Guest author Tom Puketza returns! Tom writes great articles, and we love featuring his work. This one may stir the pot a bit — be sure to drop by the comments and share your take on it. Thanks, Tom! –Martin
Everyone hates an unfair game. And we all remember, in vivid detail, that one time someone showed up with a completely inappropriate character build, which, for some reason, was allowed, and which, oddly enough, resulted in tear soaked, torn up character sheets. And collectively, as hobbyists, most of us have allowed such events to trigger a strange post traumatic stress response to powers without downers. At best, this is a fun killer. At worst, this irrational fear makes it impossible raise a skill too high without having to build a peg legged half blind epileptic, hunted by three doom cults and cursed to never, ever truly love again. Long is the list of games and campaigns that are so keen on limiting a player’s abilities that the best a player can create is a character that doesn’t suck.
What I am talking about, specifically, is the concept of “balance,” which is a word ever present in game design and in the thinking of a great many game masters. And while generally I think it is important to the enjoyment of the hobby, I also think it occasionally goes too far.
Want to play a game of Cyberpunk? Don’t get too cyber. Because they’ll make you CYBER MURDER PEOPLE TO DEATH!! AWHOO!!!!
Want to play the multi-genre, realities at war game TORG? Don’t play the guy with the Iron Man style power suit. It gives you brain damage just to use it. (I have no idea why. Maybe the helmet drills straight into the skull. But that’s what the rules say.)
And despite the wildly different core classes developed for 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons, the idea of “balance” lead to the development of its challenge rating system (which, when coupled with 3.5’s other copious rules, virtually requires an advanced accounting degree to understand), and influenced the structure of its combats (to the point where players who had such degrees could predict combats like gaming actuaries).
There is a difference between adjudicating your games fairly, and inflicting fairness like your players are Harrison Bergeron. The second method usually creates what I like to call an ARSE, or “ARbitrary Stupid Explanation,” which serves no other purpose but to nerf an item, power, or otherwise cool thing a player might use. An ARSE usually follows an if/then formula: if something is good in one way, that same thing must also be exceedingly, dysfunctionally bad in some other way. I am not a power gamer, but I will admit this sort of thing is a pet peeve. As far as I am concerned, game balance is ten more orks on the table.
Let’s look at this whole idea in a slightly different way. You wan to run a game? Congratulations! YOU’RE GOD. Now, one of your players just picked up the Sword of All Best Killingness Ever. So you check your rule books and you see that the Sword of All Best Killingness Ever has a strange quality. In an odd echo of its creator’s eccentricities, it makes its wielder increasingly obsessed with belly button lint. Anyone who actually kills something with the Sword of All Best Killingness Ever needs to make some very difficult dice rolls. The player, once excited and eager, now wonders why anyone would even bother with such an item. Questions like this are dead giveaways that you’re dealing with a balance ARSE. But if a player has nothing to slow him down, how can GOD handle such a situation? Amazingly enough, GOD has many options:
Option #1: Pile on the minis. This is where I coined the phrase “ten more orks on the table”. If the player or players can wade through armies, throw armies at them. Regardless of power or level, sheer numbers will always make players nervous. Plus, large long fights still manage to wear down resources and hit points.
Option #2: Employ variety. Just as in the above method, but also remember to put a wide variety of skills and powers at your disposal. Some powers and combination of powers can be very effective force multipliers.
Option #3: Make the powerful fight themselves. At its simplest, reskin the player characters and make the group fight itself. More generally, powerful people attract powerful attention. If their reputation precedes them in the game world, anyone going against them will employ the best means possible to stop them. You can follow this up with Option #3A: Make the powerful fight people MORE powerful than themselves.
Option #4: Play to “win.” If your players are so powerful they’re causing a ruckus, put the fear of GOD into them by genuinely playing to kill them. Not maliciously, of course. Just don’t hold back. Don’t fudge the big damage rolls. Play your enemies as smart as possible. Have your monsters swallow them whole if that’s what they can do. Make breaking and theft attempts on the “game breaking” items. It’s not a good fight if no one breaks a sweat.
Option #5: Turn the entire world against them. Make the environment itself an antagonist. You can do this in the form of set pieces, like outside moving trains, factory floors, or some place with intricate platforms. Or you can just tun the environment against the player. For example, while running an old D6 Star Wars game, the group’s insanely powerful Jedi was inside a city building when demolition charges went off. He had to escape as the building was collapsing into rubble.
In the real world, technology is developed and used because it gives us a decisive advantage. And in war, these advantages determine battles, but not campaigns. In World War II, German equipment was superior. In Vietnam, American equipment was superior. In both cases, adaptations were made by the opposing armies which offset these advantages. If you adapt to a powerful group, as opposed to trying to lame them out with “balance,” you’re forced to make your games more creative. Your players get to enjoy all their mega powers and gadgets, and don’t feel cheated if they still can’t win.
So let them have the big gun. Let them have the big power. Let them do what they will. You’re controlling an entire universe. Whatever your players are doing, you can do better.
And you always have ten more orks…