Balancing the Negatives #RPG #DnD #ADnD

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That’s a weird title, I know, but it relates to something that’s bugged me about what appears to be a universal approach to game design. It manifests in two general ways.

“Damage Type” Magic Items

What could be cooler than a flaming sword, right? It’s a sword made of metal but is on fire. That’s great. It’s also an appropriate item for a weapon-using character advancing to an appropriate level. Except that it isn’t. It’s actually a curse. If you have a +1 longsword that does 1d8+1 damage, and I have a +1 flaming weapon that does 1d8+1 fire damage, in most cases, we have the same chance of doing the same damage. However, when we face a fire giant, you’re still doing 1d8+1 damage, and I’m doing 0 damage unless I pull out my non-magical dagger. All my fire damage is negated by the fire giant’s resistance. But hey, that’s okay. When we face a frost giant, you’ll still be doing 1d8+1 damage, but I’ll be doing double damage (2d8+2) damage, right? Right? Well, no. Against the frost giant, we’ll both be doing 1d8+1 damage because frost giants inexplicably aren’t vulnerable to fire damage. From a logical perspective (i.e., flavor), it makes sense that they would be, and from a gaming perspective (i.e., having fun), it would be an appropriate trade off considering that fire giants nerf me. However, I rarely see vulnerabilities in monsters when in fact every single resistance a monster has should always be countered by a meaningful vulnerability. That would appeal to both logic (flavor) and game theory (fun).

The pretentious among us (no judgments; that’s me too) may respond that it doesn’t necessarily make you weaker; it just holds you in place. But that’s the same thing for all intents and purposes. In 4e, a +x magic weapon would do an extra xd6 damage, but for a fire weapon, that extra damage would be fire damage. So, the fire weapon wouldn’t make you weaker than you already are, but it would make you weaker than what you should be. At a given level, if you’re expected to have a +2 weapon, then eliminating your extra 2d6 of damage against fire giants is effectively the same thing as weakening you when facing those monsters. You’re weaker than your contemporaries, which means you’re far better off selling the flaming sword than keeping it. In any event, it’s no reward to find one.

I know that curses can be fun, at least for old-school D&D players, but the flaming sword isn’t meant to be a curse, so it shouldn’t be. Yet it is. Consistently. Why? Even in 4e where vulnerabilities were more common than any other game I played, they were still relatively rare, and when they existed, they didn’t balance. That is, a fire giant with resistance to fire of 10 was (of course) vulnerable to cold, but his vulnerability was only 5. Maybe the game was balanced around this discrepancy (not as far as I can tell), but even if so, all this accomplishes is to make the game more frustrating. If you adjust the math so that they could both be 10, people would feel like their found items were actual rewards for a job well done. As I’ve previously discussed, mathematical advantages and disadvantages are illusory. The real money is in doing cool things and telling a good story (the latter not being relevant here). Making yourself useless against fire giants is uncool. Making yourself insignificantly more useful against frost giants is almost as uncool (though it might mathematically come close to balance considering that you can still do a small amount of damage against the fire giant with your non-magical dagger). The boring magic items became better than a lot of the ones that would otherwise be cool.

I should know. I’m the arbiter of what’s cool.

Why do seemingly all game designers do this? It’s maddening.

The 4th Edition Invoker

Here’s another way this manifests itself, though it’s probably far less common. For those of you that never played 4e, the Invoker was a flavorful class. It was the divine equivalent of the sorcerer (c.f., Divine Soul from 3.5). That is, Invokers channeled divine energy not through research or training but through instinct. As a result, they lacked control over those energies, often resulting in self-harming feedback. This meant that, in addition to damaging the enemy, the Invoker’s attacks (usually) dazed the Invoker. Here’s a hypothetical example that demonstrates the problem. Let’s say the Rogue (a.k.a., Thief) has a 3rd-level power (that’s an “attack” in 4e) that does XdY+Z damage and on a hit immobilizes the opponent. The Invoker would also have a 3rd-level power that does XdY+Z damage and on a hit immobilizes the opponent, but then dazes the Invoker. That makes the 3rd-level Invoker weaker than the Rogue. Not just different (which is cool), but weaker (which is not). The class was always behind the curve, but there’s an easy fix for this. Change the Invoker’s power such that it also dazes the enemy in addition to the immobilization. That’s not a perfect solution – PCs are far more sensitive to conditions than NPCs – but it comes close enough for government work. It makes the flavorful self-harm worth it, and thus the class is viable. My experience is anecdotal, but I knew only one person other than myself that played an Invoker. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were among the least popular classes in 4e, and that’s probably a large part as to why.

EDIT: After discussing this on Facebook with a friend, I want to add that the 5e sorcerer’s Wild Magic in 5e technically has a chance of creating negative feedback, but the chances of that are quite rare, and the bonuses it gives in the vast majority of cases (4d10 lightning damage to up to 3 creatures within 30′!!!) is amazingly beneficial. Clearly, Wild Magic is meant to be a boon, not a bust, and it absolutely is one. No balancing feature is needed, but technically Wild Magic by itself is a balancing act, and it certainly is an exception to the problem I’m addressing. Hence, I’m not surprised that the class remains relatively popular.

I think both of these things come from the same place. Again, I ask, why do game designers seem to take this approach? It seems obvious to me that this is a flaw in game design, but I’ve never seen a game even try to get it right, let alone succeed.

Any ideas as to what they’re (you’re) thinking?

Follow me on Twitter @gsllc

Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)

2 thoughts on “Balancing the Negatives #RPG #DnD #ADnD

  1. Two thoughts. First, conditional magic “feels” more magical to me–a blade that has bonuses against a particular type of foe, even though it is less useful, seems more satisfying than a magic item with a blanket +2.

    Second, a flaming sword or a frostbrand should have uses beyond the simple bonus in combat–a flaming sword would act as a light source and I’d allow a character using one to start fires as a free action.

    Personally, I very seldom give out magic items with a universal combat bonus, so I wouldn’t be comparing a character with a flaming sword to a hypothetical +1 to everything sword, anyway. It just seems more… reasonable (?) to me that a weapon would be enchanted for a particular purpose rather than just “kill everything”.

    This is all purely a matter of subjective taste, but I hope it helps.

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    • Well, you’re agreeing with me, so no, it doesn’t help. 🙂 I’m just here to pick fights, preferably against people vulnerable to what I wield. 🙂

      Like

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