Thursday, February 10, 2011

Game Balance: A Sacred Cow for the Slaughter?

Over the last few months or so, maybe as far back as a year, I've seen numerous people, mostly game designers and GMs, make the claim that game balance isn't all that important. Some have even gone so far as to claim that it is a 'sacred cow' of the gaming industry, something everyone points to as needing, when in fact it is not really all that important to have at all. Now, the first time I saw this I was incredibly confused by it. How is game balance not something that you want in your game? This was made even worse by the fact that while I could find people saying game balance was a sacred cow that needed slaughtering, I couldn't really find the reasoning behind it. So, I did some digging, and I want to talk about it today. With luck, we can actually get some good discussion going.

Their Argument
Now, I don't know if this is the case for everyone who has claimed that game balance is a myth, and an unneeded thing to pursue, but it is the most common argument that I have seen. The argument goes as such. Game balance isn't important, because the purpose of Role Playing isn't to win or lose, but to have fun playing the game, and tell a good story in the process. As such, the GM can cover for any game balance by controlling what happens inside of the game. If a player makes a broken combat build, and the GM wants to challenge them, then they can follow the same guidelines, or even cheat to force the challenge. If the GM wants Player B to overcome a certain obstacle, but Player A looks more capable to do it, then the GM can restrict Player A from trying in some way, or otherwise custom tailor it so that it is there for Player B only. I'm sure you get the idea.

Basically, the idea rests on the golden rule of gaming that the GM is the final arbiter of the rules, and that they can delete, change, or add to the rules as they see fit. This puts the responsibility for the game, and the fun of the players, squarely on the GMs shoulders. To be fair, that is primarily where that burden already rests.This is also taken as something of a basic concept, at least amongst all the "good" GMs I've spoken to. Tailoring challenges to the players, and setting obstacles before specific characters, is just part and parcel with confronting that character and prompting them to grow and change in the story being told. I'm not sure that every group does it, or every GM, but the advice is fairly solid for it. Those that don't do it, if they have fun their way, then that is fine to. However, this idea as a replacement for at least attempting some form of game balance? I'm not sure.

My View
First, I want to say that I don't disagree with the reason for why so many have said game balance isn't necessary. The GM is responsible for the story of the game, and carries the lion's share of the responsibility for a fun and engaging game. Yes, the players can shoulder the load too, and they should, but the primary responsibility for it lies on the GM's head. However, I am not sure that I agree that their reasoning actually excuses a lack of game balance.

In my opinion, what they are actually arguing with that reasoning is that character balance isn't needed for a game, and for that I agree whole heartedly. As a Story Teller type GM you should be able to handle a group that is all over the place in the power curve. You should be able to challenge the Superman, the Batman, the Robin (young robin for the purposes of this), and the Lois Lane in the same game. Those are four characters with four very different levels of ability, power, and methods of operation, but it should be doable. How? Well, exactly as laid out above. You custom tailor the challenges for the characters, and you make it so that only the character it is made for can get to it (or that they at least get first crack at it.) Don't want Batman handling Robin's challenges? Then get Batman out of the picture. Give him his challenge that also needs to be done, so he is choiced with solving Robin's challenge, or his own, and no there isn't time to do both by himself. Character balance can be fixed by a GM should they want to, and by all means I agree that you don't need it in a game - provided the GM wants that kind of game.

Game balance though? I think game balance, as in a truly balanced game, is impossible to achieve. Unless you make one set of abilities and just change the fluff around those mechanics and give them to everyone, you will never have a truly balanced game. However, just because you can't achieve it, doesn't mean that you should ignore it or turn your back on it. You can mitigate the impacts the lack of balance can have, make it so that things are as close to "separate but equal" as you can get them. You might miss, but it is important that you try, and the reasons for it are many.

