The Myth of Balance

I’ve been doing some thinking about game balance lately. Here’s where I’m coming from.

I remember back when D&D 3E came out. As information was slowly released, there started to be a lot of message threads on discussion boards about how different classes or spells or other features were broken – either too powerful or not powerful enough. When the game was released, there followed a real rush of house rules designed to fix the broken piece.

Same thing happened with 4E. Same rush of complaints, same rush of house rules.

Anything wrong with that? Nope.

But the threads became more strident and angry as time went by, with people arguing passionately* either for or against the broken item. It’s still going on and, with all the new powers in 4E, I expect it to continue pretty much indefinitely.

The issue at the core of each of these discussions is game balance.

A large number of the threads about powers say will say that a given power is unbalanced, meaning (generally) too powerful**. The words game breaker and win buttons get tossed around. And you know what? It’s all a bit ridiculous to me.

In my experience, there are two aspects of balance to consider. One is the balance between characters. This one, I take seriously – if someone feels that they have been slighted by the GM compared to another person in the game, that creates bad feelings, and that can hurt the game. It doesn’t matter if the perception is true or not: if it perceived to be true, then you’ve gotta deal with it as if it were.

These balance issues can usually be dealt with with a little communication. Talk to people. Find out what’s what. If one character is doing a ton more damage than the others, get that player to show the others how he built the character. If someone has more stuff, slant the treasure in the direction of the others until things even out. And if the perception is just plain wrong, look at why someone believes it and address that.

The other type of balance is the balance between the players and the GM. This is entirely illusory – a shared fiction that allows the game to take place.

See, I’ve been a GM for a while, now, and I’ve discovered that I can kill the characters any time I want to. And not just by resorting to Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. Any time I want to, I can just change the numbers on a monster in combat to make it kill the party. I can bring in more monsters. I can pick a monster that’s already just too much for the party to handle.

There’s no balance. I have all the power.

There’s an inherent social contract in gaming, though, that says the GM won’t pull crap like that. The GM will give the party reasonable challenges that the party can overcome. That’s all it is, though: social convention. An agreement that the GM and the players will work together to make the game fun.

So, I have to shake my head when I see a thread complaining about how powerful a given piece of the game is, and how it destroys the balance. Especially when these complaints come from GMs.

Don’t you guys get it? You’re in charge! The characters can have all the toys they can carry, and all the best powers they can think up, and they’re still at your mercy! Have they picked up a power that creates a zone of healing? Keep them out of it, either by having monsters that can move enemies around, or by making the environment so cramped that the zone is mostly inside solid walls. Have they got a power that can kill a target every round? Swarm them with minions. See? And that’s just playing within the rules. If you start to fudge things, the possibilities are literally endless.

There’s another option, too – let it work. Let it be as beautiful and horrifying as you feared it would be. Let the players have the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing well in an encounter. Enjoy it with them.

And plan something tougher for next time.

What’s my answer when players in my games want to take a power that they think might be overpowered? I say, “Sure!” If it looks like it’s out of whack with the powers available to other characters, then I reserve the right to retroactively veto it, but I have never had to do that.

Never. Even with home-made stuff.

In short, balance is a myth in roleplaying games. Rules strive to create fairness, but they can’t cover everything, and they can’t force someone to follow them. Don’t worry so much about balance.

Worry about everyone – you and your players – having fun.

Everything else will take care of itself.



*And only sometimes literately.

**Very few complaints out there that a power is unbalanced because it’s not powerful enough – those powers just don’t get picked by the players. The complaint about lack of power is usually reserved for class features and other things that players don’t get to pick from a list.

Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Myth of Balance

  1. Trachalio says:

    Haven’t never played DnD until 4th edition my viewpoint might be skewed, but I don’t understand the complaints I’ve read about 4e. I’m having a damn fun time so far, and isn’t that what it’s all about? Having a good time with some friends, killin’ kobolds? 😉

  2. Dan says:

    Well said. The game’s mechanics are just the beginning, it is the GM that creates balance. If D20 games were as cut and dried as poker, a player is going to have a miserable time if he doesn’t get the rolls. The advantage an RPG has over many other games is that a GM can make balance to stave off boredom or frustration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *