Saturday, November 8, 2008

OK, Let's Talk Game Balance

There was an interesting question addressed I suppose at the old-schooler crowd/gamer public over at Unnatural 20, namely "Is Game Balance Unnecessary For Fun?"

There's two parts of RPG Ike's original post that are pretty key here:

"You need balance so that it's fun for everyone at the table," I retorted. Then I think he said something about my mother, and we kept playing. The idea that a game could be fun while lacking a militant eye for consistency and power levels on both sides of the screen perplexes me, though. Hopefully you can help me understand.


I'm missing something here. I can't embrace the idea that the 1st generation of tabletop gamers did nothing but reroll one-dimensional characters all the time for fear of unkillable water wierds. Or, if you did, I can't understand the adamant defense of those first editions as being the best on offer when 4E (certainly not my favourite) offers streamlined play for uni-dimensional character builds (guess what? You've got 5 powers, so go have fun!).

On top of all of that, the 3X extensive ruleset allows you to maintain balance while imagining as much, as little, or anywhere in between for your game (which is where I suspect the answer to the game balance question lies).

Am I wrong?

Here's my answer to Ike, but I'd love to hear more feedback on this:

Hey there,

I guess here's my take on it. Balance isn't bad in and of itself, and imbalance isn't a guarantee for a good time. But for me, too much balance becomes staid, predictable. What's the difference between a 1st edition fighter and a 3rd or 4th edition fighter? The 1st edition knows how to run. Taken to the extreme, excessive care to game balance can result in encounters winding down in the same way, can lead to a certain amount of expectancy that things will be a certain way for players. You shouldn't know if you can take whatever's behind that next door in the dungeon. You shouldn't know that your encounter will likely fall within a set range. But neither should you be feeling every fight and foray is an exercise in hopelessness.

Now I'm not saying that having 3 1st-level characters in a row eaten by a Black Dragon within 5 minutes is a blast, either. But many old schoolers who do not bow at the altar of game balance maintain an idea that things tend to even themselves out in the end. I don't insist that the game be balanced, so long as the gaming group is working, if that makes sense.

Game balance is also generally enforced through more rules, which is at odds with the idea of "making rulings instead of rules". In some ways, its a bit more organic of an undertaking.

Now, of course, with this being the internet, examples on both sides (old school vs. the new hotness) can be carried to extremes. But all characters are not created equal, they don't need to stay in lockstep during play, and a GM doesn't need to spend excessive time ensuring everything lines up "just so".

Jerks in a balanced game will try to game the rules to mess things up. In a one that doesn't care so much about balance, they argue rulings. Good GMs don't put up for long with either.

In the end, I think Matt Finch addresses some of the points here better than I ever could:

...but its just another style of gaming folks enjoy. I hope that makes a little sense. :)


Rich said...

I get this. Like you, I don't feel a need for perfect balance every time. I've been in groups with guys who whine because the ELs and CRs didn't quite line up as they should. Like you say, though, that's an extreme example.

Olman Feelyus said...

The primacy on balance is based on the implicit primacy of tactical combat over roleplaying in a game. If your group's game is all about encounters with an increasingly powerful array of monsters, than balance is crucial for everyone to be able to have fun at the table. If your group is focused on character interaction and immersive roleplaying, then every player has an equal amount of opportunity to engage in the game, whatever the power level of their character.

I think that point needs to be made explicit. It's not about power level ultimately. It's about player engagement. The economic power of WotC has conflated tactical balance with roleplaying and its made for a lot of confusion for groups.

Jeff Rients said...

Game balance is the net under the highwire or trapeze at the circus. It's very helpful when learning, but once you've got your act down the show is much more exciting without it. Of course, when you fall you're going to wish it was there!

Zachary The First said...

Great comments, guys! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Good job directing him to Mythmere's Old School Primer as well. I think that may help explain some of the thought behind it. I could have sworn Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Grognardia wrote an article on this topic as well, but darned if I can find it right now.

MK said...

RE: olaman feelyus

Thanks olman feelyus. This puts into words a feeling I've had, but couldn't express so clearly.

Rekres said...

My take on it: Strict balance is not required for every game, but the tools to balance characters need to be present.

RIFTS isn't balanced. Every attempt I've made at balancing the PCs winds up with me tossing the book down in disgust.

HERO is balanced. I can have all the PCs be the same point value, or I can allow one with a really cool background story to have more points. The key here is that balance may not be necessary, but it should be available.

av said...

"You shouldn't know if you can take whatever's behind that next door in the dungeon. You shouldn't know that your encounter will likely fall within a set range. But neither should you be feeling every fight and foray is an exercise in hopelessness."

this has nothing to do with game balance. this has to do w/ the new 4e "XP budget." instead of thinking 'this monster looks beatable (maybe), let's try it!', A DM is forced to think 'I don't want to kill them, so i'll stay in my XP budget...' which makes it predictable.

hope it makes sense.

Andrew said...

Everyone doesn't have an equal opportunity to engage in the game if you're all focused on character interaction and immersive roleplaying, especially if doing so means you eschew rules altogether. It puts the player fully in charge, and if you've got a shy guy and one who has no problem with public speaking side by side, the latter's going to dominate the roleplaying side of things because it's all him.