Chad Perrin: SOB

8 April 2009

high level campaigns: party balance

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , , , — apotheon @ 11:07

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.

party balance demotivator

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.

15 Comments

  1. […] 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. […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » running high level ROLEplaying games — 8 April 2009 @ 11:08

  2. What actually makes a 4E paladin less roleplayable than a 3E paladin? I’m curious and hopeful that I can get a real answer. Thanks!

    Oh! Feel free to substitute any class for paladin if it make sit easier.

    Comment by Donny_the_DM — 8 April 2009 @ 12:15

  3. Did I say 4E classes were “less roleplayable” than 3E classes anywhere in the above? I don’t remember saying that.

    Comment by apotheon — 8 April 2009 @ 12:42

  4. Nor did I say that you did.

    I felt that implication, but no you did not. Care to take a stab at it anyway? :)

    Comment by Donny_the_DM — 8 April 2009 @ 12:51

  5. I don’t feel that a 4E paladin is “less roleplayable” than a 3E paladin. My only complaint in that regard is that 4E paladins are less customizable to a character concept. As long as your concept fits within the options provided, though, you can roleplay it as well as any other class in any other game, basically.

    Comment by apotheon — 8 April 2009 @ 12:57

  6. Good enough. I won’t waste any more of your time. Thanks for answering :)

    Comment by Donny_the_DM — 8 April 2009 @ 01:27

  7. My pleasure.

    Comment by apotheon — 8 April 2009 @ 01:29

  8. Particularly like the topic and was actually planning to write down some thoughts on how perceived differences in power do not equal differences in relevance from the point of view of a story and the storytelling process.

    I’ve had some friends preach about how the balance of power is necessary for people not to get bored or disappointed with a game. Their point is that this is an intrinsic problem (of unbalanced characters) rather of an inability of the players involved -every one of the players, gm included- to ensure that everyone can play their part and their role (not in a 4th edition sense.) I don’t agree.

    Will try to write something about it as soon as I’m done with current writing topics. Good post as always Chad. Fred.

    Comment by the_blunderbuss — 8 April 2009 @ 01:46

  9. Particularly like the topic and was actually planning to write down some thoughts on how perceived differences in power do not equal differences in relevance from the point of view of a story and the storytelling process.

    If you think you have something new to say about it, or just a different perspective, then write it! I’d be interested in reading it. If you link to this SOB entry, wordpress.com should send a ping here and a link back to yours will appear, too, so my readers will get to see it as well.

    Will try to write something about it as soon as I’m done with current writing topics. Good post as always Chad.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on it — and I appreciate the compliment.

    Comment by apotheon — 8 April 2009 @ 01:55

  10. To quote the Princess Bride “I do not think that word means what you think it means”. And by that word I mean balance. Have you ever designed games, Chad? I have, board games and RPG’s both. To me, balance does not mean everything is always a level playing field. It means that things start as a level playing field – where it goes after that is up to the skill, co-operation and role-playing done by the players.

    To me, it looks like you are advocating game balance – you just don’t create it using player levels and encounter difficulties. And this is a fine way to play any game – admirable, even. But it relies on several things that no sane RPG designer can count on. You’re relying on players that aren’t terribly interested in power-gaming, on narrative control strong enough to even out major differences in character capabilities, on a game that focuses largely on non-combat role-playing.

    But based on my 23 years of playing RPG’s, that isn’t how most people play. Most D&D games are based primarily on combat – most players want their characters to have cool powers and be good at certain things. Most of them don’t want to play with people whose characters are 10 levels higher – and the ones with the higher level characters can’t help but dominate sessions.

    You design a game towards the way that people actually play – and Chad, you don’t represent most gaming groups. And if you play the way you do, why are you even writing about 4e? You and I know it’s not the system for you – so write about why Burning Wheel works well for your group, and what house rules or guidelines you use to make these sorts of games possible. What you are writing about is a nice idea, but in practical terms, it’s useless. It’s like an NBA player complaining that playground players don’t play an effective triangle offense. 4e isn’t designed for you to play – OK, we get it. Now write about something else. I know I’m tired of reading it.

    Comment by wickedmurph — 8 April 2009 @ 10:07

  11. Have you ever designed games, Chad?

    Yes. Lots of them. Thanks for asking.

    Now that’s out of the way — please make some arguments based on something other than assumptions of authority.

    To me, it looks like you are advocating game balance – you just don’t create it using player levels and encounter difficulties. And this is a fine way to play any game – admirable, even. But it relies on several things that no sane RPG designer can count on.

