Friday, May 28, 2010

Cutting Grass and Pruning Daisies

I'm on the road and trying out the blogging software on my ipad - it seems functional if unexciting, but I'll keep it brief today if only to avoid surprises.

I want to bring up one last point on the topic of balance, possibly the most important point. A lot of the behaviors I've mentioned as being unbalancing are not necessarily bad behaviors in their own right. They only become problematic when only one person engages in them.

In a system that rests on mechanical balance, having one character who is too badass is a problem, but having EVERYONE be crazy badass is a feature. Having one character who has so many interesting plot hooks and background elements that they constantly drive play can get awkward. If everyone has plot hooks that drive play, that's a good thing.[1]

There is an instinct when we see something out of place (and most things that mess with balance seem out of place) to knock it back into line. Things that stick out too far get lopped off. As a generalization, this is a bit of tricky business - sometimes the outlier is really a problem[2] - but sometimes its where things are potentially exceptional.

So with that in mind, the next time you see an unbalanced behavior in a game or at your table, ask yourself whether that behavior is bad on its own rights. If it's a behavior you'd like to see more of from your players, then look at the imbalance as an opportunity to help the rest of your group reap the same benefits.

Obviously, this is a tricky line to watch. Communicating to your players i important, but you don't want to give them the sense that they suck and you're trying to fix them. That suggests a show-don't-tell approach, of illustrating the benefits of the imbalanced behaviors, but that runs the risk of just looking like favoritism.

I'd suggest treating your players like they're *already* doing what you're looking for, and just forgetting to mention it. Ask them questions and treat them like they're already awesome, and you'll be surprised just how quickly they prove you right.

1- This is, curiously, why I consider phased character creation to be a balancing mechanism. By tying everyone's stories together, you make it impossible for any one story to take off without taking everyone else along with.

2 - Razzin-Frazzin Kender


  1. Mechanical balance only really works if there is only a small focused opportunity to make use of the rules. For example, 4E is almost perfectly balanced, because it is totally focused on the battleboard combat. [In my opinion, much too tightly focused.] But as you increase the focus of the game, and the actions that can be undertaken, mechanical means of achieving balance become quite inefficient.

    One bugbear is balanced character generation systems. Thing's like Champions and GURPS which give you a pool of points to "purchase" your character. But this balance mechanism is totally illusionary in actual play, since, unless the characters are identical, one character is going to end up being better than the other at certain things. It then becomes the duty of the gamemaster to balance things, by providing something for each character (say a kindly stage and a proud warrior as a polarised example) to do. But if it's going to be the case that the gamemaster is going to have to balance the game anyway, why not abandon the pretence from the start. Why not allow the players to have the characters they want in the first place, without messing around with the point system. Or for that matter, any other method of mechanical balancing.

    [My solution to this is to add up the points afterwards. It is a useful gamemaster tool for determining the appropriate power level of the game. Even better, if I take the median point value as the default campaign setting, then higher valued characters will naturally tend to attract more Bad Stuff, whilst lower valued characters attract more Good Stuff.]

    The feeling I get (and it is only really a feeling), is that many modern game designers want their rules to be able to control the play of the game. Which I think is an illusionary goal. Every group is going to have a different feel and dynamic. But when people are immersed in the depths of writing the rules they want to try and make the rules enforce a certain style of play. Which makes it very difficult for them to say "we leave it up to you to decide." Since their focus, in writing, is generally on the mechanics, then they tend to feel that the mechanics should address any perceived problem, when really the problem is a supremely mutable one. A Learnean hydra.

    I'm not sure I've said this at all well. But to paraphrase John M Ford, there are three versions of a game. The game the author writes. The game the players play. And the pale reflection where both meet under the pale moonlight.

    <shrug> YMWV.

  2. "Phased character creation"? Sorry if I missed it in a previous post but I'd love an explanation of this...


  3. @doctorjab: check out the Spirit of the Century SRD:


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