A balanced system; a fair GM.

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Much is said of balance and how various games and editions succeed or fail at achieving it. I can see how balance is critical for a competitive multiplayer game (Sirlin does a great job of discussing it.) But I have been wondering just how important balance is for a cooperative game.

Sirlin says that "a game is balanced if a reasonably large number of options available to the player are viable--especially, but not limited to, during high-level play by expert players." Here, of course, "high-level" does not refer to character level, but player skill, (though it could be argued that it is especially important with high level characters.) I do not see player skill as particularly applicable to the balance of a tabletop roleplaying game, except perhaps in the sort of convention-style dungeon delves that might encourage competition between the DM and the players. But I'm not talking about that sort of game, or even Living campaigns, where balance is admittedly more important. I'm talking about the sort of casual game between friends who are essentially cooperating.

It seems to me that balance defined as "lots of viable options" is pretty easy to achieve. Perhaps more important is fairness. Sirlin says a game is fair when, "players of equal skill have an equal chance at winning even though they might start the game with different sets of options / moves / characters / resources / etc." But again, since that definition is for competitive multiplayer games, we can remove the concept of "winning" and replace it with... what? Having fun?

I suppose it will be said, "every player should feel valuable and able to contribute to the party," and that makes sense, I suppose. That's pretty easy for the GM to achieve, though, right? Maybe the importance of balance is more for the GM's sake than the players, as it makes the job easier?

Does a good GM even need a balanced system to make the game fair?
I don't think that a good GM needs a balanced system to make a game fair, but I think it's easier to be a fair GM with a balanced system.

For example, I've played games where characters are highly specialized, and almost useless outside of their areas of specialization. In that type of game, the GM has 3 options:
  • Make the non-specialist players sit and wait while the specialist player does his/her thing
  • Don't give the specialist players any opportunities to do their thing
  • Try to find ways to make the non-specialists be useful during the specialists' encounters


Option 1 leads to a lot of downtime for all the players. Option 2 makes specialists seem useless (which is terrible when the game design encourages specialization!). Option 3 means a lot of work for the GM, and even then the situations often feel contrived.

IME, role-playing games are a lot better when the DM is having fun along with everyone else, than when the DM is doing a lot of hard work so that everyone else can have fun. So, a balanced system is better, even if it's not absolutely necessary.
People demanding "fairness" is something I have always objected to. I demand "justice." It is very different. "Fairness" makes everyone equal, even if that's equally crappy. "Justice" gives everyone what they deserve. People who put in more effort or have more skill ought to be better. Its just a question of how much better.

4e is a pretty just system as far as I'm concerned. Anyone can sit down and play and barring purposefully making something weak, you will be perfectly functional and able to contribute. Meanwhile, the ones who want to spend the effort to be optimized will be better. Now, it won't be so much better that they obsolete the other players. It may not even be noticeable to anyone else. This is good. It rewards the skill and effort without having said skill/effort overshadow the ones who don't care and just want to play.

Of course, this assumes banning or avoiding all the clearly broken things (bloodclaw/reckless, I'm looking at you).

Anyway, yes, a DM needs a balanced system to make the game "fair" without all their players being a of a specific type.
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FACT: Not all DMs are so versed in system mastery that they can bend a broken system to their will. For them, balance helps.

FACT: Some DMs do not want to have to completely reinvent a system in order to facilitate fun for all. A solid, balanced system helps with that.

FACT: Some people actually enjoy a game being a well crafted game, not some shoddy mess. A balanced system shows that the designers were actually thinking when they made the game. "A good DM can fix it" is not a valid excuse for a wonky system.

QUESTION: Given the choice of a balanced system and an unbalanced one, would you even concider chosing the unbalanced one? Let's assume that otherwise they are identical games.
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Much is said of balance and how various games and editions succeed or fail at achieving it. I can see how balance is critical for a competitive multiplayer game (Sirlin does a great job of discussing it.) But I have been wondering just how important balance is for a cooperative game.

Sirlin says that "a game is balanced if a reasonably large number of options available to the player are viable--especially, but not limited to, during high-level play by expert players." Here, of course, "high-level" does not refer to character level, but player skill, (though it could be argued that it is especially important with high level characters.) I do not see player skill as particularly applicable to the balance of a tabletop roleplaying game, except perhaps in the sort of convention-style dungeon delves that might encourage competition between the DM and the players. But I'm not talking about that sort of game, or even Living campaigns, where balance is admittedly more important. I'm talking about the sort of casual game between friends who are essentially cooperating.

