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.


  1. That last comment was like the killing blow to 4e. Every 4e class had identical progression, with a line up of abilities that all worked identically in terms of when you could use them (at will, encounter, daily)
    The people who wanted to play dumb fighter man smash had to deal with the exact same math as people wanting to play 5D chess wizards.
    Everyone gets different engagement from RPGs, and even from different games using the same system. What looks like balance can end up completely shutting out a preferred play style.

    1. I mean I really *like* D&D 4e, but it scratches a very different itch to me than something more storydriven.
      It's a popular criticism to call 4e a wargame, but wargames are fun and I enjoy them and *as a wargame* 4e is actually really good. But I go to it for different things than omething like monsterhearts.

  2. I think the only response I can muster to this is to just throw the horns: \m/

  3. Well put. 'Disempowerment fantasy' is an important, if under-emphasised, part of the hobby - 0-level character funnels, Call of Cthulhu adventures, Vampire neonates, etc - and I've absolutely played deliberately weak characters in the past, especially in horror games where being vulnerable is part of the point. But the assumption is normally that this is all-or-nothing: either everyone is playing for disempowerment, or no-one is, so in either case 'balance' still holds.

    I think a big part of this is the assumption that default play will always revolve around action-adventure material. In a social scene everyone can participate, and playing a character being flustered or intimidated can be just as much fun as playing a character being persuasive or commanding. But in a fight scene 'less powerful' very easily equates to 'less to do'. This isn't a problem in a game of 'Monsterhearts', where one character's emotional reaction to a fight scene has the same weight as another character's physical contribution to it, but likely to become one in a game like 'Pathfinder' or 'Exalted'.

    In a game like 'Vampire' or 'Call of Cthulhu', I wouldn't blink at widely varying levels of character power. But if I was going to have such characters in an action-adventure focussed scenario, I think I'd want strict metagame resources or spotlight-allocation mechanics to ensure that PC A cowering under a table felt every bit as dramatic and important in actual play as PC B stabbing a dragon in the face. Otherwise I can easily imagine PC A's player getting very bored very quickly!

    1. I feel the metagame mechanics might be unnecessary! One of my fav characters was a noncombatant archaeologist lackey to another player's ancient mummy king, and I had loads of fun hiding as monsters sniffed over my head, hanging from ropes over abysses and holding on for dear life while I waited for rescue, trying desperately to break a code under pressure... none of it affected the outcome of the fight, it still involved lots of dice rolls, it was very much still action adventure! And I think mechanics to make me more influential would have ruined the imperilment and danger fantasy, tbh.

  4. In an RPG where the objective is one of story-telling, "balance" mainly involves ensuring spotlight time. The creation of flawed or trauma'd characters can actually create more spotlight time in such games, especially games where mechanical effectiveness is de-emphasized (for example, in an RPG where combat is something seldom engaged). Ron Edwards wrote a lot about this when discussing the pitfalls of the old Champions game; Ken Hite's GUMSHOE system does a lot to address the idea in investigative-style RPGs.

    Dungeons & least, the older a different beast. The asymmetry of PC effectiveness, the premise of the game (overcoming challenges without dying), and the implicit need for cooperation, creates a stew of game play that isn't really equalled in other games. When it comes to "balance" in D&D, the best the players can hope to achieve is walking a tight rope in an ever-shifting wind storm...and the navigation of this inherent lack of balance is where the fun of the game is.

    Since I prefer that type of RPG ("old D&D") I can heartily agree with the sentiment: "Fuck Balance." However, I have played other types of RPGs (like Vampire, Amber, and Over the Edge) where "balance" least as far as spotlight time...was important for the good of the group.

    Balance of mechanical effectiveness...making sure every PC has equal "punching power," in other a false goal for RPG design. RPGs are not competitive board games where the players strive against each other, so why the need to balance effectiveness? RPGs that seek such balance as a design objective are really missing the point of the medium.

  5. If there's one thing I've learned from dropping in to play antagonists in other people's long-running rp, it's that getting your ass dramatically kicked six ways from Sunday and dying horribly is often incredibly satisfying lmfao.

  6. I really enjoy this mindset and thinking, the only thing that I wonder is someone who plays as the GM / DM / whatever I kind of wonder without balance between PCS is it a lot harder to make sure that you don't murder the weak ones when throwing a challenge at the hard Minmaxing ones...

    1. thagrasshoppa: This is actually not difficult in a game run by some sort of human GM. It does require a bit of extra work but see above from Vulnavia; their character had things to do in a combat where other characters were throwing down with super-heroic powers Vulnavia's character didn't have. There are a number of ways to facilitate this, in addition to just having the heavy-hitter NPCs focus on the heavy-hitter PCs:

      1 - defender powers that allow a heavy-hitter to protect squishy characters or draw aggro.

      2 - sensory powers that make the heavy-hitters stand out. The ability to sense the supernatural is very common in urban fantasy, making it easier for a normal human to fade into the background.

      3 - make losing fun. Either by including post-death mechanics or having interesting things happen to defeated characters (preferably both in combat as well as after). This can especially be lots of fun for players who really love body horror, having their characters affected by strange powers, or are just in general masochistic submissives. ;)

  7. Completely agree, this is spot on.

  8. I do disagree slightly with your paragraph on 3e and Pathfinder. The issue with them and balance is that the game tells you that wizards and fighters are both supposed to be action adventure heroes. However, fighters lack broad competency outside of combat and often lack engaging mechanics within combat. Wizards meanwhile have the best non-combat utility and close to the best combat potential (with perhaps the best raw firepower, though I think Clerics and Druids are more versatile combatants).

    If the mechanics do not support the lore or vice versa, I consider that bad game design. It took until Book of Nine Swords for us to get a character class that enables martial characters to have even close to comparable effectiveness to casters (and largely did so by making them casters).

    I do agree that characters do not need to be equally powerful if the players do not want them to be. But all characters in an action adventure genre game need to have engaging action adventure gameplay. And in a social intrigue game, all characters need to have engaging social intrigue opportunities.


  9. The solution is not to play with shitty players.

    It's amazing how many difficult and sometimes intractable problems are solved by doing this.

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  11. Reading through the article, I do think you are confusing game balance with character creation options. Like in your example, those two characters are very differently created on purpose and in a very well-balanced game. The problem with game balance is to be able to achieve the level of competence that you want. Like in your example about the monk in 3.5, game balance is very important, because in DnD I am given this option to play a Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon style character that matches the rest of the high fantasy heroic style of my DnD group, but it's game balance that makes that character not perform according to expectations and fail miserably compared to the Frenzied Berserker who is able to single-handedly fell a giant or kill almost 100 orcs in one round. I didn't make the choice to play the underdog, it's just that 3.5 game balance is crap. So basically how I read your article's title is "Fuck not having options".

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