Game Master's Journey 181: House Rules & Game Balance

Lex discusses why game balance is important. We often think of game balance when coming up with campaign-affecting house rules, but we should also keep it in mind when making rulings on-the-fly during play. These spontaneous house rules can have just as much impact on our games as the ones we spend time designing.

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Importance of Game Balance

I talk a lot about “game balance” on the show. There are two main types of game balance I think about when homebrewing for any game.

#1 – balance of the PCs with the NPCs/the game/the world. At first glance, this can seem not to matter, and it is, in my opinion, the less important of the two. However, you can save yourself a lot of time, headache, work, and ret-conning if you understand how the PCs are balanced with the rest of the game in your game of choice.

Any game makes assumptions of what the PCs can do and what they can handle. For example, D&D makes assumptions based on the character’s level. At a given level, the game assumes a certain number of hit points, certain armor class, certain attack bonus, good and bad save bonuses, spell save DC, and damage output. Also, interestingly, D&D assumes the PCs have NO magic items.

The main issue with deviating too far from these assumptions (whether making the characters less or more powerful than the baseline) is that it will make your encounter design more difficult and complicated. E.g. in D&D we have two different guidelines for building encounters—that in the DMG, and the one in UA. Whichever you use, those guidelines will become less and less relevant, useful and helpful the more you stray from the baseline. Note that since D&D assumes no magic items, not only can you stray from this baseline by adding houserules (whether they buff or nerf the PCs), you can also stray by giving them magic items. If you follow the guidelines in the DMG for the items to hand out, it should never make a huge difference, but if, on the other hand, for instance, you gave legendary weapons to your first level party, you’d see them hitting well above their weight class—they’d have attack bonuses and damage output of a much higher-level party. Interestingly, if they all have legendary weapons, they would have the defensive attributes (hit points, AC, save bonuses) of a regular 1st level party. So offensively they’d be very OP, but defensively, they’d be at the baseline. I hope you can see how this would make designing challenging encounters more complicated. To truly challenge them, you’d need an encounter that can take hits like a higher CR, but do damage like lower CR. The more over-powered items you hand out (or the more house rules you make) the more this gets exacerbated.

If you throw your game out of balance in this first way, you will make more work for yourself, it will cause you headaches, and you’ll likely come to regret doing it. But it probably won’t impact the player’s fun at the table, at least it won’t if you’re able to adapt and adjust your encounters properly. (If, on the other hand, you can’t find that sweet spot, players will have less fun if encounters are way too easy or way too hard).

#2 – The second type of game balance is more important, in my opinion, because if you get this out of whack, not only will it likely ruin your day as a GM, it will also impact the fun the players have at the table. The second type of game balance is the balance of the PCs with one another.

Now RPGs are complex enough that true ideal balance isn’t a real possibility, so you will have PCs who are slightly more or less capable than other PCs. That’s ok, and this can come about not only from the system itself, but also how the players play their characters. If one player plays super tactically, and another player just does what seems fun, funny or daring, the first player’s character will likely seem more powerful.

So I said that #1, balance of the PCs with the rest of the game, is mainly a concern for the GM. It will make more work for you, and will complicate your life, but if you do your job right, the players will never know and it will not diminish their fun (although it may diminish yours).

However, #2, balance of the PCs with one another, affects everyone. Like I said, if there’s a slight difference, it probably won’t be a problem, and this is pretty common, if not ubiquitous. However, if there is a large disparity—if one PC is significantly more or less powerful than the others—then that could be more of a problem. If the PC is way underpowered compared to the other PCs, that player will start to feel like they’re not contributing to the group, that their character isn’t as cool as the others. If a PC is way overpowered, it can lead to that player getting all the spotlight and the other players feeling like they’re just along for the ride and the player (or players) with the super powered character is getting to have all the fun.

Now a lot of us probably realize that balance among the PCs is an important consideration when coming up with sweeping house rules. What I mean by a sweeping house rule is the kind of house rule that you’d put in a handout and give the players. Some examples of what I’m talking about—wizards don’t have to prepare spells, but can cast them spontaneously like a sorcerer; short rests take 2 hours instead of 1 hour; all PCs get maximum hp on all their hit dice; rogues can only sneak attack when an opponent is surprised or doesn’t know they’re there. Balance is definitely important in these kinds of house rules, but there’s another kind of house rules in which balance is equally important that GMs sometimes overlook. But before I get into that, let’s look at each of these examples a little more closely.

  • Wizards don’t have to prepare spells. Balance type #1 & #2. This makes wizards more powerful compared to the other casters because they get more known spells like a cleric, but they get to choose from their entire repertoire of spells each time they cast like a bard. This makes wizards even MORE powerful compared to non-casters. Already there are balance issues in D&D between casters and noncasters at high level, so you want to be careful anytime you do something that increases the power of casters but not noncasters. The longer you used this house rule, the more you’d see players playing wizards, and the less you’d see them playing other casters or noncasters.
  • Short rests take 2 hours instead of 1 hour. Balance type #1. This slightly nerfs the PCs compared to the game’s assumptions, but since it affects all PCs equally, it probably won’t lead to balance issues among the PCs, although it could depending on your group make-up. One of the balancing mechanisms in 5e among PCs is whether abilities recharge on a short or long rest. Some classes rely a lot on short rests (like battlemaster fighter), getting a lot of the abilities back on a short rest. Others rely more on long rest (like wizard), needing a long rest to regain their abilities. If you lengthen the time required for a short rest, but don’t lengthen the time required for a long rest, this could shift the balance in the direction of favoring long rest mechanics, however this depends a lot on the specific changes and specific classes of PCs involved.
  • All PCs get max hp on HD. Balance type #1 & #2. This will increase the defensive power of the PCs compared with monsters and NPCs. It may also slightly increase the hp disparity between high hit die classes (like barbarian d12) and low hit die classes (like wizard d6) because there will be a large spread between the hp they get at each level. (With average hp, a barbarian gets 7, and wizard gets 4, only 3 hp difference; with max hp a barbarian gets 12, and a wizard gets 6, 6 hp difference; over 20 levels, that difference really adds up (60 hp difference vs. 240 hp difference).
  • rogues can only sneak attack when an opponent is surprised or doesn’t know they’re there. #1 & #2. I’ve seen DMs do this one. This severely nerfs the rogue. The game assumes the rogue gets sneak attack once a round in most combats. This house rule leads to the rogue normally getting only one sneak attack per combat, and often times won’t even get one. This means the rogue’s damage output isn’t what the game assumes. The rogue will feel underpowered compared to the other characters, especially casters and especially at high level. 

