When you get ready to start up a new campaign, or try out a new RPG (or both!), how important is it to you, and to your players, that all of the PCs start out at the same power level?
Some games treat balance as a core design goal, like D&D (although the success or failure of that design goal is debatable). Others, like Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG, don’t bother with it — in LotR, elves are flat-out better than everyone else, right out of the box (just like they are in the books).
I value balanced PCs very highly, both as a player and as a GM. As a GM, though, I can think of at least one occasion where I took the pursuit of balance too far — it can be a tough line to walk.
How hard should you work to ensure game balance? And how much of a factor is the game itself — the rules, the tone, the style — in making that decision?
Personally I don’t think anyone should be indicitively better than anyone else on all levels at game start.
As the character progress they should get better and variations will occur.
I prefer players to have more unique character concepts though, and this usually eliminates the power imbalance that all systems are prone to.
The characters should have different designs. Not just barbarian is stronger and better than fighter, or player X has more powers than Y, or so and so starts at level 3 while others start at 1. More like “Hey the barbarian was also a shaman so he can cast a little bit of magic for really minor things, but he had to spend some character creation points on this so he’s not just a braindead lout.” “The fighter isn’t just a fighter, he got into it because he was an acrobat in a circus and incorporates that into his fighting.”
It doesn’t work well in a D20 kind of style but tends to make for more multidimensional characters. When that happens I don’t think it matters if it’s a level playing field or not. Doing something great with your skills and abilities is more of a character moment of pride, than a person X is better than person Y at situation B type of thing, or so and so got all the kills.
I think balance is more important in a party style game. It doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect equivalence against each type of threat or encounter, but in most sessions each of the PCs should contribute to the party’s goal’s near equally.
If you’re running without the party structure, I think you can have much wider skill & ability differences– just make sure the balance of spotlight is there, and that the “weaker” PC gets interesting challenges in their own right.
If you take on the lackeys (because you’re the person who’s near equal to them) while others get to fight the big bad (because he’d overwhelm your PC), you’ll rightly feel like a third wheel. If, on the other hand, you contribute something no one else can duplicate, you’re more likely to be happy.
In order to people to have fun playing, they have to feel like the are contributing something to the game. If the power balance is off, the weaker characters won’t have as much impact in the game as the more powerful characters dominate the landscape. In the end, the player playing the weaker character will generally have less fun – and as we all know, the purpose of the game is to enjoy ourselves.
Balance is important, but the balance you are looking for is to make everyone playing the game get to do as much fun stuff as the other guys. The trick is, “fun stuff” varies not only by system but also by groups and even individuals. If all the fun is killing monsters and taking their stuff, then everyone better be able to contribute to that–more or less, depending on their individual preferences. (For example, one guy might really get a charge out of tricking monsters out of their stuff, and not mind a character that many would find weak.)
There are two theoretical ways that I know of to make it not matter so much in an otherwise, more or less traditional game. (I know there are many more ways in gaming, but those other ways are being explored in indie games already.) I’m playing around with both in a homebrew design:
1. The game rewards generalists and punishes specialists (somewhat), vis-a-vis each other. Rabid balance problems are typically a result of specialization, and these can occur even in point-buy systems (GURPs, Hero, Fuzion, etc.) when some players are more mechanically inclined than others. But if being generally competent is more important than being super competent in a few areas, then it’s *hard* to design a character that can’t contribute in most scenes.
2. Break the one player/one character mold, at least temporarily. Troupe play will, of course, go a long way to fix balance issues. (It does this partially by bypassing them altogether, since troupe play will likely have everyone playing a “weaker” character part of the time.) To keep a more traditional slant, in theory one could start out with troupe play, then let the “main character” for that player emerge during play. A guy that you’ve been playing and having fun with, that is reasonably balanced with other players’ “main character” candidates, should be balanced for that campaign by definition.
I think the appropriate level of the playing field also depends on the story and the party. I joined a short-lived Chill game a few sessions into the story, and the rest of the party was a group of inexperienced casual gamers. (In retrospect, I told the GM, Chill was probably not the best choice for them. They placed too much emphasis on combat and loot.) My character was the experienced agent assigned to the newbies to keep them alive while they were in over their heads and stuck there. I received more points than they did to reflect my character’s experience, and the fact that I was basically playing the party’s NPC/DM-Tool. I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing if I was DMing a very inexperienced group with one experienced player to help guide them.
My thought (I think this is in concurrence with Crazy Jerome) is that what is important is that all players have equal potential for input to the game.
In something like gamist D&D, this requires characters with similar power levels, and some sense of balance between different character classes, etc.
