... now with 35% more arrogance!

Monday, August 12, 2013

I Hate Game Balance, Part II

(This is Part II of "I Hate Game Balance", previously posted on RPGNet. In the original forum thread, I made several follow-up comments; this is the material that specifically expanded on my ideas about game balance. One notable thing from the original thread was that I promised rants on "I hate Awesome" and "I hate role-players", which I really ought to get around to writing.)

I feel sorry for the people who don't agree with me, since, of course, they're wrong. But note that I don't care if people play games that are "balanced", in whatever fanciful way they choose to define that term, so I'm not taking down names of people who posted negative replies so that I can hunt them down later. No, seriously, I'm not! Play your little balanced games, if you want! I've probably even played in some games you'd consider "balanced".

As I made clear, but some people failed to grasp, the overarching objection to most forms of game balance I have is that people indiscriminately attempt to force everything into one or more patterns of "balance", either as designers of new games or as fans who demand new editions that "fix" problems with old games. Not every character should be balanced against every other character; sometimes, a game needs to be designed to focus on one or two types of characters, with enough ways to provide variation within those types, and any other types of characters that may exist in that game exist merely to flesh out the setting, or provide an option for someone who wants more of a challenge, or who wants to take a break from playing a major role.

Yes, sometimes you're going to get fantasy games where players are going to take one look at the rules and say, "Wizards are way overpowered compared to fighters. Why play a fighter at all?"

You know, games like Ars Magica. Stupid, imbalanced Ars Magica!

And sometimes you're going to get games where certain strategies make way more sense than others, like spending a plot point on a single on-the-fly change in Toon instead of spending lots of points on schticks up front, or making dumb characters that are more likely to fail Smarts checks. Or Risus, where for some reason it doesn't make sense NOT to try using a completely inappropriate cliché. It's like the designers were trying to ENCOURAGE that behavior!

Someone brought up something about "gew gaws", which I could have touched on earlier, but it kind of bleeds into a whole 'nother hate-filled rant. But certainly the shopping lists of feats, powers, skills, spells, all carefully defined to cover up any potential loopholes and make sure everything seems balanced are a huge part of my hatred for the concept. For one thing, they only seem balanced. There's so many of them, with so much minutiae attached to each, and "system support" in the form of a steady stream of publications expanding the gew-gaw lists, there's simply no way such games could be balanced. Which is probably why so many people in this thread bring up stuff like two advantages that cost the same, do the same thing, but one does something extra as well; it's a side effect of creating a massively-complex, let's pretend-it's-balanced system. People are going to wind up disappointed with such a system... unless the loopholes fit their favorite character concepts.

This is why my two favorite kinds of gaming are old school dungeon crawls and lite indie games. OD&D is great because most of the character detail is really handled off the cuff, instead of as part of the sparse mechanics. And I'm liking some of the stripped-down retroclones that can be used old school even more, because they often address any problems OD&D may have had without using a ton of new rules designed to make the game "balanced". And games like octaNe/InSpectres wind up being pretty balanced. Never exactly balanced, but close enough so no one notices anything except that ebb and flow I talked about. You've GOT to have those moments when one character, maybe two at the most, stand out, forcing everything else into the background, because if you go the nutcase route and try to make everyone and everything equal, you wind up making everything THE SAME.

Which is dull. So don't do that.


  1. Awesome series of posts. I think we would have way better games if the designers and players focused as much energy on making systems of "meaningful choices" as they do on "balance." Because choosing is fun, balancing is accounting, IMHO :)

    1. Have you looked at Torchbearer or Apocalypse World (or one of its hacks)? Although fundamentally different, they were both designed as games (1) where players only make choices that matter* and (2) no choice or outcome results in a dead end.

      *Well, at least when the game system comes into play; stupid GMs can still ask questions that don't matter.

  2. I feel the same way, I have found game "Balance" does far more damage to a game than any other modern game concept.

    For us game "balance" always came down to having the right members or classes in a party of adventurers.


  3. Loved the rant (started skimming a bit towards the end though, 'cause I gotta get ready for work). What I can't stand is how people claim older editions of D&D, and even 3.0, weren't "balanced". They clearly were, it's just that they were based on a totally different - and in my opinion, superior - definition of balance: make everything different. The less similar two classes are, the harder it is to compare them. Because neither is the strictly superior choice, it comes down to your own subjective values. An example of unbalanced classes would be a fighter and some kind of super-fighter that can do everything a fighter can, plus more, with no drawbacks. Nobody in their right minds would ever choose the regular fighter, making that class a useless waste of ink

    3.5 seemed to be built on a point system of balance. Each perk has some value, and you add all these up to get the class' total worth. To be balanced, every class has to have the same point total. The problem with this is that, especially as it gets tweaked, everything becomes the same. There's absolutely no variation, which is ridiculous since games are all about variety!