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Game Balance or Catering to the Players?

Posted By John Arcadian On June 3, 2008 @ 2:17 am In GMing Advice | 7 Comments

Almost as big as the debate over GMs fudging or not fudging die rolls is the debate over whether games should be balanced to the rules or cater to the players enjoyment. Well maybe not so much, but it is definitely something we talk about in my gaming group.

Game Balance
Games (in any system) that focus more on the balance of the game elements and the rigidity of the rules are examples of this. These sorts of games usually appeal to the no fudge set. They are by the book and work within the established guidelines.

Pros:

  • Players feel a sense of accomplishment when they overcome a hard challenge.
  • If the game is being run in a published campaign setting then the players know what they are getting when they encounter certain elements. This helps the players connect to the world, and thus the game.
  • Most role playing books have detailed guidelines for how to set up encounters or run the game. The GM is responsible for steering the boat and has an accurate map to guide them.

Cons:

  • Characters might die off more frequently.
  • If the GM changes an established element of the setting then the players might feel slighted that something isn’t the way it is written in the setting book.
  • Players might bring in too much out of game knowledge from the detailed guidelines (they have access to the books too) and ruin some of the game balance.

Cater To The Players
These types of games tend to throw out the rules to focus on the players. They have rules (through game system or houseruling) that are more open to interpretation and changes

Pros:

  • Can facilitate incredibly cool moments. If the players know that the challenges will be made so that they can defeat them, then they focus more on how cool their characters are in defeating them.
  • The players have more of a say in how the game goes. This generally leads to them feeling more involved in the game.
  • The GM is more free to gear the game to the player elements. There is more freedom to waive entry requirements to organizations, allow characters to branch out from established molds, or break them completely.

Cons:

  • It can make it hard to make the players feel challenged or out of their league.
  • The GMs authority might be eroded by players questioning decisions or plot points. You know the saying: Give an African swallow a coconut and it will fly to Britain. (or was it something about an inch and a mile . . . )
  • The GM usually has to do more work in prep and more on the fly improvising. When working in uncharted waters you have to steer the boat AND make the maps.

When I GM I try to aim somewhere in between these two types of gaming. I like the rules set to give me the opportunity to enforce it, but to also give me the freedom to do what I want with it. It is a difficult line to walk and it isn’t the best way. There is no best way in gaming since every group differs in what types of gaming they enjoy. So, the inevitable question at the end of the post is more of an imperative: Give me some more pros and cons that you find. Tell me if you think these two styles of gaming are accurate and how you would change them. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Game Balance or Catering to the Players?"

#1 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 3, 2008 @ 4:35 pm

Interesting post! I’ve played games that fall strongly into one category or the other, but mostly run games that use elements of both types. The more I think about it, though, I’m not sure I agree with the basic split between the two approaches.

Looking at your two approaches as opposite ends of a spectrum, it seems like you have sticking to the rules so rigidly that even if doing so makes the game less fun for your players, you do it anyway on one end, and on the other is ignoring all the rules to make sure your players are always having fun, and essentially playing freeform/let’s pretend-style. Is that about right?

If so, I think some of the other connections are a bit fuzzy. Focusing on making sure your players have cool moments, for example, works just fine whether you’re hewing closely to the rules or playing more loosely.

Hmm. You’ve really got me scratching my head here! I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think catering to your players and following the rules rigidly are ends of the same spectrum — they feel more like ends of different spectra to me.

#2 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On June 4, 2008 @ 8:02 am

Reading over the PDF leak of the 4e books, it looks like there’s going to be a large incentive for writing “catered” encounters. From the DM’s perspective, now that monsters give static XP like 2nd again but XP progression is still linear like 3rd instead of multiplicative like 2nd, pitting hordes of low level monsters against your players will present little challenge but a fair amount of XP. From the player perspective, given how brutal the combat system now is, there’s little incentive to tackle higher level monsters and risk your character’s life for static XP.

I’d predict that with 4e you’ll see a lot of campaigns where the only encounters featured are carefully tailored to the party.

#3 Comment By Swordgleam On June 4, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

This sounds like a basic gamist vs narrativist arguement. Do you stick to the rules and numbers, so it’s a game your players have/want to “beat?” Or do you bend things to make a better story?

I like a little of both, and most people I game with seem to fall in the middle of the spectrum as well. Some cons I’ve seen in both:

Balance/gamist:
* Waste time slogging through uneccessary rolls because the system says they should be there (survival checks, etc)

* Min/maxing to create totally unbalanced characters is tacitly approved of, because if the system is the “enemy,” then there’s nothing wrong with beating it

Cater/narrativist:
* I’ve seen gamist players get a little power-crazy, thinking they’ve ‘beaten’ a system that wasn’t built to prevent min/maxing

* You don’t just have to balance against NPCs, but against the PCs as well. If you let one player bend the rules, then you need to make adjustments so the balance of power in the party doesn’t get off-kilter.

