Embracing D&D's Asymmetrical Balance

by Mike Shea on 7 November 2016

"Love the one you're with." -Crosby, Stills & Nash

David Hartlage, friend of Sly Flourish and author of the excellent Dungeons & Dragons blog DM David, wrote an interesting article entitled how new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons. This follows along in a series of articles he's written looking at spells. Here's a big list of these articles, all of which are worth reading.

David's strong premise is that certain spells in the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons remove the challenge of an encounter and thus remove the fun of the challenge as well. Spells like sleep, banish, protection from evil, hypnotic pattern, counterspell, and many others can circumvent many challenges characters face in D&D. These spells often remove the ability for a DM to predict how any scene will turn out, be it be a fight with some ogres, a stern conversation with the captain of the guard, or the exploration of an ancient dwarven vault.

Whether we like it or not, the D&D 5e isn't a predictable game. It's a game with a lot of sharp spikes in power for both characters and monsters. There's no smooth line of power progression in 5e. Monsters, characters, spells, magic items, and just about any other measurable aspect of the game don't smoothly progress in power as characters level up. Like it or not, this is the design of the game. Wizards, for example, get significantly more powerful when they learn fireball at level 5. It's a huge spike in power that will radically change their effectiveness in combat.

These unpredictable power spikes make encounter balance really hard. The truth is, there is no real encounter balance. We can aim for a general difficulty but then circumstances will quickly take over. Some challenges might be easily bypassed while others might force a complete retreat.

Spells like hypnotic pattern and banishment are completely unpredictable. They might remove threats to the characters with a single die-roll or they might fail completely. Challenges become a lot easier when one of the larger creatures disappears from combat.

This is the reality of the D&D 5e.

We DMs are highly creative types. I hypothesize that nearly every DM has their own hand-built roleplaying game sitting around on a hard drive somewhere. We love to tinker. We love to create. We love to dig into the details of the system because we're not just playing D&D, we're making D&D every time we sit down to prep or run a game. We likely spend a great deal of time thinking about mechanics and struggling with these strange spikes in character power, whether it be the detection of lies, invisibility, flight, shapeshifting, or banishment.

When we see these strange spikes, our instinct is to try to fix them. The day I discovered my long-standing annoyance with the hit point restoration effects of the Moon Druid's wildshape ability, I wanted to fix it. I even enforced my fix during a couple of campaigns. I invoked a simple "damage carries over between forms" house rule intended to make wildshape less useful for tanking and steer players towards using it as a utility for sneaking around as a chipmunk or climbing a mountain as a giant spider. Still, I was probably wrong to houserule it. Numerous discussions on Twitter showed me that lots of classes have ways to mitigate damage like the moon druid, from the barbarian's rage to the mage's shield. These spikes in defensive capabilities are part of the game.

However we feel about it, D&D 5e is the way it is. The books are printed. The mechanics are locked in. Wizards of the Coast has made it clear that any errata they do for the game is mostly for clarification or misprints, not to "fix" things that appear unbalanced.

That's because, like it or not, D&D 5e is inherently unbalanced and that's what makes it so fun.

Symmetrical games can get boring fast. If everyone knows that their capabilities are exactly matched to whatever monster they face, things quickly become a grind. The results are expected and predictable. Some of us DMs might like that predictability because it makes it easy to know how things will turn out but players don't. When a balor steps through a fiery gate and the characters manage to pull off a banish with a single poor saving throw, they feel empowered. That's like Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The power spikes work the other way too. All the dexterity in the world won't stop a banshee from dropping a rogue with a single scream. All the plate armor in the world won't prevent the paladin from getting polymorphed into a frog. A lich's power word kill might drop the wizard with a single word if the lich manages to win the initiative.

This unpredictability of D&D reveals another advantage of narrative combat. If we're less invested in the battlespace itself; the maps, the miniatures, the terrain, and the grid; we're less likely to care when the battle gets circumvented with a single well-placed fireball or the clever use of pass without trace. Narrative combat flows into the rest of the story of the game, meaning the game's "modes" of exploration, interaction, and combat flow within one another much easier than if we shift from spoken descriptions to a map with a grid for each fight.

David's description of summon woodland creatures is another good example of how narrative combat can help. If we're running on a grid and someone casts this spell, that's like 16 extra miniatures we need to set out. Big hassle. Instead, we can just have the player describe what the woodland beings do all at once, roll a handful of d20 rolls for it, and arbitrate the number of sprites blasted in a fireball using the targets per area of effect rules in the Dungeon Master's Guide. Even if we run on a grid, it might be best to skip the minis for hordes of summoned creatures and take care of their actions by just talking it out.

If these asymmetrical spells seem to make things too easy for the characters, we DMs have a lot of options. The speed of combat in 5e means we don't have to worry too much about adding more monsters or increasing the challenge rating of the monsters we do choose. Increasing monster hit points, monster damage output, and the variety of monsters is all possible on the fly. As we mentioned in our encounter building guidelines we're best understanding the capabilities of the characters an building challenges around than than we are assuming the default encounter building guidelines should work all the time.

Of course, constantly pushing the characters to the edge isn't always what we want. Players enjoy that feeling of empowerment when they eat through mobs of enemies with their powerful spells and weapons. We should revel in those blowout encounters as much as our players do. After all, the kid in Stranger Things killed Demogorgon with a single fireball and those kids looked pretty happy about it.

However we feel about the mechanical choices built into the design of 5e D&D, they're here to stay. We all have perfect systems floating around in our heads but the one we have in front of us is pretty damn good. How about we love the one we're with?

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