    This isn’t really about game design. It’s mostly about game play. It is, however, nice to design games so that they can be played this way.

    You’re relying on players that aren’t terribly interested in power-gaming

    I don’t play with munchkins.

    on a game that focuses largely on non-combat role-playing.

    I never pretended otherwise.

    But based on my 23 years of playing RPG’s, that isn’t how most people play.

    I don’t play with most people. Did you notice that, at the beginning of this SOB entry, I specifically referred to my previous entry, running high level ROLEplaying games? That might have been a hint of my meaning here.

    If the shoe doesn’t fit — if you’re playing borderline-wargame dungeon crawls — don’t wear it.

    You design a game towards the way that people actually play

    Again, this isn’t advice for designing games. Where did you get the idea it is?

    And if you play the way you do, why are you even writing about 4e?

    I’m not “writing about 4e”. I’m mentioning 4E as an example of a principle, because it’s the example most likely to be familiar to readers. What I’m actually writing about is what party balance can and should mean in a roleplaying oriented campaign.

    so write about why Burning Wheel works well for your group, and what house rules or guidelines you use to make these sorts of games possible.

    Why can’t I write about “party balance” in the context of a roleplaying oriented campaign? What do you have against that?

    4e isn’t designed for you to play – OK, we get it. Now write about something else. I know I’m tired of reading it.

    If you’re so tired of thinking everything I write is intended as a critique of 4E, stop thinking that. It’s not true, so you’re just lying to yourself anyway, if you think it is true. Jesus, out of three SOB entries in this mini-series so far, exactly one of them has mentioned 4E, and didn’t even say there was anything wrong with playing the kind of game for which 4E was designed; it just said that some of 4E’s design decisions aren’t suited to a more roleplaying oriented campaign’s sense of party balance. Maybe if you did more than just skim what I write for references to 4E, looking for some reason to take offense, you’d have noticed that.

    Your selection bias is showing.

    Comment by apotheon — 8 April 2009 @ 10:30

  12. Well, that was a fairly aggressive posting, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised about a defensive reaction. I’m sorry if I came off as “assuming superiority”, because I’m really interested in how you are pulling this off – it’s not something I’ve been able to do, although I’d like to.

    “This isn’t really about game design. It’s mostly about game play. It is, however, nice to design games so that they can be played this way.”

    I agree, it is nice to design games this way. Other than 2e, which ones do it well done? I’ve seen some stuff over at Whitehall Paraindustries with the HERO system that looks interesting, but I haven’t tried that.

    “I don’t play with munchkins.”

    Umm, I thought we were going to “make some arguments based on something other than assumptions of authority.”

    “I never pretended otherwise.”

    But you are talking here about game design, and game design shouldn’t focus too much on one particular play-style, right? Or it should at least focus on the majority of people play the game.

    “I don’t play with most people. Did you notice that, at the beginning of this SOB entry, I specifically referred to my previous entry, running high level ROLEplaying games? That might have been a hint of my meaning here.”

    I did notice it, but you wrote 5 paragraphs on game design right after it, so maybe I got confused. You have to design games for most people, not the people you play with. It made me think you were making an apples-to-oranges comparison, but that was probably the point.

    On re-reading, though, I’m getting more of what you are saying. 2e did provide a lot more abilities for PC’s that were outside the realms of pure combat, commune with nature, speak with plants, stuff like that. I can see how it would have been easier with that system to ensure that each character had specific spheres of influence where they were unchallenged. How did your party deal with having an alternating limelight to that extreme, though? Nobody got bored and got up and played the Nintendo or anything?

    “Again, this isn’t advice for designing games. Where did you get the idea it is?”

    Must be the 5 paragraphs you wrote about balance and game design.

    “I’m not “writing about 4e”. I’m mentioning 4E as an example of a principle, because it’s the example most likely to be familiar to readers. What I’m actually writing about is what party balance can and should mean in a roleplaying oriented campaign.”

    You’re right, you are. I apologize for the over-generalization I made about your post. And 2e probably was easier to use in this context than 4e, or other combat-centric games.

    “Why can’t I write about “party balance” in the context of a roleplaying oriented campaign? What do you have against that?”

    Nothing against it, I just disagree in regards to the mechanical balance issue. You make a lot of decisions about balance and fairness and usefulness as a GM, and a lot of them are informed by the system you use. A high-level role-playing game, I would think, is harder than most to do this with, because you have to weigh (I was going to say balance, but that word is killing me) what the characters are able to do mechanically against the things that you want to include in the story. Don’t 9th level wizard spells (like Wish) kinda turn them into a deal-killer on a lot of things?

