The GM and Game Balance

TODD MAN OUT: A Guest Blog from Scott Holden

The GM and Game Balance

I’ve just finished reading yet another online forum thread about “why the paladin should be balanced with other classes.”

Balance. This concept seems to dominate discussion in and around RPGs these days. Everyone wants to be entirely sure that new classes, spells, items, and so on are balanced. The more I see people touting balance as the be-all and end-all of game design, though, the more I’m beginning to question the necessity (and even the value) of this concept. For one thing, the very idea that a designer can balance even just two core classes perfectly against one another is a white elephant of the first order. Simply look at the ubiquitous posts out there about “this class sucks” or “that class got the shaft” to see what I mean. You’ll simply never make everyone happy.

So instead of worrying about it, why not simply revel in the imbalances?

Of course, I can see the importance of being sure that all of the players have fun — i.e., so nobody sits at the table feeling that their character is *completely* useless while another player’s character single-handedly dismembers that entire opposition. What people tend to forget (or to overlook), though, it seems to me, is that we’re talking about role-playing games here.

Some of the most fun I ever had gaming was when I played a wimpy AD&D thief (no rogues back then…), who was pretty much useless unless there was a wall to be climbed. In time, of course, my friend’s magic-user came into his own, and when he got a nifty new fly spell, even my 98% climb walls ability paled by comparison.

Occasionally — and I mean occasionally — I did get off a decent backstab before the real melee started, and that was pretty cool. (There’s much to be said, but maybe not here, about the fact that I think the other players enjoyed those rare moments every bit as much as I did.) And of course I was 10th level by the time the magic-user was only 7th, so that was cool, for what it was worth.

What seems to be missing from so many of these contemporary balance discussions, I think, is the mystique and magic of D&D. In the past, it didn’t really seem to matter all that much that my thief was pretty much the most useless character — although the monk was pretty wimpy too, and, really, the big loser was probably the cleric, in truth….

Nonetheless, we all had a whole lot of fun playing, even if the paladin-cavalier, the half-elf ranger/cleric (specialized in bow and double-specialized in longsword, with cleric, magic-user, and druid spells to boot!), and the grey elf magic-user tended to dominate the combat encounters. There were times when I wished I had chosen something else to play, honestly — but, in the larger scheme of things, my “wimpiness” was as much a part of the fun as anything else in those old games. After all, I had chosen the class knowing full well that I’d never be a power-house, and I loved the character in any case. (At least I didn’t have to put up with dying about once each level for the first four levels, like the magic-user. He paid a huge price, 4 points of Constitution lost to raise dead spells, for his ultimate power in the endgame.)

And in any case, there were times when the DM let my character shine anyway — because of his interesting “underworld contacts.”

Now, anyone who played 1st ed. knows that there was nothing explicitly written, per se, regarding a thief character’s “underworld contacts” (well, aside from his speaking Thieves’ Cant, I guess). Yet it went without saying, in our group at least, that as a thief he just did have those kinds of contacts. And in that way, by introducing plot elements, new characters and NPCs, vital information, and adventure hooks through my character’s shady background, the DM magically “balanced” things for our group. These little interesting bits, each a nod to my chosen character path, let me feel that I was every bit as much a part of the group as even the virtually unstoppable cavalier or wizard.

And again, the other players loved it every bit as much as I did.

Another character I remember very fondly was a 2nd ed. AD&D druid with the barbarian kit. He had a 13 Wisdom, which really did him no good at all, and a 17 Intelligence — which he always hid by playing the part of a dumb barbarian. In terms of game mechanics, he was a pretty weak link in the party, but he and his twin brother (another barbarian druid played by a friend of mine) kept us all laughing with their crazy antics. (The “Pull my finger!” moment was a favourite, as spoken to the elf lord we met on the southern border of Celene….)

I guess what I’m getting at is that balance can be as much a subjective matter of character environment and background, of a willingness to not be the best at everything, as it is about the numbers on the page. If I can’t compare in damage-dealing to the fighter or the barbarian because I’m a thief — well, I’m a bloody thief! I’m not supposed to be a fighter or a barbarian, so why should I be able to fight as well as either!? I have other strengths and weaknesses, and if my group is pulling together and my DM is observant and cares about everyone having fun, I certainly shouldn’t need to be comparable in firepower to each of the other characters in the group to do my part and just have fun.

Here’s the bottom line as I see it: If you and your fellow players are more concerned about how many dice of damage your characters can deal out in a round as compared to the other characters in the group, I submit that maybe you would be just as well off getting together online to play Neverwinter Nights or something similar because, there, you can min/max your characters all you want, and the computer will keep track of all the necessary math for you without its getting a headache.

Me, I think I’ll roll up a nice, wimpy expert the next time I start a new character so I can focus on the story and my PC’s personality and, I hope, make the experience memorable and enjoyable both for me and for everyone else in the group. 