It seems to me that balance defined as "lots of viable options" is pretty easy to achieve. Perhaps more important is fairness. Sirlin says a game is fair when, "players of equal skill have an equal chance at winning even though they might start the game with different sets of options / moves / characters / resources / etc." But again, since that definition is for competitive multiplayer games, we can remove the concept of "winning" and replace it with... what? Having fun?

I suppose it will be said, "every player should feel valuable and able to contribute to the party," and that makes sense, I suppose. That's pretty easy for the GM to achieve, though, right? Maybe the importance of balance is more for the GM's sake than the players, as it makes the job easier?

Does a good GM even need a balanced system to make the game fair?

I see where you're coming from, and idylly, you're right. But the thing is, even though the game states repeatedly that the DM and players should work together, it's STILL an adversarial relationship between player and DM. Now, under good circumstances, this means the DM doesn't use his power to screw the players in every encounter...and that the players don't min/max their characters to the point where a healthy sneeze from one of them could down a god.

But, the vast majority of players and DMs, despite both wishes and claims to the contrary, are bad. They are self-serving, egocentric, and narcissistic...and their only interest is in outperforming eveyrone else in any and every way. Their idea of fun involves either in being the best (A-types), or ruining it for everyone else (sadists). Those of these types who don't embrace that nature, as well as fair players who are interested in the good of the group, are the prey upon which the others feed.

And, that is why we have internal mechanical game balance...so that no one mechanical aspect or combination of aspects of the game inherently universally outperforms, or falls short of, any others.

It's why I don't like game rules based on storytelling. I really like getting into character and role-playing, even with NO hack-n-slash at all. But I just can't trust anyone to get into the spirit of the game, instead of the spirit of their own inadequacy-driven egos.

I've played with good DMs, and good players...once it was a whole good group. But most of the time it's just extremely stereotypical nerds who want to play jocks so they can beat all the bullies up and get the girl...only in the end to mess over the other jocks and abandon the girl out of gleeful spite (most often because he's the DM and he can do that).

Some play for some kind of revenge fantasy (but even ONE of these is too many)...some play for an escape (the most players of all, but still a very wrong reason IMO)...and some (that nearly all claim to be, but very precious few actually ever are) actually play to spend time with friends doing something entertaining.

I guess what I'm saying is a fair DM is best, as are fair players...but the rules are there for the times when they aren't...and those have to be even more fair and balanced because of that.
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This is all just my personal understanding/opinion. I don't claim to be an expert game designer. Please read it with that in mind. This is also extremely long, but the OP's question was so interesting it was worth putting a lot of thought into.

There are two different ways people generally use the term game balance when talking about tapletop RPGs like D&D. One refers to balancing encounters. The other is a design conceit, an overall idea used in putting a game together. A DM is always concerned about the former, but shouldn't have to worry about the latter.

Encounter Balance, of course, refers to ensuring that every challenge put before the players presents a reasonable chance of success without being too easy. While this most often comes up with combats, skill challenges also have balance. In some sense, even puzzles and mysteries have a game balance. In order for a victory to be meaningful, there must be a real risk of failure and consequences for failure. When challenges are too easy, players lose a sense of accomplishment. When challenges are too difficult, players get frustrated. Either of those leads to less fun. Of course, encounter balance is a scale. Tension should rise throughout the game, so challenge should increase. But too much tension isn't much fun either. So, easier challenges serve to release some tension before it ratchets up again. Adventures generally end on a climax, a very difficult challenge and thus a very meaningful victory or a terrible defeat.

Understanding Encounter Balance is the key to writing good adventures. Every DM has to worry about it. And it isn't neccessarily inherent in the system. While the system can provide tools to guage the challenge level of particular challenges (encounter design tools), a DM must use those tools properly and look at the big picture. A skilled DM can eventually learn how to balance encounters in just about any system, but if the system doesn't provide good tools, it will take time and energy and may frustrate the DM and the players.

Game Balance is a design conceit; it is what the designers of the game strive for. It is a big picture sort of thing, but it comes down to a couple of basic ideas. First, the system must make encounter balance as easy as possible for the DM. Second, the system must ensure that all options presented to players in the system are equally viable.

