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- A Balancing Act
Its very surprising, to me, when people complain about game balance as if its some sort of designer-indulgent sin. Its quite baffling, like they need to have character options that are deliberately designed to be as crippled and useless as possible. Why is this?
I recall a player that used to play medics all the time in Team Fortress because as an "enabler" if you fucked up generally it wasnt considered to be your fault. You were just doing what a medic does, right? Standing around healing people (kind of like a cleric). You dont win, per se, you make it so that others can win, and since you arent really in the spotlight people tend to forget you're there and instead congradulate the guy capturing points and landing a shitload of kills.
The other theory is that perhaps by providing options on both extremes of the functionality spectrum, it lends itself to mastery. This is where you get the veteran players who know what works and whats "best" by attrition, allowing them to feel superior to new players who are still learning the game. While older D&D editions didnt really have many choices to make, 3rd Edition had a lot of this especially when it came to feats. This wouldnt have been too bad if some books didnt release options that were like other things but better (the warblade in Tome of Battle), or functioned more or less like a game patch (Reserve feats in Complete Mage).
A lot of times people will just wave this off as a "role-playing" choice, where the word means whatever the fuck they think it means at the moment (and almost never what it actually means). Here's a thought, why have a fighter that is inferior to the rest of the classes? Why not just make a fighter that actually works throughout the entire course of the game, instead of only part-time? Mechanically viable characters do not hinder your ability to make an immersive character (or provide one with personality, motivation, and goals) in any way, unless you need that character to be largely ineffectual, and why you would want this in an action-adventure game is equally bizarre.
Fighters often get compared to wizards, in the sense that fighters start out okay before puttering of into a fighter retirement home at an early level, while wizards gradually get carried into god-hood by everyone else in the party. The typical excuse? Magic is powerful, or just "its magic." This is all well and good for, say, a book or single player game (or a game where everyone HAS to use magic), but not for D&D. Its not a novel, its not a movie, and its probably not a single player game. However, it is a game, and well designed games provide balanced choices. Since magic doesnt actually exist, no one is in any position to declare that it isnt powerful enough, so really that argument is moot.
Players like having a wide range of balanced choices. Mastery is often a bad thing, as the more difficult it is to play the game efficiently the less likely you will maintain player interest. A player should be able to crack open Player's Handbook, easily browse through the options presented, and be able to come to a meaningful conclusion about the character they want to play in as little time as possible. This is where the strength of roles is illustrated, as they at a glance allow a player to assess the general purpose of the decision of class.
A player should not be presented with inferior choices. New players to 3E, for example, might pick a fighter under the pretense that its a useful character option, only to find out that they quickly run out of steam. So, what then? Start over? Make another character of the same level? This is typically where apologists will begin to clamor that its a "role-playing" decision, which is true to a point since you yourself decided that you wanted to play a character that could swing melee weapons around and wear all forms of armor (and use tower shields). However it fails in the sense that I dont think the player got what they wanted, which is a character that can wear armor, swing weapons around, and quickly be overshadowed by the rest of the party and/or rely on everyone else in order to at best be on par.
Also, a player should be comfortable knowing that no matter what she picks, her character will be able to do what it is supposed to do as defined by her class. She shouldnt pick a fighter, figure out it sucks, and then have to start over from scratch if she wants to continue contributing in the game. Keeping with the fighter, 3rd Edition had a laundry list of weapons, many of which were widely considered to be very useless (and even some of those demanded a feat to use). They might look neat, but only players afraid of "reskinning" a weapon would use that as a rationale for burning a feat to get a weapon mechanically inferior to another weapon that doesnt need any special training at all (most of the weapons in Oriental Adventures fit the bill, here).
This lead many players to the conclusion that there were only a handful of useful weapons to choose from, and this same attitude gets carried into class/character builds. Balance helps avoid, "one build to rule them all." Balance does not necessarily mean uniformity, and in fact can help prevent that sort of mentality. In 4th Edition, for example, Josh has gotten away with using daggers very efficiently as a halfling fighter, and I've taken it upon myself to use a wider array of weapons for my own fighter characters (something I would not have done before).
Some combinations in D&D are better than others without making the rest obsolete, something that could not have been said in past editions. For example, dwarf fighters are better than human fighters when it comes to playing axe/hammer fighters. Its enough to notice the difference, but not by such a starggering degree as to make all players use dwarves when they want to give the fighter a shot.
All of this is why designers strive for balance. Good games give every player a level playing field from which to work with. This is why you see a lot of RTS maps with equal resource distribution, and sometimes a (mostly) mirrored layout. Players dont want to get stuck with the shitty side of the map, and frankly most players dont want to get told by the DM that they get to build with 15 points, while another player who got lucky gets 28 and a free magic item.