    “If you’re so tired of thinking everything I write is intended as a critique of 4E, stop thinking that. It’s not true, so you’re just lying to yourself anyway, if you think it is true. Jesus, out of three SOB entries in this mini-series so far, exactly one of them has mentioned 4E, and didn’t even say there was anything wrong with playing the kind of game for which 4E was designed; it just said that some of 4E’s design decisions aren’t suited to a more roleplaying oriented campaign’s sense of party balance. Maybe if you did more than just skim what I write for references to 4E, looking for some reason to take offense, you’d have noticed that.”

    Not everything you write, just the game design/balance bits. I agree with you that 4e’s movement of emphasis towards combat abilities and away from a broad spectrum of non-combat skills, spells and options makes it a worse choice for a ROLE-playing campaign of any kind. Overall, though, the kind of meta-balancing that is done via roleplaying can happen with any gaming system – heck, you can do that in World of Warcraft or a Starcraft LAN game if you have a mind to.

    I don’t see what you are describing as an issue of “balance” at all, at least not on the individual character level. It’s more an issue of focus. In the case of 4e, that focus is the result of their strategy for mechanical balance, but balancing a game is not the problem.

    It’s much easier to mechanically balance combat abilities by creating a consistent, scaling mechanic than it is to factor in how non-combat abilities will effect gameplay. The role-playing stuff tends to be things that require the least amount of mechanical rules, so it makes sense to focus on that portion of the game. But this isn’t about design, as you say, so I’ll leave it.

    “Your selection bias is showing.”

    Again, maybe – but I’ve reeled it in a notch, and I do value your opinion here – you’ve done something with 2e that I couldn’t, which is cool. What do you recommend as a good system to play this type of game?

    Comment by wickedmurph — 9 April 2009 @ 12:15

  13. I agree, it is nice to design games this way. Other than 2e, which ones do it well done? I’ve seen some stuff over at Whitehall Paraindustries with the HERO system that looks interesting, but I haven’t tried that.

    3E actually does a decent job of it, in my opinion — as does 2E, in some respects. They’re bracketed by two games that aren’t as good at that, though (namely AD&D 1E and D&D 4E, though with some effort 1E can be made to work too).

    “I don’t play with munchkins.”

    Umm, I thought we were going to “make some arguments based on something other than assumptions of authority.”

    What does that statement have to do with argument from authority fallacies? I just don’t play with munchkins. When I find myself in a game with munchkins (that can’t be redirected to more productive gaming), I rectify the situation somehow (by dropping out of, or ending, the game and starting a new one, for instance).

    But you are talking here about game design, and game design shouldn’t focus too much on one particular play-style, right?

    I mentioned game design. Mostly, it’s about play style, and not how the game is designed. My purpose in mentioning game design was to point out that some games make it more difficult to adopt this kind of play style, and that doing so actually disenfranchises a lot of gamers (specifically, gamers more interested in roleplaying than modified wargaming).

    I did notice it, but you wrote 5 paragraphs on game design right after it, so maybe I got confused.

    I guess so.

    How did your party deal with having an alternating limelight to that extreme, though? Nobody got bored and got up and played the Nintendo or anything?

    When running a group game, I tried to make sure that various PCs got to make good use of their capabilities particular to their areas of expertise without having to break up the group and essentially run parallel solo adventures. It can be tricky at times to pull that off, but it can still be done. The power hungry Mage didn’t have to be absent for the quick-witted Thief to talk someone into doing something; the obsessively goal-oriented Ranger didn’t have to be absent for the scholarly Mage to determine the best course of action based on his store of knowledge; the honest hearted Fighter didn’t have to be absent for the notorious Ranger to intimidate a would-be foe into giving up useful information; the sneaky Thief didn’t have to be absent for the hard-bitten Fighter to make some money in what amounted to boxing matches.

    In fact, the Thief circulated through the crowd gathering information, the mage made a fair bit of money betting on the Fighter’s continued successes in bare knuckles matches, and the Ranger identified and followed someone they were trying to catch, all at the same time the Fighter was engaged in unarmed combat.

    Must be the 5 paragraphs you wrote about balance and game design.

    I’m having a really difficult time identifying five paragraphs in the whole thing — let alone in a row, near the beginning — that were solely about game design for party balance.

    Don’t 9th level wizard spells (like Wish) kinda turn them into a deal-killer on a lot of things?

    I’ve gone so far as to simply disallow the Wish spell, on occasion.