The first part, making encounter balance possible, is basically wrapped up in the system math. Basically, the designers have to come up with a way of rating difficulties so that they can be compared easily. In D&D, two monsters of equal level should pose equal levels of challenge. This involves every tiny piece of system math in the game. Attack rolls vs. defenses, hit points vs. damage, how conditions like 'stunned' affect the outcome of the game. It involves attempting to figure out just what is fun anyway. A combat that lasts five rounds is fun. A player that hits 60% of the time has fun. Monsters that survive for four rounds are fun. Skill checks succeeding 75% of the time are fun. And on and on and on.

The second part, making options equally viable, may seem odd in cooperative play. Who really cares if option 'x' is weaker than option 'y'? The players aren't competing. However, there are several problems with this attitude. First, all players like to feel like they are contributing. You don't want to create a sense that one player is not needed because they chose a less than viable option. That player is going to start to lose interest in a game because they can't affect the outcome. Worse, the players may not be competing against each other, but they are competing against the story and the obstacles. If one of their teammates isn't pulling their weight, especially if they are struggling, the team is going to be unhappy as a whole. Its a sort of 'kid picked last for dodgeball' scenario and it isn't fun.

Making sure all options are equally viable is also important for encounter balance. That is, if some options are more powerful than others, encounter design becomes trickier. One party makeup will get trounced by the same challenge that another party can wade through without breaking a sweat. This is where the old dilemma in earlier editions came up: the creature that is challenging for the fighter can kill the wizard in one hit, the creature that is challenging for the wizard can be killed by the fighter in one hit.

Now, the number of options presented isn't a game balance issue. How the options compare to each other is. And beyond that, there are other reasons for wanting all of the options to be equally playable. Players and DMs figure out pretty quickly what works, what doesn't, what is optimal, and what isn't. If you put an extremely poor option in the game, it won't get played. An option that isn't played is wasted design time and wasted page space. Time and space are valuable commodities. If one or two options are extremely good, it hurts by making all of the other options poor by comparison. Again, options no one plays are wasted time and energy.

All that being said, can a DM adjust the encounter balance to make up for bad game balance? To some extent, I'd say yes. But I don't think a truly broken game can be compensated for. If the options presented in the game are very unbalanced and the tools for encounter design are not accurate, the end result is that every encounter the DM builds has a random outcome somewhere between trivial and total-party-kill. The players will not simply become bored or frustrated, they will become paranoid about challenges because there is no way to assess risks and make meaningful choices. The DM will become frustrated because he can't assess the outcome and challenge the players appropriately.

But maybe the system isn't so badly unbalanced. Maybe it takes a lot of hard work, but the DM can do it. Eventually, the DM may start to wonder why he is bothering. There are other game systems. Why put so much time and effort into this one that seems to be working against him? If the game has little competition or offers something to compensate (a unique genre, setting, or premise for instance), it may be worth it to put in the extra effort. If there are other options that provide the same play experience with better balance, the DM will change game systems.

Even if the DM decides to stick with an unbalanced game and work through the difficulties, though, mistakes will be made eventually. Experimentation and tweaking are constantly needed, after all. If there are too many mistakes, the players will grow bored, frustrated, or paranoid depending on how the errors fall. But either way, no one is having any fun.

Strictly speaking, a good DM doesn't need a well balanced system, but there is some minimum level of balance required before the DM will just throw in the towel. Beyond that, a system that is unbalanced is more demanding on the DM and the DM and the players may decide that it isn't worth the effort if other options are available.

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I suppose it will be said, "every player should feel valuable and able to contribute to the party," and that makes sense, I suppose. That's pretty easy for the GM to achieve, though, right?

No, it's actually very difficult once the characters have been assigned to paper. In fact most GMs fail miserably at it. It requires a knowledge of good GMing techniques, a massive amount of system knowledge, and in many systems (Rifts for example) it can be made perfectly impossible by the system itself. Your Glitterboy is not threatened by the punks that can beat the Scout to death with baseball bats.

So yes a good GM needs a pasibly balanced system to make the game fair. In addition he needs players who are all on the same page and have good system mastery themselves.

More importantly most GMs aren't good. They're average. Average GMs need balance if they don't want a player who actually tries to make good characters from accidentally sinking an entire campaign.
Well... At least we got custom avatars....
QUESTION: Given the choice of a balanced system and an unbalanced one, would you even concider chosing the unbalanced one? Let's assume that otherwise they are identical games.

Answer: the balanced one if they are identical.


