Balance and Stuff, part… more

Even though this has become something of a series of linked posts, it’s more that the ideas are still flowing from one to another rather than a true series. So I’m going to drop the “part something” but I’m still thinking along the same lines for a few more days.

That said, I wanted to refer back to the idea of Balance. Specifically, to address the area of character balance, but not only that. I want to mention this particular bugbear because it is an ugly stain on gaming discussion I’d like to see expunged. There are reasons it still exists and will always exist — but it can be discussed and mitigated with just a little work.

I mean, why is character to character balance important (and how is it determined)? Is character balance more — or less — difficult when classes and levels are involved, like in D&D? What about genres, does that matter? Rules light or rules heavy? Obviously, this is a collection of weird questions with a variety of answers as wide as the number of gamers out there playing — but…

I think this can be boiled down a little. I said, recently, that PC to PC balance in a cooperative game is a false idol. I stand behind this. I think that over-worrying about PC balance is a waste of designer time and brainpower (note that I said, “over-worrying” — I do think it matters some). I mean, if that designer is worrying that Ron the roleplayer is going to get gimped by his PC choices and that Max this Min-maxer is going to just run over everyone else… well, that’s time that could have been better spent.

If you have a game based on numbers (MATH!) then you are setting up a situation where that can always happen. I said it, I can move on now.

But why do we even think about this at all? Well, I think partly because we don’t want all characters to look alike. I mean, it’s a fairly common idea to have “the super-technique” or the “super-item” that is unbeatable be the object of quests and such in stories. However, that can’t really work in game. If one, say, fighting style is mechanically better — in every way — than another choice, then everyone will take it. It becomes the “I win” button, right? But what do you win? I’m just gonna leave that question out there…

The other point is this. More choices means more freedom — but it also means more choices that could end up being “better.” Right? So a rules light system figures to keep choices limited but also to limit balance abuses…

Ultimately, I think player v player balance is a lesser issue. Why worry about it?

I understand that everyone wants their character to be effective and fun. That is a not a bad thing. I’d hate to play a character that was useless and boring. What makes a character useless and boring though? I’m not thinking about whether a game has a lot of mechanical choices or not, but rather, if you make a social butterfly who is weak in combat, is your character ineffective? What about a game that focuses on action and combat but has those nights where things go all “talking head?” What if it doesn’t and you have to find your moments to use your skills?

Ultimately, this kind of balance issue is group specific and campaign specific. But the system allows those things to happen, so it is a part of the discussion, or should be, right?

But the point of all this is, really, that yes, a player should be able to play something fun and it should be mechanically interesting and effective within the constraints of whatever system you are playing. But to worry that you might not have as high a BAB as the guy next to you? Or to make that a design goal? I say don’t bother.

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5 responses

  1. In my experience, it is rarely at the level of “his BAB is higher than mine”; but the complaints that I experience (versus on the internet, where people will whine about anything given a large enough body) is more along the lines of fighter versus mage “I have a higher to hit, more hit points, but in combat my sole choice is “I swing” where as he is amazingly useful and flexible inside and outside of combat, and the rate that the mage goes through spells determines how fast we progress, thus my inherent advantage of low-grade consistent damage never is utilized unless the DM has to make a special case scenario to suit my character.”

    I game to be the hero of my own tale. Several parts of escapism, and a few parts telling a story and creating a narrative. I don’t need to best all the time; just get my time in the spotlight without it seeming like “Okay we’ve created a specialized scenario that allows you to be the hero. Now that is done, we go back to our standard adventure, and you go back to holding the other character’s cloak.”

    And I think that’s the key for me – balance, for me, is how often the game asks you to make mechanically interesting trade-offs – if there’s a “best” solution, then the system becomes less interesting for me. Power without price doesn’t interest me. So if there is a super secret technique, it should come at a high upfront cost, or a huge weakness that is meant to be exploited – though generally I dislike the latter in games because well, despite flaws being inherent in many game systems, unless they come with some benefit, inevitably someone generally feels picked on when exploited.

    I think I’ve rambled on and on, but it is early, I don’t feel like working and my head hurts.

  2. I thought about a long response because you bring up good, very valid points — but since I’m still writing about this, I’m extending my response to my next post. Hopefully I’ll see you back here for that.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. “I mean, if that designer is worrying that Ron the roleplayer is going to get gimped by his PC choices and that Max this Min-maxer is going to just run over everyone else… well, that’s time that could have been better spent.

    If you have a game based on numbers (MATH!) then you are setting up a situation where that can always happen. I said it, I can move on now.”

    Just because a character “optimized” vs. one for roleplay can have different power curves does not mean that designers should throw in the towel and design some classes / races as simply out and out mor powerful than others. This is a specious argument (there is probably a word or phrase that describes the logical flaw). Of course I agree that a game system cannot be made “proof” against one player making a character more “powerful” than another. However, I would argue (and often do) that game designers have a responsibility to maintain at least a semblance of fairness if they expect each player to enjoy each aspect of the game.
    Either that, or acknowledge (as Gygax did) that some classes ARE much more powerful than others – and that this is just how he sees them and models them in the game.

    4e is an excellent case in point that the designers CAN make sure that Ron the roleplayer is not gimped by Max the min-maxer. They have in fact largely suceeded, and those who care (which appear to be about half the gaming community) approve.

    I even have anecdotal evidence that some who prefer 3.x do so because their favourite classes are in fact overpowered (and they don’t want the imbalance taken away) – Wizards, I am looking at you!

  4. Dominic, seriously man.

    I never said anything about designing one class or option to be out and out more powerful…

    Actually, I said that the design any game I’ve ever played doesn’t have this problem as such an ‘out and out’ level that it actually is a problem. Which I suppose is actually a compliment to game designers everywhere.

    4E is equally a solid case — as I have often written — that obsessive devotion to balance is just as skewing, weird, and off-putting as the opposite. I would say, if anything, 4E took the concept of “balance” way too far. They may have succeeded in creating a system that works for some gamers — which is great. But for others it proved to be artificial and frustrating in play. I am part of that group.

    4E only works to “prove” that Ron the Roleplayer is not gimped by removing pretty much anything from the rules except Combat and Skill Challenges. Which, by the way, I consider a failure of 4E and could produce anecdotal evidence (as if that would actually mean anything) of many other players who feel the same. I mean really, so what. It’s an opinion.

    Read around the blogs and a lot of people don’t like constantly balanced encounters, and items, and classes, and races. They like a little ebb and flow in what they are doing.

    Man, really, you obviously have a mad on against anything that is not 4E. Please stop inflicting that on others. If you want to communicate — great. If you want to stealth edition war (was it even stealthy?) then take please take it elsewhere.

  5. “If you have a game based on numbers (MATH!) then you are setting up a situation where that can always happen. I said it, I can move on now.”

    Sorry, but this is a hot-button with me. If you have a game based on MATH this should NEVER happen.

    Math, by definition means that you can accurately balance the numbers whenever you want to do enough WORK to do it.

    You only have “min-maxers” in BROKEN games.

    Some designers agreed with you and “spend their time ‘better'” and ignored the most fundamental concept of game design – DESIGN. Meaning make a planned effort in order to impact how the game will PLAY with a wide variety of REAL people.

    “Why worry about it?”

    Because if you don’t worry about it you have games that aren’t fun unless you choose the play the (half-elf fighter/wizard or whatever super-combo is appropritate) and then role-playing goes right out the window because like it or not, you wanted to roleplay Aragorn but the rules are making you play Pippin.

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