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In a lot of homebrew reviews and discussions, I keep seeing something called Detect Balance employed. Often with little to no context despite it and its points being the core of the response. So I'd love a good explanation of what it is.

Is it (an adaptation of something) official? Otherwise, where did it come from, and what is it based on? And perhaps importantly, what makes it useful, and what are its limits?


I'm maybe playing the fool here a smidgen. A big part of the incentive for asking is to have a resource which explains what the tool is. But I'd rather let someone who's properly familiar with the tool give a proper answer than the meagre bystander explanation I can give.

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    \$\begingroup\$ See this search for every answer on the site mentioning "detect balance". \$\endgroup\$ Jul 28, 2022 at 17:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I just want to add that Detect Balance hasn't been updated for a long time. There is a new spreadsheet Detect Higher Balance which is more up to date (some values have changed). I can't guarantee that it is better. There are many values that I prefer on this new spreadsheet, but some others that I prefered on the previous one. \$\endgroup\$
    – Enderluck
    Jul 31, 2022 at 2:48

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It is a fan-made points-based system for measuring 5e races.

Detect Balance: an Improved Scale for Measuring 5e Races is a fan-made spreadsheet used to try and produce well-balanced Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition races. It assigns points values to each ability of each race. It was originally created in 2016 by Reddit and Giant in the Playground Forum member eleazzaar, and was inspired by previous system by homebrew author James Musicus.

While this spreadsheet provides a good approximation of the relative value of different abilities, a point based system is not complex enough to accurately model the race's entire potential, particularly regarding combinations of abilities, or with classes. It's also prone to min-maxing, especially if players are allowed to create their own races, since they're likely to highly optimize their races as part of their build.

For example, if you were playing a wizard, you could create a race with +2 Intelligence (8 points), speaks Common & Draconic (0 points), 20 ft movement (-3 points), Sunlight Sensitivity (-3 points), medium armor proficiency (4 points), and +1 HP per level (7 points). According to the spreadsheet, it's actually very underpowered at 13 points (3.25), but in practice, this is far superior for a wizard character than anything in the Player's Handbook.

I suspect that the designers at Wizards of the Coast do not use any system like this, but rather try to ad-hoc design based on their experience, and then playtest to ensure balance.

A similar points based system existed in AD&D 2nd edition for creating character classes. It had the same problem: it allowed you to create overpowered combinations, and it noted that the main character classes had not been designed by this points system. The magic item crafting guidelines in D&D 3.5 also come to mind, where a clever player could make a carefully optimized item for low price by min-maxing the guidelines.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I upvoted this. While I agree with all the criticism about a point-buy system breaking down, also in regards to combing abilities that reinforce each other, and especially if you can use negative values, I think DB does a great job of in a vacuum assigning a point value to various features, which is useful to compare builds and save lenghty explanations. It lends at least some structure to evaluating races as a starting point, to then layer on additional balance discussion. You might also explain some of the positives about it. There is a reason it is used so heavily. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 28, 2022 at 18:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is too much "I don't like detect balance because.." rather than an answer. 1 paragraph of explanation, 4 of "min maxers suck" \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Jul 28, 2022 at 18:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ The question did ask "And perhaps importantly, what makes it useful, and what are its limits?" It's useful because it lets you compare the relative power of abilities, and its limits are that any points system is inherently imprecise and can be intentionally min-maxed beyond anything in the standard rules. I have no particular beef with Detect Balance, but its benefits are easily stated in a short space, while there is much historic context which can explain the drawbacks, limitations, and historic origin of any such system. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 29, 2022 at 0:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ A similar system also exists for race creation in Pathfinder 1e, and it runs into many of the same issues (though things are not quite as bad there in my experience, because the average power level is much higher than in 5e, and the official race creation rules disallow certain truly broken things). \$\endgroup\$ Jul 29, 2022 at 1:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also, this suggests the race's designer is on purpose trying to exploit DB tradeoffs to stay within numeric range while overpowering their race, like a min-maxer would when building their character. However, I think that is not how it is typcially used. Most designers try to create a balanced race, and the tool helps them to doublecheck after the fact. It might seduce them to add a low impact negative feature to get back into range, but generally the aim in these designs is not to break the system. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 29, 2022 at 8:58
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Detect Balance is an unoffical, widely accepted tool to evaluate the power of homebrew races

The tool has the form of an online spreadsheet that you can access and copy freely. It was originally launched in 2016 on Reddit by user u/jwbjerk, also going by the name of Eleazar, and is based on an earlier such tool by James Muscius.

The way this tool works is that it assigns a positive or negative point value to nearly all the features that appear in published player races, and then measures the strength of a given race by summing up the point value.

For example, a +2 Ability Score increase is worth 8 points, darkvision is worth 3 points, and a walking speed of 25 is worth -2 points.

The tool has been evaluated by scoring published races, and recommends

The average score for PHB and EE races by this scale is about 25. The recommended score for new homebrew races is 24 to 27. Races should generally not eclipse 30 or fall below 20.

The tool has been maintained and updated based on feedback from the community over several years, and is heavily used on this site to evaluate homebrew races.

Weaknesses of the approach

There are disadvantages to this point-scoring approach, mainly in that features are not independent and can reinforce or weaken each other.

