Saturday, November 22, 2014

(Dynamic) Balance in Role Playing Games

Every now and then you'll see a post floating the blog-o-sphere that discusses the importance of balance in the design of a game. Not without reason, of course. To give a DM some tools to ensure balanced encounters is an idea at least as old as the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, got quite famous with the third edition's Challenge Rating  and is opposed by such concepts as Tucker's Kobolds and the (I'd say, controversial) Quick Primer to Old School Gaming. There's a whole plethora of arguments one could muster for both sides, I guess. But when all is said and done, one fact will remain: balance ain't something a set of rules can produce. There, I said it, both sides are "wrong" or, rather, get right answers to the wrong questions. It's not a question of perspective, either. It's, in my opinion, a question of definitions that leads to the right questions, which in turn might lead to some better understanding of what a game needs and how that could be achieved. I'll try and go there.

Challenge Rating = Bad Game Design

Done right, the idea itself might have merit. But D&D (and especially the 3rd Edition) ain't the game to support it, because it can't provide the constants a game would need to make it work. To give but one example, 3E needed so much revising, that you couldn't call it "done" until it changed it's name to Pathfinder. Add third party publishers muddying the water further with alternative (mostly even more unstable and untested) rules, items, spells and monsters and you end up with a game where you couldn't tell anymore what a group of any level might be capable of. Challenge Rating became very fast a very dangerous tool to trust in (or it made things far to easy for the players).

And yet, people often enough believed in it to be an essential part in providing some, as I've read so many times on several occasions, needed balance. Functional as a set of rules or not, this is (for me, at least) the main reason to call this bad game design: it undermines a Dungeon Masters authority in making players believe that if something went wrong, it's not because the game is broken, but because the DM fucked up in assessing the Challenge Rating right. A cynic might say it's more like a marketing tool to ensure that a DM would rather buy more product than bother with a much to complex system where he might end up taking the blame for something that ain't his fault ... Anyway, let's just say it's bad game design for lots of reasons.

Ignoring Game Balance = Bad Advice

Because consistency creates room for balance. As much as no player has the right to expect an even challenge he'll be just good enough to overcome every time he has an encounter, he has every right to count on the rules that are agreed upon to be in place. A sword will always do the damage it is supposed to do and everything in the shared imagined world works under the same assumptions, with the same machinations. Rules that support the idea of game balance are, to give a few examples:
  • hit points - everyone has them, everything dies if they are gone
  • armor class - things are more or less hard to hit, but everything can be hit
  • levels - indicate the position of an element in the power structure of a game, higher level = better position
  • saves - a tool to give a character a chance to react against something he couldn't have been aware of
  • ...

The list goes on, but I believe the point is made: although, for instance, the amount of hit points of a creature might vary, the effect of what happens, if they're gone, is a constant. And this form of consistency in a set of rules allows some balance in the game. A player can't be sure what lurks around the next corner, but he can be sure that the game allows a correct assessment of the thread a possible encounter might pose. Telling someone to ignore or forget this, is very bad advice, giving an impression of anarchy that really isn't there.

Balance is NOT Fairness

Really a common and, I think, rather annoying mistake to make. Take chess, for example. The rules are the same for every player. One could say they are very balanced. But if a beginner plays against a very experienced player, it won't be very fair for the beginner. The same goes for D&D (or role playing game in general, as a matter of fact). Or take the infamous "Save or Die"-rule: A Save Or Die is never something a player could experience as "fair" in any way, but I believe it is a balanced aspect of D&D as it reflects a certain aspect of the game that is very real for every imagined party interacting with it.

So "fairness" describes a very subjective concept, while the idea of balance describes a very objective condition of harmony between the involved parts. A feeling of getting a fair treatment is one of the results of a balanced game, though. But it really ain't the same by a long shot.

I also think it is important to understand that the set of rules used in a game is just ONE part of what constitutes a balanced game. Which leads me to my next point ...

Balance starts with a DM, not with the rules

There are at least two ways to support this argument: (1) the DM is the one choosing the system and interpreting the rules, so balance starts with him or (2) the DM is the one that decides how the world reacts to the players and how it interacts with them, so he regulates balance in every instance before any other element of the game might act (and yes, using random tables is a form of decision making, writing them up is a direct act of influencing balance in the game ...).

This has a lot of implications for the role of the Dungeon Master in a game and some of them don't come up often in discussions. Well, at least not often enough. It actually demands a lot from a DM, but I believe there's no other way. There is, for example, the idea of fudging results. If the primary goal of every DM is to produce balance in a game, fudging some results to achieve a certain flow in events (for the sake of balance!) is more than legit. It might even be necessary to filter some glitches in a set of rules. House rules, same idea. The DM is the first to propose and the last to approve of house rules in a game. He is the one to decide if they hurt the balance of the game from the very beginning and on every instance down the road.

Every aspect of a DMs job is somehow connected to the idea of a dynamic balance, every roll he enforces, every decision he makes. All of it. Is it something you'll find in a rule book? Not that I'm aware of. Certainly not in D&D.

Players threaten the balance. And they should ...

But the players have a very important part in that balance, too. They test it at every turn. Seek loopholes and try to use the system to their advantage. It's the definition of balance that there is a counterpart for every force to even it out. It's the dynamic of the game. The players test the limits of the system/the world/the story and the DM improvises/prepares/decides countermeasures to generate the flow necessary for a good game.

In an ideal group, the game becomes more than the sum of it's parts. Just like the ideal cast for a group of D&D characters creates a balanced entity that is able to confront all aspects of the game one way or another, it's the blend of player personalities that decides about balance in a game. A Munchkin will test the bounds of what's possible, a player who's there for the story, will demand a certain depth of what happens to the group and a rules lawyer will constantly check how a DM interprets the rules and question those decisions occasionally.

"Threatening the balance" doesn't mean in an abusive way, though. There are boundaries to what is healthy for the game and what is not. Again it's on the DM to have the final word here to establish a certain balance.

Please, question those ideas!

When I started writing this post, I didn't think I would end up here. System is not an important part of the game, it's actually quite secondary what you play. Much more important is the role of the DM at the table. Which leads to far more questions than answers right now. For me at least. The main question being: am I right in my conclusions? And if so, what does it mean for how we perceive the game and talk about it? What tell a newbie DM? How is this idea challenging published descriptions of what constitutes a DM or a group or the position of the set of rules in this context? And that's just the tip of the iceberg, right?

But in the end, the funny thing about dynamic balance is, if you argue it in a Daoist fashion (and that's where I got the term from), that achieving it is an act of doing without doing (wei wu wei). Which would mean a good DM is defined by what he's achieving in decisive non-action.

Or does it?
Don't try too hard, things will come natually [source]

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