Thursday, April 15, 2021

Musings on Gaming #6.1 - Power

When the newbie GM picks up his d20 for the first time

Last week I got into a discussion on an RPG forum on the topic of Game Balance. The thread ran to more than two hundred posts, due mainly to people arguing about definitions, and people chiming in to agree with one point of view or another.

The points of view ranged from "balance is impossible and unnecessary in RPGs" from one end, to "balance is possible and desirable for an enjoyable game for everyone" on the other.

When we talk about balance in an RPG, we are usually talking about two separate things: power balance between player characters/classes, and balancing encounters.

Here it is probably worthwhile noting that the concept of balance is one that is inherited from RPGs' predecessor wargaming. Modern commercial wargames almost all have army lists and points system aimed at providing a "balanced" or fair fight between opponents. Within an army list, the troop types are supposed to be costed according to how well they can perform in a battle, taking into account their speed, their ability to deal damage at a distance and in melee, as well as how long they can be expected to survive in the game. Between army lists, a unit costing 10 points is supposed to be worth as much as a unit costing 10 points from the other list.

Of course we all know that points systems are imperfect, and how useful a unit is is greatly dependent on the tactical situation: a missile unit is likely to be less useful if there are lots of line-of-sight blocking terrain, and a fast-moving unit is less useful when there are lots of bad-going terrain, and so on.

Now when we port this idea of points and balance over to RPG, the situation becomes more complicated.

While wargames deal with the limited aspect of combat, characters in an RPG deal with more types of situation, typically exploration and social interaction. How important each of those aspects are depends greatly on what type of game the characters are in: in a combat-heavy game they may matter little, while in a mystery-solving type of game they become crucial. For this reason, balancing the abilities and capabilities of player characters/classes become more difficult, as a lot depends on the context.

That said, it does not mean that the rules cannot try to achieve some sort of "balance". And the way to do this, ironically, is not to make all player classes "balanced" in that they can all do everything equally well, but to make them "imbalanced", in that some classes are better at some things, while others are better at other. In other words, we need "niche protection".

I personally believe that when people complain about imbalance between the character classes, they are not so much complaining about how certain classes cannot put out the same amount of hit point damage per round at the same level at another class as they are complaining about feeling that their character isn't contributing to the success of the party as much as they wished. A typical rouge character is not going to be able to put out as much damage as a fighter of the same level in a stand-up fight, so it is no wonder that a rouge player often wants his character to go off on his own to 'scout ahead' or flank the enemy forces, even if it means splitting the party.

We all play RPGs because we want to see our characters do what we expect them to do, whether it is a fighter putting out lots of hurt on bad guys, a ranger tracking enemies down, a rouge executing a perfect backstab, a wizard casting fireball, or a bard being just plain annoying.

If a particular class is better at doing all these things, like the dreaded DMPC, then there is no reason for players to play any of the other classes. Likewise, if all classes are equally good at everything, then it doesn't make a difference which class the players choose to play. At the end of the day, RPGs are games, and games require making choices that lead to meaningful differences in outcomes, and for the choice on what class to play to be meaningful, we need to have niche protection.

Of course, having niche protection alone is not enough; if a game is heavy on investigation and diplomacy and light on combat, then players who are playing the martial classes will feel like they have little to contribute. It is therefore up to the GM to plan or create encounters where all players can contribute to the progress of the party. Now it may be difficult to do so for every scenario or session, but over the course of a campaign, we can hopefully let each and every player have the chance to make his character shine and create memorable moments.

In the second part of this post I will talk about the other aspect of balance: balancing encounters.

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