Question:Given the choice of a balanced system and an unbalanced one, would you even concider chosing the unbalanced one? Let's assume the unbalanced one is still balanced enough to be played by millions of people . Further, lets assume the "unbalanced" one allows for more options, say like an illusionist who has a variety of spells that may or may not be good in combat or a fighter who has less options for the player who wants less complicated options. Further lets assume the balanced one forces all characters of all types to follow the same progression, they all get powers at the same time, they all get the same amount of powers, and their powers are roughly equal in strength. Would you choose the balanced one with less options?
Answer: the balanced one if they are identical.


Question:Given the choice of a balanced system and an unbalanced one, would you even concider chosing the unbalanced one? Let's assume the unbalanced one is still balanced enough to be played by millions of people . Further, lets assume the "unbalanced" one allows for more options, say like an illusionist who has a variety of spells that may or may not be good in combat or a cleric who gains an advantage for having to follow a certain code. Further lets assume the balanced one forces all characters of all types to follow the same progression, they all get powers at the same time, they all get the same amount of powers, and their powers are roughly equal in strength. Would you choose the balanced one with less options?

Gee... I wonder what two systems you might be thinking of....

Seriously, this doesn't contribute anything to the discussion. It is simply inflammatory. Can't we keep the edition wars out of just one thread and just everybody play whatever system they happen to enjoy?

The Angry DM: D&D 4th Edition Advice with Attitude http://angrydm.com Follow me on Twitter @TheAngryDM "D&D is a world where you are a great champion, and the creator of the universe is frequently disorganized, highly distractable, and alarmingly vague on the rules of the universe he’s trying to run." -Shamus Young, Twenty Sided Tale (DM of the Rings)

Much is said of balance and how various games and editions succeed or fail at achieving it. I can see how balance is critical for a competitive multiplayer game (Sirlin does a great job of discussing it.) But I have been wondering just how important balance is for a cooperative game.

Its incredibly important. There are a number of reasons for this.

It seems to me that balance defined as "lots of viable options" is pretty easy to achieve. Perhaps more important is fairness. Sirlin says a game is fair when, "players of equal skill have an equal chance at winning even though they might start the game with different sets of options / moves / characters / resources / etc." But again, since that definition is for competitive multiplayer games, we can remove the concept of "winning" and replace it with... what? Having fun?

1) The same reason all single player games need to be balanced - fun. Games which are too easy or too hard aren't fun.
2) There is a "competition" in D&D. It isn't a formal one, but it certainly exists. Its called by various names, none of which really capture it properly - "spotlight time", "time to shine", "contribution", ect. Its a somewhat complex thing which more or less is how much influence you have over the story, and how much time is spent on you. In a good game, this is distributed evenly - everyone has equal opportunity to shine. In an unbalanced game, this isn't the case, and it makes the game very bad. Moreover, when you shine is also important - if you don't shine for a long time, then shine, then don't shine again for a long time, its very different from shining every few rounds or feeling like you're contributing all the time.

So while you're not competiting head to head, there IS a resource which is distributed amongst the players, and the "competition" is for that resource.

Does a good GM even need a balanced system to make the game fair?

Absolutely. See the above.

If the GM is changing the game, then they aren't acting as GM - they're acting as a game designer.

Not to mention this blindingly obvious fact - most GMs aren't good. The game shouldn't require a good GM to be fun.

Not to mention, a good GM is not necessarily a good game designer, and a good game designer isn't a good GM. So a good GM DOES need a balanced system to make the game fair, unless they're a good game designer... in which case they can make their own system.

And, fundamentally, here's an even easier question:

If I have to fix the system, why am I paying money for garbage?
Does a good GM even need a balanced system to make the game fair?

That depends if you want your GM to have any time or motivation left for making the game fun after they've fixed the balance problems, if they are capable of fixing them at all.
Gee... I wonder what two systems you might be thinking of....

Seriously, this doesn't contribute anything to the discussion. It is simply inflammatory. Can't we keep the edition wars out of just one thread and just everybody play whatever system they happen to enjoy?

I agree, didn't mean to be inflamatory, just responding to someone who is providing lots of "facts" and asked his own leading question. You are right that this is not constructive in any way. I apologize.
Given the choice of a balanced system and an unbalanced one, would you even concider chosing the unbalanced one? Let's assume the unbalanced one is still balanced enough to be played by millions of people.

Isn't this a bit contradictory? If it's balanced enough to be played by millions of people, why are you assuming it to be unbalanced in the first place?

