The Impossible Spectre of Balance in 3.5 D&D

I recently went back to some old content I made for 3.5 D&D and found myself considering that the flavour, the tone, the purpose were all sound –

A quick aside.

When I say the flavour, I mean the way the game objects are designed to represent things in the universe; a ranged attack that deals a decent chunk of damage and requires an action to refresh could be easily flavoured as a gun;

when I say the tone, I mean the kind of other things in the universe that are necessary for the thing to exist; guns don’t work in a setting without advanced metallurgy, for example, but they also don’t work in a setting where you want fights to be back-and-forth exchanges of force;

When I say purpose, I mean what mechanical end I want this object to fulfill in the world; this gun may work as a way to give players with less physical stats a meaningful ranged attack and to show this region as being more focused on distributable technology than on magical advancement

– but that without a lot of refamiliarising myself with the rules I could not say for sure how balanced they were, or were not, in a D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder game. I went back to read the Tome of Battle and Tome of Magic, two books I love but which have

Let’s say problems.

3.5 D&D was a game with a fantasy of balance. It had a lot of systems for creating ballparks, and if you bothered to explore all those ballparks you could wind up finding one where all your players could play together. You had to avoid the situation where one player was playing a totally different sport in a different field, but it wasn’t like you were being fundamentally reasonably by limiting sources. The whole problem of the CoDZilla (“Cleric Or Druid”) of 3.5 was that in the core book alone they were still totally broken and other sources only made them moreso.

There were other systems totally weirded up; like the Sunder mechanic was either useless or amazing, and its side effect of destroying treasure was either dreadful or meaningless. The trip and grapple systems could be pushed to breaking, the summoning system had its narrow holes, and every single expansion or splatbook you can find only adds either new options that are too weak to make any difference, or totally new broken things.

This is the conundrum of 3.5: Nothing is balanced, but things have gravity. Things suck together, and you can find a balancing point acreted around one general family of busted stuff. This is something I really found comforting about it in hindsight, but is also a trap: If players were not in a position, skill-wise, to pull towards those same common spots, if they were drawn towards other thematic thing, that player was set up to have a miserable time.

So what’s the solution?

My gut is to make it so the broken options are easy to get. To allow for elegant, simple power. Make the four-prestige class stack-em-ups a bother to get. Make small rules tweaks that keep those kind of complicated builds being total upgrades, but don’t try and push players away from the powerful toys that are cool.

Towards the last of my 3.5 days, the builds I looked for to make were, as an ideal, as few classes and prestige classes as possible; as a designer, if someone brought me a character splashing a single level of four or five classes on the way to a prestige class, I was left considering that the jankiness was a problem. When your build was full of different stuff that you picked up because there was no investment to do so, it meant your play experience slowed down (hang on, do I have a thing to do with that?), and it also meant the costs for joining a prestige class or taking a level in another class were too low.

Overall this is heartening though: I don’t think I can make anything that’s too overpowered, especially ‘overpowered’ is a moving target.

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