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Question: When you're a player, how important to you is game balance?
Very important - 1 (12.5%)
Somewhat important - 4 (50%)
Not very important - 1 (12.5%)
Should be done away with entirely - 1 (12.5%)
It's complicated - 1 (12.5%)
Total Voters: 8

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Author Topic: How important to you is game balance?  (Read 991 times)
Spawn of Ungoliant
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« on: January 09, 2017, 12:59:00 AM »

Because of the "rules and rulings" discussion and some other recent debates I've had with sparkletwist (about 5th edition, for instance), I've been pondering so-called "old school" play more recently. I also got the chance to run some Lamentations of the Flame Princess recently, which is very much a game of the old-school mold, though greatly improved in clarity and usability from some of the old D&D editions, so I've been thinking about this stuff in the context of my own games.

I'm curious how much important feel that game balance is, not so much in the abstract as a virtue a given rules-system might possess, but more in terms of the experience of playing in a game. When you're actually at the table playing, is game balance something that actively helps create a sense of enjoyment? Does a less balanced game generally mean less fun, for you?

By "game balance" I'm referring to a few things, including:

- The equality of (or disparity in) power between characters - a balanced game will generally have more equal characters, even if those characters have specializations.

- The expectation that challenges set by the DM are "fair" - that, given the particular power-level of the characters, they should have a reasonable chance of defeating a monster or overcoming a challenge.

- The expectation that rewards (i.e. treasure) will be roughly commensurate with the challenge, i.e. "level-appropriate."

Admittedly there may be cases where someone cares about one of these forms of balance but not another. Let me know your thoughts below.
« Last Edit: January 09, 2017, 01:03:50 AM by Steerpike » Logged


Straight Outta Johto
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« Reply #1 on: January 09, 2017, 01:55:02 AM »

For me it's important that the rules are basically fair, but being perfectly honest, I don't think it's possible to make a game completely balanced, and I think that these two things should be kept in mind:

1. Some players know what their doing, some don't: Imagine you had your DM come up to you and say, "I want to start a new game, would you guys mind coming up with characters and checking in with me? Here are the rules", and he basically gives you a few levels to work with, and this and that. You go home, and you feel inspired by a story you read, and you want to make X character.

You go though some time of research seeing if other people have had similar ideas, and you start going through the work of researching feats to use, and then you begin looking into class levels assuming you're allowed to multiclass, etc etc. Then you give him an amazing back history, and character traits that make him unique, and give the character personality. Point is you put a lot of work into this character. You show your DM, it all falls within his guidelines, and you bring it to the game and find out that the rest of the crew had merely rolled some dice, and went with the flow. The game starts, and your character outshines the rest of them. Then imagine them complaining that your character is "overpowered". It's probably not, he just put work into it.

No one should be punished for putting effort into doing something correctly, even if it means that some people wind up with more powerful characters because they put a lot of effort into trying to make something special within the rules given.

2. Some people like playing weaker characters: I for one fall into this category at times. My dream character is to play a small sentient puppet who was brought to life through magic, but now acts as a sort of master sneak, but she sucks at direct combat, and so would probably be a little anklebiter or something during combat sessions, or tripping up the opposition. She would be made of wood, and so very vulnerable to fire damage, etc, etc.

And of course endless stories abound of people wanting to play Commoners, even though their the weakest of the NPC classes. Point is some people like playing difficult characters.

If you're going through a competitive Dungeon Crawl Meat Grinder, then yes, you want balance because it's basically a dice rolling sport at that point, but if you're roleplaying it depends.

Also some people have all the luck in the world, but some of us have cursed dice...

2. Some people want to play weak characters: There are endless
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Spawn of Ungoliant
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« Reply #2 on: January 09, 2017, 04:19:57 PM »

Thanks LoA. Those are useful thoughts, especially regarding the desire to play less powerful characters.

For the record, I chose "not very important" myself. Obviously to some degree the type of game being played matters, but in general the sorts of games I both run and like to play in are not invested in balance. Both of my favourite play-styles - horror games and sandbox games - do not rely on a preconceived expectation of parity between players and the challenges they face; horror games will often deliberately make player character success very difficult, with defeat or a TPK being viable, even likely options, while sandbox games, in their very openness and freedom, problematize the very idea of level-appropriate challenge, since it's totally possible for characters to venture to places beyond their capabilities. But I'm not so anti-balance as to want to totally throw the idea away entirely. I do think there's some value in a DM thinking about making rewards and challenges somewhat attuned to the PCs' abilities.
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« Reply #3 on: January 09, 2017, 04:24:43 PM »

