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Game Balance, or “How to Downgrade a Paladin”

Posted By Patrick Benson On January 6, 2011 @ 1:30 am In GMing Advice | 36 Comments

Balance is something that you need in your life.  You cannot work all of the time or you will eventually burnout even if your work is fun.  You cannot spend every moment with your friends and family no matter how important they are to you, because everyone needs a moment to themselves.  Taking anything to an extreme may cause more harm than good.

Balance helps us to maintain our lives.  If you eat a balanced diet you will maintain your health.  Keep a balanced checkbook and you will avoid financial difficulties such as penalty fees and bounced checks.  Without balance you would not be able stand and walk.

Even Games Are Balanced

Point buy systems for character creation ensure that everyone has the same potential with their character designs.  Better play testing eliminates traits and items that are either too weak or too powerful.  Just the increase in the number of RPGs available today means that competition is pushing game designers to create better products where the systems scale better.

This is a good thing, right?

Remember the Paladin

There was a time when you did not choose to play a paladin.  You had to roll high enough attribute scores that met the requirements for playing a paladin.  This made paladins a rare breed.  Not everyone who wanted to play a paladin could.  The same was true of other classes.  The more powerful the class the higher the requirements for the attributes.  With attributes that were rolled randomly some characters were special and prized above others.

With Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition you choose to play a paladin.  The paladin is balanced, and has abilities that are unique to the class but that do not outshine the fighter, or the ranger, or the rogue, or the wizard, or any of the other classes.  To play a paladin requires nothing more than a choice by the player.

This is not necessarily a bad or a good thing.  It is an example of how balance, or to be more precise the desire for perfect balance, can have the unintended consequence of turning something special into something mundane.  When everything is balanced nothing is special.

Let Things Wobble

As GMs we have the ability to take a nice balanced system and tip the scales a bit.  There is nothing wrong with ignoring the suggested treasure recommendations and giving the PCs a little bit more, or maybe even favoring one character for a bit and providing a powerful item for their current level or status.  Perhaps magic users are given special treatment in one region of your game world, or a space station is in desperate need of anyone with medical training and rewards heavily for such services.

You can also house rule a system so as to remove perfect balance.  Give players incentive to use randomly rolled stats instead of point buy systems by rewarding exceptional stats with additional abilities.  Give characters of a certain class special gear to use.  Of course you should talk to your group and have their buy-in before making such changes.  You will be sacrificing game balance in order to introduce unique and special characters back into the game system.  Some groups may not want this, but you will never know unless you ask them.

Why?

When things are in perfect balance they tend to run smoothly and without a problem.  They also run with a predictable pace and that may be boring.  There is a risk with running an unbalanced game, but there is also a thrill to it as well.  Take a risk and see what you can do by removing some of the balance from your game.  Try out some of your more unconventional ideas and see what the results are.  Ask your players for feedback and see if you can raise your game to a new level of fun.  Even if it fails you will still have learned something from it, and that in and of itself is worth something.

What do you think?  Is balance essential to a good game, or can it dampen the fun?  Let us know by posting your comments below.

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?




36 Comments (Open | Close)

36 Comments To "Game Balance, or “How to Downgrade a Paladin”"

#1 Comment By Gamerprinter On January 6, 2011 @ 3:19 am

That’s why I play Pathfinder. The Paladin hasn’t lost anything with the balancing goal of Paizo’s system, in fact its one of the more beefed up classes. Plus they’ve created the Anti-Paladin in their Advanced Players Guide using the archetype method for an alternate build – I’m already playing one of those.

4e is a good game, but as you mention WotC’s goal seems to be more towards ‘perfect balance’ and I really need the ambiguity in the rules to allow for judgement calls by the DM. IMO – it makes a better game.

Still I tend to be one of the few players in our group to consistently play paladins as one of my preferred classes to run. They are harder to play and should be.

#2 Comment By Cloudyone On January 6, 2011 @ 4:21 am

Well, after gaming for 30-some years I have to say that balance is better than the old school torture. For instance, “Give players incentive to use randomly rolled stats instead of point buy systems by rewarding exceptional stats with additional abilities.”. Sounds like the higher they roll, the more they get on top of that–but if they roll abysmally low then they just suck the whole game. I do agree that point-buy is boring compared with random rolling, but it makes sure that nobody gets stuck with a character that totally sucks.