In a narativist game, it would just require that each player have similar ability to address premise, though one character could be king and another a slave. As long as the game mechanics allow each to address premise in their own way.
But characters also need differentiation (whether they are in a party or acting individually). It helps if differention exists in the game mechanics. A lot of differentiation can come in as color. Dogs in the Vinyard provides mechanical differentiation in that the different character backgrounds give different distributions of dice, but most of the differentiation is in color. We might both have a 2d6 trait, and mechanically, those two traits will work the same, but the fact that mine is “2d6 got shot with a shotgun” and yours is “2d6 can talk his way out of anything” makes a world of difference (and in fact, our color difference even makes a mechanical difference – I’m almost always going to be making shooting raises with their d10 fallout for my trait where you will mostly be making talking raises with their d4 fallout).
In games with a GM, additional balance comes from the GM doing things to give each character a chance in the spotlight.
However, in the end, you will not find a perfect balance. Some players are just better at contributing, and they will probably contribute more. What you need to do as GM is watch for someone being dissatisfied with their ability to contribute, and if they are having trouble, help them.
In a gamist game, you may have a player who just plain isn’t as good at groking the mechanics, tactics, and strategy. If they aren’t having fun, you may, gasp, have to give them a more powerfull character. This is fine. Go, a plenty competitive boardgame, has a handicap method that gives the lesser player a mechanical advantage. Of course, if the skill level is too different, and the lesser player isn’t willing and able to learn, they may never be able to have fun, and it would be kinder to help them find a game with a better fit.
Scott, can you give an example of a game that doesn’t reply on the party structure?
I’m intrigued that no one has come out on the “I don’t care about balance” side of things. Is it really that universal of an idea?
I think the prevalence of MMOs has given many gamers the basics in party cohesion and the need of classes to be able to stack up on an equal level. I’d be interested to see if opinions pre-Ultima Online were as stacked on the side of balance as they are now.
I don’t care about balance.
At least, not in the sense of my guy has the same number of “kewl powerz” as your guy. I care about spotlight balance.
So if you’re playing a game of, say, Rifts, and one player is a Dragon and the other is a Vagabond with a bag of candy (perfectly valid in Rifts), both players need to have enough to do and have fun. If that means cutting back and forth between the Dragon shrugging off tac-nukes and the Vagabond conning passerby out of a nickel, then so be it. Each player must have opportunities to contribute to the game as well as have something to do that they (both the player and their character) care about.
Don’t balance powerz. Balance spotlight time.
I absolutely care about balance. What’s the point of even having a system if it’s not balanced? If you don’t care if one person’s more powerful than another, you might as well just play without rules.
I completely disagree with cutting between scenes of different action. That’s really ridiculous. Both bad playing (Well, John’s making a Dragon, so I’ll make a Vagabond just to screw him.) and bad DMing (You can be whatever you want to be. The setting is the Multiverse.).
Balance is important in the system. What the players do with it is up to them.
Really, “balance” only matters for tasks that don’t involve role playing or description. In these areas, a player who’s good at description, highly creative, and goes along with the GM’s general vision will always be more successful.
An observation from one of my current games –
I’m usually a rather nefarious optimizer, but for this game I decided to attempt a character that’s outside of my more normal playstyles. I also have been favoring choices that I feel make sense to the character over my normal gamist tendencies.
This has left me feeling a bit frustrated of late because being less mechanically effective in a number of areas, and only marginally better in my character’s specialties, leads to a situation where I’m not having the influence on the direction of the game (spotlight, I suppose) that I desire.
I suppose what I’m drawing from this is that pursuit of a mechanical balance is really a figment because the goals of players are asymmetrical. The more you rely upon rules themselves to create balance the more the game will be “unbalanced” in favor of players who (through innate ability, skill, or choice) navigate the rules most effectively.
As someone who worked on the Coda system — the engine that powers both the Star Trek RPG and the aforementioned Lord of the Rings RPG — perhaps I can share some insight.
We debated long and hard on the merits of balance. Interestingly it came down to the property. For LotR it was deemed that elves *were* better than humans and to be totally true to the property that the game had to reflect that. That design was taken even further when (gasp!) you could become an epic-level swordsman right out of character generation!
These points were both heavily debated by the public and most reviewers took the game to task because of a perception of “lack of balance.”
Meanwhile, in the Star Trek RPG, we took a different tack (same system, remember). While Vulcans and Klingons, by and by were superior over humans we fell on the side of balance. Looking at the property, Star Trek is more about storytelling, moral dramas, and character-based stories. Balance was a necessity whereas Lord of the Rings was more about doing epic-level things that shook the foundation of Middle Earth while at the same time being true to the works of Tolkein. The skill system and professions reflected that philosophy for each game.
