TLDR: play balance in roleplaying games is possible, and desirable. But the definition of play balance is different in roleplaying games and in competitive games.
The topic of game balance in roleplaying has been a hot and sometimes contentious one. I thought I would give my views on the matter.
THE PURPOSE OF GAME BALANCE IN COMPETITIVE GAMES
It is important in any sort of competitive game that there be some sort of game balance. By “competitive game” I mean any game where there is a winner and a loser – chess, Advanced Squad Leader, Magic: the Gathering, Rails Across America, and Quelf are all competitive games, and even cooperative games such as Pandemic and Sentinels of the Multiverse qualify here, because even though players are working together against the game system, they can still either win or lose. “Game Balance” encompasses two qualities – 1) there is a reasonable chance that any side can win at the beginning of the game, and 2) that skill is a factor in determining who wins.
It is very difficult to make a game perfectly balanced. Even the venerable chess is biased in favor of the player who moves first. It is even more difficult to balance a game that contains random elements such as dice rolls or card draws. So the important thing here is “reasonable”. It is rare to find a player who likes to lose, so finding players to participate in a competitive game with a great deal of bias is less likely to be successful.
HOW ROLEPLAYING GAMES ARE DIFFERENT FROM COMPETITIVE GAMES
Roleplaying games are different from competitive games because in roleplaying games there is no winner*. Competitive games typically have some sort of victory conditions that dictate how and when the game ends – take Bastogne, accumulate X points, eliminate all the opponents, drop the ring in the volcano. Once the conditions for victory are met, the game is over, the participants shake hands around the table, and the game goes back in the box.
In roleplaying games, there are usually no victory conditions that end the game because the objective of the game is not to win, but to tell a good story. Once Bastogne is taken, once the opponents are eliminated, once the ring is dropped in the volcano the game doesn’t end, but instead simply moves on to another plot or storyline.
HOW ROLEPLAYING GAMES ARE THE SAME AS COMPETITIVE GAMES
Broadly speaking, roleplaying games and competitive games are the same in two ways. First, as recreational activities one of the big incentives for anyone to play them is having fun. People play both competitive games and roleplaying games in order to enjoy themselves and have a good time that they share with friends. While the definition of what constitutes fun varies considerably – hence the wide variety of both competitive and roleplaying games available – people play board games in order to have fun and people play roleplaying games for the same reason.
Second, both rely on rules to define the framework of the activity. These rules act as a boilerplate contract between the participants defining what they can and cannot do within the game environment. They serve to focus and guide the participants in how they have fun within the context of the game. The definitions of “fun” are different in competitive games and roleplaying games so the framework of rules will be different and have differing goals, but in the end “having fun” is what it is all about in both cases.
THE PURPOSE OF GAME BALANCE IN ROLEPLAYING GAMES
If the purpose of roleplaying games is to tell good stories, then “balance” in roleplaying games has, like competitive games, two components – 1) to give all the participants a reasonable chance of telling good stories, and 2) that skill is a factor in determining the quality of the stories told.
Because roleplaying games are about telling stories, because players play roleplaying games in order to tell good stories and gamemasters oversee roleplaying games in order to facilitate good storytelling, at the very core of any roleplaying game there should be an assumption that every participant in the game should have a reasonable chance of telling good stories. In fact, participants should have a reasonable chance of telling not one but three good stories simultaneously –
1) The story of their character
2) The story of the interactions between some or all of the other player-characters
3) The story of the overarching plot which concerns all the characters
These three types of stories, interwoven with each other and with the stories of the other player-characters, form the narrative element that makes roleplaying different than competitive gaming. A game without stories is not a roleplaying game. Conversely, a game WITH stories is a roleplaying game, even if the narrative element is grafted onto a game that normally doesn’t have one. Want to play “Chutes and Ladders” as a narrative campaign? It’s possible if the players agree to add narrative elements.
Being successful at it, however, requires that the players agree what narrative elements to add and how to add them. And that is precisely where game balance comes in.
