RPG Design: Game Balance

Greetings, readers – this week I want to talk about a hot topic in the modern marketplace for RPGs: Game Balance. Fair warning! This is a somewhat controversial topic and is no doubt going to cause disagreements.
Game balance is a term that can mean a number of things, depending on whom you ask. There’s a movement amongst some critical gamers that believes game balance lies in the mathematics and mechanics of the game. Others say that game balance is a factor that combines spotlight time at the table (the number of “opportunities for awesome” that come up for each player during a given session). Still others say that game balance is largely up to the GM alone, regarding his enforcement of the rules.
It’s important for me to note here that several designers I know personally have declared that RPG game balance is, at best, a “myth.” I’m going to examine the issue from my own perspective in today’s post.
As always, the opinions and thoughts presented here are my own from my personal experiences. YMMV.

Ross’s Definition of Game Design

I’m going to start off with my own, personal definition of Game Balance for RPGs:
To me, game balance means this: Each character archetype has a niche they can fill to significantly mechanically interface with the game; a unique contribution only they can make.
The term “significant mechanical interface” may sound familiar if you’ve read my Hack Factor blog entry about the classes for 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons. What it means is a way for the character to meaningfully contribute to moving the game forward using his character’s abilities in a way that works with the game’s mechanics (whatever those mechanics may be, from using a D&D Feat to a Shadowrun Quality to a Dark Heresy Talent or anything else of a similar nature).
Also, the term “unique” shouldn’t be taken as an absolute; what I’m really trying to get at is that most groups are composed of varying archetypes. Rarely will you see a group with more than one of any particular character “type,” (such as Fighters, Clerics, Energy-Projector superheroes, Street Samurai, etc.). Therefore, I’m assuming that most groups feature exactly such a varied lineup and thus there’s going to be opportunities for unique approaches that would otherwise simply be “uncommon” (if, for example, your party consists of multiple Rogues, Sorcerers, Street Shamans, Brick Superheroes, and so forth).
So as you can see, my definition of game design leans heavily towards the experience of the players – the “fun factor” of the game. If the game offers each player equal opportunities to do awesome things, that’s what I would consider a balanced game. Roleplaying Games try to address this approach in several different ways; Dungeons & Dragons and the 40K Roleplay systems use class-and-level systems that encourage players to take on structured roles in the group. More freeform games like Shadowrun and Savage Worlds use “archetypes” that are less strict than classes but still steer players towards fitting into particular niches.

Game Balance and Math

As I mentioned above, there is a design approach that, in my view, worships at the altar of math. This approach defines RPG game balance as an absolute mechanical balance; each character does the same average damage per turn, attacks the same number of times, or achieves an absolute average number of successes in any given task.
In the interests of full disclosure, I rarely find games fun that are produced from this particular design approach.
My experiences with math-oriented design have rarely been positive; I’ve witnessed designers debating whether or not a particular ability is unbalanced because it succeeds roughly 12% more often than other abilities in the same category. I’ve seen designers defend designs that make the game less fun by insisting that the rule only comes into play 18% of the time on average. I’ve seen designers place every character design into theoretical “thunderdomes” to ensure that each type can defeat the others on a 50/50 basis. This is not to say that some of these issues aren’t legitimate concerns for the game; they are. My point is that the amount of time, effort, and passion spent on tweaking the game’s math was far out of proportion (in my opinion) to the effort spent making sure the game was fun to play in the first place.
In my eyes, perhaps the most disappointing result of this approach is a game where all the characters end up doing almost the exact same thing during the game, and I can think of no better example of this than 4thedition Dungeons & Dragons. The performance of 4th edition D&D in the marketplace (currently third for sales behind Pathfinder at #1 and Edge of the Empire at #2) and its critical reception from gamers is the best evidence I can point to as to the relative success and popularity of its design.
To me, absolute mechanical balance is a great ideal to strive for, but is ultimately less important than the game’s “fun factor.” I will absolutely sacrifice mathematical balance if that sacrifice makes the game more fun.
As a small side note, mechanical game balance is far more important (and taken far more seriously by myself) in games without a roleplaying component, such as card games and miniature games. In those environments, making the math work just right takes higher priority. However, I stand by my approach as outlined above.
Here’s a short list of games that I feel has striven very hard for attaining absolute mathematical balance (to varying degrees of success).