Two games powered by the same system but with two different design philosophies.
It’s worth noting that Lord of the Rings won an Origins Award for “Best RPG” in spite of being beat up over balance issues.
Personally, I consider the Trek RPG to be a slightly better designed game, but that’s just me.
So my final answer? Balance is a function of setting and system, not the end-all, be-all of design. Break the mold when the situation demands it.
In the various groups I have played with over the years we often have players with experienced characters from previous campigns mixed with new characters. With a bit of intelligent GMing we’ve not had a problem, you just have to make sure you set the story to favour the skills of the newer characters and make the more experienced characters work harder to get to use their higher stats.
Orde – I’ve really never seen this work well. Of course one factor is that I mostly run D&D style combat heavy games. Guess what, there ain’t nothing you can do to make a 1st level character relevant next to a 10th level character. And in less combat oriented games, you still may have a problem. For example, in a skill oriented game, any worthwhile skill, the high level characters probably already have at a decent level. The new PC would have to be a one-trick pony, and shove all his skill points into one or two skills to have a specialty the experienced PCs aren’t as good at (or couldn’t just roll over in their sleep and get if they needed it). The one-trick pony then becomes totally useless in any other situation.
As long as the game system gives characters who have been run longer more ability to “do cool things,” any significant imbalance will make the lesser character get less chance to “do cool things.”
That isn’t to say that minor differences can’t be ironed over. And that’s may be a good thing to do, so there is some disadvantage for starting a new character.
My gut feeling also is that as you get away from “longer play means a better character,” it will actually get harder to bring new players in midstream. Why? Because what becomes important and meaningfull to the continuation of the campaign is less and less tangible. This problem occurs even in D&D style games where a new player comes in to a long running campaign and is still lost even though they are given a PC of the same level. They just don’t have the experience with the campaign history.
One of my GMs adheres rigidly to the everyone-starts-at-first-level rule. This was a bit tough on me when I joined one of his games a year ago, in a party with sixth- through ninth-level characters.
It forced me to min-max, and to come up with a character type unique to the party (a jester with no weapon or magic skills). It’s been great fun, as despite my character’s relative weakness, I can do things no one else in the group even conceives of trying.
Me? I like a party with consistent levels, so that a player doesn’t *have* to bend over backwards to ensure that his character can contribute meaningfully. Sure, it’s possible and can be a blast to role-play the torch-bearer (and I’ve done this sort of thing a few times), but I wouldn’t hamstring a new player by *making* him run a weakling.
My other GM always starts players at medium-high levels. In his current AD&D game we all began at ninth level, and I assume that at some point he’s going to wave his hand and say, “You’re all tenth level,” as he’s done before. I favor this sort of balance in a party.
I can see how this would be a problem in a combat orientated D&D game, but we have done this very successfully in narative driven Vampire, Conspiracy X and Five Rings campaigns, all games in which characters tend to become specialists – even when they are all at the same level – because it is not possble to meanigfully attempt skilled tasks unskilled. As the most experienced you can be the best shot, pilot or smooth talker in the party but that won’t help you hack into the evil corporation’s mainframe to get information vital to the plot – something a new character may be able to do with ease.
Whilst we don’t always do it, we find that as the membership of our group changes over time the inclusion of one or two characters from previous campaigns helps new campaigns as it gives more continuity and meaning to events, people have shared references for the stories the old salts keep trotting out and new ones to share with old campaigners.
If the GM is going to allow characters of different experience levels then it is up to them to try and run the game in such a way as to make sure this doesn’t become an issue for the players. The game system doesn’t inherently give players less chance to “do cool things” – the GM and players give themselves the opportunites.
Orde – one question is how much of a power gap do those systems actually entail. I’m not familiar with the WOD games or L5R.
In a lot of “points build, skill based” games, you tend to start off as an expert.
However, that reminds me of another issue we saw – in Fantasy Hero, we had this one PC who was an assassin/bard. He didn’t have a lot of PRE based skills, so mostly he had levels in his bardic skills. The PCs decided they wanted to disguise themselves as a performing troupe at one point. So everyone was going to get some performance skills. Problem – a couple characters WERE PRE based, their choice was to spend 1 point and have an 8 skill, or spend 2 points and have a BETTER skill than the specialist. I can point to that as one of the fundamental things that knocked Fantasy Hero off my list of games to run. GURPS is at least a little better since a 1/2 point gets you stat-N instead of a fixed skill. On the other hand, a high-stat character can drop 1/2 point skills all over the map, rendering a need for specialization moot.
Typically all that preserves niche protection is social contract (I won’t step on your toes if you don’t step on mine).