Further, lets assume the "unbalanced" one allows for more options, say like an illusionist who has a variety of spells that may or may not be good in combat or a fighter who has less options for the player who wants less complicated options. Further lets assume the balanced one forces all characters of all types to follow the same progression, they all get powers at the same time, they all get the same amount of powers, and their powers are roughly equal in strength. Would you choose the balanced one with less options?

I would choose the balanced one. Because the unbalanced one would result in my not getting a chance to play when the options I have selected have no use. I would choose the balanced one because the unbalanced one forces the DM to design more different kinds of encounters in order to appeal to the various options selected at the game table by myself and the other players. And even if the DM were to painstakingly craft different encounters, each appealing to the options chosen by a select few, I would still have to sit through many encounters where my options are useless while the others have their chance to use their own.

To summarize, using either the balanced system and the unbalanced system means you're bound to take turns with the other players in playing with your character usefully. The difference is that, for the balanced system, this is done one round at a time. For the unbalanced system, assuming the DM tries to be fair with all players, it's more likely to be done one encounter at a time, and I don't feel like sitting through four encounters until I get to be useful in one.
Does 'balance' make the game more fun ? Im not sure if it does or not. Personally having DM'd for a very long time 25+ years i think as long as the players/DM are having fun and the rules are applied consistantly I dont believe it matters if the system is balanced.

For those of you with kids please check out the D&D Parents Group. http://community.wizards.com/dndparents

Does 'balance' make the game more fun ? Im not sure if it does or not. Personally having DM'd for a very long time 25+ years i think as long as the players/DM are having fun and the rules are applied consistantly I dont believe it matters if the system is balanced.

Balance doesn't automatically make fun, but it makes fun possible. An unbalanced system results in parties getting steamrolled by monsters before they can do anything interesting, or not caring about the story because it is doomed to success. Balance allows uncertainty, uncertainty creates drama, drama inspires fun.
Sirlin says a game is fair when, "players of equal skill have an equal chance at winning even though they might start the game with different sets of options / moves / characters / resources / etc."

This might be true if the game being discussed is a board game, some purely miniture combat game, or some sort of video/PC game.

But if this Sirlin seeks to apply this thinking to an actual RPG? Then he's an idiot. Because no matter what lv your character reaches, no matter what loot you claim, you can not WIN D&D. Not even in 4e.



Does a good GM even need a balanced system to make the game fair?

No.
QUESTION: Given the choice of a balanced system and an unbalanced one, would you even concider chosing the unbalanced one?

Yes. Given the opprotunity I will play Advanced D&D over 4e any day of the week.
And I'm not going to play a caster either....
Balance allows uncertainty, uncertainty creates drama, drama inspires fun.

Gotta love this quote !

For those of you with kids please check out the D&D Parents Group. http://community.wizards.com/dndparents

Balance allows uncertainty, uncertainty creates drama, drama inspires fun.

Fun leads to anger. Anger leads to fear. And that is the path to the dark side... oh wait. Sorry, I thought we were talking about something else.

The Angry DM: D&D 4th Edition Advice with Attitude http://angrydm.com Follow me on Twitter @TheAngryDM "D&D is a world where you are a great champion, and the creator of the universe is frequently disorganized, highly distractable, and alarmingly vague on the rules of the universe he’s trying to run." -Shamus Young, Twenty Sided Tale (DM of the Rings)

Balance is not required for a fun game.

It seems as though, in the past, designers would come up with an idea, say to themselves, "hey...this sounds awesome!", and stick it into the game without one thought as to what might come of it when mixed with all the other aspects of the game. No concern for cohesion. No concern for balance. They just want to see their uber-awesome idea in print. Do that enough, and we end up with a mess that is more often work than it is fun.

I can take a train-wreck of bad designs and make it work...but should I have to? If the slightest bit of thought had been put into it to begin with, I might find myself having fun with the game instead of feeling like I'm still at work trying to balance the expenditures with the budget.

4E has taken D&D in a very different direction, as we all well know.
Some see the changes as good, some as bad.

I see a well-balanced system full of exciting potential. I see a system that I can add to to my heart's content and rest assured that the balanced backbone will be intact. I see a system that I don't have to spend excessive amounts of time with, working on it to MAKE it more balanced. It's easy to run, easy to play, easy to design for...quite frankly, it is slowly creeping up to be my favorite D&D edition...right behind 1E (which had oodles of problems, but it was my first...you always have a soft-spot for your first).
To Wezn:

As you said, balance in a cooperative tabletop RPG (or any cooperative RPG) is not the same thing as in a competitive game.

