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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Balancing Class Powers With Roleplay "Hinderances" - Does it Work?

I was listening to one of the recent episodes of the Roll for Initiative Podcast on my drive in to work this morning, and they were talking abou the AD&D Paladin class and how rare it was for anyone to play the class properly.

The problem with the Paladin class isn't just with the "roleplay aspect", but that the bit I'll be addressing with this short post.

The AD&D Paladin has (off the top of my head, as I don't have my AD&D books near me at the moment) a bonus to saves, detect evil ability, protection from evil at all times, immunity to disease, layng of hands, cure disease, turn undead at 4th level, a magical warhorse at 4th level, spells at 9th level - all balanced by a slightly harder expo table than a straight up fighter, limited to owning one suit of magical armor and shield, 4 weapons and 4 other magic items. Oh, and must adhere to his Lawful Good alignment and risk losing his Paladin-hood. Must adventure regularly only with good aligned characters. Never evil ones.

How the hell does the first list of bonuses get balanced by the second list of hinderances?

It doesn't.

Paladins were loved by the power gamers almost as much as Eleven Bladesingers were loved by power gamers in 2e. Restrictions or hindrances that are roleplay in nature and not mechanical (like the bonuses are) in general do not balance, as the first thing to get glossed over or forgotten in most games is those very roleplay based hinderances. Trust me - players won't forget their mechanical bonuses. They will forget roleplay hinderances.

Looks like I won't be allowing Paladins in my games anytime soon ;)


  1. I agree with your assessment, role-play hindrances are inconsequential and most often forgotten. About the only way to make them real is to ascribe negative modifiers to them. So the player should know that if he or she acts in a certain way, their god-provided powers will be effected. Players will argue when you deal out negative consequences to role-played situations, but the real power of a cleric or paladin is not derived from themselves but their faithful service.

    1. It's not that they're inconsequential, it's that they're a bother. It adds work, and all too often we see work as too much trouble to be worth the time. The trick is, to make it enjoyable.

      The PC is an arachniphobe, so he sees spiders everywhere. In one adventure I made a djinn hydrophobic; his master had a heck of a time getting his servant to actually do anything. Their being on a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean at the time didn't help any.

      Djinn: You know what's out there?

      Master: What's out there?

      Djinn: It's wet out there!

      So don't have such a fuss about mechanics, play the situation. In David Eddings' Belgariad our here asks his mentor, "Do I have to be the chosen one?" (or worlds to that effect).

      To which the wizard replied, in effect, "'Fraid you're stuck with it."

      But remember, most of all, that it's not your job as GM to present a balanced situation, it's your job to present an engaging, entertaining situation.

  2. I've never run into a situation (well, not since high school, anyway) where a player neglected to play up his paladin restrictions....but I tend to hang with role-play heavy players who see things like paladin codes of behavior as perks and behavior guidelines instead of flaws or obstacles.

  3. Only poor GMs forget about role-playing hindrances. Paladins are difficult to role-play, and careless players lose their divine abilities quickly. Unless you're handwaving role-playing as a secondary reason for playing and want to focus solely on the mechanics of the game.

    Balance is an illusion that doesn't exist. Classes and levels are never equally balanced. If the classes were balanced they would have equal odds of being able to take each other out. If the levels were balanced than they would have equal chances of surviving the others' attacks. Neither are balanced.

    The first game I played in I was a 1st level character running around with 9th to 14th level characters. I spent a lot of time in the back watching rear guard, and I was a fighter. I also never died, which was lucky because I got caught up in more than one fireball with that group. We spent most of our time navigating the political shadows of nobility and the wizards' college as all of our activities were usually funded by one or the other. I can only remember three dungeon crawls, but I also remember our group's wizards wiping out an army with little help from the fighters. After that we were all wanted fugitives. It probably influenced how I've approached power in games ever since, because the abilities characters have mean nothing if there is no social context for why they wield those powers.

    1. I agree with Doc March's assessment on hindrances and this concept of "balance."

      The only anecdotal story I can add is that most of the players I have gamed with wouldn't waste high stats on a Paladin. Kay played a Thief, Druid and Assassin in that order before she rolled high enough stats for a Paladin. She immediately chose a Ranger.

      She didn't want to worry about what she could and could not loot, tithes and service to the church, and so forth.

  4. Make a bad paladin wrestle an invisible angel every time he screws up.

    1. Is that not the whole point with the Aleax?

    2. Is that not the whole point with the Aleax?

  5. I think a "siloing" approach works best when designing classes. Balance the combat options for each class. Build roleplaying "restriction" on top of that. It is difficult to balance alignment restrictions with combat / powers options.

    IF there is a way to do it though, in my own mind, for the Paladin I would make the roleplay "restriction" into the MEANS by which they access certain Paladin abilities.

    For examples:

    Their Aura of Courage extends only to non-Evil allies (replaces "adventure with only Good-aligned").

    They regain their Spells not by resting, but by Tithing to a church, holy site or other humanitarian cause ("not accumulate wealther.").

    Whenever they break a promise they lose their permanent Protection from Evil until they Tithe.


  6. Call be a bad DM, but I also forget about rp hindrances. I've got enough with running the game to play close attention to whether or not a player is adhering to non-mechanic hindrances. Sure I can catch the big ones (so, your paladin just killed a bunch of orphans) but I miss a lot of the little stuff.

