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…
Interesting, and good advice. I think the big issue with balance is stuff like “She just wiped out my encounter!” without the GM taking time to evaluate what the party is good at achieving. For instance, a group of warriors known to use magic in their fights to devastating effect? Why would any sane person(s) confront them without some kind of resistance/anti-magic?
Now just straight negating the PCs abilities is not fun, but making things challenging is good. I think my GM in the Dresden Files has done a good job challenging our party without making things impossible or negating the group’s abilities. Every other character but mine has some toughness and recovery powers. The solution? More minions with automatic weapons. Sure the group has armor, but 6 guys with machine guns still messes up the party.
Three mages with loads of firepower? We fight enemy mages who have been studying our tactics. Our last fight even has the enemy using spells and tactics similar to ours. It was a brutal fight, but definitely memorable.
A more important IMO advantage to #1, #2, and to a lesser extent #4 is that it’s what the players want! If you can balance the game while making it more fun for the players, that’s the best of all worlds.
The player with the Super-Awesome-KFA sword wants to slaughter enemies left and right. He doesn’t want some lame-ARSE nerfing, he wants to face ten (or twenty, or one hundred) more orcs so that he can kill them all even though it means he’s down to his last hit point. He wants to face down the enemy general, or fight a T-Rex one-on-one. Give him what he really wants and it will make the game more awesome for everyone. And you can do so even if the other PCs are less powerful – they take on the skeleton army together while Sir Kills-A-Lot faces down their vampire master, and everyone is happy.
As long as the group will support this style of play, I think this is among the best options. It matches literary and film examples. Heck, stuff like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is filled with it. The only parts of the fight that matter to the story is the planning, counter planning, and which officer kills which enemy officer.
How many times have characters in films and books said something like “Buy me time” or “I’ll hold them off”? It works!
Super hacker? He needs to drop a virus on the enemy AI while there rest of the party defends him from the elite death-bots.
Unstoppable thief? You break into the king’s vault while we lead an assault on castle.
Over powered mage? Thousands of enemies are attacking, clear out the chaff so the rest of the party can concentrate on killing the officers.
Ace pilot? Blow up the death star while we bring the shields down.
Great post. This puts into words what I have long felt, but could not clearly articulate. I hope to see more from Mr. Puketza here on Gnome Stew.
I would tend to agree with Tom, balance is a pretty finicky thing, but it doesn’t need to be perfect or absolute. Going back to 2nd Edition AD&D, the various classes were horribly unbalanced with regards to one another, however, the were interdependent, each was really good at one particular thing. In my own, homebrewed, game, I have discovered that it really helps to listen to what your players want out of a game… but it also really helps if you explain what you are trying to bring across at the beginning of a campaign. For example, in one game the GM stated outright that combat was not going to be a focus. Those who really liked that aspect were a bit disappointed, but they had some time to get used to the idea before it really became an issue.
Going back to what was stated about super-powered characters, there was such a character during a campaign in which everyone was a dwarf. He would basically wade in and destroy all in his path. To deal with this, I put in some really monumental traps (like a boulder rolling down some stairs), and a group of enemies with super-powered crossbows. He ended up missing some organs and finally scared for his life, but still enjoyed himself because there was a challenge at last.
Gnome Stew? This Tom Puketza guy is pretty cool. So far I’ve only registered to comment on one of his articles, and then the next article that I felt compelled to comment on happened to be another one that he wrote. Thanks for finding him!
There are TWO kinds of game balance. These two types of balance are related but different enough that getting them confused can lead to really poor game design and bad GMing decisions.
This article talks about Player vs. GM balance, concerned with making a fair challenge. I think this is great advice for maintaining that sort of balance without ARSEs. (Although you forgot the funnest option — give the combat a goal other than just killing enemies.)
But the more important kind, to me, is Player vs. Player balance. I don’t mean two PCs fighting each other; I mean two players competing for the group’s attention and competing for the power to affect the game. For example, imagine ONE character gets an uber-weapon, and all the others get jack and shit: that one character is going to outshine everyone in combat, and it’s unbalanced because that player will be getting an unfair share of attention and power. “10 more orcs” only solves this if the orcs dogpile the unbalanced character, but that can seem like unfair persecution if the player in question doesn’t realize how unbalanced his PC is. If the uber-weapon has a built it drawback, that can help balance things up-front.
The group needs to support the playstyle for one uber-combat machine. If not, it may be a rotation of super awesome abilities. That can be helpful to the group dynamic.
