Inspired by the discussion in one of my recent posts, I was surprised to hear that there are advocates AGAINST balance. The discussion was about RPGs, which have their own caveats as far as game design goes (which are crucial to the argument about why some feel it’s not important), but let’s start by talking about board games and move out from there.
WHITE, HOUSE LANNISTER, RUSSIA
In board games, you could break it down into two broad categories. There are symmetrical and asymmetrical games, and they’re not necessarily an absolute one or the other: most games will fall inside a spectrum between the two.
An easy example of a symmetrical game is Chess. Both sides start with the same pieces and the same options. Because Chess is a pure strategy turn-based game, the first player has an advantage. (It’s statistically minor based on the emergent complexity, but it is there.) Thus, the only point of imbalance is in who goes first. (I’m sure there’s some simultaneous play variant that eliminates it but changes the game significantly.)
Moving a little farther along the scale is Diplomacy. Everyone’s starting positions are different, but it’s assumed that they are all roughly balanced, so that no matter what nation you choose/are given, you have an equal shot of winning based on your skills in the game.
A classic example of an asymmetrical game is Cosmic Encounter. Though everyone’s starting positions are the same, everyone has an alien race that gives them unique powers that influence how they play. Again, though, the races are supposed to be balanced to at least the extent that the outcome isn’t clear as soon as the aliens are dealt.
Then there’s something like Game of Thrones, which shares some mechanics with Diplomacy, but is very asymmetrical. There are different starting positions and different special powers for each player. Again, however, these are supposed to be balanced so that every player knows they have a chance to win. However, the farther you get from symmetry, the more concerns there will be that there is actually balance, and the harder it is to actually test if everyone has an equal chance of winning.
GOOD VS. EVIL: 50/50?
Reiner Knizia reportedly wrote a computer program to test whether Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation was balanced. I can only assume that he had the computer essentially make random moves for the two sides, and then see who won. Then it did that many thousands of times, and see how often one side one. If it wasn’t balanced, he’d tweak something in the game design, then try it again. Repeat until the percentages come out to roughly 50%.
Of course, that’s not going to work for all games. I’m not sure I’m qualified to explain the role of intelligence in games (make appropriate joke here), but there are just some games that just more influenced by having actual people behind them instead of those who make random moves. (Of course, if you’re willing to write an elaborate artificial intelligence to test your game, you’d have a better system.)
Then the obvious best tester of balance is to have people actually play your game. A lot. (Which really, you should do no matter what.) The longer and more complex the game is, the more time-consuming and difficult it is to test to a statistically relevant degree.
WHY CARE IF THERE’S BALANCE?
So if it’s all that trouble, why is balance important? There’s a few reasons.
- You don’t want the game to be over as soon as it begins by getting stuck with a weaker position. (All players should feel like they have a chance to win throughout the whole game.)
- You have to assume that your players are going to want to win, or else there’s nothing that drives the game.
- You don’t want the game to essentially be decided by a single random event, thus negating the rest of the game.
The last point is a little bit trickier. In many games, there are clearly things that exist in the game that are better than other things. At the simplest level, there can be some cards/tokens/tiles/whatever that are just worth more points than other ones.
The idea, however, would be everyone has a chance to get those things. It’s not just a matter of randomly giving them out: worth more points is harder to get. And then there’s the principle of self-balancing.
I BID $700 ON PARK PLACE
Self-balancing is the idea that if the players know that something has a high value, they can work on making it harder to get by their actions. Many bidding games work on this principle: yes, this card is awesome, but you’ll have to pay more for it because I bid higher for it. Self-balancing can be tricky, because you don’t want it to lead to a lot of tackle the leader/kingmaker/clusterfuck. It shouldn’t be used as a catch-all excuse for imbalance, because at some point, the players just aren’t going to be able to stop someone, and you’re back to the issue of imbalance.
OK, following me so far? It was a long walk, but now let’s look at RPGs.
RPGs have a moderator/game master/outside of the rules person. (Not always, but for the purpose of the kind of game we’re talking about, it’s our starting point.) That person’s job is to create as enjoyable a game as possible for all involved. The goal, really, is for all players to have a balance of fun. Few RPGs have a winning/losing condition, but I think it’s fair to say the goal would be for all players to have fun.
