Sunday, December 31, 2023

Revisiting Balance in Game Design (in which I ramble a bit ... you have been warned)

Balance, that old chestnut. People with opinions talking gaming seem to think it ain't necessary, because "player agency" solves all that, or that encounter balance is a myth, something that cannot be achieved so it needn't be tried ... I get it. If all you do is DMing games, you'd have to realize at some point that a Gamemaster is one key element to achieving balance in a game. And yes, it is a multi-faceted problem. Just doesn't mean it can't be solved. Lets talk about it once more ...

This is following up a discussion I had with my good friend Eric (of Methods & Madmen fame) on X, where I'm also at now (find me! follow me! hehe). It was his idea to change medium and write posts about it, too. Read his take here. I have also talked plenty about this with my good friend Mark, and he pointed me towards this nice little nugget of his about balance in a game he wrote. You can read that here.

Over the years I've taken several stabs at the project, and as I got more and more serious about designing my own games, my perspective somewhat shifted. One of my early takes on this (2014!) can be read here. Spoiler: I'm a bit further down the road right now, so I might not even fully agree with what I wrote back then, but clever young me already took that into account and left open what he couldn't know. Ha!

Anyway. This one will be a bit all over the place. You'll find this examined through all kinds of lenses, as the discussion was all over the place as well.


Balance is everything, and everything is balance. Anything that goes against that simple truth will produce some disharmony, if you are lucky, disaster, if you are not so lucky. So purely on the face of it, it is ridiculous to assume that games don't need to be balanced one way or another.

Assuming so, then, needs to come from some skewed understanding what is happening in game design, or what it means to play a game. Something different to what the original games offered. A paradigm shift of sorts.

I think I have a grasp on what is happening and why. It took a while and some discussion, but in the end it was right there in front of me. As usual it is there to be seen, but you have to look. Now I have to find a way to actually explain this in a way that gives others the chance to gain that same understanding.

I'll say it up front: this is no joke. We have been way too lax with how we talk and write games, what game design really means. And in the end (not "the end" end, but where we are at nonetheless), it fucked up what little gaming culture we had. what we are seeing now is the corpse of our hobby looted.

You think this is hyperbole? Keep reading ...

Where we come from, where we are ...

I'll keep this one short. It will just be a reminder what was offered in the beginning and how that changed. It will be important to understand where I come from when I talk "balance".

Out of several different attempts to make role-playing games happen, D&D was the one that stuck, that actually produced a hype that not only carried itself quite well, but also inspired a wave of innovations in this new hobby that still needs proper reviewing.

What was the essence of that game? What was able to catch the inspiration of so many gamers all over the world? We know today that it wasn't just the rules, it also was the "zeitgeist" back in the early seventies. What the sixties sowed had been in full swing in the 70s, and it showed. The books people read, the movies that went along with it ... very fertile ground for something like role-playing games.

People had been ready to experience the stories themselves they had seen or heard and read about. I think it is hard to grasp what it actually meant to grow up in that time. For one, computer games hadn't been a thing. Board games hadn't been that big yet, either. If you really were into "gaming" and lived in the USA, it would have been in one of the war gaming clubs. A very fringe group of individuals, and ground zero for role-playing games.

Nerds! [source]
 So the hobby takes off and innovates up to the 90s like crazy. Hundreds and thousands of games come into existence. the hobby is broad enough at that point so that there is a general agreement on what it means to play the game, but yet no proper research. No one is looking, everyone is doing. Basically. Some forums here and there discussed aspects of the big picture, but it was all very much wild west.

The only way to find out if a game designer back then understood what they were doing, usually was publishing it and seeing if it worked or not (simplified, of course).

The end of TSR in a way marks the end of that momentum as well, even for the competition. Hasbro buying WotC (because of M:tG) then killed it for good and fully made it a corporate endeavor.

Then the revisioning started for good, and the strongest for that first game: D&D. 3e did what 3e did, but people wanted to keep playing that original game, so all the retro clones and blogs happened ... and ended up being successful.

4e failed, 5e tried to play catch up with a crowd that would rather play the old games. That worked a bit, but all the while another movement gained momentum out of the retroclone scene many associate with the moniker "OSR": minimalist games really started taking off.

Basically, we ended up with three distinct kinds of games. The "old" games that started it, including those designed in that tradition. The minimalist games, that basically take the core assumption of the old games, add a concept to that and assume that those playing know what they have to do. And finally, the corporate vision of role-playing games, that would rather have the game being a theme park, of sorts, where you pay and pay and pay to participate.

That's the way I cut it, and those three distinctions are crucial for the argument I make.

