Its rare that Mearls seems to post anything on his blog, but his latest post is of particular interest to myself and a shitload of other people (at least on RPG.net).
Balance is...a touchy thing, but I dont know why. Some people get all butthurt about it because they think that for some reason games are
actually magically worse off for the designers trying to implement some, if any, degree of game balance. This fucking baffles me since game balance is one of the first things I learned in my game design class (coming in right after a history of mainstream gaming). A balanced game is important so that players dont end up overshadowing eachother, either on purpose or accident. In other words, game balance helps maintain fun. Yes, I said it: fun.
Most gamers do not enjoy a game where one player gets an advantage other them, all circumstances being equal. This is not like how in World of WarCraft an asshole player might tour up to you, 50 levels higher, and bitch-slap you without even using his hand. Think how in 2nd Edition D&D, how you could pick a "better" class if you were lucky and rolled high. Thats bullshit. Lucky players are rewarded? Fuck that. For a more recent example we can look to 3rd Edition (or hell, Pathfinder) and its legion of races, classes, feats, etc. There were (are) plenty of terribly designed options that would often result in a disfunctional character, something a handful of players just handwaive because they think that its part of the "challenge" is to figure out whats sound and whats shit.
This trend was a massive problem in Rifts, where new classes would be cranked out that could do what multiple classes could and sometimes more. For example, the first Rifts book had a pair of classes called the headhunter and ley line walker. When they came out with Federation of Magic (book 12 or 13 I think), there were several magic using classes that totally blew the ley line walker out of the water: they got more spells, more magic points, better starting gear, the works. It was a bit later that another book came out with "new and improved" headhunter classes that got shit like power armor as their starting gear.
It was like some kind of bullshit character options arms race, and it was much worse off for its blatant disregard of anything remotely resembling game balance. The excuse? Not everything in real life is equal, which is akin to saying, "I'm far too lazy to put in playtesting time." You arent designing a reality simulator, you're making a fucking game, so take it seriously kplzthx.
Aside from balance, I think games also do a lot better if the designer(s) gets a concept or theme in mind during the entire process and try to cater to that, as opposed to trying to do everything at once. D&D has always had an emphasis on combat. Always. Action-adventure is one of the (if not the) most popular game genre out there and it comes to no surprise that the designers stuck to this throughout its lengthy history. This is also why I thought that classes like the bard were really shitty. Its like, you're playing Rifts, a game where its fucking aliens, dragons, demons, lasers, robots, and basically the entire action genre hepped up on steroids and PCC running amok, and then throwing something like a...I dunno, a barmaid into the mix.
Me and the bard had a long-standing hate-hate relationship. Their universal ineptitude at any task beyond making Charisma-based skill checks always pissed me off, but was justified by their ability to do attempt...stuff. Like, they sucked at melee combat, were probably "okay-enough" at ranged combat to occasionally hit something with a kind of projectile, could cast TWO cantrips per day, and be a party liability. They were fucking awesome at that last part, and not awesome at all in filling an appreciable role in the party despite statements to the contrary. Jack of no trades, unless the jack was shit.
As a quick aside, nowadays me and the bard get along great. I love this class. If combat breaks out, I'm consistently able to contribute in a meaningful way that I feel does not violate the theme of the class. When social elements are called for, well...I'm good at that to, but the rest of the party has a much greater chance of being able to likewise pitch in their two cents without fucking things up.
Why? Why make a class so hamstringed at the core of experience the game was purported to deliver? It makes no fucking sense! Was it social thing? I'm not sure, but one of the many things that I couldnt stand about older editions was the disparity between combat challenges and "challenges-that-are-not-combat" (which usually meant the part of the game where you tried to talk in character). Some people put an emphasis on social role-playing, believing it to be superior to other forms of role-playing.
Hint: They're fucking idiots.
Its bad design to make a series of classes in which some just frankly cannot perform even adequately. For fighters this used to be the whole diplomatic angle. In 2nd Edition this relied entirely on the controlling player to try and feed the DM a plausible explanation/plan/oratory and let the DM roll even though he'd likely made up his mind whether or not it succeeded. Fuck ability scores and character history, this was hardcore role-playing as defined by those that dont actually know what they word means!
At least in 3rd Edition you could give yourself something that distantly resembled a chance (or rather the illusion thereof)...you just had to burn all your skill points on a single skill, which in the end resulted in you still being less than half as capable as a class that could otherwise easily be so amazingly proficient at it that by level 2 they could easily beat the hardest slated DCs (and by the rules essentially make anything sympathetic to them). The real downer? They didnt have to dump all their goddamn skill points to do this.
This is horrendous.
On one hand, making classes like the bard be utterly worthless to have around except to beat any Diplomacy DC they DM cared to impose on a natural 1 is retarded. Having a select few classes have a snowball's chance in hell of lasting for more than a half-round? Also retarded. 4th Edition finally--after over thirty years--manages to strike a balance that works, and works on so many more things than just social interaction.
Does it make sense for you as part of your character's background to be great at talking? Know a lot about arcane stuff? Be fervently religious? Burn a feat (either Skill Training or one of many thematic multiclassing feats), take a skill. Want to help bridge the gap between you and a class thats trained in that sort of thing? Burn another feat. Hell, backgrounds add a +2 to one skill and if the shoe fits, why the hell not? The fact that with just 1-2 feats you can add in a lot of flexibility is awesome. Bonus points for them being mechanically sound feats, too. It opens up the door for so many more viable character concepts, and thats the keyword here: viable.
I'm not talking about making fighters better at diplomacy than a bard, or allowing a barbarian to be better at stealing than a rogue, I'm talking about integrating those traits into a character as part of a concept, but not having it fucking backfire into your face. You probably wont be as good as the class thats supposed to be good at that, but at least you have feasible odds (and just one more feat can really bridge that as well).
A lack of game balance also makes it harder for me to design adventures, since I dont always know what everyone is going to do, if they're going to randomly die, want to change characters, have to duck out of the game, add a new player, etc. Too many goddamn variables. I cant put a trap in because someone might not make one of five classes that can detect traps with a Search DC greater than 20. I cant put in a social challenge because someone might not max out Diplomacy (which doesnt do shit unless they also have it as a class skill). There were many things that I just didnt want to do in case no one used the requisite class in order to make it all fit.
To me, that adds a lot of fun factor to the game. No ones left out in the cold, no one feels like a dick for choosing the "wrong" class. No one has to "wait their turn to shine," in hopes that the DM managed to account for everyone and make an instance that allows you to do...something, all without another player just being able to belly up and steal the show because they picked a better class than you did. Balance is necessary to avoid one character overshadowing another character, in any situation: when the shit hits the fan, before, and after. This means that no matter where the shit is, the characters can meaningfully contribute to where the shit goes.