#3 Comment By Clawfoot On January 6, 2011 @ 6:29 am

I don’t think you need to restrict the players in order to make a particular class special and rare: that’s what the rest of the game world is for, isn’t it? Much of the time, people play because they want to be exactly that: special and rare.

So if there’s a class or a race I want to be special and rare in my game, I make them so, but still allow my players the option to be that class or race if they want to. If they want to play a goblin paladin of Pelor…? Sure, but they’re going to be the only one in the entire world, and there will be social consequences, both good and bad.

Unless you’re talking about paladins being special and rare on a meta level. In which case, yes, then it makes sense to put restrictions or difficult-to-achieve prerequisites on the class. Personally, however, I hate watching a player who has his/her heart set on playing a paladin roll too low to achieve that. Yeah, okay, on one hand you can argue that it forces people to stretch their boundaries and “grow” as players, but on the other hand, if that’s what they’d find fun to play, why restrict that? Isn’t having fun the whole point?

#4 Comment By theEmrys On January 6, 2011 @ 7:01 am

Personally, I love games with random stats and games where the “party” is balanced, but not necessarily the characters. I like the idea that different classes have different power curves and peak at different times. I don’t personally want to play in a game where everything is equally challenging all the time as it takes the fun out of it for me. If there’s no risk, there’s no reward.

Some of my fondest memories are of adventures where the party bit off more than they could chew and were put through the ringer… but through some creative thinking and luck, they pulled it off… or at least some of them did. These are the things we remember.

One of my biggest pet peaves in games is when the challenge always matches the character’s abilities. I hate the idea that a “skill challenge” is matched to the character level. Sometimes I think a high level character should be rewarded for getting to where they are and have an easy time…

And for random stats, we’ve been playing Hackmaster Basic lately and one of our player’s favourite character was one who had pretty low stats across the board. Now this system doesn’t really have “dump stats” and is geared towards average being average and ok to play. Still, this character was below average and worked fine. I think it’s all in what you want out of it and how you play.

In the end, I understand different people want different things from the game, but for me, I like having the balance at a higher level allowing for some differences in the game.

#5 Comment By Raf Blutaxt On January 6, 2011 @ 7:29 am

I think it might be useful to distinguish between player and game balance. An unbalanced game world, with unbalanced classes and races is a lot of fun, even more fun than a completely balanced, as long as the balance in the player group is maintained. As soon as one player is envious of another player’s cool character because of that character’s cool features, the fun is out of the game.
In the end it is the same as with all powergamer discussions, as long as everyone is ok with the other pc’s abilities, it is fun. I’m currently playing in a WFRP 2nd edition and a Merp campaign, both pretty unbalanced, when it comes to races. But I wouldn’t want to play in say Middle Earth, if Hobbits were as powerful as Elves, it would just ruin the whole mood of the setting.

#6 Comment By Ravenbow On January 6, 2011 @ 8:35 am

Our group (all three of us sadly) have decided we don’t care much about pre-established “balance”.

Our character generation system is:
All stats are 13. Roll 4d6 for each. Take whichever is higher.

Then I modify the adventures/campaign/encounters to taste based on scores.

I want my players to feel powerful, so I give them an edge.

This makes for a really fun feeling 4e (which we play occasionally because it is really just a ‘fluid’ boardgame), and a truly dynamic Pathfinder Campaign.

#7 Comment By nolandda On January 6, 2011 @ 9:39 am

I think the Eden Studios Buffy the Vampire Slayer stuff is an excellent example. One of the players is going to play The Slayer and their character is going to be vastly more effective at kicking ass than the other players. This is part of the social contract that game fosters and it seems to work out OK.

#8 Comment By Knight of Roses On January 6, 2011 @ 9:51 am

The important things is not game balance but group balance, that everyone gets a chance to do cool things with their character and have fun. For some groups, that mean playing in games with explicitly even power levels for the characters, other groups find balance through other means.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On January 6, 2011 @ 10:25 am

@Clawfoot – Agreed, but I think the point of the article is that part of the “Hearts Desire” in such classes is the rarity of their occurrence, and that once they become a simple check-box exercise a large part of the fun goes out of playing them.

Clearly this is something that is entirely subjective and quite a different question depending on which side of the screen one normally sits.