The Basic Tenets of  RPG Game Design

Role-playing games are, despite their war gaming roots, first and foremost about NEGOTIATION. You talk about what's happening until a disagreement makes it necessary to consult the tools the game offers until the problem is resolved.

Ongoing negotiations ... [source]
Those tools exist along a hierarchy, with the basically talking being the lowest, and the most complex tools being the highest spot in that hierarchy of negotiations. I go into detail about this in the GM section of be67 when talking encounters (following the paradigm established by the D&D RC). It goes like this:

Other than seeing Encounters as elements that form a cohesive narrative, they also need to be seen as interactive elements. As such, they will have several degrees of possible interaction. They are, ordered hierarchically (from easiest to most difficult):
  •         Superficial – Can be negotiated without the use of dice.
  • Passive – Can be overcome with a Save.
  • Resource based – Can be overcome, but it costs.
  • Active, Attribute based – Can be overcome with active use of Attributes.
  • Active, Skill based – Needs specific Skills to be overcome.
  • Combat – High resolution challenge triggering some or all the resources.
All elements can be combined, of course, and it should be possible to cleverly negotiate encounters towards a lower hierarchy solution in almost all cases. Instead of fighting, Characters could use Skills, instead of Skills, they could argue the use of Attributes or spend some resources they got available. Arguing Saves would be possible, if it is imaginable that a challenge could be overcome instinctively, and arguing down to “superficial” would render the challenge harmless because Players could talk their way around it. The Gamemaster needs to entertain the argument first, however, and has the last word in all things.

This holds true through all sorts of designs (hence "basic tenets"). You can add to this, or leave stuff out, but along these lines game design happens as soon as talking won't bring the narrative forward.

In a sense, and this is important to understand, the design starts where the negotiation ends. Or rather: the rules of a game EXPAND on language towards the narrative the game intents.

This is, then, where you decide how a game should play. The vision. But what makes a game?

Definition Time & Some Analogy

At this point we can start talking balance, then. We'll start with the analogy and go from there:

The relation between gaming system and GM is the same as between a car and a professional driver. Ideally, both compliment each other to completion, which means, if both work as they should, you get the best possible result. It also means that one balances the other. A good driver will easily tell what problems a car has and what changes need to be made, a good car is designed to accommodate a driver as good as possible.
So for one, a gamemaster needs to know systems like a professional driver needs to know cars. That may come with individual tastes and biases (and will produce new problems I'll address further down), but the more you know, the more you'll appreciate how a game is done before positioning yourself towards it (incidentally how you recognize a good reviewer as well).

By that same token, games need to be designed properly to elevate the performance of a good GM. If all a GM is doing is reduced to compensating for a lacking system, you might still have a game, just not as good as it could have been.

Proper design, therefore, needs to establish standards that new games can build on, just like cars developed standards and still evolve to this day.

In game design, that standard should be (as far as I'm concerned) that someone buying a game can expect to gain the same experience from it as the designer was able to conjure when testing it if playing it by the book. This is no small feat to begin with, to be fair, because it means that the designer must have done extensive testing to present the game in a way that takes all possible uses into account (as far as that's possible).

The only way to assure that is to have the engine of a game BALANCED to the extent that it actually takes some punishment before producing false results.

See it like this: a guy has a vision for a game. It is supposed to do xyz when playing it. That means, it needs to produce results to that effect on all levels of resolution. It is the "first principle" of the game. The base line. Now, when testing reveals a problem where, say, leveling breaks or classes aren't progressing properly or combat produces undesirable effects, or a plethora of other problems that could occur when designing a game, a designer would look at the problem and adjust the system towards the established first principle.

Doing so throughout will produce a BALANCED SYSTEM within the parameters established in the beginning. Which means, as a matter of fact, that there is a metric by which encounters are balanced within the system. It is the equivalent to having a sports car do the things a sports car does.

He's saying something about speed ... [source]

So what does "balance" mean, then? Well, chess, for instance, is balanced. Other than who starts, everyone has the same rules and moves. You play two games and switch who starts between the two of you, and it is the same for both.

The balance is in the symmetry of the game, as well as in how the single elements within the game move and interact. Making that happen is the act of designing a game. "Fairness" is not in the opponent you get, but in the fact that all have the same chance to reach the goals the game sets. finding an individual way to make that work is up to the player.

There you go, game design 101. You decide what your game wants to do, then you engineer it towards that goal anyway you can, balancing all elements towards the vision you have for the game. If you manage to make all that manifest, you have a balanced game on hand.

Balance is unnecessary?

Why aren't there proper distinctions and definitions? Or how come that balance is deemed unnecessary in role-playing games? The answer to both would be that gaming is part of our culture to an extent that general assumptions of what that entails interferes with a need to have a distinction to begin with.