In D&D 4E, this a balance of fun.

It wasn't fun to play a low level mage in AD&D. With only one or two spells a day, and a fragile character, all you could do most of the time was wait for the fighters and clerics to come back from inside the dungeon. at higher level, things went the other way. It was a kind of "balance", a balance by time: the most powerful high level character progressed slowly, and was least powerful in the beginning than the others.
But it wasn't really fun. Neither for the individual player nor for the team.

In 4E, calsses are "balanced" according to fun and utility. You can play the class you want without "paying" the price of its future power, or lack of power. The team won't have to protect you from harm for five levels before you can become a useful member.

Same thing with the encounters. In AD&D, the "dangerosity" of monsters was not linked to its level. A wight was only level 3, but untouchable without magic weapons, and ate your levels in a round... encouters, for the team and for the DM, were based on luck. A missed save, a badly thought encouter and everybody dies.

Again, 4E as been balanced with fun in mind. Encounters are easy to make, because monsters are balanced for same level opponents. So fights are more fun, less "luck based", and at the same time more challenging.

That is what I think "balance" means in a RPG (tabletop or MMO): everyone has fun playing.
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Balance is important because no one wants to be robbin in a game with batman, no one wants the flash when there is superman. To me balance is necessary so that every player can contribute equally in every encounter.
I find it very odd that some DND players think that balance is a bad thing in a game. I have never heard a Settlers of Catan player complain that their game was too balanced.

DND is, among other things, a game. A game which you play with other people. It's hard to see how balance would be anything but beneficial.
I find it very odd that some DND players think that balance is a bad thing in a game. I have never heard a Settlers of Catan player complain that their game was too balanced.

DND is, among other things, a game. A game which you play with other people. It's hard to see how balance would be anything but beneficial.

Some people have somehow worked into their minds that balance eliminates creativity... or difference... or something. I don't even know. They think that the only acceptable balanced system is where everyone is the exact same thing.
Important balance in an RPG to me takes a few forms:

1) No ability choice is trivial. A trivial choice is one where option A is always better than option B. Its ok if skill focus isn't as all around handy as +2 damage, and you can get them both for a feat. Its a problem if the "I'm Awesome" feat gives +2 damage AND a skill focus bonus. Why would anyone bother with skill focus or the +2 damage feat? The inferior abilities might as well not exist, and I shouldn't have to figure out what to crop out of material the designers should have eliminated themselves.

2) No character that's not designed by an idiot should be completely outdone by another character. If your wizard can fight in melee and take as much damage as my fighter, AND cast spells, the system is doing something wrong. Even a jack-of-all trades character, while often not as 'powerful' as a specialist, should be better than the specialist at the things the specialist isn't specialized at. Whoa, that was an odd sentence

3) In a system with classes or other predefined ability sets, a character should never be outdone at their 'schtick' by another character with a different 'schtick'. In other words, if my character is supposed to be a deadly duelist, I shouldn't be beaten in a sword duel by the character class designed to be a master of transportation magic.

Further, its nice if there's one main activity in the game (for example, fighting), that all characters can reasonably participate in that activity, and that abilities are 'priced' accordingly. So, in a mostly fighting game, abilities to make you a better fighter should 'cost' more than social abilities. In a political intrigue game, social abilities might cost more.
It is an escalation war. If my players wish to fully optimize and act as if I am looking to kill them (like some DMs do) then I will look to make each encounter tough (maybe not each) and my baddies will be optimized. I let my players know I am not looking to kill them though and if they want feats or items that are about roleplaying then go for it. The more my players interact and roleplay with the NPCs and especially other PCs the better gear they get also.
Thanks for all the great responses. I especially appreciate the defining and meaning of balance. It seems there's a great deal of consensus about the importance of it. I was particularly intrigued by this one:

So while you're not competiting head to head, there IS a resource which is distributed amongst the players, and the "competition" is for that resource.

...the resource being "time to shine". Is that really the thing that is being balanced?

EDIT: Well there's that balance, between characters, as well as encounter balance.

As an aside:
But if this Sirlin seeks to apply this thinking to an actual RPG?

No, he doesn't. He's applying those definitions to competitive multiplayer games, like Street Fighter II and Starcraft. I borrowed his definitions just as a place to start from, but also in part to compare cooperative and competitive games.
Some people have somehow worked into their minds that balance eliminates creativity... or difference... or something. I don't even know. They think that the only acceptable balanced system is where everyone is the exact same thing.