However, there are certainly adversarial challenges. In D&D, that challenge is often combat. Then there is the broad umbrella of problem solving. Most complaints about something being unbalanced or broken generally talk about the former, because those tend to be more rules-heavy. Role-playing and puzzle/problem solving tend to be divorced from the rules so that anyone can talk (regardless of their charisma) and anyone can solve the riddle (regardless of their intelligence.) Combat, however, is the more “game” part of most systems: most games don’t reward you in combat for being able to cut off the DM’s arm in real life.
A reason lack of balance bothers many players in combat is that there’s a very clear winning/losing. You want your character to win and the bad guys to lose. At the same time, you don’t want to feel obsolete by someone else’s character. You want to feel like you’re contributing.
It’s also a matter of character concept: if you imagine yourself as an excellent archer, and then someone else who’s better at picking obscure feats ends up being a better archer than you AND better in melee, it’s not a good feeling. Additionally, it changes what skill is being tested in the game. Most people would rather their ability to choose wisely (and get lucky) to be what primarily determines their success, not ownership of obscure sourcebooks or spending hours hanging out on the Character Optimization message boards.
But wait! We’ve got this neutral third party whose job it is to make it fun for everyone. As a player, I should be able to go to the DM and say “I’m not having fun because Abe the Super Telekinetic makes all my abilities worthless.” And the DM should be able to do something about it.
Admittedly, this often works, especially in cases of minor imbalance. “OK, you get this cool weapon that only you can use, and so now you both do well, just in different ways.” That kind of thing.
However, that puts the work of game design off the system, and onto the DM. In more extreme cases, the DM might have to design something from the ground up to try to make it work. And most DMs don’t have the time or inclination to try to balance it by running computer simulations. They’re generally going to test by playing, which means continuing to game design as the game goes along.
Let me throw in an example of my own experience here. I have an epic level 3.5 game that I designed once as a game that I planned once and used for three different groups, kind of like a module that I never was going to publish.
The third time I ran it, a friend wanted to play a Mind Flayer. Since they have a really high ECL, this would be his only chance to really play one in the rules as written. Because I wanted everyone to have fun, I approved it without a second thought.
Now, Mind Flayers aren’t NEARLY up to snuff with an equivalent number of levels in any of the basic classes. It was clear that his DC 17 mind blast wasn’t going to cut it when the Atropal came floating around. Though he didn’t approach me with the problem specifically, it was clear that he was unhappy with what he could do during combat compared to everyone else (and how little he was able to do against the bad guys.)
So what are my options here? I could have given him a whole bunch of new powers, granted to him by the “Wand of Mind Flayer Badassness” or whatever, in which case I have to sit down and design those powers, and hope they make up for it. (I’m sure I’d do a good job of it too- after all, people do give me money for making and developing games, so I have some kind of knack for it.) Most likely though, because I don’t want to spend that much time when I could be planning cool stuff to happen, I’d compare it to the classes of equivalent level to bring him on par- in effect, balancing him by making him the same as something that I already feel is balanced. There’s a good chance that he’d lose a lot of the reason that he wanted to play a Mind Flayer in the first place, and it would turn more into “fluff” then “feel” at that point.
My other option would be to design a class from scratch that is balanced for the level but take extra care to make sure it “feels” like a Mind Flayer, which is even more work.
End result: I’d rather the ECL rules work in the first place so that if the option is out there for him to play a Mind Flayer, I know that he’s balanced for that level.
IN CONCLUSION, I’M LAZY
Now, there are plenty of people out there who enjoy designing as they play, or are awesome at making players feel like they can contribute no matter how weak they are, or who just don’t care as much.
When it gets right down to it for me, any work that’s placed on me by the game system makes me question why I’m paying for a ruleset. I already know I have to give each player their time in the limelight and do what’s best for my players. I don’t need to spend money on books to tell me to do that, and they’re unlikely to really get it right for my situation anyway. However, I am willing to spend money to be provided with sets of rules that have been thoroughly tested and an assurance that all of the character types present will perform well at what they do and generally not be overshadowed by others. Oh, and hey, you can set up a fight when you need it and not worry that a diversion will accidentally destroy your players without a fight.
Finally, I’m paying for a game, and those same concerns about the board games above can also apply to a game like D&D. If I’m going to be playing something that doesn’t care about the game system’s ability to have balanced characters, I might as well just run a dice-less, rules-less system.