Today, let’s discuss balance. In Dungeon and Dragons communities, particularly those that focus on homebrew, there are often discussions about balance and if a specific idea is balanced. For homebrewers, the term itself is paramount. If your class, sub-class, or feat isn’t balanced, you can expect readers and redditors to criticize, downvote, and (probably) ridicule it.
However, what is balance? How is one thing balanced and another thing not? These questions seem easy to answer at first: balance is when a new idea or game component is fair and plays nicely with other components. A thing is balanced when it doesn’t break the rest of the game or make the game somehow unfun.
But after collaborating with others on homebrew, I realized that the definition of balance is complicated. Much like the US Supreme Court decision Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), where the justices colloquially said “I know it when I see it” to categorize obscenity, many homebrewers can only identify something as balance when presented with something that is obviously imbalanced.
In fact, many use the word balance as an umbrella term for several different concepts, each of which are measured in different ways and have different implications. On top of that, different communities, player groups and readers perceive and rank those separate concepts of balance in their own unique ways.
So as a homebrewer wishing to post your homebrew online, you are caught in a bind. You need your idea to be balanced, yet the very definition of balance might be subjective (or at least, a moving goal post). At the same time, balance clearly is a thing, video game companies worry about balance all the time and some homebrew ideas are universally criticized as imbalanced. How then can you create a class, monster, or magical item, without it be condemned?
The answer lies in breaking down the monolith term “balance” into its respective parts and then understanding the purpose of your homebrew (such as its niche and why you originally made it) in relation to these elements.
In my observations, balance can be deconstructed into three separate concepts: vacuum balance, genre/setting balance, and group balance. This blog will focus primarily on explaining these different aspects and how they can skew the perceived balance of your homebrew idea.
Calculating Balance: The Process
Similar to the Egyptian god Annubis, D&D players and homebrewers love to balance and weigh things. Ever since D&D communities went online, players have been analyzing the game and developing tools including indices, calculators, and tier-systems to separate the best from the worst and the orthodox from the broken. How someone calculates balance though is a bit arbitrary (as we will see) because it is mostly a mental process. Yet, to make it simpler for us in this philosophical discussion, I will describe balance in terms of physical scales.
In the abstract, the balancing process involves taking a new idea, such as a class feature, and comparing it against other ideas like it. Hence, you are metaphorically “weighing” these items against one another in terms of their usefulness, power, and fun. Your goal is to make sure that these two ideas weigh almost the same on your “scale”.
In order to determine the best and most accurate results, it is important to weigh a new idea against an existing one that fulfills a similar niche or role. Better yet, a good analyst will try to weigh a new idea against as many analogous game components as possible, likely pairing up different ideas into builds.
Likewise, some prior existing game content is usually held in high regard and functions like tiny pre-labeled counterweights when using a real-life scale. You should expect a person analyzing your homebrew to hold your new idea up to these high profile examples in order to really understand it.
In the end, once all the weighing has been done, a judgement can be made about the idea’s balance. Furthermore, a proficient analyst can even advise recommendations on how to better align your idea to other game content..
Sound simple? Good, because this is going to get more complicated.
Problems with the Process
As mentioned already, the balancing process is a mental one and can be rather arbitrary. Unlike weighing something in real life where we have perfectly molded platinum spheres to use as counterbalances, when it comes to balancing your idea, how much something weighs is up to an analyst. They might perceive one feat as notably exceptional or a magical item as incredibly weak. They might even weight your homebrew against something that performs an entirely different niche.
Arguably, this could mean that balance is entirely up to an analyst’s personal tastes. While that is partially true, it is actually more fundamental than that. Balance really depends on what definition of balance your analyst is applying. Are they trying to analyze something purely numerically, are they adjusting your idea’s “weight” to account for their own personal experiences, or are they coming at your idea with a preconceived notion on how to play D&D. All of these different perceptions form different understandings and definitions of balance.
Generally, when homebrewers talk about balance, they are talking about Vacuum Balance. This makes sense, in many ways, Vacuum Balance is the simplest form of balance. It deals directly with games tables, numbers, and rules as they are written. It is seemingly straightforward and at a glance appears to be the most objective and fair way to determine balance.
As its name suggests, Vacuum Balance is when an analyst only measures your idea in isolation (or in a vacuum). This type of balance ignore any other outside factors like the game’s genre or a campaign’s setting. It also makes clear assumptions about the optimal way of playing D&D and ignores a player’s agency and a dungeon master’s play style.
It is the preferred method of balance for many homebrewers because you can often calculate results on a spreadsheet in a consistent and relatively fair manner.
You can actually see a detailed example of determining balance through Vacuum Balance in our aptly name blog, In a Vacuum: The Fighter. As you can see from that blog, several key assumptions are made about the test combat and how the fighter in this testing scenario will act.
Vacuum Balance though has its limitations. It becomes increasingly complicated the moment you step outside easily defined numbers. For instance, it is easy to compare sources of damage in terms of Vacuum Balance because 4 Hit Points is less than 8 Hit Points. Additionally, you can also assess non-comparable numbers (though it is tricky) like Armor Class or Saving Throws, because these numbers are replacements for percentages. However, the same cannot be said for mechanics that have no clear numerical aspect and there are a lot of these in D&D, most notably lockdown spells.
These non-numerical aspects cannot be so easily simplified to a spreadsheet column or separated from other factors. Typically, what these effects are even compared to on an objective scale is up for debate. Still you will find analysts trying to go about using Vacuum Balance for non-numerical mechanics. They might even try to develop tools to analyze and rank these abilities (often with mixed results). That said, that is a topic for another day.
Another component of balance is Genre/Setting Balance. This type of balance is based on the fact that what is balanced in one game is not always balanced in another. This is because balance is a measure of usefulness, power, and fun, and what is useful or powerful or fun in an adventuring game might not be the same in a detective game.
This is a problem unique to D&D and tabletop games because of their reliance on imagination and player input. D&D especially has this problem because the system is used for so many different game genres and doesn’t have a mandatory campaign setting like Warhammer 40k.
Analysts typically do not acknowledge their biases of genre or setting. Yet, when measuring your homebrew, they must imagine how a game would be played and how often a mechanic would be utilized. Consequently, an analyst’s conception of genre or setting can greatly warp the perceived balance of your idea.
This can be complicated if your idea is a non-numerical effect or any effect that has social or roleplaying implications because these effects might be more powerful or fun in certain game genres. For example, the feature of the Noble background (Player’s Handbook pg. 135) might be occasionally useful in a game where you adventure from town to town hoping to slay a dragon, but it is almost always useful in a game where you are dealing with politics in a city-state. Similarly, abilities involving swimming or the water are basically necessary in a game that involves seafaring, but the same ability is outright useless in most normal games.
Certain features or mechanics also might be unusually powerful or weak depending on how a setting is imagined. Mass teleporting or reviving the dead might be nearly game breaking in a setting that is relatively low-fantasy. Yet, those kind of abilities are everyday affairs in high-fantasy settings. The same problem can also exist depending on whether a game uses abstract or tangible deities, particularly if your idea flirts with the divine.
Lastly, in D&D, a DM determines how the rules and the world works, and the players have agency to interact with the world. Therefore, it’s not realistic to assume every decision made by either the DM or the players will be optimal or even the same between game to game.
Analysts judge your homebrew based on how they imagine players and DMs should act. Like Genre/Setting Balance, this can be useful because it can make the assessment of your idea more realistic.
However, players and DMs all have certain preferences on how they do things, which means different mechanics can be exploited in different ways and at different times. his in turn alters how analysts perceive your idea in term of balance. For example, if your DM often uses multiple different damage types, a poison resistance item might be amazing. The same cannot be said if your DM rarely uses elemental damage types.
Applying Balance Holistically
Overall, there are multiple concepts of balance that are often rolled together as one umbrella term. This blog probably only scratches the surface in terms of categorizing the different ways readers, players, and redditors assess balance. Debatably, this blog could be expanded upon to statistically look at how people analyze homebrew.
What is hopefully apparent though is the idea that each concept of balance has its own limitations and uses. All of these limitations together impede an objective and perfect calculation of what is fun, useful or powerful.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Balance can be in some way calculated and things are legitimately more powerful than others.
That being said, perfectly calculating balance can only happen when dealing with extremes. Only in the extreme is there objectivity. Comparing things that are similar but are non-numerical is a vastly more difficult and subjective task. This is compounded when a piece of homebrew is best used in specific settings or genres.
So how should you handle these limitations as a homebrewer? Your best best is to understand that there is not just one way to look at balance and that balance cannot be easily calculated through mathematical formulas. You also should try to build your homebrew with the intention of filling a niche and deliberately analyze what settings, genres, and play styles would benefit from your idea. Moreover, you should synthesize the opinions of many reviewers, particularly those who understand the niche and goal you are trying to reach, while understanding that some reviewers will approach your idea from a vastly different perspective.
It is not always easy to tell how your idea will be implemented or received. To put it another way, we have a whole blog, Speak with Dead, dedicated to just examining past ideas and how they panned out. It is best to accept that game balance is always someway subjective, not just in D&D and not just in tabletop. It is a problem that game creators and homebrewers have been trying to tackle for decades and we are nowhere closer to perfection.