always found wrangling over material components incredibly tedious as a referee, so I tended to downplay or outright ignore those considerations."

    A tangent, for the first time in my 30 years of D&D, the campaign I am running right now is the first ever to make material spell component use mandatory and by the book (Pathfinder book, btw). I have no idea why I decided to do this now for the first time in my gaming life. I think it is something about the way the spell components are clearly and consistently documented for every spell, whereas in all previous versions of the game it was haphazard at best.

    ReplyDelete
  14. The more structured the adventure world, the more that "balance" between classes becomes important. In a world with numerous options, everyone can find a way to shine; in one with strict rules and pre-plotted adventures, characters may be forced into situations for which they just aren't suited.

    I remember an article addressing the issue of "unbalanced" character groups in Steve Jackson Games' Roleplayer magazine. It gave the example of a superhero team with a mighty "brick" PC playing with a "martial artist" hero who just can't deliver the same level of carnage. Gamemasters were encouraged to find each character's unique aspects and build situations that highlight those. In the example, the martial arts PC could be highlighted in a scene where he stylishly overcomes a room full of mooks and still has the wit to utter cryptic Oriental philosophy.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Indeed, I knew about the druid back in the day and won a nice miniature in a AD&D man to man tournament in 1985 because I played a 7th level half-elf Druid with some strategically picked low level magic items.

    ReplyDelete
  16. When I saw the tournament format, I pointed out the issue to the organizers. They shrugged and told me it was OK for me to play the druid I made according to their rules.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Nothing says fun like mathematics! D&D was blessed by being run and inspired by authors and fantasists; they were storytellers first and foremost--when the mathemeticians took over...

    ReplyDelete
  18. Balance is insofar not an issue as the players are not fighting AGAINST each other. One might argue that one or two classes that are superior to the others would result in parties entirely made up of them, but thankfully, each class has some sort of niche protection: the thief can do stuff nobody else can, and the fighter can duke it out to the last Hit Point, whereas spellcasters will sooner or later run out of spells.

    ReplyDelete
  19. @Rob Conley: In one competitive tournament (with prizes and everything)we ran, one party decide to be smart and run a party with three druids (of around 5th level). It was one of those where we gave instructions for designing characters and then let people at it (and allowed gamemaster deal with players that wanted 10,000 songbirds as they saw fit).

    Given one of the adventures was set in an extradimensional space, with no furry critters to call, and the other was set in Hell, where the small furry creatures had scary teeth and claws and weren't in the least bit friendly, their carefully planned strategy dissolved from the start. [The previous year both adventures had featured substantial wilderness components. As did the year after that.]

    They still won though. Because they were experienced dungeoneers and knowing their disadvantage, went out of their way to avoid trouble and temptation and complete the missions they had been given with the minimum of fuss.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I’ve pitted my players against each other for fun, one-on-one and free-for-all. The Druid always won!

    ReplyDelete
  21. I find that balance matters not in a competitive sense, but in a cooperative sense... when I used to play 3e, my girlfriend at the time was a powergamer and she regularly overshadowed the rest of the party so much that eventually I just started bringing my Game Boy to the table and playing Tetris. It is IMMENSELY unsatisfying to not feel as though you're pulling your weight.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I've often used that article's XP analysis when building my own classes and sub-classes, as well as for designing NPC parties and pregen PCs: knowing how and where the classes fall at various amounts of XPs is quite helpful!

    Allan.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Just a thanks for settling a minor mystery that's plagued me for some time. I bought my current copy of the AD&D PHB from a used book store several years ago. On the druids experience and level table, it has a separate column of numbers for experience points penciled in--all higher than the original #s--with a note to "see Table - Dragon #69" At long last I know what the hell that note is all about.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Rach' has a good point about balance I think, it depends on whether players feel they matter to the party so the DM should make an effort to allow every character to shine in their field.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.