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Balance in Running TTRPGs
by Jack Kellum
Balance in all things.
Oftentimes, in roleplaying games, we seek balance in all aspects. We focus on balancing the power levels of player characters. We try hard to balance the encounters they face against their abilities. We try to balance specific abilities against one another. All this is admirable. After all, balance between these aspects is how we ensure a fun and fair game, and get a satisfying emergent narrative, right?
What if I told you that wasn’t true? Or at least . . . not the way you think it is.
Balance, in the end, is an illusion. Ask ten people which character classes in Dungeons and Dragons 5e, just for example, are overpowered, and you might get ten different answers. Some say the wizard is OP, because they can cast Fireballs, and change reality to their whim. Others say the fighter is OP, because he can sometimes make nine attacks in a round at high levels and does massive amounts of damage to individual targets. Others say druids, because of the flexibility of wild shape. The list goes on. And these are just examples. Every system, every setting has them.
Many times, a game master (or a game company!) is tempted to ‘nerf’ the abilities of a particular character type, reducing them to a more manageable level, trying to match other characters. And sometimes, they are right to do so. I prefer to increase the abilities of others to compensate, but that’s a different article.
In my opinion, it’s largely a vain pursuit. We can try to get the characters vaguely balanced, but there will always be perceived disparities. So, what do we do to ensure the fun of the table?
We focus on a different sort of balance, one that I think is far more important.
Balancing the spotlight.
Instead of worrying about who does more damage, or hits better, or whatever the specific metric is, we should worry about a very simple question, or set of questions:
Does every character and player have a roughly equal opportunity to shine? Do they have their individual time to be cool? Do they get to make meaningful contributions to the gameplay, to the success of their group, to the emerging story and drama, that other members of the party might not be able to? If they do, well, I argue that is balance enough.
When you are putting together a group of adventurers, or heroes, or superheroes, or edge runners, it is far more important for each one to have an area or areas of expertise that others don’t, than to make sure their abilities are balanced. After all, we as gamemasters create the situations they encounter, the foes and troubles they face.
If we’re doing our job right, we have looked at their sheets, seen what they’re good at, what they are bad at. At least some of our challenges should be tailored to those abilities, and even those weaknesses! A character who has a great deal of skill with a sword, and special tricks while using it, needs to be given a chance to show them off. A character who knows a ton of languages and has knowledge of ancient cultures (or magic, or technology, or whatever), should have an opportunity to exercise that expertise. The rogue gets traps to disarm, locks to pick, areas to scout, foes to surprise and sneak attack. The wizard uses their arcane might to reshape the battlefield or bring the army of foes down to a more manageable level with a big area-of-effect spell. You don’t even have to have all these opportunities in the same encounter. You should try to give each character a chance to shine, if not every session, at least every few sessions, in equal measure. You can even tailor whole short episodes or adventures to one character’s background, abilities, or social sub plot.
What really matters here is giving each character, and thus each player, equal screen time over the course of the campaign, or chronicle, or whatever. The spotlight should be shifted from character to character, giving each one their time to shine, their time in the sun.
Some games handle this explicitly. In Mutants and Masterminds, and in GURPS, there are optional rules specifically allowing some characters to have more points than others to build, or a higher cap on the levels of their traits (usually one or the other, with the tradeoff that they get a lower cap if they get more points, but less points if they have a higher cap.) That represents dynamics like Batman, vs, say, Superman. One is highly skilled, the other a paragon of power. But it need not even be balanced that way. Look at stories like Doc Savage, in the old pulps. Doc Savage is good at a great many things. He is tougher, stronger, smarter, than the people around him but each of his companions has abilities he doesn’t have, and each gets their time in the spotlight when those abilities are important.
Another critical example is Star Wars. The many versions of the TTRPG ruleset, from the old West End Games d6 system to the d20 system, to the modern Fantasy Flight Games/Edge systems (Force and Destiny, et al) have struggled with game balance, trying to get Jedi to balance to smugglers. They never quite manage. And that is ok, honestly. The Jedi are super competent in their fields, in the movies and fiction. In GURPS they almost certainly have more points. They have literal superpowers, next to a hot shot pilot with a fast gun. But Jedi cannot do everything themselves. They need teammates, with technical skills, with piloting skills, with ranged abilities, with real social skills. Princess Leia and Han Solo are just as important to the story and the success of their group as Luke Skywalker. Rey would have been pretty much up the creek without Finn and Poe, and their battles against the mighty fleets of the First Order are arguably more critical than Rey’s one on one duels with Kylo or Palpatine.
The other form of balance we try for is balancing the challenges against the characters. This is more understandable. No one wants to accidentally overwhelm their PCs with something they couldn’t possibly beat.
Except . . . there are tons of examples in fiction of when exactly that happens, especially near the beginning of a hero’s career. They might encounter the BBEG or other massive threat early on and have to flee as their mentor holds the villain off, possibly dying in the attempt, only to return later in an arguably more powerful form. (Am I talking about Star Wars: A New Hope, or Fellowship of the Ring? You decide.) Not only in fiction, of course. As a nod to verisimilitude (realism isn’t quite the right word) we can have the player characters encounter things that are beyond them when they venture into a new area, just because that is what lives there, and the world isn’t neatly divided into clean parcels that equate to the right encounter levels. If the thing they meet there is a threat, they can flee, and come back later when they are powerful enough. And you’d be amazed at the number of times at my table the players managed a win against a wildly unbalanced encounter by clever, dramatic play and wise use of resources or tactics. Don’t be afraid to push them, to test them. Most battles should involve the fear of death. I’d say, 60, 70 percent of them. The remaining 30 percent can be fights that are challenging but not really verging on lethal, with a few easy fights, especially at high power levels, where player characters can show off just how powerful they really are against foes that were once difficult.
Fights, especially with lethal weaponry, should never be hum drum affairs that simply mark off so many hit points or arrows or some other resource. They should, for the most part, be pulse pounding, adrenaline pumping affairs, like they are in real life, where no one knows how it will end. In that arena, seeking balance too much can be the enemy of fun. There are ways to avoid permanent death in nearly every setting and system, if you’re really against it, and characters can be beaten and taken captive instead of killed, leading to a whole new cool scenario. Let the players’ decisions and the dice decide the outcome of a fight, but how that actually resolves in the end is up to you.
Shift the camera, shift the spotlight, let characters do what they are good at, and the relative (and subjective) power levels start to mean a lot less, because the more powerful character can’t be everywhere, can’t do everything by themselves, no matter how mighty they are. Remember that no single PC is ever the ‘main character,’ regardless of potency, and as long as everyone gets to be important in play and in the stories we get to tell when play is done, then ‘balance’ really matters a lot less. Challenge the heroes with things that verge on too hard for them or expose them to things that are truly beyond them, so that when they manage a win, or come back to do the job, it is truly rewarding. That’s how you get epic games. Beyond a cursory attempt, let ‘balance’ fend for itself.
Great article, it’s nice to see this put into coherent text!
Thank you! -Jack