We are expected to know games. At least the general principle of what "gaming" is. We are also expected to accept that while there are general distinctions between categories of games, our only purpose is to know what we like so that we can go and consume that. In other words, you don't need to know how a car is built to drive one. Or even enjoy driving one.

So on the customer side, we only learn to look for the signs of what we think we like, not how that is achieved or, necessarily, how something actually aligns with what we could, would or even need to enjoy. There is a huge wiggle room where selling and buying the illusion of what we want is absolutely fair game. That would be consuming for the IDEA of doing something, with no intention of actually doing so.

I have bought enough games to know exactly what that means. And I have bought games because I liked their presentation, not really thinking about actually ever playing them. Or pdfs, because of an appealing idea and some nice cover art. Guilty as charged, on all those points. Which is why there is a market for it, which also is why that market is over-saturated but, for lack of a better word, flat.

That said, make no mistake, producing artifacts that superficially manage to summon the air of being a role-playing game is not the same as actually writing a role-playing game. There might be overlap, for sure, but to satisfy the market of the former is far easier than doing so for the latter.

That same wiggle room also produces another problem: it results in a faulty understanding of what playing a role-playing game actually entails. It skews our meta-knowledge of this niche of gaming towards an idea of entertainment more akin to going to a theme park.

At this point we are back at the distinction made in the beginning, those three different approaches we call "role-playing games" without distinction. Following the original paradigm will lead to a different understanding of what the game needs than following that of a minimalist game. And corporate has its very own idea what it wants of a gamer (basically WotC wants for the game what Adobe does for its apps). 

With all three having very different approaches and need for their designs (again, with overlap), there will be confusion about what a game needs if the distinctions aren't clear.

Coming from a faulty premise like that will make it impossible to evaluate the requirements of a good game from a customer perspective, even if you end up playing a lot of games that spawned in that dreaded wiggle room. The idea of "balance" would not even occur to you, as it is not needed for the kind of games that don't need it. You agree at the table what you want to experience, and then you experience that. The rules are more about engaging socially and how to behave. More LARP or improv theater than D&D.

Still my favorite LARP pic ... [source]
 What's more, the "balance" those minimalist or corporate games need is not necessarily anchored in the system, but outsourced to the participants (although with a different focus for each). That hierarchy I've talked about above doesn't track with those games.

Minimalist games, arguably, reduce the game to mostly the negotiation part. That has to mean that those mean rely on a proper "social contract" between the participants to make it work. That can be through having an experienced GM bringing their "meta understanding" of what constitutes a game to the table, compensating for the lack. It can be some form of ideology, that will force the experience through the same lens for everyone.

The corporate approach would be to gear the experience towards being a theme park. In that, you'll have always fun and never struggle and own nothing of the game and be happy (to know is to know). The first thing to castrate for that is the GM as well as the authority of the game itself.

Also seems to work well with ideology, as politics try to determine who is allowed to play and who isn't. Social engineering replacing the system, fucking up that nice hierarchy I shared above simply by giving a "get out of jail card" for all levels of resolution.

But all of it is, in its own way, a form of balance. Otherwise you couldn't play.

But people play games how they want to play them!

The one thing a game designer should ignore is how people are NOT playing their game as published but go their own way with it. If a game is designed as described above and playing it really does what the designer intended, then those playing it differently do so at their own peril. If the game is not at fault (and it might be, but if ...), then the gamer is. Limits of control and all that.

I mean, there is value in learning that a huge variety of people ignore a rule or use it differently. Something like that should be considered for revision, naturally. But if someone, say, uses a horror game to play a superhero campaign, the designer is not at fault.

But that's not even what I'm hinting at.

There is a whole movement in the ttrpg community to see systems as a mere trappings for their individual expression of the story they had in mind. Systems doing their jobs will then be seen as intrusive, disruptive even. And since that's a market, it's easy enough to find content creators (not game designers, mind you) accommodating that need.

That is all fair game, of course, but all the same something different to playing a proper role-playing game. Not even denigrating here. If you find enjoyment in playing something akin to what heavily scripted you tube theater groups call "playing a role-playing game", feel free to do so. It's just very different to what role-playing games had been originally and should be regarded as such.

Same goes for lite rules/minimalist games. Of course there is a beauty to keeping it nice and succinct, and of course is there the possibility that they will offer a proper gaming experience. Just not without an experienced gamemaster, who'd have to invest a whole lot of work to make a game with few rules worth playing for a campaign, if it's possible at all. Or without external forces (as in "not part of the rules") that engineer cohesion into a group.

It's all just different. You wouldn't take a Trabi to a Formula One race, is all I'm saying.