I’ve just finished reading yet another online forum thread about “why the paladin should be balanced with other classes.”

Balance. This concept seems to dominate discussion in and around RPGs these days. Everyone wants to be entirely sure that new classes, spells, items, and so on are balanced. The more I see people touting balance as the be-all and end-all of game design, though, the more I’m beginning to question the necessity (and even the value) of this concept. For one thing, the very idea that a designer can balance even just two core classes perfectly against one another is a white elephant of the first order. Simply look at the ubiquitous posts out there about “this class sucks” or “that class got the shaft” to see what I mean. You’ll simply never make everyone happy.

So instead of worrying about it, why not simply revel in the imbalances?

Of course, I can see the importance of being sure that all of the players have fun — i.e., so nobody sits at the table feeling that their character is *completely* useless while another player’s character single-handedly dismembers that entire opposition. What people tend to forget (or to overlook), though, it seems to me, is that we’re talking about role-playing games here.

Some of the most fun I ever had gaming was when I played a wimpy AD&D thief (no rogues back then…), who was pretty much useless unless there was a wall to be climbed. In time, of course, my friend’s magic-user came into his own, and when he got a nifty new fly spell, even my 98% climb walls ability paled by comparison.

Occasionally — and I mean occasionally — I did get off a decent backstab before the real melee started, and that was pretty cool. (There’s much to be said, but maybe not here, about the fact that I think the other players enjoyed those rare moments every bit as much as I did.) And of course I was 10th level by the time the magic-user was only 7th, so that was cool, for what it was worth.

What seems to be missing from so many of these contemporary balance discussions, I think, is the mystique and magic of D&D. In the past, it didn’t really seem to matter all that much that my thief was pretty much the most useless character — although the monk was pretty wimpy too, and, really, the big loser was probably the cleric, in truth….

Nonetheless, we all had a whole lot of fun playing, even if the paladin-cavalier, the half-elf ranger/cleric (specialized in bow and double-specialized in longsword, with cleric, magic-user, and druid spells to boot!), and the grey elf magic-user tended to dominate the combat encounters. There were times when I wished I had chosen something else to play, honestly — but, in the larger scheme of things, my “wimpiness” was as much a part of the fun as anything else in those old games. After all, I had chosen the class knowing full well that I’d never be a power-house, and I loved the character in any case. (At least I didn’t have to put up with dying about once each level for the first four levels, like the magic-user. He paid a huge price, 4 points of Constitution lost to raise dead spells, for his ultimate power in the endgame.)

And in any case, there were times when the DM let my character shine anyway — because of his interesting “underworld contacts.”

Now, anyone who played 1st ed. knows that there was nothing explicitly written, per se, regarding a thief character’s “underworld contacts” (well, aside from his speaking Thieves’ Cant, I guess). Yet it went without saying, in our group at least, that as a thief he just did have those kinds of contacts. And in that way, by introducing plot elements, new characters and NPCs, vital information, and adventure hooks through my character’s shady background, the DM magically “balanced” things for our group. These little interesting bits, each a nod to my chosen character path, let me feel that I was every bit as much a part of the group as even the virtually unstoppable cavalier or wizard.

And again, the other players loved it every bit as much as I did.

Another character I remember very fondly was a 2nd ed. AD&D druid with the barbarian kit. He had a 13 Wisdom, which really did him no good at all, and a 17 Intelligence — which he always hid by playing the part of a dumb barbarian. In terms of game mechanics, he was a pretty weak link in the party, but he and his twin brother (another barbarian druid played by a friend of mine) kept us all laughing with their crazy antics. (The “Pull my finger!” moment was a favourite, as spoken to the elf lord we met on the southern border of Celene….)

I guess what I’m getting at is that balance can be as much a subjective matter of character environment and background, of a willingness to not be the best at everything, as it is about the numbers on the page. If I can’t compare in damage-dealing to the fighter or the barbarian because I’m a thief — well, I’m a bloody thief! I’m not supposed to be a fighter or a barbarian, so why should I be able to fight as well as either!? I have other strengths and weaknesses, and if my group is pulling together and my DM is observant and cares about everyone having fun, I certainly shouldn’t need to be comparable in firepower to each of the other characters in the group to do my part and just have fun.

Here’s the bottom line as I see it: If you and your fellow players are more concerned about how many dice of damage your characters can deal out in a round as compared to the other characters in the group, I submit that maybe you would be just as well off getting together online to play Neverwinter Nights or something similar because, there, you can min/max your characters all you want, and the computer will keep track of all the necessary math for you without its getting a headache.

Me, I think I’ll roll up a nice, wimpy expert the next time I start a new character so I can focus on the story and my PC’s personality and, I hope, make the experience memorable and enjoyable both for me and for everyone else in the group.

Posted in Todd Man Out