There’s a lot of discussion in tabletop RPG circles about game balance… and a not insignificant portion of it is garbage.
As a long-time gamemaster and much-shorter-time designer, I’ve learned most folks don’t even agree on what “balance” means when it comes to a game. Most of the time it boils down to an analysis of numbers, comparing Option A to Option B, and if those numbers don’t match up, then they aren’t balanced.
There are some problems with this.
A lot of these are “white room” analyses, so called because they happen in a theoretical space devoid of context or situational circumstance. By raw numbers, one spell might do more damage than another… but what about collateral damage? Potential harm to innocents, companions, or allies? Casting Fireball in that twenty by twenty room might not be the best idea.
Also, those analyses are frequently accompanied by unspoken (and unexamined) assumptions. Not everybody is looking for the same things in their games. This shouldn’t be news. Discussions about the different flavors of gamer are as old as gaming itself.
I’ll admit, it’s easy to fall into the trap of discussing numbers when talking about balance–I’ve done it myself. Numbers are supposedly objective. “Five is more than four” is a difficult statement to argue against, and presents the question of balance as a logical, objective thing.
But it ain’t.
What this means for us as designers and creators is that balance is a complex subject. It’s not as simple as tallying up a couple columns of numbers and making sure they match. It’s more art than science. We certainly have an eye on the numbers, and certain assumptions in terms of what the “typical player character” is likely to have for their numbers (average talent Steps, etc).
But there’s a lot we can’t assume.
Let’s take a couple of examples. When I’m writing a scenario for a convention like GenCon, I have a stable of pre-generated characters the players can choose from. I know–at least roughly–what the group’s talent, skill, and spell selections are, what their Step numbers and various ratings are, equipment, et cetera. It’s not very difficult for me to design an adventure that gives each potential character spotlight time, balance the combat encounters, figure out possible solutions to puzzles, and other elements like that. In one sense, it’s not much different from planning for a home campaign.
But let’s look at the soon-to-be-released Empty Thrones. This is a supplement that includes numerous adventure frameworks for gamemasters to adapt to their home campaigns. It’s recommended for Journeyman-tier adepts… but what Disciplines? How many player characters? What Circles?
There are a lot of unknowns. If we provide a more comprehensive adventure write-up, how would we balance that? How many gamemasters would need to rework details (never mind broader plot strokes) to suit their own campaign and player group power level?
All of them should.
But adventure design feels like low-hanging fruit. Let’s talk about core systems. Balance considerations are equally fraught in this area.
Is a Wizard balanced against a Warrior? Well… how? What are the circumstances? Are we talking about potential damage output in combat? Their toolkit for approaching and solving problems? Their place in the setting?
Different people–since they’re looking for different things in their games–will have different priorities on what is important, and this will affect their perception of a game’s balance. The assumptions they have about how things “should be”, based on exposure to other games, popular media, cultural background, or any number of other factors, also shape those feelings.
Our goal is to try and keep those different priorities in mind when working on game rules–naturally colored by our own personality, artistic goals, and feelings on how things should be. Those may not align with any individual player’s agenda and goals, and there’s nothing wrong with that!
My ultimate point is that balance is a complex subject. We do our best, but even something as supposedly simple as “making the numbers match” can have hidden depths and dangerous shoals. The ultimate goal is to make a game that helps groups tell the stories they want to tell, and have a good time doing so.
When talking about the game, try and keep that objective in mind.
Be kind to each other.