Most of Mike’s Legends and Lore post is about roles in D&D Next: how do you handle specialized characters and general situations?
The underlying issue is this: suppose you’ve got a band of adventurers where one character (let’s call her the fighter) is better in combat than everyone else. How do you still make combat interesting for everyone?
D&D Next appears to be taking the approach of making the difference between “highly skilled” and “just passable” fairly low:
Every class should have the potential to contribute to a fight, and our efforts to make attack bonuses fairly flat mean that most characters can make at least a nominal contribution through attacks. A wizard who avoids any attack spells whatsoever can still make ranged weapon attacks with half-decent competence.
Our approach to skills also plays into this. By limiting the maximum bonus you can gain through a skill system, we can keep most DCs in the 10 to 20 range. Even the highest DCs are still possible, though not likely, for characters without a bonus.
It sounds like, for general abilities like fighting or everything else, all the classes are expected to be in the same arena, more or less. Sure, the rogue may be more likely to sneak through the palace undetected, but everyone has a shot.
This approach does a great job of leveling the playing field. If the goal is to make no one class essential this does a great job of making sure that, say, not having a fighter doesn’t mean combat will be a lost cause.
The danger is that, without consequences of failure, this can lead to a lot of pointless re-rolls. If there’s a hidden door that can only be detected with a DC 18 check but nobody has much of a bonus, the incentive is to just sit there saying “I look for a door” again and again until the right number is rolled. If a beastly monster is tough to hit, having no skilled combatants won’t make it flee-worthy, but might make the fight a real slog. There are a number of ways around this, mostly around adding consequences to rolls, but without those flattened DCs make everything possible, which encourages players angling for rerolls.
Other games have taken other approaches to make the differences in ability between character abilities interesting.
The classic is to just make some things only really possible with certain classes. You just don’t find traps in Moldvay without a thief, and you’re going to have a hell of a time in combat without a fighter. This does put some constraints on player choice, but it makes those choices really matter.
Another option, seen in games like Apocalypse World, is to give different classes different potential (or guaranteed) outcomes. For example: maybe everyone has a shot at sneaking past just about anything, but only the rogue gets the mechanical guarantee that in the worst case they’ll be cornered (everyone else might fail and be discovered). While any class may be able to hit in combat, the fighter gets extra control over how/when they hit (or get extra damage, as Next fighters already do).
Alternately, making competence based on use effectively removes this issue. Instead of deciding what areas to allocate your characters’ abilities to, make each character’s abilities evolve based on use, as in Burning Wheel. Instead of the game designers having to guarantee that every party without a thief can still sneak but every thief can sneak better, simply say that anyone who sneaks eventually becomes better at sneaking. Anyone who attacks in combat gets better at attacking.
I tend to prefer each of these approaches over flattening the range of DCs. A flat range is effective in allowing any choice or configuration to be viable, but at the cost of making the choices that go into that configuration less meaningful. If everyone has a shot at succeeding and can try as often as they like, being more likely to succeed doesn’t mean much.
The other side of this are what Mike calles “specialized abilities” like healing or spells. These tend to be more or less binary: you are by nature a healer and heal as well as any other healer, or you are not a healer and don’t heal at all. (There’s some wiggle room here for the half-healer.)
The first thing that comes to mind here is World of Warcraft. The idea that you can take a shaman or priest or druid on your raid and still get equivalent healing is a bedrock concept of WoW. It’s also one that has always been hotly debated. From patch to patch and group to group there have always been classes that are considered not ‘real’ healers because they can’t do what another class can do. Attempting this level of balance just invites nit picking on the effective healing of different classes. It may be worth it though, if Wizards is interested in the MMO-playing contingent.
The end goal here—balance—seems to be regarded as important by the community feedback Wizards is getting, but the other option is to just say damn the consequences, we’re going to make each class fun to play and fun together but not balanced.
This isn’t a new idea for RPGs. Many games have embraced having characters of differing power levels (Ars Magica, Buffy). It isn’t even a new idea for games in general: asymmetric competitive play has been alive and well since the earliest war games. Having everybody within the same spectrum of power, with equivalent specialties, is not something that’s not always been essential to D&D.
It’s a matter of resources and feedback. Right now Wizards is (presumably) getting data that people care about balance (or are concerned about it) and they’re therefore addressing it. Hopefully they’re controlling for the matter of feedback and audience—I’d guess it’s easier to nitpick balance in a survey form, and the people answering this survey are likely to be the hardcore. With that data, balance must seem like a worthwhile goal. How they get there, though, is open.