That latter point is actually what I thought this article would be about when I clicked on the title: should you let PCs bend the rules, or is it too much hassle because then you have to balance them against everyone else? I know one player who got a little carried away, with the excuse of “the GM is letting me get away with it, take it up with him!”

Sticking to the system is a good way to avoid having to get into the middle of that kind of arguement, but letting players customize the rules to allow for more cool things leads to, well, more cool things.

#4 Comment By Hautamaki On June 5, 2008 @ 2:50 am

I agree that these are not necessarily opposite ends of the same spectrum. I’ll use my own group as an example.

We definitely do not closely adhere to the rules as written in the books. We take very seriously the unwritten rule for DMing; DM’s can do whatever they like. As a result every campaign we’ve ever run is about 80% homebrewed and houseruled. That would seem to make us fall into the second category of being storytellers more than gamers. But on the other hand, one of the main reason we make up so many houserules and homebrews is because we want to make the game more balanced. Our goal is that any character concept, so long as it is subjectively ‘cool’ must be equally viable with any other character concept. It should have pros and cons obviously, but overall all character concepts should be equally viable from level 1 to 20, and we just didn’t feel that this was the case with some of our desired character concepts using the 3.5 rules. (The 4e rules will hopefully change this, we’ll see). So in that light, you might consider us more gamists; we break the rules of the game yes, but only to make the game more balanced (for us).

So where does that mean we fall? I don’t know, but we have fun. And also I personally, and another member of our group, just really likes game design and game balance theory, and we spend a lot of time doing that, and hashing numbers, and trying out ideas, just for fun. Definitely our dream job would be to be working on writing D&D books; but then again we love the jobs we have already =p.

Oh and my most recent game brought in three new players–so we threw out the homebrew and houserule and played straight by the books. One of the players innocently picked a druid. No big surprise–his character could easily take out any two other characters at once in a fair fight and is always the key character in every encounter we face. But–and this is key–we are a mature group that doesn’t care. I think at the end of the day that’s all that really matters. If you’re playing with people who get jealous that one guy’s make believe character is stronger than their make believe character (or with people who have the stronger characters trash talking the other players/characters) then it’s not a fault of the game; it’s a fault of the players. Even though my ninja-esque rogue/fighter can’t hit the broad side of a cliff face without flanking and gets beat down by everything that comes at us, constantly having my bacon pulled out of the fire by my friend’s druid doesn’t bother me at all. I’m glad that he’s having a ball kicking some serious monster butt because he’s having a great time and he’s gone from someone with a vague curiousity into a potential and probably life-long gamer buddy. And at the end of the day, that’s what really makes me happy.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 6, 2008 @ 5:13 am

So much about narrative games depends on the imaginations, ingenuity and storytelling capabilities of the players.

Ideally, all RPG should be driven from that end. But not all players are equal in that regard. In fact, many players don’t see that as being their role, even if they are capable.

Generally, players who are heavily invested in storytelling will likely “graduate” from gamist systems to narrative ones, since a game like D&D is most probably their entry point into the hobby.

The challenge for the GM is not only providing the opportunity to try new games and systems that meet player expectations, but transitioning them from one to the other. That trick there could well be worth a post on its own.

#6 Comment By Bob On August 10, 2008 @ 5:21 am

As a child our games were always very much based around just how much Xp we could get from an encounter and still live to tell about it. It was about having lvl 250-300 Rolemaster characters that could fight old plasma drakes by the bucketload. And then I discovered GMing and Twilight 2000. I don’t think a PC every made it through any of my games thanks to sticking to the rules.

If any game system taught me one thing though it was the WOD attitude of there being only one rule and that was that there were no rules. If something didn’t fit within the story properly or if something bad/good happening to a character made the game more enjoyable, within reason, as well as making the story better then why stick with a dice role if it goes against that. Why kill off 20+ hours of gaming just before you get to a high point because someone rolled a 66 E crit on the tiny creatures attack table.

In saying that though none of our groups have every went at a gaming session treating it like a strategy game to ‘win’. It’s always been about the journey for us which maybe shoeboxes us into just the one gamertype.

#7 Comment By Zaraphina On August 21, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

I think it’s possible to balance the two. As a Gm I think that my two biggest influences are the 7th sea system (d10version) and DnD. I love 7th sea for the freedom and dramatics and Dnd for the ease of creating encounters, campaign settings etc. Balancing the two sort of came naturally. I think the Key to balancing is to know when to throw out the rules to move the story forward and when you players are itching for a fight.

For instance my last session was intended to be entirely role-play and no combat. However there arose a situation where Some of the PC’s decided that the NPC’s they were following needed to die. I thoght about it for a few minutes as the Party described their strategy to me that there was no need for a real combat. The rogue stealthed under the cart and shanked the “fighter type” behind the knees, the rangers shot at the “evil hooded figure” from afar. I narrated the scene: “ok after you shoot the guy he reaches up and rips the awwors from his back licking the tips. a darkness falls and when it lifts he is gone.”

the players were satisfied because they got kill one of their intended targets (It was a morality kill, they HAD to kill them) but I didn’t have to run an unplanned combat..


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