a rant on RPGNet, on 22 Jan 2009. Because RPGNet has changed the link at least once, I've been wanting to preserve it here for some time, but I figured I'd need to rewrite it. But finally, I decided to just edit out the references to other discussions on RPGNet and make it a self-contained rant.
I think my views haven't changed much, if at all, but I may have a follow-up post in a couple days.)
I hate game balance.
I said this as an aside to a comment about advantage/disadvantage systems in another thread, and I've said it elsewhere, earlier. But now it's time to rant about it. This could easily expand into a whole series of "I hate ____" rants, mostly centering on what I see as "the common jargon" -- terms we toss about as if they have a specialized meaning and as if we all agree on whatever ideal it's supposed to represent. When, in fact, we don't.
I hate that bastardly phrase, "game balance", with an unthinking fury. When I see someone say, "this game is not balanced," or, "you need to add X to make the game balanced," I know immediately that that person's opinion is worthless.
There are a lot of reasons why I hate game balance, mainly because, as I've just suggested, there are a whole lot of definitions of "game balance" flying around, so many that I consider the term practically meaningless. That alone is reason #1 to hate it. At least most uses of the term aren't completely retarded; there's at the very least the assumption that you are trying to balance two or more things against each other. Unfortunately, there are about a thousand things people may talk about "balancing". Lumping them all together as "game balance" not only starts needless arguments, it leads people to think some of these different things are somehow related.
I also hate several individual instances of "game balance". For example, one somewhat common, but not THE most common, use of the term is "spotlight sharing". Aside from the fact that it's inefficient and confusing to call spotlight sharing "game balance" when spotlight sharing is just as good a term, I think it's stupid to worry about this kind of "game balance" ON THE GAME LEVEL, because it's primarily a social issue. Somebody's not letting other people play? Tell him "knock it off". Or kick him out of the group. That solves your "game balance" right there.
There's another related kind of "game balance" that's best defined as "participation in the mechanical system". It's everyone having equal mechanical participation at any given moment in the game: everyone can make a roll or otherwise do something. The wizard wiping out the enemy in one or two moves is wrong, from this viewpoint, not because the wizard's player gets all the glory, but because the other players don't get to participate. People who want this kind of game balance want everyone to get their turn.
This is a nonsensical desire.
First, because neither the real world, nor (non-roleplaying) games, nor any of the various forms of fiction that RPGs draw upon for inspiration, have any sort of "balance" in this sense. There's no such thing as "equal participation at every given moment". There may be equal participation ON THE AVERAGE, over a long period, but reality, games and fiction tend to focus on one thing at a time, or at least just a few things, with a whole lot more being ignored. There's an ebb and flow to events. "Equal participation at every given moment" sounds like the kind of crap the hippie teacher in "Beavis and Butthead" would espouse. Good luck convincing your fellow players that every combat, or worse every round of combat, should be inclusive for all the players. You might want to sing the lesbian seagull song for inspiration.
Second, building on that "ebb and flow" comment, what the given example suggests is that the Wizard hung on to his two spells until the climatic moment. Up until that moment, it was probably the Fighter doing all the work, fighting off the hordes, with the wizard casting hardly any spells at all. It varies depending on the game system, of course, but a lot of fantasy games turn magical characters into one-trick ponies. The whole thing sounds like sour grapes: "I got to dominate almost the entire game, but DAMMIT, I wanted to dominate the climax, too!"
Third, though, the whole analysis is wrong, because it's defining "participation" as purely mechanical, and furthermore measuring "degree of participation" in terms of damage delivered or enemies slain. If you're playing a multiplayer CRPG, I can see how this might matter, since those aren't real RPGs. But presumably tabletop gamers are doing planning and discussion, so even when the Fighter is racking up all the kills and the Wizard is hanging onto his two measly spells, the Wizard still participates -- just not magically. And likewise, the Fighter might not get many, if any, licks in during the climatic combat, but presumably participated non-mechanically with some tactical discussion before entering the room, at the very least. Even if the Wizard went against the plan and wiped out the opposition before anyone else could take action, the Fighter had some influence on that decision, if only by being an insufferable gloryhound for the entire adventure.
But now it's time to move onto other kinds of game balance, which are just as stupid. The preceding pair are about balancing players against each other, giving them some kind of "equal participation". People also talk about balancing characters against each other, or characters against NPC opponents, or more generally players against the GM. These three kinds of game balance are more common definitions, from what I've seen in game reviews or forum discussions, and it's these kinds of game balance I am usually thinking of when talking about advantages and disadvantages (because, COME ON, most advantage/disadvantage systems are obsessed with character-to-character balance, not about player-to-player balance.)
Character-to-character game balance is about making sure that, at any given level, point budget, or whatever other system a game uses to separate different character power levels, all the characters are roughly equal to each other in power. This is obviously not to stop players from whining about not being able to participate, but to stop them from whining about Player Joe being able to do something that seems much cooler than what THEY can do, themselves. To restrict this to a fantasy dungeon combat example, like Christopher's, this is where the Fighter and the Wizard both get to kill lots of guys, but the guy playing the Fighter complains that he had to kill enemies one at a time, but the Wizard killed a bunch of enemies at once, AND got a cooler incidental special effect of tiny fires started by the Wizard's Fireball. Honestly, the guy playing the Fighter should just grow up already.
Character-to-opponent game balance is about making sure that the characters are facing opponents of about the same power level, maybe a little tougher or a little weaker, depending on pacing. Great idea, if you're trying to emulate CRPGs. If you're playing Gamist, then it's sort of a given that the GM shouldn't "cheat" and hit you with something you aren't ready for. The problem is that, if you're trying for more of an adventurous feel, knowing ahead of time that any challenge you face will be sort of evenly matched kind of spoils the mood.
Player-to-GM game balance kind of ties into that, at least in terms of Gamist play, but there are certainly other things people might want to balance between the players and the GM, like who gets to control the story, or who gets more spotlight time (kind of like the player-to-player spotlight time mentioned earlier, except it's players whining about all-powerful GM Mary Sue characters, or GMs whining about players taking up too much time with character-to-character dialogue.)
My hate for all three of these forms of game balance, and even for the previous two, can be summed up in: I do not give a crap about these things. I play RPGs to create fictional events (not necessarily "story", but that's a different discussion.) I'm interested in game systems that enable the creation of entertaining fictional details of an interesting fictional world. So, while I'll allow that a so-called "balanced" game, in any of the above senses, might make a fictional world I'm interested in, I'm sick to death of people applying THE SAME GODDAMN STANDARDS TO EVERY POSSIBLE FICTIONAL WORLD. There are a hell of a lot of fictional and real-world examples of someone suddenly getting all of the glory with little effort; as long as the players let this generate conflict BETWEEN THE CHARACTERS instead of between themselves, this kind of stuff creates a more interesting game. In certain play styles, you should encourage a Fighter getting all pumped up to fight hordes of orcs, only to have the Wizard easily wipe them out, after days of barely being able to deal with staying on a mule without injuring himself. It creates an interparty rivalry that makes adventuring more interesting. Hell, I know at least one game (The Fantasy Trip) gave extra experience points for the death blow, to encourage rivalry between characters, each trying to be the one who dealt the final blow.
Should I have been less hyperbolic and said "I hate the phrase 'game balance', because it's practically meaningless, and I hate the assumption that all games should be 'balanced' the same way"? Perhaps. But FUCK IT. I'm not backing down. I HATE YOU, GAME BALANCE! YOU DESTROYED MY FUN!