    Also, a good role-player can circumvent hindrances, "but those orphans were going to grow up to be evil."

    Also, its not a hindrance unless it comes into play. If I run nothing but encounters against evil orcs then only being able to slay evil creatures is not really a hindrance. Of course, as a good DM I will go out of my way to make sure to put a player into a situation where their hindrance becomes a factor...but then I'm being railroady.

    Non-mechanic hindrances are not hindrances.

  7. Oh go on-allow Paladins. Just use the phrase "You can try and play a Paladin."

    The first time the player is all "Hey! I'm going to check over here while you 'talk' to the prisoner." Take away his/her powers. Just don't tell them.

    "No. You don't detect anything evil."
    "Wade through that sewer? Yes, immunity to disease would protect you."
    "Aww. You fail to turn the undead. But they are clearly evil-Protection from Evil should help. Oh. Gosh. It didn't. Maybe they are Extra-Evil. Do you have protection from Extra-Evil?"

  8. There are roleplaying hindrances and then are roleplaying hindrances. The ones that work flow out of how you present your setting and campaign. The one that don't are like other ideas that look good on paper, continued because of tradition, etc, etc.

    In short the good roleplaying hindrances are the ones that reflect how your setting and campaign actually works. The same for the power balance of the classes. If yours is a world where clerics are dominant and the class mechanics reflect that then there not an issue. PC Clerics will be the most capable members of the party just as the NPCs are. If they are not and your chosen rules still have cleric as the most capable class then you will have problems that will eventually need to be dealt with.

  9. I agree with Doc March; if a player is allowed to "forget" a role-playing hindrance, that is the GM's fault, not the game's. It isn't that the balance mechanism doesn't work. It is that you don't use. This doesn't change because the balance is role-playing rather than mechanical.

    In DCC, clerics gain disapproval through sinful use of divine power. Wizards may invoke patron, but then they owe their patrons a favour. If the judge doesn't make sure that these costs balance the benefits gained, it isn't the fault of the system. If the judge does use the rules as presented, then the role-playing is as important as the rolls. It is incumbent upon the judge to make sure that the cleric knows he is subservient to a god, and to remind the wizard that her patron has its own goals (which may or may not coincide with the wizard's). And it works.

    The AD&D paladin is no different. If the DM fails to enforce tithes, who the paladin can associate with, etc., and then lets the PC continue to function as a paladin, that is not the fault of the rules.

    I have never run a game where power gamers would have chosen the paladin. There's no such thing as a free lunch....whether dealing with mortals, gods, or other beings.

  10. I believe there are also severe ability score restrictions in order to be able to choose the paladin class. If one follows the ability score generation rules, paladins ought to be rather rare. This rarity also balances the mechanical power of that class.

    furthermore, role-playing restrictions need to be enforced by the DM for them to work. The player chose the paladin class, and so also chose the hindrances. The DM can warn the paladin that his god is unhappy with his behavior via dreams or a narrowly missed lightning bolt out of à clear sky, of course, but punishment should never be out of the question.

    Choosing to play a paladin means choosing to play with a strict code. Breaking that code means loosing your power. It is the responsability of the DM to enforce that code however. If the DM is strict, I think the class balances nicely.

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  12. Paladins...yeah, the ability score requirements made them more of a 'balance through rarity' sort of thing...at least in vanilla 1e. The alignment stuff is very fuzzy and every group has its own ideas. No, you have to look to the silly book known as 'Unearthed Arcana' to find really good examples of balance-through-RP stuff. And yeah, it's a terrible approach.

  13. I never balance mechanical advantages with role-playing disadvantages. In my experience the latter are either ignored or constantly argued over at the table. I've found it best to balance like with like. Is your character hell on wheels with blade? Then he can't hit a barn with any other weapon. Is he great at casting fire-based spells? Then he gets a penalty for saving throws versus cold-based magic, etc. YMMV.

  14. The "balance by rarity" approach also appears in the other perennially unpopular 0e system, the implementation of psionics from Supplement III. These systems look to me like ways to make the non-physical stats into a sort of jackpot payout for classes that otherwise wouldn't care about them. Instead of having your fighter distinguished by having +2 damage instead of a +1, due to a better strength roll, you suddenly become a Jedi super-warrior with mystical abilities.

    Today, the response to "rolling abilities is unfair" is to implement a point-buy system. Back then, the response was to not just deny that this was a problem, but to double down on the unfairness by making it have the most radical consequences possible! One good dice roll during character creation would pay dividends for the rest of your career.

  15. I miss the old days when paladins were powerful and good. Every party with which I played in the 1980s had a paladin, and every party therefore stuck to heroism. Nowadays every game I try to join has necromancers, vampires, warlocks, witches or assassins. Hard to find an heroic party.

    1. I do agree with this.. and even when you had a rogue he was the dashing robin hood type..

  16. Wait...are you debating class balance in old school games? Lol

  17. I like the way Mutants & Masterminds and FATE handle it--you get rewards for roleplay penalties AFTER they come in play, not before, that way the order of balance is guaranteed to be maintained.

  18. Caring about "balance" is how you end up with 4th edition.

    First the Paladins, then the Rangers (why do they get 2d8?), then the spellcasters. All sacrificed on the alter of balance and equity. "Why can they do X and I can't?"

    And it's funny, maybe I just got lucky, but I never played with people who did evil things in game, like torture people or what not.

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