Points buy-in systems – which strive to give players more control of the stats thir characters have – don’t really address what I think Patrick is talking about, because the trade-off/Dump Stat aspect “nerfs” the “all-stats-spectacular” class before you’ve started from that point of view.

Perhaps the solution lies in some variant of the Prestige Class idea – that a Paladin (or whatever) is something you *become* rather than select.

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On January 6, 2011 @ 10:29 am

@Ravenbow – In my Conan games I give a nod to the view that no-one wants to play a less-than stellar character (in that milieu at any rate) and let them roll 8+D6+D4 (their choice between that and the old 4D6 method). Average is 13-15, no-one starts with a negative modifier in any stat and super characters are suitable thin on the ground.

#11 Comment By Roxysteve On January 6, 2011 @ 10:34 am

@Knight of Roses – I’m not sure I agree. That approach certainly works, but in a more sandboxy game part of the challenge can be the inventive ways in which the group overcomes their teams shortcomings by inventive collaboration. To be honest, I’ve found that emphasizing team balance tends to result in bland, every-game-looks-the-same adventures with rote solutions to every problem.

However, I’d agree that for most purposes there are slots in the team roster that *must* be filled or disaster will loom in no short order.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 6, 2011 @ 10:45 am

I usually try to respond to each person who comments on one of my articles directly at least once, but today is pretty hectic so please excuse for just addressing the group of comments as a whole.

First, thank you all for some great input on this matter. The distinction between game balance and group balance is definitely something that a GM needs to understand and consider when approaching issues of balance. They are not the same thing, and a GM needs to recognize that.

Game balance is completely subjective. Some love it, some hate it, and most fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. I am not advocating that a game should or should not have perfect balance. I am advocating that you as a GM should look into whether or not your game will run better with or without game balance and at what level it should be.

But I will address one thing here that I think people are confusing with the issue – the crappy PC. The PC with awful stats that can’t seem to succeed at anything. The PC that is no fun to play.

That does not happen because of game balance or a lack of it. That happens because of the GM’s and the player’s decisions. You know that the player has a crappy PC, then you know you can do something about it too. Give the PC a role in the story that is critical. Get an NPC mentor in there to help buff the PC into what he or she needs to be. Throw in a radioactive spider if you have to, but make that PC shine. Talk with the play and the group as to what makes the most sense for your game, but don’t blame the stats for the player having a crappy time with a less than stellar PC. Either get involved in trying to make that PC fun to play, or take the blame yourself.

A good GM will see the opportunity to transform that PC through the story into a champion. Going from zero to hero is a classic plot device in literature. Why not have it happen in your game?

#13 Comment By Rafe On January 6, 2011 @ 10:59 am

I love sensical imbalance. After all, in many games, why is an Elf just a Human with +2 here and -2 there? Hell, Elves are basically Dwarves, except you move where the +2/-2 is. That’s balanced, sure, but it’s also pretty boring (in my mind). I like systems that take a look at balance within particular aspects of the overall system — balancing Elves with Elves and Humans with Humans, for instance — but not ones that try to balance everything across the whole board.

#14 Comment By Airk On January 6, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

@Roxysteve – I think you’ve misapprehended Knight of Roses point. He’s not saying the group needs to be balanced in the sense of “Fighter/Cleric/Magic User/Thief” or “Defender/Leader/Controller/Striker”. He’s saying that within the group, it’s important to have some balance between the players. No one likes to be the group gimp, who can’t hit anything during a fight, gets tongue-tied during diplomacy, and trips over his own feet during stealth sequences. Everyone needs to be able to contribute in a meaningful way – and if you’re say, talking about a 1st edition fighter with a strength of 13 and all other stats 11 or lower in the party with a paladin, a druid and a ranger, there’s no internal group balance there, and odds are, that fighter is probably going to feel useless.

Now I’m not saying (and I doubt Knight of Roses was saying) that everyone needs to be equally useful in all situations, and I know a lot of people LOVE playing characters who shine in unusual situations (The “party face” who can’t fight his way out of a paper bag, but will clean up at market, in the throne room, or in back room negotiations.) rather than the more traditional combat roles, and that’s fine, but that’s also game dependant. A combat focused character can be behind the balance curve too in a game that doesn’t feature much/any combat. The group needs to be internally balanced so no one feels left out or useless, and where that internal balance is dictated by the game and the group, not by classes, roles, or even stats (though all of those can (or can not) be part of how the party MEETS the expected balance.)

