Sunday, October 31, 2010

Chasing the Game Balance Chimera

So I've been thinking about game balance lately.  There are a few interesting ideas floating around in my head, but I don't really know how coherent this blog will be.  Bear with me.

First off, what do we mean when we talk about game balance?

In my 3E days, people usually talked about it as a way to gauge the relative power of each character class.  Was every race, class, feat, or spell equally worth taking?  Well, the answer really depended on your preferred style of play, but on the internet, particularly WotC's message boards and Enworld, most people seemed to think that 'balance' was achieved if every class could hold its own equally well in combat (and typically 'proven' by use of a mock gladiatorial combat between class A and class B).

4E's designers seemed to take this to heart as what the players wanted, and hence we get 4E's system where every class is more or less identical in form, with only slight differences in function, and almost every power is geared for combat.

I often argued, in those days, that real 'class balance' was irrelevant except in the case where the DM was going to pit the players against each other in gladiatorial combats.  What mattered was party effectiveness.  It didn't matter if the Druid could kick the Fighter's ass in a one-on-one battle, because that's not what the game was about.  What mattered was that in a dungeon or wilderness environment, were there reasons why you'd want a party with a good mix of classes, rather than everyone just playing CoDzilla (as they called the 'uber' Druid/Cleric character builds).  I was usually shouted down.

But really, both of those ideas miss the mark.  Game balance is all about making sure that players have interesting choices to make.  The fun of a game comes in finding out the consequences of those choices.  Here's what someone on says about imbalance in games:

There are many types of imbalances that can exist in games. All imbalances involve choice elimination or a lack of choices in some form.
  • Too Expensive/Weak vs Too Cheap/Powerful: Game choices usually have a game-cost associated with them, be it the loss of other choices, game money, or some other commodity. When one choice is either too expensive to be useful, or too cheap to not be the obvious choice, there is a clear imbalance, because one or more choices has been unintentionally nullified. Though his type of imbalance is by far the most common, it can usually be rectified by simple changes in either cost or basic effectiveness of the choice in question.

  • Player-Time Imbalances: Most play balance comparisons are based on the cost of various choices in terms of what the player must give up to choose a particular path. It is very easy to overlook the fact that a player must spend time executing the choice. In a real-time game, the player doesn't have infinite time in the game, so not only is time a resource, but it is a limited resource. In a non-real-time game, time isn't limited, but the player's time is! This imbalances is essentially another version of the too expensive/too cheap imbalance, except the cost associated with the choice is less tangible. A good example of this imbalance is present in Starcraft with the Zerg race. Although the Zerg race units are more or less balanced by cost compared to other races, they are much easier to produce and use in terms of player time. In large part due to this characteristic, the Zerg race was the dominant race in tournaments and competitions for roughly 6 months following Starcraft's release.

  • Imbalances Across Skill Levels: As players improve in skill, the relative effectiveness of game choices may change. If one choice is easy to use well, and another is extremely difficult to use well, then it follows that to an expert player, the relative effectiveness of the two options is very different than the same to a new player. This is a common trap for game developers, since most are closer to the "Expert" side of things, and as a result often lose sight of the new player. On the other end of this equation, is the fact that "evolving" gameplay with regards to skill is generally considered a good thing. It is important to be aware of this balance, and be aware of this phenomena in general.

  • Forced Disadvantage/Advantage: In a player vs player game, some sequences of actions or choices can result in one player being guaranteed an advantage over the other. In addition to satisfying the traditional definition of imbalance (one choice is clearly best), this situation also isn't fair. In a multiplayer game, unfair situations are best avoided, and are a crucial piece of the play balance puzzle.
As Roger the GS recently said in a reply to one of Trollsmyth's posts:

The tenets of the 90's that Old School blissfully ignores:

* Game elements must be carefully balanced in power.

* Downtime and player elimination are anathema.

* Quirky, idiosyncratic, or complicated approaches to mechanics should be streamlined.

* As kensanoni notes, rules should be complete and developed to cover every angle and loophole.
Roger's got a point, but I think actually there is more balance in Old School RPGs than is obvious on the surface.  Obviously Gygax and Arneson designed D&D in an era before 'game design theory' was really a field at all, but they had plenty of hands on experience with lots of games.  And I think it shows.  In Roger's defense, though, his main point is that the idea of what makes for a 'fun and fair' Eurogame board game doesn't make for a fun RPG.

