Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Balance is one of the big goblins of game design. Over the past decade or so, its position as a sacred institution has been (thankfully) tarnished, so it's no longer an automatic assumption that every character needs to be balanced with every other character in a strict technical sense. More than any game, I point to Eden's Buffy RPG for driving this point home, with an explicit power level split offset by other play elements. But the funny thing is it's an old idea. One of the cornerstones of old school D&D, the magic user, was based on a foundation of imbalance[1]. Depending on level, you could expect him to be far less or far more effective than other party members.

Now, like all such ideas, there's a bit of a pendulum effect to it. Once you get discard the idea of effectiveness-based balance, it's not a long trip to treating it as a bad or restrictive thing - something to be discarded. I understand that impulse, but it's overkill, and to understand why it's worth pulling back a bit to examine the thinking behind balance.

See, Balance is a means to an end, and that end is this: everyone playing should have a fair chance at having a good time. If you have wildly disparate power levels in a game with a strong combat element (think D&D) then you end up in an Angel Summoner & BMX Bandit(vid link) situation, where one character solves problems and others get to watch. That's a bad outcome based on the fact that it's a less fun outcome.

It's with this in mind that a lot of models have been create to support balance. As another example, if a game has other avenues of play than combat (like social or political), the idea became that you could achieve balance by allowing characters to excel within their specific arena. The combat guy gets to shine in fights, the talker gets to shine in social situations and so on. This can work, but it takes a LOT of effort. One arena (often combat) can overwhelm the others if the game's mechanics lean that way or if the stakes are higher.[2] A good GM can juggle this, but doing so is almost always a function of GM skill, and that's not a great thing to depend on in a design.

An interesting corner got turned when some games opened up a different venue and moved the issue of balance onto the player. The idea, generally speaking, is that every player has equal (or at least equitable) power or authority, even if their characters do not. This model can range from Buffy (Slayer is more powerful, supporting characters get more 'drama points') to full on hippie ideas like giving players narrative authority.

None of these solutions work in every game, but I think the last one is very informative, even if its never used. The emphasis that it's the players who need equal time is of critical importance because it comes back to the original problem: keeping everyone engaged. It's easy to get bogged down in the details of a specific power or specific rule and forget that the reason you're doing all this is to keep your players engaged.

Now, why is all this necessary? Can't a good GM fairly distribute spotlight time at the table? Well...not really.

It's not that the skill doesn't exist, but to do it well we need to be much better at self assessment than any of us can reasonably expect to be. As a GM, we're going to be drawn to the problem cases or the things that we think take things in an interesting direction. Those are good impulses, but they mean we are vulnerable to spotlight hogs, and we're going to misjudge how fairly we distribute the time.

All of which is to say that you want to have some manner of focus balancing mechanic, even if it's a simple as "This is Bob's spotlight episode." Mechanical balance or distinct roles are perfectly valid ways to handle this (something 4e thrives on), it's just not the only way. So take a look at some of your other games[3] and think about how they hand (implicitly or explicitly) keeping everyone at the table engaged. You might pick up a trick or two.

1 - Ars Magica also had a profound disparity, but its handling was still overall equitable.
2 - This is, in my mind, why 4e is designed to be a pretty weak system outside of combat. The balance is _explicitly_ within the scope of combat, and stepping too far outside that sphere risks disrupting the finely tuned machine.

3 - If Primetime Adventures 3e were out right now, I'd plug it here. But it's not, so I can't. Instead, I'll say this: if you ever get a chance to read a copy of PTA (any edition), stop and look at the spotlight rules. They're genuinely brilliant.


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  2. Two things:

    (1) You can never really balance /characters/, what you have to balance is a *player's* importance tot he story. This can be done through character capabilities, this can be done through spotlight-time, but a lot hinges on a player's own capabilities for taking control of their part of the story.

    (2) Someone is working on a 3rd ed of Primetime Adventures? Tell me more.

  3. Several things:

    1. I too thought of Eden's games when I was beginning to read this post. The other thing I was thinking of will lead to the next point.

    2. Exalted. You're speaking of balancing within the system, but sometimes the balance is without, and inside the setting. Dragon Blooded can't hold a candle to Solar Exalted, and if you take them to not be Imperial, there are no real mechanical bonuses. What they do have is that within the story they get to act in places the Solars do not.

    3. There's another issue, in "One deals well with combat, another deals well with social." And it's not just how often both show up in the game and their impact, but how long they take to resolve. If a combat takes 2 hours to resolve and a social conflict takes 5 minutes, it might not be equivalent to have different niches such as these... interesting when they all use the same mechanics overall (Burning Wheel?).

    4. I very much want to say YES to this post. Yes. You need to free your mind from the shackles of balance, and once you do that, you need to see why it's also a good choice at places.

  4. Given that Smallville deals with players potentially playing anybody from a news reporter to the Last Son of Krypton, balance was foremost in my mind when I started working on it.

    The way this finally resolved to my satisfaction was when the alpha testers came back and said they didn't know why the game had Attributes and Skills, since it seemed to be more about the Relationships and Values (two other kinds of Traits I added to the list). So we shuffled Atts and Skills off to a sort of side category along with all other generally useful things, and made what you believe and who you feel strongly about the core of the game.

    So far, so good. :)

  5. Ha! I was sure Smallville would be a trad game ;)

  6. Pendragon is another older game with an inherent efficacy imbalance, if anyone chooses to play a Lady (or other non-Knight, presumably). Though, I don't think it is handled anywhere near as well in Pendragon as it is in Ars Magica or Buffy. Pendragon is thoroughly unapologetic about the suckiness of playing a non-knight.


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