Do all classes need to be equally effective in combat? Here lies the issue of balance versus niche.
I'll say right from the start that the answer is, in my opinion at least, somewhere between the two.
4e is well known for its balanced character classes - each is pretty balanced compared to the others in combat encounters. As Matt Finch said in a comment to my last post, what works in board games doesn't translate so well to RPGs. It makes for a bland, boring game.
On the other extreme we have LotFP's Weird Fantasy. Here, there is no attempt to balance character classes. Instead, each class has a niche that is their's and their's alone.
Fighters get to hit progression while leveling, no other class does.
Specialists get a pool of skills, no other class does.
Clerics and Magic-Users get Cleric and MU spells respectively.
Dwarves excel at Hit Points, Halflings at saves (lamest niche in the book) and elves can cast MU spells (which is a bit of an overlapping niche).
A Dwarf or Halfling does not match up to a Fighter in power level. LotFP's WF is not an example of a balanced RPG, and it isnt meant to be.
Which game would I rather play?
Do you really need to ask? Heh. I want balance as in "you'll have fun playing in a group", not as in "you'll be just as effective as anyone else in your group."
For me, balance means giving all classes and players the potential to shine, not giving them all the same opportunities to shine.
Balance takes away the need to always push yourself as a gamer, to think of unique solutions, to consider role-play before roll-play.
I'm sure MANY of you disagree with the above ;)
Feel free to add your thoughts below.
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