#15 Comment By Sarlax On January 6, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

A game should be designed to produce balance as much as can be done, but like a balanced diet, that doesn’t mean everything needs to be bland or the same. You can spice up the PCs with measured mechanical variations (different powers, etc.) and create exceptionalism through the story.

There’s no reason that a paladin needs to be exceptional on the basis of dumb luck. Here are a number of ways to make a paladin exceptional without a die roll:
– Require all paladins to start with at least 13 in Strength, Wisdom, and Charisma, and at least one of those scores as an 18. This is a requirement that tends to reflect the choice a player will make anyway, but it emphasizes that not just anyone can become a paladin.
– Really zero in on the alignment issue. Nowadays a paladin can be of any alignment and worship any god. I like the change, but it can be applied in the old-fashioned way: Require that the paladin rigidly adhere to his alignment and religious code or lose his powers (or just his dailies, etc.). Yes, it’s rough, but part of being exceptional is duty, not compounded good fortune.
– Make paladins work like a prestige class. There are lots of ways to approach this method. One is to say that a PC cannot start as a paladin, but rather changes his class at an appropriate moment.
– Another is to say that the “paladin” class isn’t a *Paladin!* in the game world, but just a general holy warrior; it’s not until an existing paladin gives to you his Holy Sword that you truly become a paladin (“I see you have constructed a new light saber…”). It could be as simple as an appropriate feat or social recognition.
– Give everyone the bump under similarly stringent circumstances. Paladins aren’t paladins until they achieve some momentous victory for their god, at which time they get +2 to Strength, Wisdom, or Charisma. Give other PCs the same option, appropriately tied to their class (or even race) and you’ve still got balance but you’ve targeted to how the player actually plays, not how he rolls.

#16 Comment By Roxysteve On January 6, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

@Airk – I think I got what KOR was saying. I simply extrapolated the issue off page for a bit before I commented. An interesting game (for me) also includes the possibility that the group simply cannot interact directly with a problem, which seems to fit the KoR definition of an unbalanced group.

YMMV.

#17 Comment By Roxysteve On January 6, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

I don’t find some arguments for party balance persuasive, myself. I’m particularly resistant to the “no difference in experience levels” doctrine, which can have a panicked GM falling over him/herself to keep everyone at the same level.

That said, I’ve played games in which the whole party was simply the blades in one minmaxer’s swiss-army problem solver, and no I didn’t enjoy that much.

#18 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 6, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

@Sarlax – Why should a game be designed to be balanced as much as possible? There is an entire gambling and casino industry built upon very unbalanced games (the house always wins in the long run). There are many clones of the original D&D rules that people still play and enjoy, but that system was definitely unbalanced. Rifts is a very unbalanced game system, yet it has a strong following to this day.

I’m not against a game being balanced. I do not see it as a requirement though. Tic-Tac-Toe is balanced, but it certainly isn’t much fun once you realize that it is perfectly balanced. Every game becomes a stalemate. Obviously I am using a very simple child’s game to illustrate my point, but is it possible that games that strive for such balance may be building in a “stalemate factor”?

Unbalanced games can be fun, and balanced games can suck, and vice versa. Are we gamers just seeking balance in the game system as a way to avoid some other task? Such as communication of expectations, or avoiding failure by relying on a mechanics safety net?

#19 Comment By Raf Blutaxt On January 6, 2011 @ 7:08 pm

@Patrick Benson
I think there might be some truth in this.

Now, in very boardgame-like games, like say 4e, balanced rules become more important imo, as those games tend to encourage intraparty competition. Once the players are not only trying to solve the challenges the gm puts in front of them, but also try to be better at it than their fellow players, mechanical imbalance becomes an issue because it is seen as unfairness on the part of the rules.

In fact, now I think about it, I have a feeling that powergamerirsm, which at least in my definition has a lot to do with intraparty competition (even if it is only between one player and the rest of his group), is at the heart of the whole balance issue. And this problem can only be solved through communication.
Now I just wish, I could tell my own munchkin in residence tell that it is not about being the best of his party, but his party being the best of all parties and he would understand it.