(Disclaimer: I am not arguing against 4th Edition. I currently play in two 4th Edition games and only wanted to respond to this comment in a more general sense.)

Balance does not eliminate creativity or difference, but it does restrict it. The more you balance something, the more uniform something gets. If you wanted to create a 100% balanced game, where every character is useful in the same ways, then you have a game with all characters being the same. If you want a completely "creative" (for lack of a better word) game, then you have huge inequalities in balance.

Balanced with less options-----------------------Limitless options but broken

Games typically have to fall somewhere on the line. Some people tend to favor different positions on the line. So they're not saying that balance is bad, but it is bad at the expense of other things.

I read a quote from Richard Garfield (the designer of Magic the Gathering) in which he said (paraphrasing since I can't find it now) that he has no issues with cards having to be banned. He said if there weren't some cards which required banning, then it would mean that the designers of Magic won't be pushing the design space or trying new things.
"Balance" in an RPG, in its most abstract sense, means that everyone gets a chance to have about the same amount of fun.

In D&D, since there's a lot of combat, everyone typically engages in combat simultaneously and against the same foes, its important that combat specific balance exist. Combat balance is a slightly different animal than general balance. It means that, in a combat scenario, everyone contributes reasonably equally to the collective victory.
Balance does not eliminate creativity or difference, but it does restrict it. The more you balance something, the more uniform something gets. If you wanted to create a 100% balanced game, where every character is useful in the same ways, then you have a game with all characters being the same. If you want a completely "creative" (for lack of a better word) game, then you have huge inequalities in balance.

Balanced with less options-----------------------Limitless options but broken

Games typically have to fall somewhere on the line. Some people tend to favor different positions on the line. So they're not saying that balance is bad, but it is bad at the expense of other things.

Well, this is the argument that gets bandied around the most. Thus, I threw in that 'acceptable' balance qualifier. Yes, if everyone is to be 100% equal in all respects, then they will be the same.

But I don't know a single game that does this. I do know lots of games that are balanced, however. Not everything has to work, but more than 50% should work. Also, unbalanced =/= more creativity. I feel equally creative in 4e as 3e and I would say there's a huge difference in balance. Likewise, I'm not sure that Rifts gives you more creativity (save from just sheer volume of material) than 3e but there is a measurable difference in balance between those two.

I just reject the notion that balance and options are mutually exclusive. However, we should probably not derail the thread into this discussion, since I think it's been done before.
Some people have somehow worked into their minds that balance eliminates creativity... or difference... or something. I don't even know. They think that the only acceptable balanced system is where everyone is the exact same thing.

Well, some of those players believe the current edition has sacrificed options for the sake of balance. For example:

You cannot make a class/character that uses a vancian magic system in 4e, because the designers believed that it was unbalanced when compared to the other classes.

You cannot make a class that has access many more powers but sacrifices something else in exchange for this, this option does not exist because of balance (hence why all classes have the same amount of powers in 4e) except for the wizard who has a little bit more access, but not a signifigant amount.

You cannot have a simple class for people who do not want to customize like the old fighter, who had very little options, attack, charge ect. You can't do this because all classes need to be balanced, so they all need the same amount of powers. This means every player in D&D will always need 3-4 sheets of character information at mid level. Everyone has to have many many combat options.

You can't make an illusionist that will be completely weak in many situations (e.g. golems, undead ect) but very powerful in others (e.g. the city), you can't do this because one of the balance goal is to have all classes relatively equal in strength in combat. Your illusionist will end up having many combat related powers.

You can't have a class that is very weak for its first 10 levels, in exchange for it being very strong at later levels, you cant do this because of balance.

Conversely you can't have a class that is strong at first, but relatively weak towards the end of its career, because it would be unbalanced.

You cannot have a class, that is so mystical and strange that its progression and internal mechanics work completely different then another class, you can't do this because it would be hard to balance that class with the others.

So yeah, its natural that some people will look at the things they can no longer do, and then think, well I had fun in an unbalanced system... maybe balance isn't the be all and end all.

Other people like the balance. Its all preference. But when people say silly things like you can't have fun in an unbalanced system, it shows a level of ignorance that is stunning. 1e and 2e were signifigantly unbalanced, were people just pretending to have fun?
But I don't know a single game that does this. I do know lots of games that are balanced, however. Not everything has to work, but more than 50% should work. Also, unbalanced =/= more creativity. I feel equally creative in 4e as 3e and I would say there's a huge difference in balance. Likewise, I'm not sure that Rifts gives you more creativity (save from just sheer volume of material) than 3e but there is a measurable difference in balance between those two.