GAME BALANCE AND TELLING GOOD STORIES
In roleplaying games, game balance is a far more nebulous concept than in competitive games because the objective is less defined. If friends sit down to play Virgin Queen, a brief glance at the back of the game box should be enough to give everyone a good idea what they are doing, if not precisely how. On the other hand, if friends sit down to play the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, they will initially have considerably less idea of what they will be doing within the game, aside from playing characters in a quasi-oriental(ish) setting. The game “world” of Virgin Queen is relatively small and defined; the world of “Legend of the Five Rings” is large and nebulous. This is because “Legend of the Five Rings” is designed to be a game for telling stories, and the authors made a design choice to allow for a rich and broad “sandbox” for play groups to use. Most roleplaying games take this approach to their setting (though see “The Mountain Witch” for a counter-example of a very defined setting) because the designers want the eventual participants to have a wide range of choices within their game for what sort of stories they tell.
Large “sandbox” game settings provide ample opportunity to tell many types of story successfully, but at a cost in terms of play balance. Because the variety of stories that can be told within the setting is so broad, and the types of character available are consequently so varied, greater effort is required on the part of the participants to tell provide an environment in which they can all tell good stories about and with their characters. As an example, it is more difficult to tell interesting stories about a Nezumi (“ratling”) warrior if the game is set in the Imperial Court and all the other characters are courtiers, and more difficult to tell stories involving an effete Crane courtier if the game is set on the Kaiu Wall and all the other characters are Nezumi warriors. I don’t mean to imply that such stories are impossible, but they will take additional effort on the part of all the participants to pull off, and have a greater risk of stretching an individual character concept past the breaking point at which it becomes more trouble and effort for participants to tell good stories involving that character than the amount of fun derived from the experience.
Game balance in a roleplaying game is also dynamic, unlike game balance in competitive games which is largely static. In competitive games the game balance elements are built in – in the “Game of Thrones” board game you have a number of factions representing the various Houses, all of them trying to achieve a specific objective in order to win. Within the game environment each faction has a reasonable chance of winning, and the skill of each player is an important component in deciding who wins. All this is set out in the rulebook and the participants need give it little thought. In the “A Song of Ice and Fire” rpg, however, many of the factors which will make for a balanced game (and remember, “balanced” in this context means “game in which the participants can tell good stories” ) are left up to the participants to decide for themselves.
The three big factors involved with balancing an RPG game are 1) agreement by the participants about the stories they want to tell, 2) the rules system being used, 3) the setting. I’ll discuss them in reverse order
GAME BALANCE IN THE SETTING
The setting in a roleplaying game is the most basic, boilerplate frame on which to build good stories. It provides a the answers to a large number of important questions such as “what genre are we playing?”, “what does the world look like?” and often “what sort of characters can we play?” (and related to that, “what sort of stories can we tell most easily?”). If a game group is using “7th Sea” as a setting, all the participants know from the beginning that they are telling swashbuckling stories in a quasi-European setting and that they have options for telling stories in one or more of the various nations of the setting but they will not be telling stories about Space Marines or sentient mice.
Deciding on the game setting is extremely important for any roleplaying group – far more-so than for competitive gaming, and especially for on-going campaigns. If one participant is less than thrilled with the setting of a given competitive game then they can lobby for something different the next time the group meets, but in roleplaying agreeing to a particular setting may constrain a participant to stories they aren’t terribly interested in for months or years.
GAME BALANCE AND RULES
Rules provide for a second level framework on which to hang stories. They are important for two reasons. First is that they help further define which stories are easy to tell and which stories are hard to tell. Dungeons and Dragons is a good game system for telling stories about characters who grow from relative obscurity to great power, and Champions is a good system for telling stories about superheroes. Spycraft is a good game for telling spy stories in which equipment matters, and Wilderness of Mirrors is a good game for telling spy stories where it doesn’t. Rules systems help refine the choices in storytelling opportunities and technique.