#20 Comment By Rosthorn On January 7, 2011 @ 8:46 am

I think “imbalance” in a game is only fun if you’re on the advantageous end of the curve. In other words, if the paladin has insane requirements and only one person in the party is the paladin, the game only tends to be interesting if YOU are that guy.

I once played a 3rd Edition game where one of the players rolled three 18s for his character, right there in front of everyone. After the third session, everyone quit because there were no contributions anyone else could make that were better than the triple-18 guy.

Sure, the GM can cater to other players and throw them storyline bones and so on, but when it comes down to it, when the dice are hitting the table for whatever reason, then the characters with significantly higher abilities are simply better. And if we’re avoiding rolling dice to counteract that, why are we playing the game system at all, rather than cops and robbers?

I’ve rarely found players have a bad time when you give them what they want. On the other hand, I tend to find the few moments of glory otherwise “crappy” characters can have rarely outshine the accumulated crushing weight of failure in most of their other experiences.

#21 Comment By Roxysteve On January 7, 2011 @ 10:55 am

@Rosthorn – As a GM I would say “not better, different”. Unless the other players tried to compete in the same party “slot” of course, which would be a recipe for sadness.

It’s not the stats that balance a team (though I think that “balance” in this context is a loaded term that channels thinking unhelpfully), it’s the roles.

If everyone puts themselves into the same role, then higher stats confer an advantage though one player character cannot be in more than one place at one time – which should suggest ways to any GM to mitigate the game domination aspect of a such a player in that sort of party without “bone” throwing.

It’s sad that the lesson taken away from this incident in your group was “don’t roll above the group norm”. It sort of goes to what Patrick was getting at in the article.

#22 Comment By Sarlax On January 7, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

@Patrick Benson – Surely, the typical player at a casino would have more fun if the games they played *were* balanced. The reason they play despite the imbalance is because it’s the only game in town.

It’s false that “all balanced games become a stalemate.” Balanced means that the players are on equal footing. Speaking of stalemates, chess is a balanced game in which the players have the same opportunities for success, and people very often actually win a game of chess. Poker is balanced because everyone at the table has the same initial odds. Skills still matters and not every play’s result is preordained.

In any event, most board games are poor comparisons because they are inherently competitive (I reject Raf’s contention that 4E is a competitive RPG as well; it’s one of the most deliberately cooperative RPGs around). But think of a game that isn’t, like Lord of the Rings or Pandemic. What fun are these if a single player has a significant play advantage over the others?

I’m not arguing that unbalanced games cannot be fun. However, such games have the inherent problem in that not every player has the same opportunity to contribute to the success of the group. A GM can bend over backwards to give everyone the spotlight, as Rosthorn noted, but we’re busy enough as it is. With a balanced system, the GM can relax a bit.

If, however, balance doesn’t matter to a group, then they can still use the balanced system! It’s a lot easier to imbalance a balanced game than the reverse. This is the point in the article itself: You can throw in a houserule if you like the randomness and don’t need the balance.

It’s still not a practice without flaws, though. Suppose you give players in 4E the option to use either point buy or random stats, with random stats potentially opening up either new powers or the paladin class. What if a player wants to be a paladin? He’s forced to gamble his character on a roll right at the start; if he’s lucky, he can play what he wants, but if not, he’s stuck with something else, potentially inferior to what everyone else has.

On the other hand, what about the players who are happy with what they’ve made, but risk-taking player gets lucky with all 18s, and gets extra powers to boot. How fun is it to be every other player in that group?

#23 Comment By Raf Blutaxt On January 7, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

@Sarlax

There’s a difference between randomness and imbalance. Having one player roll for his stats and the other players use point-buy is imbalanced, having all players roll their stats is just random. I would let my players choose which method to use, but they would have to settle on one method for the whole group.
I aggree that having to roll random stats to become a paladin can be frustrating for players who want to play one. I would allow those people to become a paladin later in the game, giving them something to aspire to. This would have the added benefit of making the Paladin feel even better, once the player has achived it.
It comes down to a choice the group has to make at the beginning of the game, randomness or not and if not, balanced or imbalanced.

#24 Comment By Airk On January 7, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

@Roxysteve – “An interesting game (for me) also includes the possibility that the group simply cannot interact directly with a problem, which seems to fit the KoR definition of an unbalanced group.”

