Achieving balance in D&D is no easy feat. It’s also one that I don’t believe gets enough appreciation. A balanced D&D game is a great example of something that you don’t think about until something goes horribly wrong, or in this case, something is horribly imbalanced.
Balance in D&D is something you’ll hear loads of people talk about online. Most of the time this is in reference to homebrew, 3rd-party, or WotC official content. It’s how you judge if something that’s being added to the game is fair in comparison to the rest of the mechanics that are already in the game.
Today, however, we’re focusing on the game as a whole instead of a specific mechanic or character option. The encounters, the obstacles, the challenges, and of course, the risks. How important is it that each of these is balanced to the party’s capabilities?
I know that I’m super type A about balance. Playing by the rules and ensuring that the game fits within the bound of balance is important to me. Of course, I also like to see how far the rules and mechanics can be taken.
Encounter design and balance accounts for a large portion of my session prep. While I think it’s perfectly fine to not be anywhere near as focused on balancing your game as I am, I think that balance is still something everyone should put a bit of effort in when they prep their home games.
But What is Balance, Anyway?
“In game design, balance is the concept and practice of tuning a game’s rules, usually with the goal of preventing any of its component systems from being ineffective or otherwise undesireable when compared to their peers.” –Wikipedia
Essentially what that definition means is that balance is when game designers fine-tune and change game mechanics and rules until everything able to be effective in the game.
This doesn’t mean that in a perfectly balanced version of D&D 5e, every class is effectively the same thing. They each still have their niches and are more desirable in certain situations. However, as a whole, they’re all viable at the base level of play.
The idea isn’t to make everything equal. That’s impossible, especially for a game that continues to have new things added to it from outside sources. The goal is to ensure that everything is at least a good enough option to be played.
What Does Balance Have to Do With My D&D Campaign?
The unique thing about D&D and other Tabletop RPGs is that you are encouraged to create and run your own adventures. You can build your own dungeons and your players can use their characters and the game’s mechanics to try to overcome every obstacle you throw at them.
But how do you know what’s appropriate to pit against your players’ characters?
In D&D we have guidelines to create challenging encounters such as CR to determine what a creature’s relative power is. We also have guidelines such as encounter difficulty which tells us how many of what CR creature should be thrown at a typical party of a certain level.
There are tons of guidelines that help a DM figure out if their encounter is challenging and fair.
But these guidelines make a bunch of assumptions and depending on your group’s playstyle can be very inaccurate. For example, a group with a lot of magical items is already past the power level that the official guidelines for game balance state they should be at.
To keep the game balanced, the DM now needs to spend some time figuring out at what point the group is challenged by their traps, encounters, skill checks, etc. If you completely phone it in there’s a good chance you’ll make the game too easy or too difficult.
Learning how to balance your game is critical if you wish to present an even, power-level appropriate challenge. However, it’s also a lot of work, especially for newer DMs.
Strive for Fairness First
The further along with a campaign you get, the more variables you tend to introduce to the game. These variables can be magical items, homebrew mechanics, new players, or any number of things that can influence how you balance the game for your adventuring party.
Variables increase the difficulty of achieving balance. After all, the designers for D&D couldn’t/didn’t account for many of these things when they created their guidelines for balancing the game.
That’s why I say as the DM, you should strive for creating a fair game first and foremost.
A fair game is one where the players are all on equal footing. They each have their time to speak and interact with the world, of course, but all of their characters have a niche that can shine throughout the course of the game.
Essentially, everyone has a place and an active chance to meaningfully participate in the game.
Another aspect of a fair game is that there are challenges and obstacles for the party to overcome. However, these obstacles are all possible to solve and the party can succeed in the challenges. Perhaps not in one-go or not on their first try, but they’re not regularly thrown against mathematically insurmountable odds.
Equal Opportunities Are Important
Obviously, the first step to ensuring that every member of the party has an equal opportunity in the game is by doing so in character creation. It should go without saying that you should allow all of your players the opportunity to use the same sourcebooks when creating their characters.
Homebrew options are the exception to this rule. Judge those on a case-by-case basis for their quality. Just because something comes from the same creator doesn’t mean each item has the same level of polish and balance!
I like to take this concept a step further and use point buy for character creation. Point buy is the epitome of ensuring that every character has an equal opportunity. Sure, some characters will be better optimized, but that’s the player’s choice. Every player had the opportunity to do so.
