This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
In running high level ROLEplaying games, I said:
Keeping the PCs balanced shouldn’t be measured along a single axis. Toe-to-toe combat prowess is not the be-all and end-all of character balance, you know. In fact, the really important factor isn’t balance — it’s value. You want all the players to feel like their characters are valuable somehow, that they contribute to the quality of the roleplaying experience in some indispensable manner.
Somewhere in Bandit Country, matt3rh0rn read that and decided to offer his own take on the subject of party balance. In Laughter and Tears from the Level Playing Field, he minces no words:
How to develop stories that challenge them? Answer: go to elaborate extremes to balance the characters with perks and flaws, point based stat buy and skill balancing. Balance them. Make them differently balanced. Equally exceptional.
I am stating right here that I think this is a shit way of running a game.
As I described it when I submitted it to reddit, the entirety of Laughter and Tears comes across as an impassioned plea to pursue a well-crafted story, and not just a well-balanced party. On that subject, I agree with him 100%. That doesn’t in any way guarantee he’ll agree with what I have to say here, where I expand upon the subject a bit more, but I hope he finds it interesting at least.
Of course, it’s true that balancing PCs against one another so that all players feel their characters are “useful” in some way can be a real problem, if the GM isn’t careful. D&D 4E tried to “solve” that problem by homogenizing the mechanics used to adjudicate character capabilities and provide level advancement, and by making the key characteristic of each character class its combat role. Those combat roles, as defined in 4E, focus on making sure every member of the party has a place and purpose to fulfill in a well rounded party (in combat, at least). This further encourages strictly heterogeneous class composition for parties, where each character fills a specific role and the most successful groups have exactly one party member for each of a general type of character class (in 4E’s case, each Role), with duplicates only once every role has been filled once. To quote the 4E PHB:
Roles also serve as handy tools for building adventuring parties. It’s a good idea to cover each role with at least one character. If you have five or six players in your group, it’s best to double up on defender first, then striker.
Doing so, however, has to some extent hamstrung the GM’s ability to employ another approach to balancing character value in a group. That different approach is, in fact, my preferred approach: using the uniqueness of the character to ensure its value to the group rather than its ability to fill a predefined combat role as though it were an aftermarket replacement part for my car. Rather than, in effect, turning fighters into wizards whose spells (powers) are more individually targeted rather than area targeted (or otherwise homogenizing the characters’ capabilities), I prefer to use significantly different mechanics for spell slinging than for sword swinging, ensuring that each class has its own area of expertise that transcends mere combat roles.
In fact, combat roles can to a significant degree be selected even without varying a character’s core competencies with the right approach to gaming; a fighter can be a “defender”, a “striker”, a “leader”, or even a “controller”, depending on customized capabilities and how the character is managed when combat occurs. In fact, I prefer the kind of approach where a character’s role in a given combat encounter might be different from its role in a previous combat encounter, because its specific capabilities make it a good fit for that kind of role, and for that role to not have to fit into one of a limited set of predefined, “official” roles. In any case, a fighter and a wizard who both end up essentially acting as “strikers” in combat can still be sufficiently differentiated from one another that replacing one with a duplicate of the other would result in a significant change of the flavor of the whole party because of the unique skillset lost in the replaced character, if you don’t focus on just combat roles as differentiating capabilities.
More to the point, different classes’ key capabilities apply to different aspects of game play. It’s not all about combat; direct social interactions, duels, mass combat on the battlefield, investigation, espionage or sabotage, and numerous other potential aspects of plot development and character pursuits can all be differently addressed by different characters. When your group has diverse capabilities across diverse domains of action amongst its members, even huge gaps in relative power level, either in a specific domain or in general, can be largely ignored when “balancing” characters, because the characters aren’t just valuable for their ability to stand side-by-side with their companions in a fight against a pack of orcs.
It is because of the drastically different domains of various characters’ capabilities that I was able to maintain a long-running campaign in 2nd Edition back in the early ’90s as well as I did. A second level Thief joined a group that included a fifteenth level Ranger, a twelfth level Fighter, and an eighth level Mage, and none of the players felt outclassed because each character outclassed all the others in his or her specific domain of expertise. That experience effectively demonstrates matt3rh0rn’s point in Laughter and Tears from the Level Playing Field, where he says:
Why wouldn’t a 10th level Paladin want to hang out with a bunch of level 2 newbs? If you want to talk heroic, do you think that Frodo and Legolas were the same level at any point in the Lord of the Rings? Did having the One Ring balance him up to Legolas? What about cop stories? Were Detectives Riggs and Murtaugh of Lethal Weapon fame equally balanced? How about Rorschach and Night Owl in Watchmen? Dr Manhattan?
To paraphrase Chad, they all were able to contribute to their story in some indespensible way.
That is really the point of party “balance” — but trying to balance everybody’s combat effectiveness against everyone else’s combat effectiveness is a cheap cop-out. There are better, and more effective, ways to ensure that every character is indispensably valuable to the group and the developing story than to make sure they all have roughly the same damage potential, or that each of them fills a different rigidly defined combat Role.
If you want to balance the value of each character in the group with the others, when running a high level campaign with a focus on roleplaying no matter what game you’re playing, you need to keep an eye on each PC’s core competencies, how they compare with one another, and on how each player is playing his or her character. Help the players cultivate their characters’ capabilities to suit their character concepts. You should really be doing this from day one, when every character is at starting level. While you’re at it, be willing to bend the rules to suit character concepts, particularly in more restrictive game systems that try to pigeonhole character concepts too much or try to balance characters by homogenizing them too much.
Remember that, in a roleplaying oriented game, character development is collaborative. You, as the GM, should not be dictating how all the players’ characters develop; instead, work with the players, with as light a touch as possible, to not only allow customization of the character to suit the concept over time, but to nurture and reward that kind of PC development by allowing the players to experience the benefits of creating a more carefully crafted character concept.