For one, an unbalanced game can be very unfun for the people inside of it. It sucks making a beat stick, only to find out that someone else found the perfect combination of abilities to be a better beat stick and the group rogue. This kind of lack of balance can also turn off a large portion of the market. What about those groups who prefer more adversarial GM roles? Or just like the pure combat of things? If the game is unbalanced then they have issues, and are less likely to enjoy the game. Maybe your game isn't made for them - hey, that is fine - but surely a good game can accommodate both right?

For two, players are smart, and they will find the most powerful way to build a character in any game you put out there. It isn't unreasonable for a player to want their character to be good at the things they want them to be good at. The less balance in a game, the less variance you then get in your characters. Honestly, in my opinion, if there is some optional thing (a feat, talent, advantage, or something else the player can choose) that the common view is you're being silly for not taking, then something has gone wrong on the design phase. A great example of this happened recently in City of Heroes. The developers discovered that some ridiculously high number of characters (like more than 80%) all had the optional Fitness power pool, and that many builds were rated by whether or not they needed fitness to run. In response? As of the most recent issue, Fitness is now inherent for all characters, and those power choices have been freed up for players to make more varied builds.

Now, there are more reasons than those two, but those are the biggest two I can see (shutting off people/making it unfun, and stagnation of what is used). Other things that come up are things like power creep, where the older material just goes away as things get more and more ridiculous, which in turn can turn away some of your older players who just don't like the new scale the game is at.

It should go without saying that I think game balance is important. Yes, it can be made up for with good GMing, but that should be the group's choice, not the designers. What about you? How do you feel about this?


  1. I'm in agreement with much of what you say- and like you, I can see both sides of the coin. I personally DO believe in 'game balance'- at least from a character perspective. If you build a system that has all kinds of 'loopholes', players will find them. And if you, as a GM arbitrarily decide that those loopholes suddenly 'don't apply', then the player (in my opinion) would be justified in being irate. He was playing 'the game as presented', and suddenly the GM changes the game. That can be fun in a roleplaying situation, where characters expect one thing, then suddenly find another. But in a meta-gaming thign, from a PLAYER perspective, that is frustrating. And honestly, it feels to me like laziness on the part of the game designers. It's like debugging a program. You should try to see issues that might come up and fix them- or at the very least point them out to the GM so they can decide UP FRONT whether they are going to allow this particular rule or not.

    All that having been said, I agree that the GM is the final arbiter of balance- but I think it helps to have a system where some thought is given first.

    The Superman, Batman, Robin example is a bit problematic for me, however. When I run games, I like to have the party TOGETHER for as much of the adventure as possible. This is a more efficient and fair use of their time and mine. While there can be challenges tailored for specific characters, I would hate to be Batman, sitting on the sidelines while Superman beats up some cosmic threat. If there is just one GM involved, then even if Batman is battling his foe simultaneously, someone has to run the scene individually. That just gets tedious for the other characters, waiting. It isn't to say that I don't use this 'split up' tactic myself, but that I try to use it only sparingly.

    And finally, what I do NOT believe in is 'game balance' between characters and their enemies. If the characters are ALWAYS fighting foes who are just at their 'challenge level', then what is the point of even allowing character advancement. Where the real fun in a game comes from (in my experience) is throwing challenges of different levels at a group. Some will be far below their level of expertise- allowing the characters to 'show off' a little and enjoy the power they have been developing. Other challenges should be 'on par' with the group and every once in a while, they should be faced with something they will NOT be able to handle head-on- at least not without paying the consequences.

    Anyway, those are just my thoughts on the matter.

  2. Good response Rolo. The Supes, Bats, Robin, Lois was just an example, but it could be done in multiple ways. It is just as possible that Superman has to fight the giant robot, leaving Batman and Robin to fight hordes of smaller robots, and Lois to try and figure out how to get the door open (or fight off an even smaller robot). All four characters are now engaged in one scene, but things are definitely set up in a way where everyone is being engaged on their own level.

    If supes goes after the smaller robots, then the big one gets a free shot at someone else. If Bats goes for the door, then robin is left with all the robots on his own, etc, etc.

    More to the point. Care in setting up the problem can handle character imbalance.