While rolling for ability scores is fair in that everyone has the same mathematical potential to have an equal stat array, in practice this isn’t usually how it works out.
It sucks when your group rolls characters up and one person lucks-out with multiple ability scores at 16-18 while the rest of you maybe have one ability score that high. While you’re all a team and benefit from your friend’s excellent rolls, it still feels lackluster to have someone well above the party’s average due to good luck. It also feels awful to be below the party average due to bad luck.
Using point buy or sticking to the standard array ensures that each character has the same base power level. Their power will fluctuate from this point forward based on the decisions they make throughout the game.
Point buy isn’t the only way to ensure that each character has an equal opportunity to succeed, but it’s the most impactful method of doing so from my experience.
Does D&D Need Balance to Be Fun?
No. Your campaign doesn’t have to be anywhere close to balanced to be enjoyable for you and your friends.
This is primarily due to the fact that your group’s enjoyment of D&D and fun as a whole are subjective.
However, I’d still argue that at minimum, the game needs to be fair to be fun. Everyone should have a shot at playing a character they enjoy in a game that they have an equal opportunity to succeed in. Well, at least in relation to their fellow players.
Not Every Session Has to be Balanced
You may, like myself, run a tight ship and ensure that the game is fair for everyone at the table, but it’s also as balanced as you can possibly manage it to be. You’re not afraid to veto unbalanced homebrew and you spend time and effort balancing encounters to the best of your ability.
But not every session has to be a home-run in the balance department.
I like to keep things as balanced as possible, but there are plenty of sessions where I’m a bit more lax with the rules or I introduce something overpowered to the game temporarily. A ridiculous session of a campaign or an absurd one-shot once in a while can be really, really fun.
Constant Unfairness Breeds Resentment
Some of my favorite sessions as a player have been when our characters are stripped of our magical items or possessions and are forced to think of new, creative strategies to resolve our current situation. It’s fun to be presented with an unfair challenge and overcome it.
But not every session. These types of sessions are fun once in a while.
Constantly taking things from the players in order to give them an obstacle does two things. The first is that it creates a lack of trust between the DM and the players. Why bother enjoying the cool stuff or new powers they get if they’re just going to lose them?
The second is that it breeds resentment. No one is going to want to play with you if you constantly tip the scales in your or a specific player’s favor.
No one wants to play a game where they’re a side character in another character’s epic journey. Well, unless they want to, and if they do that should be laid-out in session 0.
When is Balance Most Important?
You might think my answer is going to be something simple such as “balanced combat is the most important part of D&D”. However, my answer isn’t a specific part of the game at all.
The most important time to focus on balance for any RPG is when you and your players are learning the game!
Your first thought when you crack open a brand new game with your friends shouldn’t be “how can I get this system to do X”. Spend some time with the game! Use the rules and the officially published content to play the game. Don’t reinvent the wheel before you get into the driver’s seat.
I’m not saying to memorize every single rule or know the contents of the books to the letter. My point is that homebrewing, hacking, or otherwise changing up a game is a deep-dive into the balancing act of the game’s mechanics. Games with lots of mechanics like D&D 5e are a trickier balancing act than games that are less heavy on the rules.
Games are balanced with respect to the source material they have available to them. Take some time to learn and use this stuff before you start adding layers on top of it. The rules are there to guide you and help you learn. Balance is a result of the rules. It’s all a cycle.
I think balance is important, but it can also be very difficult to achieve due to a number of factors. While creators and game designers for D&D 5e should be held to a standard of ensuring that their products are well-balanced, I don’t think every homebrew campaign should be held to this same standard.
Instead, I feel that DMs should focus more on making the game fair for the players. Give each player an equal opportunity to play and enjoy the game. Throw challenges their way, but ensure that they’re capable of being solved.
I don’t believe that D&D needs to be balanced to necessarily be fun. However, I do believe that balance certainly impacts the amount of fun that you’re certain to have as a player, especially when you’re new to the game.
Balance is a great way for the DM to ensure that they’re throwing fair challenges at their players. It’s also a way to help them adjust encounters that may be too easy or too hard. Without learning how to balance your game, you’re shooting from the hip, which can absolutely be fun still. However, it’s worth the effort to give balance a shot.