And I would bet that in any game that features significant power gain (that allows PCs more or better “cool moments”) as PCs are played longer, that either a beginning PC can’t get a fair share of “cool moments” or people are actually ignoring most of the game (if most of the game is social interraction, that depends on player skill, not anything on the character sheet, then you’re not actually playing XYZ game, you’re playing “freeform social interraction, with a bit of XYZ thrown in when we want to roll some dice”).
In otherwords, look at what drives PC “cool moments.” If it’s game mechanical effects that improve with “experience,” then PCs of mismatched experience are going to have mismatched amounts of “cool moments” (unless the GM makes a real effort to cast opportunities at specific players – but manytimes these can blow up in your face, for example, throwing the minions at the low level PCs and the BBEG at the high level PC blows up when the high level PC decides it’s most efficient to get the minions out of the way, or if some kind of logic puts a low level PC in the way of the BBEG [or folks start to wonder why the BBEG doesn’t get the PC minions out of the way first also]).
But in the end – no matter what you do, you need to make sure each player has the opportunity for a fair share of “cool moments” (and most “bad GMs” can probably be categorized as claiming more than their fair share of “cool moments”). This is what “balance” should strive to achieve. If that’s by balancing mechanical power, that’s cool. If it’s by balancing story impact some other way, that’s cool also.
Ooooh, Primetime Adventures is a good example of “spotlight balancing” — thanks, Scott! I can see how it’s also a good example of a game that doesn’t depend as heavily on the party structure, but having never played it I don’t know how that turns out in play.
But it sounds perfect for spotlight balancing — and it makes me see how that kind of “balance” could be very difficult to pull off in games that aren’t explicitly designed for it.
Unlike D20 with its single dice, the systems I mentioned use multiple dice which exponentially favour higher skills and mean that attribues play a less important part. At the same time they make it hard, or even impossible, to attempt skilled tasks without the relavent skill (and even the most experienced character won’t have a vast array of skills). Say for example, that lockpicking comes off dexterity: Even if you have a high dexterity stat, without the lock pick skill you won’t have a chance of picking a lock that someone with a low dex and high skill could spring with ease. This means that the party tend to work more as a team than a collection of individuals in order to get the person with the right skills in the right place rather than all reaching for the dice in every situation.
To give you a simple example: Let’s say I have party where one player is the above lockpicking gru, one who is a smooth talker and a couple of others that are combat orientated. In tonight’s session this crew are tying to crack a bank vault: The smooth talker gets an off duty guard to spill the layout over a few drinks in a bar (that’s their cool moment), then, once they are in the bank, our lockpicker gets to work on the safe (their cool moment). On the way out the party gets jumped by some security gaurds who the combat guys get to fight (their cool moment) so they can all make thier escape into the sunset with the bag of loot (everyone’s cool moment).
By splitting the tasks this way I can set the difficulty of each one to suit the person who is attempting it.
By splitting the tasks this way I can set the difficulty of each one to suit the person who is attempting it.
That can probably work ok with skills that just one person attempts. It falls apart when you have skills (especially combat) that multiple folks need to attempt.
But ultimately, you’re depending on a lot of effort by the GM to make the new PC relevant.
And in one sense, this can head down the road of one of my complaints about the classic D&D thief. The thief exists to deal with the traps that exist to give the thief something to do because we have this thief to deal with the traps that… In other words, the existence of the thief is totally not really connected to anything else in the game. And their combat ability was pretty crappy (and highly dependent on the GM to “let” them backstab – at least D20 gives objective rules for determining whether the rogue can sneak attack or not – but the rogue is still problematical because his combat ability is detuned and supposedly balanced by sneak attack, and his usefullness collapses in a tomb full of undead and constructs).
In the end, either the system and/or the GM has to do something to make sure that players with new characters get a fair share of “cool moments.” This can be almost totally system by not differentiating much between new and old PCs (for example, Dogs in the Vinyard, sure – a long played PC will probably be able to muster more dice, but in Dogs it also isn’t so important that the PC wins conflicts, but HOW he wins (or loses) those conflicts, which the new PC has just as much ability to do (and replacement PCs get the same dice the dead or retired PC had, so the new PC issue only arises when you have a campaign that doesn’t have the same players every session). System combined with GM can solve the issue either by helping the GM set appropriate challenges for each PC, or by helping the GM set up new PCs with at least close to the existing PC power levels.
But the olden days in 1e where everyone had to start at 1st level, which meant that if the dragon accidentally breathed on you, you were toast, really sucked. I’m not sure when I started having new PCs start at higher than 1st level. Nowadays, it’s standard procedure for me to give new PCs a head start in D&D style games.