I think the main reason this is so is that RPGs are NOT a competitive game.  They are cooperative.  In Chess or Settlers of Catan or Chutes and Ladders or Rune Wars, I'm out to win and to do that the other players have to lose.  In an RPG, I'm out to win, but I do so by making sure all of the other players also win (at least in most traditional RPGs, some of the indie games I've heard about are strangely confrontational).  My Fighter doesn't lose if the Thief picks the lock on the treasure chest or the Cleric turns the zombies or the Magic-User levitates to get the key off of the top of the spire.  And none of the other characters lose if my Fighter puts the hurt on the ogre.  We all win in those situations.

Let's look at those examples of game imbalances above in terms of Classic D&D (BX or BECMI/RC) vs. 3E (3.0 or 3.5, take your pick).

1. Too Expensive/Weak vs. Too Cheap/Powerful:  In Classic D&D, the classes are given differing rates of advancement, and a few (the demi-humans) are given minimum ability score requirements.  Those are the costs to play the characters.  And there are good trade-offs.  A Cleric has decent fighting ability, spell casting, turning undead, but has a lower hit die and Thac0 than the Fighter, has fewer spells per level and very few offensive spells compared to the M-U, and is limited in their magical weaponry (magical maces, war hammers, and slings are fairly rare by the book).  So they have some fairly good advantages, but also some drawbacks for that cheap 1500xp to level 2 price. 

Elves, to compare the most similar class, also get a combination of spells and fighting ability, but while they can't turn undead, they do get their elven abilities (infravision, secret door detection, immunity to ghoul paralysis), can use all magical weapons and attack as a Fighter of equal level, and has access to all the M-U spells (and magic items).  And they end up costing 4000xp to level up and require at least a 9 Int (if you're rolling randomly down the line, no guarantee). 

Is the Cleric too cheap and the Elf too expensive?  I really don't think so.  Both have slightly different roles but fill a similar niche in the party.  There are trade-offs and choices available to players that make both effective and worthwhile choices.

Now in 3E, all classes cost the same to level up (to facilitate their multiclassing system), and there are some minimum ability score requirements, but with the default method of generating the scores being 4d6-L, arrange to taste (or use point buy), that doesn't really prevent anyone from playing the class they want.  So all classes have the same cost.

The powers, then, are where they need to be balanced.  The 3E Cleric gets good fighting ability, spells, domains, turning undead.  They get a nice big spell list that goes up to Level 9, contains plenty of offensive magics along with all the heals and utility spells, and start casting from 1st level.  As was argued incessantly on the WotC boards, a properly buffed Cleric was a better melee fighter than the Fighter (although there is the problem of giving the Fighter a fair shot to either be attacking or powering up his own magic item buffs while the Cleric is doing his buffing, and the other problem of what's the Cleric going to be doing once he's used all his spells to buff himself for that one combat...).  And with comparable spell lists and the addition of Domain spells and spontaneous casting of 'cure' spells, the Cleric came out looking better than the Wizard often as well. 

This is one area where I think the much touted 'balance' of 3E failed, but Classic D&D is actually rather well balanced.  Not in regards to 'who would win' but in regards to 'which is the best class to play?'

2. Player Time Imbalances:  I'll try to keep this one short, I'm getting into JB length here!

In regards to player time, one of the biggest areas of comparison is with character creation.  Most 'in game' choices, exploration, role play, or the like will be the same in any system of RPG. 

In Classic D&D, whipping up a character takes about 10-20 minutes, and most of that time is pondering the equipment lists and/or choosing spells if you're a spellcaster.  Even for higher level characters being created on the fly, there's only a little extra time involved as the DM decides what, if any, magic items the character will have.

In 3E, character creation is actually (IMO) the whole point of the game.  It's fairly time consuming, as you consider what race, class, skills, feats, spells, mundane and magical equipment to choose.  Sure, it's fun (I DO enjoy the number crunching and fiddling and min-maxing it allows from time to time), but it does affect how the game is approached.

