Making sure that all characters are essentially balanced with one another has been a consideration from the beginning. If early editions of D&D, this was done through differing Experience Point totals needed to level up along with the rules that casters forgetting spells once they were cast, which added an additional element of resource management to the game and therefore a bit of balancing of such character against Fighters. In later editions, a single XP table was added (with XP bonuses for playing certain race/class combinations), feats and skills were added with different progressions. It gave characters across the board more options for things to do, and the progression of special abilities being different for each class hoped to bring the idea of character balance to true fruition. Arguments on whether or not this class or that race or this feat combination and so forth still raged on just as the arguments on magic-users being the most powerful characters in later level raged in the early days of the game.
This has lead me to come to the conclusion that balance is a myth, or at least a fool’s errand.
Balance is going to come down to the players (DM included). A knowledgeable player can make a seemingly weak character sing while a player that’s not nearly as savvy can take a supposedly over-powered character and have a rough go of just keeping him/her alive. Plus, a DM who isn’t paying attention or worse yet, playing favorites, can greatly skew the game to make some character vastly more useful than others.
That’s not to say that DM’s should just let anything go. They need to be aware of the situations, of PC stats and abilities, and the ability of the players to play those characters. I remember one fight in a Night Below campaign I ran in college where a simple answer on the weather turned what should have been a very difficult battle into a cakewalk because I told a player playing a druid that the weather was drizzling and overcast. That opened the door for the player to cast Call Lightning on the river brigands which allowed the party a far easier victory than they ever would have had. The player knew his spells very well, but a couple other players started talking about either the druid or the spell being far too powerful or both. Now, once the party got into the Underdark portion of the campaign (the vast majority of the mid and upper levels of the campaign) that tune changed dramatically.
When I go about adding classes to a game, I try to keep them all on a relatively even keep power-wise. I don’t crunch a lot of numbers, just eyeball it until I feel I found the right “sweet spot.” In my experience, the lighter the rules, the easier it is to do this. I don’t know if that’s an issue of more of the rules being up to the DM to come up with on the fly, or the mentality of players coming into a game with a more open set of rules keeps their focus more on the game rather than trying to “game the game.” This largely speaks to what I was talking about in an earlier post about more rules not really equaling more enjoyment (in fact quite the opposite, especially if I’m running the game). While arguments over power and balance were/are had when talking about early editions of D&D and their OSR clones and inspired-by games, they don’t appear to be the norm. There are entire sections of many message boards devoted to later editions of D&D and their OGL offspring devoted to crunching the numbers to prove that balance has been destroyed by the addition of a race, or class, or feat, or spell. I find that to be tiresome minutiae that distracts from the real fun of the game: building a collective story, even if that story is as simple as killing things and taking their stuff.
I’ll admit that when I first got into 3rd Edition, I fell wholeheartedly into the balance trap. I had arguments with others in my group and on message boards about the effects on balance of certain aspects of the game(s). Discovering Swords & Wizardry with it’s simple and elegant design inspired by “0E” reminded me how much more fun it is to just play the damn game instead of focusing on making sure everyone’s’ character were on as level surface as possible.
This wall of text is essentially my way of pre-facing (long-windedly, sorry) some of the things I’ve added to S&W that may not seem quite so copacetic to others as I continue to post about my journey with S&W.