Second, and related somewhat, rules help define how conflicts are resolved, and how randomness and uncertainty are added into the game. A characteristic of the roleplaying experience is that there is an element of uncertainty in the storytelling which allows the participants to be surprised about the outcome, and particularly the outcome of a conflict. Different rules systems allow for varying amounts of randomness in the storytelling and emphasize or deemphasize certain types of conflict. Pathfinder, for example, has a large number of rules for controlling the random elements of combat and magic use, and relatively few for controlling the random element of social interactions. Because of this, the stories told in Pathfinder will likely spend more time with fighting than social interaction.
GAME BALANCE AND THE PARTICIPANTS
I saved this one for last because it is the most important, but many roleplaying games don’t put it enough emphasis on it. Roleplaying is inherently cooperative, unlike most competitive games (cooperative games being an exception – and yes I know the nomenclature is confusing. Just remember that a competitive game is one where the goal is to have fun by winning, whether against the other players or the game system). Because of this, it is important for all participants in a roleplaying game to decide for themselves what makes for the best storytelling experience for everyone. My feeling is that this is the single biggest factor in deciding whether a given roleplaying game succeeds or fails in providing fun for the participants, and also one of the areas that participants are most likely to gloss over or rush through.
Older roleplaying games had a focused and similar approach to game balance and the participants. One participant was assigned to be the primary storyteller and given primary responsibility for all the story elements that did not involve the direct actions of the other participants characters. Other participants built characters using specific packages for their character’s race, character class, etc. to define the character. The types of stories that each individual participant wanted to tell were implicit in the type of character they designed – fighter characters were all about telling stories of fighting, wizard characters were all about telling stories of magic, etc.
Newer roleplaying games have shifted away from this focused approach and give participants more freedom to focus on the telling of stories. Often they involve taking some of the responsibilities away from the primary storyteller and making them a group responsibility or having multiple participants serve as the primary storyteller in rotation.
Often the primary storyteller is given considerably greater power to add or subtract story elements or decide on the direction of the story. This is fine so long as everyone agrees to it, as attested by the success of games like D&D and Pathfinder. But it is important to point out here that roleplaying has moved far, far away from the days and the rules systems that require this to be the case, and that participants now have a wide variety of options in terms of what stories to tell and how to tell them.
HOW TO BALANCE A ROLEPLAYING GAME
Balancing a roleplaying game is a multi-stage, iterative process. For game designers, who get first crack at it, it involves looking at the setting, the rules generally, and the types of characters that can be created, and asking “Do all the types of characters allowed in this game have a reasonable chance of having good stories told about them somewhere in the setting?” This doesn’t mean that every single character type necessarily has to have a reasonable chance of generating good stories in every single corner of the game setting. But it DOES mean that character types should have rough equivalency. There should not be character types that are blatantly more powerful than others to the point that the overshadow the stories that other characters can tell. The more randomness there is in character creation, the more likely this is to happen, so there needs to be balance not only between character types and within character types to make certain that the fighter who rolls poorly for stats has as much of a chance of telling good stories as the fighter who rolls really well. Even within games that use a point-buy system, there needs to be some sort of rough equivalence in the power of build point spent on X vs Y. So, for example, in a spy game if the skill “Shooting” costs one point per level and the skill “Play Piano” costs three points per level, warning bells should go off. Shooting is a much more versatile and useful skill in most spy games than playing a piano, and that should be reflected in the relative costs. If the game system charges more for “Play Piano” than “Shooting” most participants will get the message that the game system is actively discouraging stories in which people spend a lot of time playing the piano. And if that’s the case, why put it in at all? In the original Pendragon there was no stealth skill for the simple reason that knights don’t sneak. Did that limit the sorts of stories that could be told? Yes. But placing a framework on the sorts of stories that can be told is part of what a system and setting are all about.
