Balance, Monte Cook, and Stuff, Part Two: Friday is Rantday

Okay, to be honest, I’m going to try really hard not to rant. Rants are fun, but not really productive. If it starts to turn that direction – I’ll shut it down and come back next week.

So just to get it out of the way, right off, I’m going to point out three things:

1) I want to play Dungeons and Dragons, not Balance and Bribes.

2) Special Snowflake Syndrome is rampant in modern gaming.

3) Fortune should favor the bold.

Those all sound pretty offensive to, well, just about everyone don’t they? Well, let me explain a little and try to make those positions a little more clear without any backpedaling or ranting. I’ll start at the bottom and work my way up.

Fortune should favor the bold.

I suppose what I’m really saying is “be proactive.” More importantly, I think I’m saying, “be invested and aggressive.” Aggressive is a word that gets a bad rap in our culture. Being aggressive means being a jerk, right? Well, it doesn’t have to. But more importantly, let’s throw out an example that I might refer to throughout the post. It’s a little different because it’s a war-game example, but I’ll make it work, promise.

A few years ago, I ran a Battletech campaign. We were fighting during the Word of Blake Jihad, and the players were in control of a mercenary company. They were a good group – smart people, fun people, reasonably experienced with the game but not jaded sorts. Good people. So we went to war and in one of their scenarios they were given the freedom to completely set up on the field and wait for the opponent to come to them. The opponent had to march across an empty map sheet to get to the group, giving them some decent shots on the way in. And the heroes had a pretty high-tech, cutting edge, veteran group of pilots.

So they set up, the bad guys started marching in. The bad guys took a few hits, including losing two mechs even before they were close to effective combat range – but then I changed the whole battle on them. I had a single Jinggauu charge right up to the player’s command lance. Instead of taking it out in a hail of fire the following turn, the players pulled back. They turtled up. And it is my belief that one turn cost them the battle. They were so worried about the abilities of that one aggressive enemy mech that they forgot their own superiority and let it dictate the tone to them. Yes the dice were rolled, yes there were misses and hits, and all that jazz – but ultimately, that one move turned the battle.

Now discussing this with the players later, they expressed the vision that they were in a position where they had to be conservative because they had more to lose. As the GM, I got new mechs every week – I always played new guys, but they were limited by their pool of resources and couldn’t afford to take a bad loss. I respect that. But they lost anyway. And they lost morale at the same time as a unit. I mean the players, not the characters. The loss hit their spirit, and their fun.

I made a stupid move, realistically, but it paid off. How different might that event have been if they had fought off the Jinggauu and eliminated a strong enemy mech that made a bad move? I don’t know, but the best moral victory they did walk away with from that fight was the Spider pilot on their team who didn’t turtle up but went out and HUNTED an enemy Rifleman and took it out. That Spider pilot gambled on maneuverability and accuracy to take out a heavier, harder-hitting mech and won. And had the most fun of the players that night.
So what was going on here and how/why does it connect to tabletop RPGs instead of wargames?

Most of you probably already see it but I’ll explain so there’s no misunderstanding.

The lesson for RPGs here is that the same holds true with your encounters. The GM always has more monsters. The GM always can set difficulties for those social checks way out of your PC’s reach. The GM always can place a dragon at the end of a 1st level hallway. But so what?

So, on the one hand, by worrying about not losing their mechs they lost the fun. The game became more about resource management and carefully managed expectations than the boldness of being a gauss-rifle-toting-mech-jock. If the player’s mercenary company got wiped out by bad dice rolling once they were engaged, so what? We’d start over, or we’d rebuild, or the players could take the remnants of their outfit, go on a Pirate Hunting rampage and have a little grudge match with dudes that beat them before. The Campaign can still go on even in the face of a setback.

On the other hand – the player who had the most fun and had the great story to tell later was the one person who put it on the line and chased down a 60-ton sniping machine in her scout mech. She can still tell that story – the others played a deeply conservative game and were really disappointed by the outcome.

