Wednesday 17 November 2021

Fuck Balance

 There's a vampire the masquerade game I'm playing in. One, Josephine, is a successful ancilla, with significant social influence over mortal and vampire society, a title in the camarilla court and a big pile of mind-control she can do. The other, Anh, is a mentally ill (and rather impressionable) mortal scientist who's been actioned off to one of the local vampires as a ghoul, and who's had a total emotional breakdown as a result.
Both are a whole lot of fun to play, in very different ways. 

The first one I made was Josephine. She's got a lot of XP and a lot of social clout. She is, in a lot of ways, a character who acts, who makes things happen. This has grown to be quite a heavy weight. What she does has significant knock-on effects for other characters.
So I made a second PC, one who would give the opposite experience. Anh's bad at things, on purpose. She's a character who things - often quite bad things - happen to. She's experiences events, but rarely instigates them. And this has been a refreshing change of pace.

Why do I bring this up? Well, my point here is that there are different experiences you can want from a game. You may want to feel empowered and in control. You may want to feel powerless and be acted upon. You may want to struggle for agency. You may want to have agency taken from you. You may want to observe and understand, but not act. Or to act blindly, but not have the full picture.
These are pretty different experiences, and the key thing about them is that they're about experiencing different amounts - and sorts - of agency. It can be compelling to play a character without agency, it can produce some wonderfully emotionally charged moments. 
I have a reputation with certain storytellers for building PCs who are underpowered on purpose. It's become a bit of a joke.

It's a pretty common understanding that mechanical power can give your character agency in the fiction. A character who's mechanically powerful will be powerful in the fiction. Most people who think very much at all about this agree on it.
The follow-up thought, though, tends to be this: "Therefore, all PCs should be about as powerful mechanically, so all PCs have as much agency in the fiction." And this I disagree with.
Sometimes, I come to a game, and I want the experience of being weak and out of my depth, and the system doesn't want to let me. Character creation's strict guidelines funnel you towards a particular level of mechanical power, and if you want less or more than that, you have to fight the game for it. You have to powergame to be powerful, or reverse-powergame to be weak. 

I wish more games just gave you an explanation of what different stats and values mean in the fiction, what effect they'll have on play, and then let you stat whatever the fuck you want with that in mind. You don't have to twist the character gen system to get it to do what you want, you just stat the character, like the GM might stat an NPC. 

That's the thing. Balanced characters don't matter. They don't, they just don't. People willingly played D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder 1, and had fun with them despite the wide disparity in power between (say) a 7th level Druid and a 7th level Monk. I have a lot of criticisms of as a system, but "some classes are stronger than others" isn't one of them really. Yeah, playing a monk or a ranger made you weak, but that's only a problem if you didn't find being the underdog fun, and ended up in that position without wanting to. But when somebody knew that monks were under-powered and played one anyway, and knew what they were doing? It's fine. 

There was a discussion we had during the playtesting for Dungeon Bitches, on this topic. I forget exactly which people it was, but it went something like this:
A: "So, if you take the Beast's sex move to max out your Hard at +4, and then combine it with the right Amazon and Beast moves, you can make it so you can never fail at Lashing Out and basically never suffer any consequences for it."
B: "That's pretty powerful. So what do we do about it?"
A: "I dunno, I think I'm fine with it. Yeah, you're amazing at fighting, so what?"
B: "Right. You've made a character who's only good at violence, and so desensitized to it that it just doesn't affect them anymore. That's not a mechanical problem, that's a compellingly flawed character."
A: "So we keep it as is."
Which sums it up pretty well, I think. I can see a lot of a Certain Type of player looking at Dungeon Bitches, spotting that little combo, and going "Aha! I have broken this game!", but no. You want to be great at one particular move? Go ahead! It's only a problem if you think it's a problem. If you want to be really good at something? Go right ahead, the game will be just fine.

I think in RPGs we inherent a lot of assumptions from other tabletop games - wargames, boardgames, etc - about balance, that an option being stronger or weaker is a problem. We forget that, unlike wargames etc, ttrpgs are open ended experiences. They aren't competitive, there's no defined end-point, there's no winner or loser. So if one option is stronger or weaker... so what? It's not unfair to the players because they aren't in competition. And - as I explained earlier - being stronger or weaker can be fun in its own right.

The problem isn't mechanical potency of characters, it's how much spotlight time they get, how much the narrative cares about them. A character can be disempowered and have horrible things happen to them, and still be compelling to play so long as they get as much narrative focus as everybody else, as anybody who's played The Mortal in Monsterhearts can attest.

If I want to play a vampire Elder and be hugely powerful, a mover and shaker of the game... why shouldn't I do that? And if I want to play a Ghoul, and be out of my depth and disempowered, why not? And, indeed, the presence of both in one game starkly highlights the differences between them that makes playing both more rewarding. Being the Elder makes you feel powerful, because there's the ghoul PC to act on. And the Ghoul gets to feel the struggle of being manipulated by vampires, because those vampires are mechanically stronger than them.

Now, it might happen that some players try to make mechanically powerful PCs in order to be able to engage in other toxic behaviors. They hog the spotlight, they invalidate other players' creative input, etc etc. The problem here isn't lack of balance, it's bad players using the tools the game gives them to do toxic things. No amount of carefully written mechanics will make a toxic player nicer, they'll just exploit whatever ruleset you give them.
The solution is not to play with shitty players.

I don't think it's possible to design a perfectly balanced game without all options being mechanically identical. And if you pursue balanced character creation in your design, other aspects of character-creation-design will suffer. You'll have playstyles that don't feel meaningfully distinct. You'll have less options for what you can really make in the system. Things will become constrained, and if players try to move outside the very narrow band of balanced design you set out, things will fall apart. 
So why bother? Set out the options, what they mean in the fiction or as metaphors, and what sort of experience they facilitate. 
Then trust your players to make characters they'll enjoy, with the right level of mechanical power for the experience they want.