No, that’s not what he was talking about at all. What he was talking about is when there are lots of problems, and one or two people are ALWAYS the one who can interact with them.

You are talking about “party vs world” balance, he is talking about “intra party balance”.

Whether the group is in a position to cope with the threats they are presented with is not relevant to the latter.

#25 Comment By Sarlax On January 7, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

@Raf Blutaxt – If everyone at the table agrees in advance to use such a system, there’s no problem. I just believe that the default position should be that PCs can be built in a balanced way, and if the group prefers otherwise, they can bargain for an appropriate social contract to change the rule.

It’s like playing a night of Hold’Em with the same pocket cards every hand, or playing a game of chess where Black can move its pawns backwards as well forwards. Some people might like to play these games and should be able to, but players shouldn’t be bound to accept these kinds of games by default.

#26 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 7, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

@Sarlax – People travel all the way to Las Vegas because it is “the only game in town”? No, that is not the reason. With casinos operating on riverboats, Native American reservations, Atlantic City, California card clubs, cruise ships, and various countries with legalized gambling people go to Las Vegas for the experience. If a casino treats you well you dump a lot of money there despite knowing that the game is imbalanced. You outright deny it probably, and yet every year people go to gamble in Vegas despite having other options for a similar price. I just don’t see the “only game in town” argument as being the reason for casinos making money, especially when they are competing with many forms of entertainment that are not gambling related to get those tourists dollars.

A lot of the argument against unbalanced games seems to be “Only one person will enjoy it.” I do not buy that argument either. You can have a “balanced” game where the GM favors a player. I’ve seen it happen. The result is the same as when one player has an exceptional character and the GM does not take that into consideration when preparing a game.

A good GM will involve all of the PCs and have them both succeed and fail. Some GMs might find it easier to accomplish this by using a game system that levels the playing field by having all PCs start at the same level of potential. This to me is the balanced game system for the purpose of this topic. Another GM might be fine with an unbalanced game system, or one that allows for the players to be less than equals. There is nothing wrong with this approach either.

The point of this article is not to advocate one approach being better than the other. The point of this article is that some of you will not enjoy one style of play over another, but you need to experiment in order to learn this. Try an unbalanced game, then try a balanced one. Discover what it is that you like about each one, and what it is that you dislike about each one.

Why? Because when you challenge these absolute statements like “balanced games are better” or “random rolls make the game better” you will not discover if they are true or not. Those things are subjective. What you will discover is what works best for you, and that is how you grow and develop as a GM.

#27 Comment By Sarlax On January 7, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

@Patrick Benson – The Vegas point is perfectly encapsulated here: “. . . you dump a lot of money there *despite* knowing that the game is imbalanced.” IE, you play because the good outweighs the bad even though the house has imposed a condition which makes the game less fun.

That’s the danger of introducing this to a group. It’s good to experiment with new (old) ideas, but the GM has a lot of power over the group. Many groups, if not most, have one regular GM. He’s the “only game in town” in a practical sense because most gaming groups are made up of friends. If he makes a suggestion that makes the game less fun for all but one player, the others may still play because, hey, they’re all friends and don’t want to fight about something like this. In other words, you might get a utility spread like this: GM +5, Paladin +5, Fighter -5, Rogue -5, Cleric -5, Wizard -5. The game’s less fun overall but everyone still plays because it’s still more fun then watching Battlestar reruns alone.

The GM’s opinions also get more deference in most groups, another factor leading players to accept things they’re not very excited about. That’s why it’s important to ask two questions about the rule: “Who is this [house rule] for (the GM? All the players? Just one player?),” and “Who might it hurt?” On the matter of implementing it, one must also ask, “Do the players *really* want this or are they just nodding their heads?” My concerns here are about the social contract of the table, one of the fundamental precepts of which for most groups is probably that every player (GM included) is entitled to as much fun as everyone else.

#28 Comment By Bercilac On January 9, 2011 @ 8:03 am

Screwing with the game balance is fine. I did it by accident once and found it really enhanced the game.

It was my first time running a monster campaign in 3.5 D&D. For anyone who’s tried this, you’ve encountered the absolutely arcane system for transforming so many levels of character into so many monster levels plus class levels divided by the square root of a bugbear’s IQ… Suffice it to say we ended up with a severely overpowered ogre in a gang of goblins and hobgoblins. No problem.