And that’s what really peeves me about Balance as king. Balance doesn’t create fun games, it creates managed expectations. Yes, some elements of balance are nice (and I’ll get to them next time) but Balance as guiding principal is a problem. Let me repeat the above statement – Balance doesn’t create fun games, it creates managed expectations. Now, that’s my opinion – you might feel differently on the topic and I won’t tell you how to play. I can only speak to my own observations and preferences through a lot of gaming over the years.

Secondly – the problem lies in seeing PCs as special snowflakes that have to be protected. That’s just another way of turtling up like the players did in my Battletech game. If you are always more worried about the possibility that something bad might happen to your character – and you are going to raise a fuss when it does – then nothing good can happen to your character either.

What did Dash say (in the Incredibles), “when everyone is special that’s just another way of saying that no one is.” But that’s another topic for another post as well… I seem to be running long every time I try to post now. So I’ll touch on the other two parts soon. But ultimately, I guess I’m really just advocating for really not worrying. Go to the game table, ham it up, be awesome.

So, did I succeed in skirting the edge of a rant without ever falling in? I’m not sure, myself.

Thanks for reading and I’ll be back on Monday with more on this idea.


6 responses

  1. You are seeing balance as between DM and player. I see balance as more of an issue between player and player. I mean, come on – you play 3rd ed. What is the point of being a rogue other than flavour in that system?

    A 5th level Wizard can out-rogue him, and a 5th level fighter easily out-hits him against all but a tiny, DM controlled list of circumstances.

  2. I actually plan to address balance from the PC v PC perspective as part of this group of posts, but the preview is — again — so what? I don’t mean that to be dismissive, I’m actually quite serious.

    The wizard “might” be able to out-rogue the rogue, in specific circumstances, with specific spells, and properly prepared. The rogue is always a rogue.

    Beyond that. Everyone would agree (look at the Pathfinder boards for their current playtest) that Dwarf > Halfling when it comes to races. Lots of people still play halflings. Lots.

    Enough that the difference only matters in a very (very) twinked out campaign where power-play was all important.

    And having seen a few 3.5 rogues one-shot higher level wizards, I can’t say for sure that the wizard always feels safe.

    But then some people will tell you that Wizards always rule no matter what in a 3.5/PF game, but it’s clearly still working for people not playing Wizards, right?

    And again — player v player balance is less important, overall, to the discussion than player v DM. Characters are working cooperatively and shore up each others’ shortcomings… The player v DM balance is a huge problem in modern gaming and is the part I focus on because it’s the part of the problem that peeves me.

    To use Battletech again… Why would anyone play a Medium Mech? Heavies are almost as fast, and better armored in most cases and lights can be nearly as well armed and are usually faster. It’s not a perfect analogy — I could just as well have said, why would anyone want to pilot a Locust? One good hit and that thing comes apart! But some of my favorite BT memories come from playing Locusts that were way out of their league.

    Balance between players in a cooperative game is a false idol and a distraction from bigger problems. Unless the disparity is so extreme that it legitimately detracts from the play experience, players shouldn’t be worried about how their characters “measure up” as much as they should play what they want to play.

  3. You are right on the money. Absolutely correct. That’s all I have to say.

  4. Great post. “Balance between players in a cooperative game is a false idol and a distraction from bigger problems.” Perfect.

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  6. Well, I get the feeling that balance is a much pricklier issue in D&D than in any other games. I primarily like and play Supehero RPG’s so balance is VERY important.

    But its only Player vs. Player balance, not Player vs. GM. That’s just silly.

    But Player vs. Player balance really only means that every player has an equal OPPORTUNITY when they begin play. Each has an equal STARTING point.

    No one wants to play “Robin the Boy Hostage” next to Superman and they shouldn’t have to.

    Balance is really about giving each PC a change to ‘shine’ in the game.

    Of course, they DO need to be ‘bold’ to grab that spotlight when it comes around, but the rules should make sure that everyone has an equal choice of flashlights.

    Balance is really about giving each PC a change to ‘shine’ in the game.

    So you think balance isn’t important? :/

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