Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In Which The Warlock Continues a Tirade...

Quite a few posts ago, I found myself more than a little outraged at the words of one of the admired grognards of D&D--Mr. Mike Mearls.  Okay, outraged is a little much, but his "Legends and Lore" column, on the Wizards of the Coast site got me a little bit riled.  And, of course, here we are, several weeks later, and I'm still more than a little peeved.
Mearls! *shakes fist*

The last two of Mearls' columns have dealt with game balance (found here: Balance of Power, and here: Fighters vs. Wizards), which is a pretty massive issue, all around.  Most games want to be considered 'balanced', and I have yet to come across a gamer who doesn't want a degree of balance in their game.  Balance, in this sense, doesn't necessarily mean that things should be on the same exact level, but rather that things are relatively equal in comparison to one another, in this case, the various classes.  Considering that, by and large, we're dealing with qualitative analysis here--I'll let the Munchkins out there argue over feat choices for max DPR--this is obviously subjective material.

Mearls' presentation is fallacious from the very start.  He references 1st edition D&D as a paragon of a sliding scale, in which a Fighter (Fighting Man?  Warrior?  Call it whatever you want...he's still a guy with a sword) is essentially like playing on "easy mode" for the entry levels.  "You had more hit points, better AC, access to weapons," Mearls says, "...when it came time to use the rules to determine if you lived or died, the fighter had a leg up at low levels.  He continues this assertion with the progressive rise of the magic-user (mage/wizard/etc.) in power, as they begin to be able to cast world-breaking spells like Wish, Shapechange, and *gasp* Fireball. 

Illogical penguin is illogical.
But, in doing so, Mearls sets up nothing more than an "either/or" fallacy, also known as the False Dilemma.  Based on his statements, either you become a fighter, thriving at 3rd level before becoming irrelevant around 10th, or you become a magic-user, suffering through the first 6 levels before you get a few area-effect spells and dominate the game.  Either you get to enjoy the start of the game, mashing kobolds and orcs into the ground with your mighty +2 Flail, or you get to enjoy the late-game, blasting devils and abominations from existence with Mordenkainen's Magnificent Malconvocation. 

I outright reject this dichotomy.  The fundamental premise of a game is fun.  Remember that?  Fun!  It's not fun to have 3 hit points and to get taken out by a housecat, as Mearls fondly jokes about.  Similarly, it's not fun to sit on the sidelines while your mage friend nukes everything between here and Waterdeep with Fizban's Fabulous Flamethrower.  There's a sweet spot in between--around 7th level in 2nd edition, raised to 9th or 10th in 3rd/3.5e--that everyone gets to feel important at some point, but even then, the magic users outstrip the fighting classes at upper levels, in terms of both options and in terms of ability, while fighter-types dominate the low levels, due to relative survivability. 

The idea that you can only have fun at certain levels, the idea that you can only have fun together at even fewer levels, and that your character can and should only be effective at certain points, is contrary to the very premise of playing a co-operative game.  Instead of "we have fun", it devolves into "I have fun, then you have fun...if the campaign lasts that long." 
Truth be told, 4e's done a fairly admirable job of finding the elusive sweet spot--wizards don't feel as frail, and can occasionally even take a punch, while fighters and other warriors have abilities that keep them on par with their mythic and literary counterparts.  But, Mearls' argument seems to fly in the face of this logic, as he compares this inversely-proportional relationship favorably to deck-building in collectable card games:  where some decks are built to win now, others favor a slow build-up and a powerful endgame.

The problem with Mearls' ideas stems from the fact that no player plays D&D in a vacuum.  If I were playing a video game--let's use Blizzard's seminal Diablo II as an example--it would be fine for me to place myself on that continuum.  If I wanted, I could build a character in DII that would do very well in the act that I'm currently in:  given a Barbarian, for example, I could put points in the level 1 skill "Bash" and pump up the Mastery skill for whatever weapon I wanted to wield.  It wouldn't necessarily be very good for the end-game, but for the start of the game, I'd be a powerhouse.  Inversely, if I wanted to build a character to succeed in "Hell" difficulty, I would reserve my skill points for some of the later, more powerful skills like "Whirlwind" or "Berzerk".  Yes, I'd be crippled for the time being, but I'd be able to take on Diablo and Baal with better high-level skills.

That's great for playing solo, because it's my choice, but D&D doesn't work like that.  It's a social activity.  It's not fair or even remotely reasonable to implicitly ask one, two, or more players to essentially step aside, because "your class isn't important yet/anymore".  True, the role-playing aspects of D&D and other games place a limit on this, but the idea that this sort of thought-process is still pervasive, even celebrated, at the world's largest rpg-publisher is baffling.

Pitiful 3rd level cult sorcerers are
no match for Conan'smighty Cleave feat! 
It strikes me as particularly odd that, in a game that epitomizes the idea of the "triumphant hero"--the typical D&D character ascends from meager beginnings, graining power and prestige until they are giving noogies to demon lords and hanging out in not-Valhalla with not-Thor--that a traceable curve cannot be reached that runs concurrent, regardless of class.  The "tier" system in 4e is a start, as is Savage Worlds's various tiers (Novice/Veteran/Expert/Heroic/Legendary), but they do little to address the perception that a high level fighter can't hold a candle to a high level mage, or that apprentice mages should have to run in terror from their own familiars. 

Mearls' argument also runs on the assumption that most campaigns start at 1st level and run through the gamut of the game.  This strikes me as particularly confusing, as Mearls and others at WotC have cited in the past numerous times, that this is not the case.  In fact, it's an exceptional rarity.  As it turns out, most home games take place between 6th and 15th level, in that aforementioned "sweet spot", and only run in a given campaign for about a year to a year and a half.  If that's the case, and the marketing department knows this....why support a paradigm that intentionally deviates from what the market is telling you that it wants?!

All the data in the world doesn't do any good, if you don't actually do anything with it.  If the people want game balance, then that's what your design aim should be.  If people are going to play as a group, then you need to accomodate that as a goal.  And, if you're going to shoot for a "sweet spot", don't build mechanics that inherantly defy that aim!

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