Every character had a specialty. I made sure there were missions demanding stealth, diplomacy, and bluff. There were plenty of all-out brawls, where of course the ogre did about half the killing, but for the rest of the time he was pretty useless.

On its own, that could STILL be boring. It would mean the players taking turns having fun. So we went further. First, the ogre was stupid to the point of being unable to take care of himself in the complex urban jungle (country boy). So another player got to be the ogre’s “manager.” We had constant games between these two, as the manager tried to cheat the ogre out of something, or further his own interests through the ogre, and the ogre tried to put a finger on the source of his vague sense of unease with his “friend.” The ogre’s player knew what was going on, but took it good-humouredly, taking it as necessary penance for playing a juggernaut.

Once we had established this pattern, the ogre became a mark for every NPC con operation, many of which endangered the party. The ogre’s player went along with this, partly so that he could use the character’s stupidity to get revenge for the times the other players took advantage of it.

So let a player take something wildly out of proportion to the game’s power level, if they really want it. Just make it clear that it’s a bribe. The player won’t forget that they owe you, and in return for occasionally levelling a city block they’ll be your friend in the party: swallowing obvious and tenuous plot hooks, falling for the obvious trap, and making the crucial mistake at just the right moment to mess with the party’s plans (they’re the enemy!). And with so many devious players about these days, putting a bit more armour on the minions is a small price to pay.

#29 Comment By Bercilac On January 9, 2011 @ 8:07 am

@Sarlax

That’s a really sad story, and I honestly sympathise. Any port in a storm and all that. But I think that idea of competitive fun says something about your group, rather than the needs of a game as such.

What goes on at the table that makes people think that one person’s fun detracts from another’s? I get my biggest kick, as a player or as a GM, from watching other players characters’ unfold and bash off each other. The fun doesn’t come out of the bits of the game devoted to “me,” it comes out of the bits of the game where people create a shared experience. Preferably one with unfortunately timed explosions.

#30 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 9, 2011 @ 8:07 am

@Sarlax – Sorry, but the casino example is flawed. The reason is that you have gambling alternatives that are based on skill (poker, horse races, sports betting, etc.). The house still takes a cut with those bets, but they are skill based forms of gambling. One of the first concepts that was drilled into my head in poker was that you can win every hand ever dealt to you – the bluff makes this possible (although far from likely). Being able to bluff makes it possible for the player holding the worst hand to still win against the player holding the best hand.

I did state in the article that you should get the group’s buy-in when introducing a change that will offset the balance of the game. I do not use the term “social contract” as it really is not an appropriate use of the term as most gamers use it. A social contract exists without discussion as it exists through one’s interaction with a culture, and is not by conscious design (saying “Bless you.” after someone has sneezed for example). I prefer the term “gaming charter” when the group collaborates over such things.

As for the argument that the GM has more deference and is able to lead the group to do things that they are not very excited about, well that again is subjective. It depends upon the group. I know that what you have described is not true for myself as a player, and as a GM I put a great deal of effort into avoiding such situations. One reason I can do this is because I belong to more than one group, so I do not have an “only game in town” problem, and because in all of my groups we rotate GMs which prevents one person from becoming a tyrant of the group IMO.

And throughout my 20 plus years of gaming that has been the norm with one exception. Not a single person who was always the GM, but each group having more than one person willing to GM. The one exception is when I was I the GM where the players refused to share that role. It lasted for 2 years, and I left that group because they repeatedly ignored my request for a break and to be given a chance to play as well.

Again, I see the issue of balance as being something that different groups will react to in different ways. Not all good, but not all bad either. The problems that you have described seem to me to be rooted in social issues, and not mechanical ones.

#31 Comment By Don Mappin On January 9, 2011 @ 10:26 am

“Mess with balance” sounds pretty good until you’re the guy who’s at the bottom end of that equation. Sure, overcoming some adversity or having a handicap presents some nice options, but as with anything, the key is moderation. Being a pre-4e fighter or waiting for the dice gods to bless me with the rolls that allow me to make that paladin I’ve dreamed of aren’t consistently fun to most people. Hence the changes.

