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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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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