Thursday, May 27, 2010

Balance and Kender

Is there really a problem out there of people saying "I'd really like to play a less powerful character than the rest of the group, but gosh darn it the rules won't let me"? Is this something that comes up so often that it's an issue? Because I have to admit I've never really encountered this problem, except in a very specific sort of way.

I don't think I'm the outlier here, and with that in mind, I'm really leery of the idea of using the idea that people want to play less capable characters as the basis for discarding the entire idea of balance. It feels like the wedge point of a crowbar sort of argument, setting you up so that once you agree balance isn't important for the inevitable "So you won't mind if..." that gives the GM's girlfriend a demigod to play.

In my reality at least, balance issues come up because of one of two things (which are in some ways the same thing) - a player wants his character to be more powerful, or he wants him to be more unique.

More powerful is actually the easy one to solve, since it is usually a function of players who have spent too much time playing games where you start out as a sack of suck. Very few modern games support that model anymore, and even the worst offenders of the past (D&D and White Wolf) have moved beyond it[1]. Most games allow for a starting character to be capable enough to satisfy most itches.

You'll occasionally bump your nose up against certain absolutist ideas like "I want to be the best swordsman in the world." Some systems support this out of the box, others do so with minimal tweaking, others are just going to jam up on it (4e, for example, simply cannot usefully support that concept). When you encounter an idea like this expressed clearly, it's usually pretty easy to work with, so long as you choose the right tool.

But all in all? Power is easy. Uniqueness is much more complicated.

Right off the bat, uniqueness can be hard to spot because it can look like a grab for power. A player looking to take powers that are not normally available, or mixing inappropriate magics or the like may seem to be trying to grab power[2] but that's not always the case. In many cases, a player will try to pick something pretty far outside the box of playability for other reasons. Some players just gravitate towards a type, and try to shoehorn it into everything. Others have particular ideas about creativity they're expressing in this way. Others want their character to stand out in some way, and are going for uniqueness.

This is where the most subtle challenge to the very idea of game balance can really come to bear. Some of these concerns are easily addressed: players who want their character to be unique have often faced the same bad experiences as the people who have dealt with weenie characters. Again, modern games tend to do a better job of putting characters into the spotlight, so there should be less need to get attention through extreme measures.

It's the other motives that are more problematic, because they speak to player motivation, and as noted yesterday, balance is REALLY all about the players and their level of engagement. The player who wants the weird, far out thing is probably excited about it, and excitement is powerful currency, but it's how we end up with Kender.

Kender, for those unfamiliar, are the halflings of the Dragonlance setting. In older editions, they're a mechanical nightmare and more problematically are all fearless kleptomaniacs. This means that when there's one in your group, you can expect them to promptly grab the spotlight and keep it permanently affixed to themselves. Try to focus on someone else? All the Kender needs to do is steal something from a party ember or do something stupidly reckless and it's back where it belongs.

Now, it's easy to say that the kender issue is a social one, and needs to be addressed by speaking to the the player. That's certainly part of the issue, but that lets the game itself off a little bit too easy. If the game is going to leave kerosene and fireworks on the table, focusing entirely on the player's matchbook solves only half the problem.

And that's where this comes back to that elusive issue of game balance. One other reason to keep a game balanced is to keep any one player from hijacking the game (or at least to help give them less of a shield to hide behind when called out on that behavior). And that's where we get into some interesting social territory. The character with the greatest ability to hijack the game is rarely the most powerful one (unless the power discrepancy is truly huge) and may even be the weakest one[3] if balance is purely mechanical[4]. Note that while the kender has some mechanical issues, it's real problems are separate form that. A mechanical balancing system won't stop a behavioral issue, at least not directly.

Now, as I said yesterday, no system is going to solve all these problems, but it's worth understanding what these problems are so you can better assess whether the tools you have are going to help or hinder the process.

1 - There's a reasonable argument that 4E has not moved as far beyond it as it first appears, but characters do start with more options, and can no longer be killed by a bag of cats. I call that progress.

2 - Because, of course, forbidden combinations with obscure powers are usually where the genuine abuses of a system come up. Thankfully, you can usually tell when a player is picking combos for abusive reasons because, well, it won't be the first time. Say no or talk about it or do whatever you need. The only time it's a real worry is if your player tries to trick you, pretending they're not looking at combos. At that point, their ass may need a good bouncing.

3 - One great passive-aggressive attention-getting tactic is to play the victim. All a player needs to do is throw himself into situations where he needs to be rescued to keep the focus on himself, and he can hide behind his weakness if challenged.

4 - One more excellent argument for balance existing on the player level, not the character level.


  1. Curiously, I don't think the kender had many mechanical issues. Unless you mean the taunting? In all my many, many years of designing for and running Dragonlance, the kender have been a non-issue. Playable draconians, on the other hand...

  2. Kender weapons were cheesy by 1e standards, and the taunt was broken in some implementations. But I agree these aren't big deals.

  3. You speak to balance directly in this article, which I think is the right target, but it gets fuzzy at points. An important point that I think is often glossed over is that balance isn't the same as "character balance".

    What's more important is balanced input to the game. That might be accomplished with rigorous character balance (as in D&D 4e) or it might be accomplished by other means that don't have anything to do with the characters (either with some kind of mechanical currency, or directly through the authority structure of the rules).

    When I get into discussions of D&D I'm vigorously anti-balance because I think (character) balance comes with disproportionate compromises. Outside of that arena though, I love systems that manage to balance the contributions of the players without using the blunt instrument of cutting all the characters to the same height.

  4. As one of those people who does, sometimes, play less-badass characters, I agree: It is certainly no reason to throw balance out the window. In most systems, there are ways to build out a conceptually weaker character, even if you spend every point available to you at every opportunity -- usually by focusing your character's abilities differently from the norm. There are a few systems (Amber DRPG comes to mind) where this just can't be done, but there's nothing wrong, in those circumstances, with just leaving some points unspent, as some kind of untapped reservoir of potential -- especially in game worlds where things might happen in the story that could unlock or reveal some kind of greater power in a character, later on.

  5. Rob,

    I'm one of those players that tends to pick unusual combination for "creative reasons." I particularly dislike when a Setting limitation is reflected as a Rules limitation because I often find the juiciest character issues are at the those boundaries. For example, when I first started playing World of Warcraft (I know, not the place for "character issues" but bare with me) I was drawn to the idea that Undead could not be Druids because they were severed from life. This made me really want to play an Undead Druid because I was fascinated with the arrogance of clasping onto life in the face of the universe. I saw my corpse covered in vines and my character making angry demands of the elements. The character is about grasping for recognition from a state of alienation. I REALLY dug that.

    A more relevant example would be John Wick's Houses of the Blooded. The rules of the game (especially the social non-mechanical rules) are very entwined with the culture and setting. To my mind this frustratingly limits potential for powerful character moments of cultural transgression. An example, of this is the rules for dueling in the LARP rules.

    There's a rule that says it's highly rude to interrupt a duel in progress and that no ven would ever consider such a thing. Which IMMEDIATELY got my mind spinning about what circumstances might warrant such a cultural transgression. But I'll never find out because it's against the actual social rules of the game. Had the rule simply been stated as, "If you want in on a duel, you have to say so before the duel beings" (which is what the rule is really about) with no cultural stigma attached to it I would have been fine.


  6. Yeah, I feel the disporportionate number and emphasis on skills in 4E is a problem. While characters are all important in fights, the fighter with Heal, Endurance and Athletics is pretty poor outside of them...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.