In Classic, character death is a minor road block.  It's not something you need to by happy about, especially if you have invested a lot of time and effort in your character, but you can be back in the game in minutes.  In a sense, it's closer to the Eurogame idea that no player should be eliminated from play before the end of the game.  In 3E, if your character bites it, you've got the same anguish over the character you put so much effort into, but you also spent a few hours, potentially, crafting that character, and that's time wasted now.  And you're gonna have to spend quite a bit of time creating your replacement as well.

3. Imbalances Across Skill Levels:  Again, I'll try to keep this brief.

In Classic, there's a lot of player skill involved in the exploration phase of the game.  There are tricks to avoid traps and hazards, knowing what monsters to face and which to run from, etc.  There's a lot of learning within the game.  But the game mechanics themselves are fairly simple.  And once you've got the basics down, though, there are quite a few challenges that go out of the game (like how to defeat trolls with fire or to always keep a 'protection from evil' spell handy to avoid getting level drained).

In 3E, the basic game mechanics are even simpler (usually roll d20+modifiers vs. target number), but the corner cases and exceptions and what not are excessively large.  And then you've got to get a handle on the exploration phase of the game (which is similar, although many modules tend to follow the safe CR/EL of the intended party model, meaning success is nearly guaranteed, barring freakishly skewed die results).  And once you've got that all figured out, you start to learn that certain feats, classes, skills, magic items, etc. weren't all they appeared to be--all that choice you thought you had becomes no choice once you know what's worthwhile and what isn't.  There's the whole 'game mastery' issue lurking there.  That's fun for some people, but can be frustrating for beginners.

Personally, I don't think one or the other is better, per se, but I prefer the first, where you can get a handle on the system easily, then find challenges with the game play, rather than constantly being challenged by the system itself.

4.  Forced Disadvantage/Advantage:  I don't think this one actually applies to RPGs.  As I said above, RPGs are cooperative games, not competitive ones, so any time one player has an advantage or disadvantage, it's good/bad for the group as a whole. 

Alright, I've been writing this for about an hour now (minus time chatting with my wife when she came home).  That's all for now, folks!


  1. It's posts like this, combined with Erikson's & the Wertzone's latest posts on the impact of D&D on fantasy in the 80s and 90s that make me think that the transitions in gaming philosophy and preference throughout the past 30 years is way more complex than we are really giving it credit to be.

    More on topic, I always found the idea of balance to be something that became an issue due to powergaming/min-maxing. It's also a generational thing, I think. Remember those posts I wrote and you commented on, where I discussed running for/playing with groups that just gelled? The teamwork was incredible back then! Unfortunately, many people play RPGs not as if they were team-members, but rather as stars of their own fantasy drama. The Enterprise can have only one Captain. There's only one Ringbearer in LotR. You can only have one Slayer in Buffy (sorta). This is why they think balance is important.

    Video games have also had a huge impact on gaming and player impressions and expectations. I think they play a serious role in a lot of the mechanical issues that have cropped up in tabletop RPGs, the idea of choices and special characterization, and min/maxing.

  2. We must have been playing RPGs wrong all these years, because I have *never* had an instance where balance even came up. We've always just played whatever character we felt like and went up against whatever the GM had planned, and had fun doing so. Honestly, the only evidence I see that "balance" is important is when people online keep bringing it up. In my experience, which has involved different games/players/groups, it was never ever a concern or problem. Nobody even thought about it.

  3. No, Anonymous, if 'balance' was never an issue in your games, you've been playing them RIGHT.

  4. Fantastic post.
    Agree with you completely.
    Especially character creation. I always had more fun making them in old D&D style rather than with a calculator in 3E style, simply cause it was quicker and more straight forward.

  5. Interesting post. Having never played 3E or 4E and having dropped out of D&D land over 15 years ago, I cannot comment on D&D specific balancing.

    But I think balance has a lot to do with what is called "deprotagonization" at the forge. If a player has to little true options to do stuff or considerably less than his co-players, then he will feel bored and sidelined pretty fast and frustration will not be far. Depending on the interests of the player and the style of play, he will be especially interested in balance of combat power, in balance of social interaction power or in something else entirely. So, depending on interests, different people will care more or less about balance in particular situations.

    @Anonymous: you must have played with very homogeneous groups (in terms of player skills and interests) with fitting systems. In my experience this problem will get especially ugly if different play styles and interests clash in play - at times leaving players like me very unsatisfied.