For example the ability to ignore a common type of Rough terrain (worth 2 points) is a lot less valuable if you also have the ability to fly (worth 16 points) as you can just fly over the terrain. Some abilities also are strong for some classes, but weak for others, for example the ability to not be slowed by armor (worth 2 points) does nothing for a wizard, but might be great for a fighter.

Another serious flaw is that negative features and positive features numerically appear to balance each other out, but multiple unbalancing features do not create a balanced race. You can see a great example of that in action here. So you should treat any race that uses negatively valued flaws to offset powerful features and stay within range with suspicion.

Quadratic Wizard gives an examples of how you can combine features in a way that is unbalanced for a given class, and historic precedent for point-buy systems being exploited in character creation by optimizing players. If you only used Detect Balance to judge fairness, a designer could combine features that numerically appear balanced, but are not.

Benefits of the approach

However, there are also benefits for using the tool. There is a reason why it has been used so widely.

First, it makes it much easier to score the comparative power of various features, if looked at in a vacuum. For example, what is stronger, a +2 to your pick of an Ability Score increase (which is generally seen to be better than most feats), or a free pick of a feat at first level? Normally you would need to have a long argument and discussion about it.

Because Detect Balance has been so well vetted and discussed already, most people accept that the values there are robust. If you use Detect Balance, you can just look up that the +2 is worth 8 points, and the free feat at first level is worth 20 points, so the feat is a lot stronger.

I was actually surprised how well calibrated it is. I had a question about how the tool concluded that darkvision is as valuable as a free skill pick (3 points each), and there was an official feat that gave this exact equivalence to support it.

Second, it provides a structured way to evaluate races. You go over each feature, and assign Detect Balance points to each of the ones that are standard, and ballpark points to those that are not by comparing them to the closest standard ones. Then you can layer synergy aspects, or special strength for certain classes on top to come to an overall evaluation of the class.

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Detect Balance is a homebrewed metric for rating the relative power of races for 5th edition D&D.

It is not official, but has become a reasonably common tool online for those looking to homebrew their own races and keep relatively close to the power level of officially-published races.

It first showed up posted to reddit in 2016, on this thread (Wayback Machine archive here) as a refinement of a different guide to balancing D&D race homebrew. The post introducing the Detect Balance spreadsheet tool discusses that the inspiration guide wasn't granular enough, and didn't make much differentiation between minor abilities like a language or tool proficiency that don't have much impact on the average table's gameplay, and abilities like darkvision which can have substantial impact on any game. It has since been refined and extended, and races from more current books have been analyzed and added to the subsection on official races.

The tool itself is a fairly comprehensive spreadsheet that breaks down racial features and abilities by category, and assigns them point values based on relative "worth". Generally speaking, a feature that's situational gets a smaller point value than one that's highly customizable or relevant a majority of the time in gameplay. (Proposed negative traits/"drawback" features also show up with negative point totals.) The total point value of all features can then be compared to the point totals for other races as a rough measure of relative strength.

Pros:

  • It's decently good at weighting races against each other, especially for games that expect relatively frequent combat.

  • The tool's main writer has tried his best to keep the language of the guide fairly neutral--what "Advantage on a common roll" vs. "Advantage on a situational roll" means for a given table will be different, and the guide tries to avoid defining common/situational/rare in most cases to broaden the scope of the tool's usefulness.

  • Analysis of the scores of officially-published races has led to the tool's main writer giving a range of point-total values that homebrew "should" fall into in order to be in line power-wise with what has been officially published, which makes for a good baseline when discussing homebrew that's still purely theory and hasn't yet been playtested.

Cons:

  • It has not been updated to reflect the highly-customizable Lineage rules from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything--it expects to use previously-established races as a baseline and template, and generally counts a feature offering player's choice of [X] as more powerful than an [X] assigned by the designers.

  • It considers combat-impact features more important than noncombat features, which depends highly on the table and game a race will be played in.

  • A homebrewer is also expected and likely to need to minorly tweak point values based on feature overlap/synergy or lack of precedent--the more original or custom a race is, the more tweaking of values will need to occur, and the less accurate the tool will be.

It's best used as a quick litmus test in the initial theory-crafting stage of homebrew, and should not replace playtesting in the homebrew development cycle. It should also be viewed as an after-the-fact check instead of a handy list of features to pick from in order to limit min-max tendencies.

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It is a spreadsheet designed for calculating the balance of homebrew races

It attempts to quantify the strength of 5E races by listing various features that the races might have, grouped into categories, and assigns a numeric value to each, based on how useful or detrimental it is.

It is based on a guide also referred to as “Musicus Meter” developed by James Musicus, as somewhat well-known (especially in the reddit 5E community but not exclusively) homebrew creator. The creators of the spreadsheet claim that it improves over Musicus’ guide in terms of accuracy.

It’s an unofficial tool but relatively well-known among homebrewers and generally considered a reliable measure of power. It’s not perfect but it has been around for a long time, it’s open source, allows everyone to comment and the maintainers had been updating and improving it in response to people’s comments. It works best on races that have features similar to the ones already existing in official races; the more original a race is, the less reliable the spreadsheet's assessment of the race becomes.

There is also a tool called Detect Greater Balance which claims to be a further improvement, but that one is considerably less popular.

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