For instance, a fantasy game may have the thief able to teleport short distances to get into and out of places better than anyone. The fighter has a sword forged in the fires of a dragon’s breath that allows her to slay any foe. The wizard has a magical dagger that can store spell energy and let her cheat on the spell-count (use carefully this is terribly unbalanced mechanically). While the cleric has an amulet that lets him summon the spirits of the dead for a few hours a day. Everyone gets something crazy to help their character be even more awesome.
Meh, character vs character (what you’re describing) balance is not that important. I was in a Rifts game with a Vagabond and a Cybernight. Really unbalanced power levels. The game was fun as hell because the GM split the spotlight betwixt us and we were working together to accomplish things (plus shouting “protect the hobo!” is fun too). Player vs Player balance is important and just a part of good GMing.
Of course, the characters we were playing were our choices. If a fighter gets a bad-ass sword of slaying because he/she took a risk to get it, then cool beans. Even if he/she just stumbled across the sword, so long as everyone still has equitable spotlight time and something to contribute, not a problem.
I see where you’re coming from but respectfully disagree. One reason is that many games are by design (intentionally or accidentally) not well balanced. Using D6 Star Wars as an example again, the power difference was almost laughable. Even if you want to balance a force and non force person, you can’t. No amount of goodies and doohickeys will compete with some of those force powers. In this case the only thing to do is scale the encounters with each player in mind as described above (great examples btw).
As far as players not knowing they’re powerful or disruptive, people can know they’re “the big gun” without it derailing an encounter. Likewise, other people offer other qualities and specialties. I was once best known as a wildcard, always attempting some stunt that just…might…work (this ranged from actual stunts to building improvised explosive on the fly). And this was in a group that had a super mint juleb heavy hitter. The “balance” here came in finding many complimentary qualities, as opposed to forcing everyone to be equally good at one thing, but not “too good”.
Fast comments! My above response was intended for 77IM.
I think you get a technical problem with encounter design if one of the PC’s is much better at either hitting things or not getting hit than everyone else.
Because to make the enemies dangerous to the BigHitter, they have to have defenses that are so good that nobody else can manage to hit them. Now you have to count on the players sorting themselves out, as well as overcoming the certain amount of jealousy that may ensue.
But the real problem is defense. To be a threat, they have to hit so well and so hard to threaten ImpossibleArmoredWoman, that they might end up one-shotting someone else who should have taken that left at Albuquerque.
This is, by the way, why I like systems which simply do not allow characters to go straight from “up and swinging” to “dead”, but make them pass through a “down” state where they can be revived.
Bad big gun downs PC in one hit.
Group: HOLY CRAP WE NEED TO KILL THAT ONE RIGHT NOW! SEND IN THE SLUGGER!
Slugger engages Big Bad Gun.
Group moves in to support downed PC.
Fight has actual drama because it contains actual consequences.
Big Bad Gun now reviled and feared by group. Which means they will feel great killing him or will be on edge if he escapes to be a recurring villain.
Yeah, exactly, except it sucks to be the one gunned down and have nothing to do for the next 4 hours.
Better if it’s an NPC.
If a single takes 4h in real time, before anyone has a chance to patch up the downed character, either there’s something wrong with the game or the players (include the one with the incapacitated character) are goofing off and having lots of non-gaming fun.
Even so, this is an easy problem to solve using option #4. Figure out a way for the enemies the know a bit about the player characters and their capabilities. Then when they meet, it makes sense for the uber killy enemy focus on taking out the uber killy PC, while the enemy minions (try to) mop the weaker PC’s. After the battle when the players loot the bodies they find a letter or equivalent that reveals the enemies are familiar with the PC’s and their tactics (perhaps the uber killy enemy was mercenary hired to take care of the killy PC) – of course it shouldn’t reveal how much, or how little, the enemies know!
If the player of Sir Killsalot can’t make the session, then omit the elite mercenary from the encounter, saving him/her/it for a future session.
You are presuming a system where it’s possible to revive a character to something that resembles fighting shape mid-combat AND that the party has the ability to do so. Neither is a given.
It comes down to two things:
1) Embrace powerful things and powerful consequences, and the fact that sometimes life isn’t fair even when playing fun games.
2) Use your imagination and find ways to turn every negative into a positive.
Because you can’t, ever, make anything entirely and perfectly fair and equally fun for all people all the time. But you can achieve an equilibrium by throwing in good to offset bad. Or piling on bad when things get too good. Stories are about peaks and valleys, and you can’t have one without the other.