I have no issues playing an indisputably weaker character in a game, so long as I'm not completely useless and don't actually slow anyone down. I actually enjoy being the Robin to other character's Batman (and I have no real idea why). However, player or not, I'd still rather play in a game where the equality of power between characters is fairly minimal, while classes still felt individual and unique. Make spellcasters do cool supernatural things, but maybe it takes longer than a flick of the wrist to STOP TIME or DOMINATE a person's entire being. At the same, I wish more systems (that I encountered) gave more diversity to what more mundane classes could accomplish WITHOUT relying on some Oriental aesthetic like chi or whatever. I'm glad that as a Fighter I can hit things pretty well and pretty hard, but that's pretty much all I do. All my skill at, say, swordsmanship is abstracted in that one, single hit, whereas magic vis-a-vis spells seems very specific and precise, especially in the case of D&D (which, to be frank, is what I'm basing pretty much all my assumptions on. I play D&D and FATE. It's like oil and water)

I chose "somewhat important" because despite this, I usually have fun regardless of what I'm playing. The character outside the mechanics is more important to me.
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« Reply #4 on: January 09, 2017, 04:49:49 PM »

I think the idea of imbalance is most important to me in terms of internal verisimilitude. I suppose you could call this a somewhat simulationist approach but what seems most important to me on this topic is the potential for crunch to contradict fluff.
Now, I understand that from the point of view of balance interpreted as essentially parity of character abilities (between characters and/or between abilities) this view may seem a bit... skewed, shall we say.
The way I see it, though, mechanical balance is only really a problem for me when it begins to affect my suspension of disbelief. So, a rules problem along the lines of WFRP's Naked Dwarf Syndrome is definitely a balance issue in the sense of parity of character abilities. But it's also a problem, for me at least, with the balance between the game rules and the game's own fiction and that, for me, is when it really starts to get jarring. Not that one character or set of character abilities might be able to outshine another, but when that fact fucks with my suspension of disbelief.
It could also be a problem in reverse - say your game system, in the name of balance as mechanical parity, doesn't allow for gulfs of ability beyond a certain point between PCs of equivalent level regardless of character class. You may end up with a situation where the party fighter is, in the game's fiction, the greatest swordsman of his age, but mechanically only has, say, a 65% chance of beating the party thief (a self-taught back-alley thug) in a duel. In this case an over-emphasis on balance in terms of mechanical parity of character abilities has caused just as much of a rupture between my vision of how the game-world should work and how the ruleset actually makes it work in play - just as much, say, as if the fighter's ability with a sword mechanically meant that the thief had an absolute 0% chance of even landing a blow, let alone winning the whole fight, because in my head being a great swordsman makes you very, very good, but not invulnerable.
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« Reply #5 on: January 09, 2017, 05:19:22 PM »

For me, it's complicated! As you predicted, "there may be cases where someone cares about one of these forms of balance but not another."

As my incessant ranting about fighters in Pathfinder probably suggests, I care quite a bit about intra-party disparity. I think it's a much better game when everyone has useful things that they're good at and other things they're not so good at, and, in general, no member of the party is really able to outshine everyone else, and also no member of the party is really dead weight. That doesn't necessarily mean everyone has to be good at combat, or whatever, though if the game is combat-focused everyone should at least be able to contribute something useful. I'm also not really a fan of games where you can gain a lot of power through character optimization. A bit of character customization is fun, but I think Pathfinder is at the high end of what I'm willing to tolerate, and I probably wouldn't want to learn another system that intricate.

Ensuring that challenges are "fair" is not of huge importance to me as long as the difficulty level of the challenges is communicated to the players, so they know what they're getting into. Even in sandbox type games I guess I do design things a bit with the power level of the characters as somewhat of a consideration, but, to me, it's more that they're intended to be capable individuals within the context of the game's setting and the kinds of challenges I'm designing would challenge a capable individual in the context of the game's setting, so it fits together a bit more naturally and organically. I don't do anything video gamey like have bandits suddenly level up when the players do, or whatever, and I tend to prefer games like Fate where the power growth is not nearly as severe as in something like Pathfinder, which allows for challenges in the world to be more of a "flat" difficulty.

As for treasure, the way that character power is tied directly to finding treasure in D&D and Pathfinder kind of annoys me. When playing a system where magic items to upgrade your abilities are more or less essential, I try to make an effort to ensure that level-appropriate rewards are given so that the players don't get frustrated, but I prefer systems where I don't really have to bother with any of that.
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« Reply #6 on: January 09, 2017, 06:16:34 PM »

Where game balance is most likely to cause problems is IMO in depriving a character from an active role in the game -- that is, being forced to stand aside and watch other PCs handle things all the time because it's either too dangerous for you (but not for the others) or everything you could possibly contribute is already being provided better by someone else. This can arise from too great of a power disparity but also from narrow specialization, which can make a character feel useless in scenarios that don't include the elements needed to engage a PC's specialized skillset.

"Fairness" of challenges is more about play style than balance.
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« Reply #7 on: January 11, 2017, 02:33:15 PM »

It's only important to find the game is balanced if it's supposed to be balanced. If it's a one-trick-poney hack'n'slash game where it was agreed the balance would be poor, and I decided to play anyway, then you won't see me complain about imbalance!
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