We talk a lot on this blog about issues of balance. This is tied to fairness[1]. There’s a strong unspoken assumption in game design that, if you believe balance is a relevant category for your game, then your game should have it, should be balanced.

I’ve just been talking with Austin about why I’d rather play D&D 3.5 than D&D 4 if I’m looking to play a minis game, and in so doing, I had a realization. Two rogues with spears in a party, flanking at long reach? It’s great. It’s something hard to do with 4e. It’s something particular to the ways 3.5 is broken and imbalanced. And it’s part of why I would play 3.5 not just as a minis game, but as an actual role-playing game.

Role-playing games should be unfair, but they should be unfair in both directions. If I’m playing a normal minis game, like Warhammer 40k, I’ll be playing with two balanced armies, seeing if my strategy and luck are better than my opponents. If I’m playing a role-playing game, and it’s interesting, I’m almost certainly facing opposition that is massively more powerful than me, at least in the obvious ways[2]. A large part of the game lies in trying to find ways to use my advantages and undercut my opponent’s. So it’s still about strategy and luck, but strategy lies in doing unexpected, innovative things that circumvent the predicted options. D&D 3.5 allows this, in a way that I don’t find in D&D 4. It’s this ability to make choices in a space constrained only by narrative—to fight dirty, as it were—that is a large part of the fun I get from a role-playing game.

So, characters should be able to be very good at certain things, and their opposition should likewise. It’s the idea of horizontal rather than vertical boundaries again, but here, I mean to focus on gameplay as a way of sliding the arena of conflict around horizontally, until it lies in your wheelhouse.

At this point, the essential nature of the conflict becomes one of fictional positioning: how can you adjust the fiction of the conflict to be in line with your strongest areas of mechanical power? This is one thing I really like about In a Dragon-Guarded Land: fictional positioning is mechanical power, so conflicts are necessarily approached this way.

  1. See Rob Donoghue for more thoughts on that. []
  2. A favorite example of this, for me, is trying to stop a vampire with Potence and Obfuscate in Vampire: the Masquerade—such a vampire poses an incredible threat, but if you can find the right situation, that threat can be neutralized. []
  • I’m not sure I get the example. The rogues-with-spears thing sounds like it’s the opposite of what you want: not playing dirty creatively, “constrained only by narrative”, but just a weird quirk built right into the rules.

    Indeed, during my time with D&D 3.5, these kinds of game mechanics were a powerful distraction from getting players thinking about “rightward-pointing arrows”. See, the problem is that coming up with a cool thing to do based on the game fiction usually gives you a reasonably good result (since it’s mediated by on-the-spot evaluation by the GM or the group), but finding a broken rules interaction gives you an unreasonably good result — more power payoff for your investment of creative energy.

    — Alex

    • Actually, you’re right in an important sense; part of what I didn’t like about Mouse Guard (among all I did like) was that the optimal strategy in a conflict didn’t make reference to the fiction, only to mechanics-internal points.

      I think what I was trying to say with the 3.5 example is more in contrast with 4e: in 4e, there’s not enough “if I get into this position, I’m awesome, and otherwise I’m kind of screwed” positioning. Of course, what 3.5 has is still essentially inferior, for my desires, to what many indie games have.

      Correction gladly accepted.

      • I have that same hang-up with Mouse Guard, but not Burning Wheel. I think it’s at least equal parts mechanics and presentation.

        This discussion has me thinking of Greg R. Ever played with him? He did well with D&D3 because he was real good at finding some ridiculous mechanical thing and then figure out a way to use it and all its weird implications to actually make interesting story-stuff for his character.

        — Alex

  • KevinM

    4th Edition is in my oppinion a good game just not Dungeons and Dragons. What I have noticed in playing quite a few sessions over the last few months is that the ammount of roleplaying depends heavily on the DM and grouop (a bad enough dm and group can turn Vampire the Masquerade or Call of Cthulhu into hack and slash and a good enough group can turn Monopoly into a role playing exersize) as far as 4th goes its a more tactical game then earlier editions I think which can really be a lot of fun (although yes lends itself heavily to being a minis game). Its difficulty certainly depends on the group. An inexperienced group will be eaten for lunch by relatively weak monsters but a group that understands their parts in a battle and works together well will cut higher level monsters to ribbons as well. I’ve seen it happen both ways. Certainly it and 3.5 (and 2nd for that matter) are dramaticly different experiences that cater to different desires in different players.

    • It’s been said of earlier editions that D&D is not a role-playing game, but rather a game that doesn’t block role-playing all the time, and I think that’s especially true of 4e.

      I was raised on AD&D 2e, and if you want to talk broken system, that’s a pretty great example. But really, my point here isn’t about D&D at all, but about how things should be broken in the right way. Unfairness is a virtue, as long as it is positioned in the narrative, and can swing both ways. I think I didn’t make that point very clearly in the original post, but Alex’s comment helped me clarify it.