I got a kick out of the old Runequest (?) game where you rolled a random background. Friend and I rolled pretty much identical characters, except his tribe had metal working and I didn’t. He got a metal sword and I received a bone (literally). He was simply more effective, all other things being equal. That wasn’t particularly fun or well-balanced; there was nothing to offset the other tribal background with, say, better hide armor. Ah, the wonderful days of 80s game design where random was king. You took your lumps and were happy with them, balance-be-damned.

These are games. Games are meant to be fun.

There was a conscious design decision in the Decipher LotR RPG that elves are just plain better. The onus is placed upon the GM to balance the party and challenges accordingly. This is opposed to Star Trek (same system) where we very carefully balanced every race. These decisions were made to attempt to remain true to the source material. One favors balance for a more even and predictable experience to mimic what is seen on TV (Star Trek), the other attempts to provide a “realistic” gaming experience drawn from the texts.

In LotR you (the player) choose your balance. If you want all the perks or hunger to play an elf…you play an elf. If you want to play a human knowing that the elf next to you has the advantages, then more power to you. The choice is yours to dictate your comfort level with how you’d like to approach balance.

Game designers create games with balance built in as the de facto default because it’s something that most gamers a) desire, b) can’t do effectively on their own, and c) can still choose to ignore if they want to. You design to the masses, and the masses want options and balance.

#32 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 9, 2011 @ 10:54 am

@Don Mappin – Those are all good points. Is it wrong then to mess with the balance of a game?

The point of someone gets the short end of the deal is a reason to be careful when altering the balance of a game. Does that mean that you should not do it?

IMO – no. It means that you are careful if you decide to do it. Altering the balance of a game is a tactic, and we GMs are more capable when we explore and try many different tactics.

Many games are designed to appeal to the largest audience possible, but I believe that is more a matter of “compromise in ways to make more customers happy” than “customers want balance”. Many groups that I have played with take that balanced product and then tip it to fit their particular desires for the game. This is because the designers cannot know where the customer will not desire balance. So design a balanced product and then the customer will change it to their tastes possibly removing that balance in the process.

To everyone: The discussion on this topic has been great. Thank you all of your input on this matter, both the pros and the cons.

#33 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 9, 2011 @ 11:02 am

One other thing that just occurred to me – does balance have degrees to it?

Are there “perfectly” balanced games, “completely” unbalanced games, and then all of the possibilities that are between those two extremes?

#34 Comment By Don Mappin On January 9, 2011 @ 11:32 am

@Patrick Benson – You said “games” but I presume you meant RPGs. One could argue that chess is a perfectly balanced game, for example. We both have every advantage going into it, beyond who gets to go first. RPGs turn that model on the side by having the GM element who, at any point, can throw balance out the window. That’s why I feel games should be designed with balance in mind: the omni-powerful GM always exists to counteract that “prefect” balance at any point they desire.

We suspect we agree more than we disagree on the value of balance and when to go outside it.

#35 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 9, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

@Don Mappin – Yes, I meant RPGs. And now you have me wondering if that removal of balance via rules (such as with chess) and the introduction of the GM is what gives RPGs their unique appeal. Even GMless RPGs have that arbitrator in the form of the group collective.

I have heard plenty of people say that it is the freedom that exists within an RPG that makes them appealing. Is that freedom tied directly to the arbitrator being present to decide when there should be balance, or when balance should be sacrificed? I’m more involved as a GM when the players feel that the rules are not clear on the situation currently faced within the game. One might say that is when the game becomes unbalanced due to the GM’s personal influences and experiences.

Food for thought. :)

#36 Comment By lomythica On January 12, 2011 @ 11:00 am

Weighing in late… For the example of the pre 4th Ed. Paladin, I would say that the character IS balanced. There may be more burghers to the stats, but the character is also limited in behavior due to a code of honor. I think without mechanical governing of the code, players and GMs may have not forced paladin PCs to stick to the code, amd then blamed the unbalanced combat mechanics for the problems.

This may also explain why 4th Ed made paladins comvpbat balanced; much of the code and requirements are removed.

Most games have a focus or two. For DnD, the focus is combat. If a designer wants to make a game feel balanced, they must design the balance within the focus of the game, or it feels like an add-on that can be abused. having paladins that are balanced with an out of combat code of behavior just didn’t give the vibe that it was real balance…. So they changed it.

MMOs probably had a part in it too.. Seems MMOs are a big part ofmthe sociology of balanced tabletop games.


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