Sunday, February 24, 2008

On The Question of Balance

In all games it comes up. Sooner or later you crack open a book, look over a character sheet or simply come across it in-game. Then, arguments ensue, game mechanics are changed, forum posts are made, it gets debated some more and the universe itself shifts. I speak to you of balance.

What is balance in a game where competition between players is theoretically non-existent? Where the idea is to be challenged by a person that essentially has a god like will over the game? Ultimately the answer is a balance of ego's. The ego of the DM and the ego of the players. The GM wants to believe his skill with the system and his knowledge is enough to provide a fun challenge while telling a good story. Players want to believe they provide a good believable character that will deal with the challenges in a heroic fashion. That's how it is in a perfect world.

Sadly, the world is far from perfect. GM's are normally far from skilled enough to stop a well focused player from exploiting one mechanic or another. And players are normally far from sensible enough to restrain themselves. They don't simply want to be heroic, they want to be antagonists themselves. They want to challenge the GM, to write a character and say "I dare you, mere mortal, to put an obstacle in my path I cannot crush within the laws and realities of this petty imaginary world! *cue lightning and thunder followed by maniacal laughter*"

Thus, competition ensues, often unconsciously, and one or more mechanic is changed for the sake of balance. Balance is a funny word to apply to a game that has no distinct rewards for defeating your fellow players. But, human ego is fragile, and no one likes to feel useless. And on the same end there's the desire to go above and beyond your fellow players ad take the spotlight whenever and however one can.

So,I guess the ability to change people is still beyond the limits of your average GM or player. Perhaps for the best. Still, how does one determine whats balanced? At what point is the fragile line from "powerful" and "broken" crossed into a tear jerking, argument inducing pain in the butt?

Well, it all starts when a group of writers sits around a table (a process I'm slowly becoming more and more familiar with) and decides on mechanics to the content of the book. A good portion of the time the crunch(mechanical content) is there to simply full holes and give some neat options for the players. The trouble begins when new mechanics or new twists on old mechanics are brought to the table. I've had the fortune of working with some very intelligent writers on EMM&M and we've done a relatively good job of keeping our mechanics in line. And even now as the fan book is on the verge of being released we still have the occasional thought or debate on how one or more mechanic we've introduced will affect the game. Even now we still discuss it. It's in this relatively chaotic process that sometimes a small detail or another gets by. Sometimes it's a small typo that seems almost insignificant turns into a massive explosion in game. This happens the most rarely, but, is the most commonly blamed.

The second cause of imbalance is misinterpretation. It's generally the plague of newness. New GM's, new players, new mechanics, all these things have a habit of misinterpreting something into something that is not. Sometimes, the easiest solution is education, other players, a rereading, or the rare case of clairfying errata is all it takes. Deliberate misinterpretation is rare but it does happen. In those cases the offender is quick to change his ways when he's caught red handed.

The third and final cause of imbalance is rules lawyering for the purposes of getting the upper hand. These people will twink, min-max, power game, and nitpick there way to glory and massive GM headaches. It's been said on the DnD official forums that with enough supplements one can do anything. This statement has proven itself true time and time again regardless of game. In other words: the more content you introduce the more chance their is that some combination of that content will create imbalance. As a GM, I both love and loathe these people. They're the ones that force me to get creative. They're the ones that make me consider all possibilities in an encounter and to decide how my NPC's should level and build. They're also the ones that give me a massive migraine.

Why should it you ask? Well, for the sake of the other players who for one reason or another either cannot accomplish the same level of power gaming or simply refuse to. And when one character or another simply overpowers the others a few things tend to happen. First, they tend to look to that character for leadership. After all he who is most effective likely has the better decision making capabilities. Second, the other players tend to get lazier and more distracted. Why should they spend more effort then necessary working together when Timmy has all the answers and all the muscle to accomplish the tasks? Ultimately, you're forced to balance encounters around that one player, either nullifying them and forcing the other players to act or increasing the difficulty of the encounters so the other players must act as support or the group as a whole falls rather quickly. Of course this creates resentment, the GM gets blamed, arguments about balance ensue and the circle of life moves on.

The results of this complaining often lead to changes to the game, which leads to more arguments, etc. etc. A lot of games get torn apart due to these things. But, is that the fault of the game and its writers? Or, rather, the fault of the players who use the rule set? Ultimately, I feel it's the fault of all involved. The writers are only human and can't be expected to catch every little thing that goes by. But, when that does happen they need to be prepared to fix it in some manner. DnD has been real good about this and individual fans and writers for WoW:RPG have been good about releasing errata when needed in order to answer the many problems that arise when new controversial content is released. White Wolf, on the other hand, has a very poor history of releasing errata. But, I suppose this is the difference in gaming philosophy between the two games. Storyteller games place a lot of power in the players and storytellers, therefore, it is their responsibility for maintaining balance. The rules themselves are merely guidelines. Unlike DnD and consequently WoW: RPG which has hard fast rules for practically everything.

On the player side of things it's really more about shutting up and enjoying the game. If there's a problem, fix it, and move on. If a player has a problem with a GM ruling, he's the GM get over it or leave. After all the goal is to have fun, not nitpick, not argue, not rules lawyer. Writers tend to be rules lawyers because that's their job description. Players are defined as having fun. So, leave the rules mongering and "balance" to those who get paid. I just wanna play.

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