So you see that each of these examples lead to both types of balance issues in some way, but it’s the ones that lead to disparity among the PCs that will be the most problematic.

House Rules on the Fly

However these types of house rules are just one way the GMs can create these imbalances during play. Another way we can cause these issues that GMs don’t always consider is how we make rulings during play, and specifically how we arbitrate spells and other abilities the characters use.

Listener-GM Filipe asked a question on the G+ community that’s a good illustration of this in action.

The player characters wanted to steal a magical silver dragon skull. One player had the idea to grab the spell and cast polymorph assuming that the skull would polymorph with them. Filipe ruled that this wouldn’t work, telling the player that the skull was magical, and maybe even had the dragon’s spirit still with it, so wasn’t just an object. His real concern and reason for not allowing that to work was what would make a better story, not game balance, but I think this is a great example for this topic.

First, there is a clear answer to the question, “would this work?” in the rules. A GM can absolutely houserule that this would work, but this is NOT how polymorph works by the rules. Polymorph allows a PC to meld their gear into their form. A silver dragon’s skull, which incidentally, is probably nearly as big as the PC, is not a piece of worn gear or equipment. Having that polymorph with the character goes way beyond the scope of the spell. If you don’t believe me, Jeremy Crawford went into great detail on how polymorph and druid wild shape work in one of his Sage Advice segments, which you can find linked in my blog article.

However, for the sake of this discussion, let’s think about the consequences of allowing this to work, and setting a new precedent for what polymorph can do. Suddenly a whole host of possibilities open up. Also, once you’ve gotten the GM to bend this far, you can always try to get a little more from the GM every time you use this spell as a player. Every time try it with an even bigger object. So this leads to some issues.

1. Polymorph is now likely significantly over-powered compared to other 4th level spells. This is why my first response to this personally would be to tell the player it won’t work, but that they could research a higher level version of polymorph that would allow them to bring more stuff with them.

2. Casters who have access to polymorph have now gotten a power increase compared to other casters, and even more of an increase compared to noncasters. Remember that we should always be careful of a rule that increases caster power compared to noncaster.

Another fine example is the control water spell.

I’ve seen so many people try to do things with this spell far beyond its scope. The classic is trying to affect a water elemental with it. Now by the rules, this flat doesn’t work, as the spell targets freestanding water (an object in game terms) while a water elemental is not freestanding water—it’s not an object, it’s a creature.

Or a player wanting to use control water to do something to someone’s blood, causing them damage or some other effect because blood “has water in it”. The spell is control water, not control things with water in them.

So the point I want to make here is that there may be more to consider than what we’re necessarily thinking of in these situations. As GMs we often feel we should reward and encourage player creativity, and indeed when Felipe asked this question, he was concerned he had squashed that creativity. However, D&D and other RPGs are games, they’re not simply improvisational storytelling. “Say yes” is great advice when you’re doing improvisational comedy. It’s not always great advice when you’re running an RPG.

There’s more to consider here than will this make the player happy, or will this encourage or discourage creativity. This isn’t a concern in improvisational comedy because you’re not playing a game. With an RPG, we’re playing a game.

Players are notorious for thinking in the short term, and for thinking only from their (or their character’s) POV. And that’s fine, that’s your job as a player. So the player asking to use polymorph to steal a dragon skull and the player wanting to use control water on an elemental are trying to find a solution to the problem in front of them. They’re probably not thinking about game balance, or what impact allowing this (or not allowing it) will have on the rest of the group and the rest of the campaign. That’s fine, because thinking of those things is the GM’s job. But we’ve gotta think of them, GMs.

It can be hard to anticipate all the possible consequences of houseruling a spell or ability on-the-fly so it does significantly more (or less) than what the rules state. It can be difficult to think of all the ways it will affect balance among the player characters. These things take consideration and time to think, time you don’t have at the table mid-game.

That is why I tend to follow the rules whenever possible. I don’t make house-rules on the fly during play. Spells do what they say they do; abilities do what they say they do. If I do want to consider a change, that is done in between sessions, and I give it a lot of thought, and often solicit feedback from the players, before implementing such a change. Players are pretty good at seeing hidden nerfs to their characters in house rules.

As usual on this show, I’m not trying to tell you how to run your game. I’m not saying “don’t make house rules”. I’m not even saying “don’t make house rules on the fly during play”. What I am saying is “think about what you’re doing”. If you don’t feel like you have a handle on all the permutations and consequences in that moment at the table, I recommend sticking with the rules. Especially if we’re talking D&D 5e we know it’s been extensively playtested, but pretty much all games these days have been playtested more than the experience you’ve had with the game at the table. When you have to make snap judgments, I suggest you trust that process, trust that the people who made the game are pros, are probably pretty good at what they do, and just might have a better grasp of the game than you do. So give yourself time to consider possible changes to the rules of your game, don’t feel pressured to make snap decisions during play.

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