  • 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons 
  • GURPS 
  • Hero System

Often, a game’s complexity has a significant effect on its mechanical balance, or the perception thereof. Rules-light games may appear balanced at first, but there’s no guarantee that a rules-light system is any different (keeping in mind my personal definition of game balance) based on its design.

Perfect Imbalance

There’s a concept in video gaming called “Perfect Imbalance.” It is best described by this Extra Credits clip. The short version is that there is a game design approach where one archetype option (in RPG’s, this would be a player character archetype) is slightly more attractive on a mechanical level. This an intentional choice, because the design approach builds in later improvements to other archetype options that, in turn, make them more attractive mechanically in a cycle. Similar to a “rock-paper-scissors” approach, perfect imbalance means that players stay invested and engaged with the game by always having something fresh to look forward to, even though it may appear on the outside that the players are dissatisfied with the perceived imbalance.
Perfect Imbalance is a design approach that fits very well into the life cycle of an RPG line, where supplements and sourcebooks introduce new options and features that temporarily make certain character types more attractive until the next book in the cycle is produced. When the “fighter book” is released, fighters look mechanically more attractive; when the “cleric book” comes out, the same can be said for clerics. The key is to make sure that the options remain viable and – most especially—relevant throughout the cycle.

Addressing Imbalance

Looking back at my gaming experiences over 25+ years, I’ve concluded that many of my favorite RPGs have a great deal of imbalance built into their designs, intentional or not. Ultimately, I prefer a game that is fun and immersive over one that is perfectly balanced. I think that possibly the best way to address any balance issues in a game is, first and foremost, an awareness of the problem. If the GM knows what the balance issues are (such as the significant advantages full casters have in a 3.0 or 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons game, or the advantages magicians have in a Shadowrun 4thedition game), then he can adjust the types of challenges he provides. Often, many problems of balance can be simply addressed by a group’s social contract before the game begins. It can be as simple as an agreement that a Star Wars RPG campaign should be either “All-Jedi” or “No-Jedi.”

In Closing

Is there such a thing as a perfectly balanced game? I honestly don’t know – and my personal design philosophy means I probably won’t ever find out. My approach has always been “don’t let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good.’”
At the end of the day, I am satisfied and fulfilled if I have produced a game that is “good.” Quality is important to me, but I consider perfection to be an ideal that – while worth pursuing – is ultimately going to lead only to disappointment, unacceptable delays, and interference with producing additional quality content.
I’m planning to revisit this concept in the future, maybe for a part 2 and a part 3, looking at some intentionally imbalanced games such as Ars Magica, Rogue Trader, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

6 responses to “RPG Design: Game Balance

  1. “The performance of 4th edition D&D in the marketplace (currently third for sales behind Pathfinder at #1 and Edge of the Empire at #2) and its critical reception from gamers is the best evidence I can point to as to the relative success and popularity of its design.”

    Just to clarify. The marketplace stats you quoted are current sales figures which reflect the fact that 4th edition has not released more than 1 or 2 products for 4E in that time frame whereas the other companies have released significantly more (Pathfinder has about 5-8 per month), nor the fact that 4E is a “lame-duck” product due to 5E coming out soon. When 4E was current it was the #1 consistently until it started to near it’s end period. It’s sales figures were large, just not large enough for Hasbro. Please do not show items as facts when they are really nothing but opinion.

    For the record, some people like the hard math balance of 4E. Some do not. RPGs are a reflection of individual game tastes and so is balance.

    As an aside, my belief on Game Balance is that is only exists for one reason – to make players feel as if their character is balanced with other player characters.

