So Tuesday night I was part of a lively discussion on twitter about Game Balance, which I inadvertently started. I ended up with some thoughts that are too long for a tweet or too so I’m writing them out here. This post kind of goes on, but I hope you’ll give it a read.
The first thing I’m going to assert is that there is no inherent trade off against which balance the game. A lot of people who are dissatisfied with 4e D&D say that their problem with it is “too balanced.” I think that in many cases that is a misstatement of the issues involved, and I intend to show why.
In most cases however people complaining about “too balanced” are, I would say, complaining about homogeneity, flat spotlight balance, or suspension of disbelief issues. Let’s look at all three. After that we’ll talk about “unbalanced characters”
Homogeneity is the idea that the different classes/builds/utensils are too “samey.” This complaint was especially prominent pre essentials/pre PHB3, when all classes did have the same basic power structure. This complaint seems kinda silly to me because a Great Weapon Fighter and an Assault Swordmage are both early in the evolution of 4e Defenders with the same At-Will/Encounter/Daily structure who but they play very differently. That’s before you bring in different Roles, much less the different power structures of Essentials builds and the psionic classes.
D&D 4e has a very flat spotlight balance. ”Spotlight balance” or at least how I use it here, is the balance between how much different PCs are the primary focus of the moment, and including the players ability to shape the scene. D&D 4e assumes, at least for combat, but to a limited degree in Skill Challenges too, that all PCs should be able to contribute equally. That is the Wizard, the Rogue, and the Runepriest all have an equal ability to contribute to a combat. Some people prefer a form of spotlight balance where Rognar the Illegible (“Don’t you mean illiterate?” “Rognar’s parents married!!!”) is awesome in combat, but poor at social situations, but Smoothy Talkypants the spoony bard is the reverse. Those are fine with the caveat that you have to make sure the different focuses actually matter.
The last is suspension of disbelief issues. There seem to be two here. One is that the power-structure shouldn’t be the same for Wizards and Fighters. This strikes me as very very strange. But if it wigs you out that there are some tricks a fighter can only pull off once a day, then it does. Not much I can say about it except, look at the Essentials classes. The second is the “Magic should be more powerful than mundane stuff.” Well this one just is silly. Since fantasy magic isn’t real, it can do whatever we decide it can. There’s absolutely no reason a wizard must be able to do “basically everything, but not heal people.” That’s one thing we could pick, but we could pick nearly anything. The Heluso & Milonda setting for Reign assumes that magic can never affect the mind directly, and that any school of magic has a particular thematic focus. So if you want to persuade people, you’ll need mundane skill to do so, and someone with a permanent attunement to Flame Dancing spells can never learn the awesome horse magic.
During the conversation one thing that came up was the idea that you can have a good game with Gandalf and Samwise Gamgee together. Some people talking on this issue in the past have dismissed this as that was the book, and you can’t do it in a game, but that is simply not true. In fact there are two ways to play satisfactory games where the characters have wildly different levels of capability in the fiction. The hard way and the hippy way.
I have successfully run a Doctor Who game using a system that made no attempt whatsoever to balance the Doctor and the companion. I did this the hard way. Through the cooperation between myself and the two players we maintained spotlight balance despite how the mechanical system worked. This can be done totally outside the mechanical system, and some people are really good at it.
One thing though, that I think helped, and where I get on some games that have poor balance, is that the system we were using made it very clear that these characters were unbalanced. This is where D&D 3.x annoys me. A 7th level character who has 4 levels of Monk and 2 of Bard is not even close to balanced with a level 7 Cleric, but the system tells me they should be roughly equal.
There are a couple of tricks for doing spotlight balance despite lack of mechanical system balance. One is that some characters can actually gain focus and shape scenes through their failure, rather than success. Like early Pippin or Jar-Jar. Another is through niches. Even if the thief is weaker overall than the fighter, if there is no substitute for the thief skills, then the thief gets the spotlight whenever they are needed. (One problem with 3e D&D is that the Wizard was not only more powerful than the Rogue, the Wizards spells let him replace the niche of the Rogue as well. A third trick is divide and focus. If more needs to be done (and in more places) than the more competent characters can do then there has to be some focus for the weaker ones. As a sidenote multiple characters per player (a la Ars Magica) can end up as a good tool for this. Magi can do (theoretically) almost every thing, and Companions can’t, but everyone has a Magus in their stock so next adventure maybe they’ll play their magus.
Overall however I think it’s easier to balance “unequal” characters the hippy way. That is to use games which give “weaker” characters equal (or equivalent) ways to mechanically shape the game. Even this exists in a few different forms. One is metagame resources that are more available to “weaker” characters like in Buffy, Doctor Who:Adventures in Time and Space, and the Dresden Files Role Playing Game. Another is to have traits themselves be somewhat metagame. A character in Dogs in the Vineyard could have “I’m really clumsy 2d8” which means that their clumsiness helps them win stakes even if it’s inconvenient in the fiction. A third, or maybe a variation on the second is to mechanically value traits that are more equal between characters. The gold standard here is Smallville which makes Values (truth, glory, etc.) and relationships as or more important than super-Abilities. So that Lois and Clark are actually mechanically balanced (though good at different conflicts).
I think that’s all I’ve got for now, It’s certainly long enough. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, here on tumblr, on Facebook if we’re friends, or on twitter where I am @springaldjack.