Unless it's pimped? [source]

In all cases, first principles apply: if you write a game with improvised theater in mind, maybe even for Twitch streaming or what have you, it will bring different necessities than writing a proper role-playing game that group of friends can play for decades without getting bored of it, or even writing something that's just supposed to last for a couple of sessions.

That all of this has its place does not mean that one form of design replaces the other. It is, rather, to be treated differently. That's not always easy, it seems.

Why bother, then?

To keep with the analogy, if you shift gears in a car to the next tier, you expect that car to behave like a car that has been shifted one up (ideally, going faster then before). How you react to the car performing is directly related to the feedback it gives. The same goes for players in a game. They'll try and test, maybe even read the rules, to get an idea how a game behaves and act accordingly. System mastery is, to use another buzzword, giving them "agency" over their characters.

If a system, now, produces unreliable results, their performance will be geared towards balancing and compensating the problems the system is producing themselves. Same goes for the GM, of course. They might even work together to address the shortcomings and find compromises to solve them.

It is, naturally, something the designer should have done to begin with to present a "complete" game. And if all of that produces more hustle than playing the game is worth, people will move on and play something else.

So this is why designers should bother with offering games that work properly, which means, they are balanced in a way that reliable results allow for all involved to have an enjoyable experience when engaging with the game. And those things will get apparent over time, of course, so even if a game is successful for, say, the sheer marketing power of its publisher, it will fall short sooner or later when people find out what a game is lacking.

D&D 3e, for instance, broke when characters reached mid to high level. The work load for the GM just got too big too handle, plus, the system did not take into account how powerful characters impact a setting and so on and so forth (I hear 5e has some of the same problems, actually). 

50 years into the hobby, examples are legion. But so are examples of good design. It just seems that people have a hard time accepting standards and building on them. Ignoring them, however, doesn't mean you'll get away with something subpar, because gamers will notice sooner or later. They always do.

Another important point why game designers should bother is that leaving the task to make a game work to a gamemaster is unfair to begin with and also introduces so many additional variants to playing the game that the outcome of playing the game is random at best, futile for all involved in its worse manifestations. Because you can't know who is running the game, how experienced, which tastes and biases. It is why the first principles discussed above are so crucial. It is why balance is crucial.

 Which is, ultimately, why people find ways to argue that it wasn't needed to begin with. Or that it's okay as long as all follow the same ideology. Or that it can be known what a rpg is and therefor will sort itself out at the table. It is why those three distinct groups exist and fight for dominance.

My bias is towards writing games as complete as possible, following the design principles outlined above. I think it has value to do so and that it is important to see other games for what they are: different.  

To close with the analogy: give a good car to a mediocre driver, and you'll get a good performance out of it. Give that same driver a bad car and you open the result up to such a huge variance of failure, that everything between "passable" and "disaster" could be the outcome. A good car avoids that, as does a good game. Both car and game will follow or even develop standards and need to be engineered towards producing reliable output throughout.

And that's why you bother.


This will be a long one no reads or bothers thinking about. Yet, I stand by the above. We need proper definitions for what's happening around us, if only to recognize what has been done, what can be done and even how to do something else. It is also to save what is left of gaming culture, I assume.

All of this is already happening, but of course some people have a vested interest in keeping it foggy, unexplained and vague. Because then you can claim "this is how it's supposed to be played" or that something that isn't, is a natural evolution of a design (as, say, AD&D 2e to D&D 3e ... rather a neutering than an evolution, I'd say). People earn money or just street cred by keeping things just as they are.

Not an evolution ... [source]
That is a problem.

Not that I have anything against them doing so, but y being honest about what a game can do, maybe even MUST do to fulfill certain criteria, it might end up appealing to far less people. What happens to D&D now regarding rewrites and 6e is a very good example for what I'm talking about here.

What's worse, the fact that the gaming community is split across political and ideological lines is very much due to the fact that lots of rules don't care to create an experience SO COMPLETE that those things don't matter. Or the other way around, if all you argue is rules for that years long campaign you are in, then the game did you a service. Once a game leave too much room for interpretation, those spaces are filled with all kinds of nasty surprises instead, like what the publisher wants you to do, think or buy. Or that political/religious/ideological bullshit someone wants to push down your throat.

So we need definitions, we need to be clear about what game does what service for what audience. And we need to understand that balance is a very real aspect of games, but the kind of balance you chose has a HUGE impact on your gaming experience. And some of that has NOTHING to do with the original idea of what role-playing games are.

If you are like me, you'd want that hustle on the system side of the game, not anywhere else.


Almost all my shit on drivethrugh is on the cheap right now, this being the time of the year for it, so check it out. If you want to do me a huge service, think about getting Monkey Business, as that only needs two more sales to make copper!

Cheers and all the best for the next year!