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  3. FWIW, I am a 4th Edition fan but I completely agree with you. Much of what I did to make 4th Edition work was removing the balance, and creating asymmetrical situations that could not be “gamed” by rules alone. People did (and still do, I imagine) get stuck on the rules- the minutiae of plusses and minuses in this condition or that, the little bits. By creating decision points, you can bring some good “game” back in. And the strengths of 4e are the tools for creating and referencing monsters and whatnots. Too bad you have to pay a monthly subscription for them… It really is kinda worth it if you are playing every week, but not otherwise. I am not running 4th Edition myself anymore, but I don’t see the appeal of Pathfinder, frankly.

    However, to the extent that this problem exists- “worshiping at the altar of Math” (and I agree it’s a problem) it’s the exact same as in Pathfinder, and this problem will definitely continue right into D&D Next. I have to blame the rising hype that surrounds game designers. Everyone wants to declare themselves a game designer these days, it’s like a matter of cred. And on top of it, hardly any of these guys know how to create interesting or dramatic games and situations (which is largely a matter of talent and experience as a GM), most of these people concentrate much more on the things you actually can study, like probability curves. At the other extreme, you have a lot of parroting of pseudo-theory and indy micro-celebrities, who are often just as clueless or even more clueless.

    I have no idea what Edge of the Empire is. It’s #2?

  4. Being third in sales as a “Lame duck” product is actually very impressive all things considered. I found 4E severely lacking in flexibility as opposed to games like 3.5. It honestly felt like the designers were trying to jump on the MMO bandwagon and sold out a majority of the game design to focus on a math based approach to make an overly balanced game, while neglecting the fundamental mechanics that made 3.5 so engrossing.

    In my opinion, the best way to balance a non-competitive game is to make everyone over powered. Give them tons of toys to play with and make them feel awesome every time they pick up their character sheet. While one guy may succeed 12% of the time more, his friends will still get to play around in a wonderland of imagination and they still get to have their hero moments.

  5. Maybe it’s just me…and while I do have about 20 years of gaming experience coupled with less than zero in game-design but I feel that Game Balance is a precarious and slippery slope that needs a little bit of column A and a little of column B in regards to working between the mathematical aspect and narrative

    Games that gravitate towards the mathematical alter tend to favor certain kinds of players and one ends up getting groups where the general environment is that only certain builds are considered to be viable and that the only way to “have fun” is to make the most out of working the math. Games that favor the narrative aspects tend to light on the rules and lack a sense of structure (in my opinion) and it can be difficult to learn and bring such games as something new into a group, especially if the group already favors a certain style of play or game system.

    This being said, I have found that it is easier to take a game that was built with a strong leaning towards the hard math and pull it back as needed instead of taking a game that has little structure to start with and add more.

    What this means (to me anyway) is that to achieve a ‘perfect balance’ in a game consists of equal parts game mechanic and audience (by audience, I mean the GM as well as the players).

    To further explain myself, I see a game mechanic as sort of a toolbox (or perhaps a Lego set) of sorts. You don’t need to use *all* of the parts and you sure as heck don’t need to follow the directions to make something awesome…it’s just advised that you do. An experienced GM and reasonably accommodating group of players can take the most rigid ruleset and by removing, ignoring or altering the parts that don’t fit and run a pretty awesome game that is a lot of fun and that everyone enjoys.

    The only problem with this is that such things tend to take a lot of work and effort, both on the GM and the players (though mostly on the GM) to constantly watch how things pan out and tweak as necessary and it ends up being a never-ending process. What works with in one campaign may not work very well in the next…even though the exact same mechanic is being used. It takes a careful hand and a willingness for all of those playing to be able to adjust on the fly as needed.

  6. As I get on with my gaming, I’m finding that I tend to drift a lot more in the direction of games that are *interesting* insofar as mechanics go – stuff like the beloved On Mighty Thews, Dungeon World, or the FATE variants. I’ve even gotten fond of a couple of *gasp!* diceless games like the Stalker RPG. It seems that you and I align pretty closely in terms of what we want out of RPGs these days.

    I don’t think there’s anything like ‘perfect’ balance, save what works more perfectly for any given group. Just my .02 on that one.

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