Balance By Design: It isn't what you think it is
Folks around here hate the word “Balance”, and I get it, there is no movement with balance. I myself am on the record as stating, “When the players can try anything, there is no such thing as balance.” Yet, you look in the books, and you see designers talking about balance all the time, and they insist that it is present. 
There is a problem in translation: for most of us laymen, we associate balance with equality. Chess is a seemingly balanced game. Everyone starts out with the same amount of pieces in the exact same spaces and it is all equal until play begins.
Chess, however, from a design standpoint, is not a well-balanced game. It is a game of skill: while two people of the same skill level can enjoy the game, the most skilled player is always going to win. There is no way for me to beat a chess master, I may enjoy getting clobbered, but the skilled gamesman is going to win every time.

To best examine the inner-workings of game balance as it applies to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (since it is such a hidden system), we'll look at another game that is popular and itself providing a giant leap in game design: Axis & Allies (A&A). There is no game master, so the rules controlling the game are all out in the open, it hides nothing. A&A is a strategy game, but like D&D, it is also both a team and an individual game.

Setting up the game and playing it for the first time, A&A doesn't appear to be balanced at all, however, it is, very beautifully so. On the surface you've got the Axis powers, they appear to have the best position: their forces are centralized and they have the most powerful military, however, as the game progresses this balance will shift during play. The Allies are able to build units more quickly than the Axis.
  • The early game favors the Axis 
  • The middle is equal
  • The late game favors the Allies. 
The balance of the game isn't fixed, it fluctuates, thus it dictates  different strategies. The Axis have a limited amount of time to win the game through offensive force, while the Allies are playing a defensive game, slowing down the game as much as possible to give them time to gather their strength. That is a balanced design.

The balance in the game isn't equal; play is dynamic and allows everyone to play the game on equal terms, regardless of skill level. Sure the odds are in favor of the most skilled player, but they can choose more difficult countries to run, and give less skilled players the easier ones. Victory isn't just dictated by skill alone, nor does it depend simply on luck, these things factor in, but that is what makes this game so playable.

More in relation to D&D, A&A is a team game, if the players who are playing the Allies don't work together, they are going to get annihilated. Like the D&D Fighter, you have England, it has a huge army, however, it is scattered around the map, not centralized like Germany. England has to give its allies enough time to build up their forces, but at the same time, if they sacrifice too much then their removal from the board will cause the downfall of the Allied forces.

You have the United States that begins play much like the wizard class, it is weak but it has the potential to become the strongest force on the board, but even at its most powerful, it still needs England. Each nation has it's own group strategy, as well as a personal strategy. Each nation is different, some are so difficult it is almost impossible to play, but skilled A&A players gain respect if they are able to master them.

This is all esoteric really. Let's move on to something that more closely resembles D&D.

The majority of users don't play wargames, but the original designers did. Wargames teach you a new definition of balance and how it applies to the D&D system. Let's set up a simple scenario:

You've got a Prince returning from war, he's been gone for a few years and the Regent really doesn't want him to return, everything was going so great without the Prince!

We'll set up our scenario out in the open, the Regent has chosen a spot to do battle on the road. He wants a nice open space to use his superior numbers to his advantage. His units out number the units of the Prince three-to-one.

To make things interesting, we'll give the Princes men more skill and a higher morale rating than the Regents troops.

Who is going to win? Will the Regent's numbers overwhelm the Prince's elite but battered troops? Or will the Prince be able to break the Regent's defenses and move on to retake the capital? We don't know. We could probably run this simple scenario a few times and have different results each time. That makes things interesting, and while it doesn't appear to be balanced on the surface, it is.

If this battle was perfectly even, we could decide it all with a percentile dice, but since each side has weaknesses and strengths, we have an interesting scenario that is worth running on our table.

Balance isn't about keeping things fair, it is about keeping the game interesting. 

If we introduce a dragon to first level characters, we should strive to end up with a scenario that they will lose, but can survive if they are skillful and a little lucky. Something has to be there which allows escape or an equalizer of some kind, even if that strategy is to run like hell and regroup.

But are the players actually beaten? Now the players know what they are up against, and can start a defensive game to minimize the creature's influence until the players feel they are strong enough to challenge its power or come up with a scheme which gives them an advantage over the more powerful opponent. The DM can kill them at any time, but what would the point of that be? In this case, we balance player skill vs. the chaotic might of a dragon. Who is going to win? We don't know, not until we run it.

Balance has nothing to do with keeping the game fair, or even. A high-level wizard is still going to need the protection of the fighter if he doesn't then why make the fighter play at all? On the same note, the low-level wizard is still able to contribute, he isn't just a liability. This is balanced as well, but that enforces the idea of teamwork and really isn't our problem. The players still have to pick their moves based on individual and group benefits. The better the team, the cooler the adventures that they are going to have.

Additional Links:

Nerd out with me:  'Axis & Allies' - A Buyers Guide


Unknown said...

Both in tabletopgames and videogames, I often feel like excessive steps towards "balance" creates very homogenizes class, characters and worlds. They try to add flavor and variaty back, by calling things by different names and give them backstories, but without the rules to back that up, it just seems hollow. It would be like, if you took the rules to be human and applied the same rules to elves, dwarfs, gnomes, etc.

Often you have to look beyond the math and as you quoted yourself saying “When the players can try anything, there is no such thing as balance.”, it's often much more about the players and their interactions with the world.

The shifts in power, but also the codependency between the roles makes for a very dynamic and charming system, with flavor, oddities and 'magic'.

In the unfortunate event that a player feels 'underpowered'/useless from time to time, I think that's okay - no character can do anything and it's okay to rely on your friends. An issue occurs if this is ALL the time, but I think it's the DM's role to fix this and not necessarily the system. Maybe put a scenario together that play to the character's strength or puts a handicap on the others. Either way - as you said - everything is possible.

RipperX said...

I guess that we have to ask ourselves a few questions. Who is playing the game and why? As DM, do we write to challenge the characters or do we write to challenge the people playing them?

We do both, but I think that it boils down to how we treat the players. At the start of a new location, most of the NPCs treat the players like they are full of themselves, but by the time that they leave this relationship has changed, the NPCs know that they are who they say that they are. This act alone allows me to get away with murder behind the screen. The character may or may not had gained any levels, but if the NPCs react like they are heroes because they earned that status, they FEEL good. A character is just a set of numbers with an equipment list, it is the player who brings them to life, not the numbers. Yes, the dice need to work, but if you play well, and try to limit how many times that you depend on the dice, you are more involved and I think, enjoying the game more. At the end of the day a lowly cleric with crap stats can play just as epic of a game as a lucky player who rolled up a Ranger. I dare say that the cleric will have more fun. I always did.

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