  3. Game balance is a really tricky subject and I think there are really only two ways I see game imbalance as being an issue.

    1. If a character type or class becomes unnecessary or not useful as other characters advance. They look good to start out with but become superfluous over time.

    2. A character type or defining ability has extremely limited use so that they are needed about once a game and then have to sit in the background the rest of the time.

    Every game designer needs a player that is an explorer. That's someone that is impelled to probe every nook and cranny of their world and the rules. I was one but I can't properly do it for my own games because I know how the rules and world is supposed to work. I have my rules editor and he does a great job of finding esoteric ways of breaking my rules. Every designer needs that.

  4. *wave @ Rolo*
    As a longtime player and GM of Star Wars d6 I have often heard that Jedi PCs are "unbalanced" and need to be "fixed." However, I have found that most of the time the folks voicing this complaint were only looking at it from a pure game mechanics perspective. (# of abilities, Modifier totals, etc.)

    In RPGs, as a GM, you really have two ways to provide game balance: Mechanics and Story-factors.

    Mechanics are exactly that: challenge ratings, feats, abilities, dice pools, action points, etc.
    Story-factors are those setting specific things which keep characters (both PCs and NPCs) in check. For the Jedi in Star Wars, this is the Jedi Code. For AD&D games, this was your alignment or even more specifically, Paladins had to follow their alignment or lose their divine-given abilities.

    As with all things, strive for balance in balance (ha!) 4e seems to have gone overboard with the game mechanics being the only method to provide balance. While at the other end of the spectrum, games like Rifts rely entirely on GMs to use story factors to provide balance.

  5. An unbalanced system incites gaming the system and not the game. A balanced system (or as close as humanly possible) means I can create my role-playing character who is quirky and different than everyone else AND still be just as effective as the person playing next to me.

    A balanced system allows role-playing to take the center stage and not the system.

  6. Good points to Rerun and Callin.

    And yeah, Rerun, the whole overpowering Jedi thing is bunk, especially if you play 'by the rules' in regards to turning to the dark side = losing your character. To say nothing of the fact that Jedi have plenty of weaknesses, just not the same ones as other characters. But I could go on all day about that. So I won't ;)

    And in regard to AL, I see what you mean about them all being involved in the same scene, but I was part of a superhero game in which one character had built up their defenses so high (superman) that if an attack designed to hit THAT person hit anyone else, that other person was toast- out of action- one shot. But then, the Superhero situation is one specific to that genre. Most other games/settings have characters who are much more on par with eachother.

  7. For what it's worth, I put up a post on this topic a little while back - specifically on power balance within a party rather than overall game balance.

    I feel strongly that a party with some super-optimized or broken characters and other characters of average or below-average power leads to a less fun game for everyone. At least in D&D4e, it's hard to set up a fight that's fun for both Superman and Lois Lane. Either Superman will be bored or Lois will get destroyed (or have to flee).

    I'm sure that creative encounter construction could alleviate this to some degree, but that won't work if you're running anything off the shelf. And even homebrew combats will be really difficult to build if you have to struggle to make them interesting for everyone in the party.

    As for game balance, that's less of a concern to me. Just so long as the whole party is unbalanced in the same way, I'm happy.

  8. I am definitely a proponent of game balance being what you make of it, but I like the distinction between ‘character balance’ and ‘game balance.’ I think that is a very good point.

    I also have written a few posts on this topic in the last few months ([url=]here[/url] & [url=]here[/url]) and mentioned it in passing in a few more, so I guess I feel pretty strongly about it. What is important to me is that the GM be clear in establishing the environment in which the game is to occur, and that the players actually work together to enable characters of varying degrees of capability to exist within the framework of those stories. We seem to be entirely on the same page for that part of things

    Your point about flawed or poorly implemented mechanics, and their influence on enjoyment is an aspect of game design that I didn’t really lump in with game balance, but I can see how it relates.

    Good post~
    Thanks for expanding the topic.