    I agree with you that 4e’s movement of emphasis towards combat abilities and away from a broad spectrum of non-combat skills, spells and options makes it a worse choice for a ROLE-playing campaign of any kind.

    In that case, you should have zero room to complain here, since that was my whole point with regard to 4E.

    I don’t see what you are describing as an issue of “balance” at all, at least not on the individual character level.

    See above, where I said:

    In fact, the really important factor isn’t balance — it’s value.

    In short, I said right up front that the real point here is the value of a character, and “balance” is just one small characteristic of a game that might contribute to ensuring all characters are uniquely valuable. The reason I brought up 4E is to point out how focusing too much on mechanical “balance”, per se, is to miss the point for a roleplaying oriented campaign.

    It’s much easier to mechanically balance combat abilities by creating a consistent, scaling mechanic than it is to factor in how non-combat abilities will effect gameplay.

    When it comes to game design, I’m fine with that. You have to leave the valuation of varying character capabilities within a roleplaying oriented campaign up to the GMs and players of the game, which is what this SOB entry is about. I just wanted to point out how focusing on mechanical balance to the exclusion of flexibility that would allow for that kind of unique valuation of all PCs in a group can be counterproductive.

    What do you recommend as a good system to play this type of game?

    It’s easier to identify systems that are bad for this type of game, I think — because all the rest of them are good for it, perhaps with a few minor tweaks here and there. It’s only in the case of a game whose design is systemically biased against widely varied character capabilities as a means of making all the PCs in a group uniquely valuable that one doesn’t have much opportunity to run this sort of game.

    In general, all it takes to make a game suitable to making all the characters uniquely valuable is some fine-grained customization options for characters and rules that cover a lot more than combat capabilities. Between kits and proficiencies, 2E managed to be adequate to the task, and a few simple house rules helped to expand its ability to support such a game significantly. 3E has enough noncombat customizability, and options that allow variations on type of combat in which a character excels for that matter, to support this kind of game “out of the box”. GURPS is absurdly full of options for character customization. White Wolf’s 1st and 2nd Edition World of Darkness games managed to homogenize and simplify the basic progression of powers even more than 4E does, but at the same time flooded the game with potential for customization and unique valuation of characters through differentiation of their areas of expertise and interest.

    . . . but like I said, it’s easier to identify games that don’t support the kind of campaign I’m talking about than those that do, because those that hamper this kind of campaign seem to be the exception rather than the rule, in my experience.

    Comment by apotheon — 9 April 2009 @ 01:11

  14. Passionate commentary indeed. One of the things that I love about Roleplaying is the variety of approaches to using and playing the same game. The differences in playing computer or board games are largely strategic. Not so for RPGs. An interesting aspect of RPG commentary (at least to me) is that GM commentators use the same language and jargon to discuss and promote their opinions and usage of their preferred game as used by the developers of that same game. It is as though all opinion must be presented in a universal format that other users of the same game can apply. Standardised. In computer game terms it is as though they are writing Patches as opposed to Mods. Patches have to work with the core version of the game, Mods do not. Patches extend the utility of the core game, Mods do something different altogether. I am a fan of Mods. Mods don’t have to cater to all users of the game. Mods encourage a different use of the same base core. Mods can be ignored by people who prefer Patches. As I have stated elsewhere, I think that the only functional or worthwhile discussion of balance is in terms of the approach of the GM to creating content. If the inherent assumptions of a game or the rules mechanics that it uses are unworkable or over-restrictive for a GM they can either Mod the ass out of it into a game that they can create content for. Or they can use a different game. It is not as though we GMs are starved for options. In my own case, I wanted fast and simple for Bandit Country so I found games that do that and compiled them into what I now use. Balance is not a word that a whole lot of players use. Those that do are usually GMs too. Balance and Value are patently not opposite sides of the same coin. I think that they can be similarly measured though. I think that we all ultimately want to be creating and using content that is fun to make, fun to use and that our players find is fun to play. What was the key word there? Fun.

    Comment by Matt3rh0rn — 9 April 2009 @ 07:25

  15. Wickedmurph:

    But you are talking here about game design, and game design shouldn’t focus too much on one particular play-style, right? Or it should at least focus on the majority of people play the game.
    Game design should absolutely focus on particular style of play (narrow or broad, whatever). That way, when wanting to play a game, you can pick up or design something that fits the game you want to run as well as possible.

    The game’s design is what determines who play the game, not other way around, at least in the circles I frequent.

    Comment by Tommi — 10 April 2009 @ 05:46

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