The next step comes when the game is purchased and gets floated as an idea within a particular roleplaying group. At this point everything is up to the participants. As individuals and as a group they need to look over the game – the rules, the setting, the sorts of characters that can be created, the sorts of characters that they are inspired to create both individually and as a group, and decide if the game works for everyone. Not just the majority of the participants – everyone. If there is even one person that the game doesn’t work well for, that person shouldn’t play. And since most roleplaying groups consist of friends, making the decision to put a game ahead of social interaction with a friend is almost invariably a bad idea.
By the time the system and setting have been decided on, there are probably already some ideas about stories percolating within the group of participants and these should be scrutinized to make certain that they make for good stories that are exciting for at least a couple of the participants and not squicky to anyone. If the participants include one who is going to take on primary storytelling duties, that participant should ideally be enthusiastic about all the story ideas, because stories that the storyteller is not excited about are unlikely to be good stories. WRITE DOWN GOOD STORY IDEAS! Make sure they are preserved.
Once these story ideas are preserved, the participants should create characters. As with system and setting, this should be a collaborative effort among all the participants, and everyone should be sensitive to what makes for good stories about the other participants characters, and what good stories can be told about their interaction. In many, but not all systems there are clues about what sort of stories a particular participant is interested in buried in the character creation process (flaws and virtues, character class, race, and choice of skills are all good indicators) but again participants must be on board with these stories for everyone to have a reasonable chance of good storytelling. Again, write down the story ideas in order to make sure they are preserved.
At the end of character creation, the group should have a big list of stories that they want to tell. Make up a sheet for each participant who has a character, and list stories under the following three headers
1) The story of a participant’s character
2) The story, or stories of the interactions between the participant’s character and the characters of other participants
3) The story of how the participant’s character interacts with the metaplot, if any.
If there are story ideas left over, put them on a separate sheet. Make copies for each participant, make another copy to stick in a binder, and last but not least make a copy and put it online. THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE GROUP’S CAMPAIGN BIBLE. It serves the same general purpose as the rules booklet of a competitive game – to define how the participants are going to play the game in order to have fun. In a competitive game the rules define how to win. In the Campaign Bible the rules define what sort of stories the participants consider to be the best, so that the group as a whole can work towards telling them.
The final step in play balancing involves coming to a different understanding of what system rules and setting are in a roleplaying game as compared to a competitive game. In a competitive game, it is common for the participants to add their own minor variations of the rules – “house rules” to the game in order to make the game more interesting or balanced. Such rules are often even added in by the original designers (though they are usually referred to as “optional rules”). If the participants feel that the 20th Maine needs to arrive a turn earlier or the Starks need and extra infantry unit or that White needs to give up a Knight in order for the game to be more fun, then typically they just go ahead and make the change. Roleplaying games have, or should have, the same sort of within-group balancing mechanism that the participants can use to help improve the fun of the game. Any time that the written rules or setting of a roleplaying game interfere with the stories listed in the campaign bible, THE RULES AND/OR SETTING SHOULD GIVE WAY TO THE STORY. The Campaign Bible should always be considered primary, the rules and even the setting secondary.
Roleplaying games, like competitive games, can be balanced, but it is a differing, more dynamic sort of balance. It comes from the freedom of the participants to tell stories that interest them through the medium of roleplaying, and it is balanced by making sure that everyone has a reasonable chance to tell interesting stories involving their character, interactions with the characters of the other participants, and interaction with the metaplot. Factors such as the relative power level of characters and bias in favor of certain types of stories by rules systems and settings can make the job of the participants easier, and thus contribute to play balance, but should always, always be of less importance than the stories themselves. Stories, as a collaborative effort by the participants, should always be the primary focus, and all other factors should be subservient to them.
*This observation is written at the beginning of 99% of roleplaying games, usually under a heading like “What is a roleplaying game?” Someday really soon I am going to have a rant on why game writers should STOP PUTTING THIS IN THEIR GAMES but for now if you really need a basic explanation of what “no winner” means, open any RPG.