I just reject the notion that balance and options are mutually exclusive. However, we should probably not derail the thread into this discussion, since I think it's been done before.

I don't want to imply that unbalance leads to more creativity. The very opposite typically is true. In very unbalanced games (especially competitive ones), the top options become the only chosen ones.

It is the idea if there are vastly different options (fuctionality and numerically), then a game will TEND to be less balanced.

4th edition follows a very uniform structuring. Classes and powers are written in a very uniform way. This is to promote balance.

I believe that people are not complaining about balance, but the uniformity. Why can't my wizard manage different resources than my rogue?

The answer is clearly for balance, which they see as detracting from the variety (probably a better word than creativity) of the game.
The popular board game Talisman has always been unbalanced. At start up you get a random character (theif, rogue, sorceress, wizard ect) The sorceress is one of the best characters, there are really bad characters, really good characters and plenty of in the middle characters.

Still a fun game.
You cannot make a class/character that uses a vancian magic system in 4e, because the designers believed that it was unbalanced when compared to the other classes.

You can't use a daily/encounter/at-will system in 3x

You cannot make a class that has access many more powers but sacrifices something else in exchange for this, this option does not exist because of balance (hence why all classes have the same amount of powers in 4e) except for the wizard who has a little bit more access, but not a signifigant amount.

I can't play a fighter that has abilities on par with spells (at least until the end of the 3e run and we're at the beginning of the 4e run).

You cannot have a simple class for people who do not want to customize like the old fighter, who had very little options, attack, charge ect. You can't do this because all classes need to be balanced, so they all need the same amount of powers. This means every player in D&D will always need 3-4 sheets of character information at mid level. Everyone has to have many many combat options.

Really? People liked playing a boring fighter that just did an attack every round for 20 levels and continued to play said fighter without ever getting feats that allowed more options or increased things like bull rushing, leap attacks, whirlwinds etc...

I call shenanigans.

You can't make an illusionist that will be completely weak in many situations (e.g. golems, undead ect) but very powerful in others (e.g. the city), you can't do this because one of the balance goal is to have all classes relatively equal in strength in combat. Your illusionist will end up having many combat related powers.

You can't have a class that is very weak for its first 10 levels, in exchange for it being very strong at later levels, you cant do this because of balance.

Conversely you can't have a class that is strong at first, but relatively weak towards the end of its career, because it would be unbalanced.

...

I'm sure you made this in all seriousness, but I'm having a hard buying these complaints. You're asking for classes that are useless and saying that it's... what... better? to have these options?

And you imply that you can't have fun unless the system was unbalanced?



Shenanigans.

I don't want to imply that unbalance leads to more creativity. The very opposite typically is true. In very unbalanced games (especially competitive ones), the top options become the only chosen ones.

It is the idea if there are vastly different options (fuctionality and numerically), then a game will TEND to be less balanced.

4th edition follows a very uniform structuring. Classes and powers are written in a very uniform way. This is to promote balance.

I believe that people are not complaining about balance, but the uniformity. Why can't my wizard manage different resources than my rogue?

The answer is clearly for balance, which they see as detracting from the variety (probably a better word than creativity) of the game.

Well, I think some of the uniformity arises because we're also dealing with... what? 5 4e books? If we use the PHBII or the Powers as a sign of where things are going, there is going to be different 'resource' management. We didn't get the Warlock on release in 3e, we won't have all the different classes in 4e.

Just as a few examples - Vestige Pack Warlocks have an at-will that changes depending on the daily that has been used. Wild Magic Sorcerer has effects based on the die roll used at that moment. Bravura Warlord grants CA and bonuses to enemies in order to grant bonuses to allies.
The popular board game Talisman has always been unbalanced. At start up you get a random character (theif, rogue, sorceress, wizard ect) The sorceress is one of the best characters, there are really bad characters, really good characters and plenty of in the middle characters.

Still a fun game.

Diplomacy - incredibly balanced game (though you can't tell by looking at it as all seven countries have very different starts) and enormously fun.

Star Craft - incredibly balanced game, very different between the races and still a fun game.
You can't use a daily/encounter/at-will system in 3x

Are you serious? What would have been the problem with doing this in 3e? There were many many classes with different subrules and this would have been a viable option. The warlock had at wills and dailies (no encounters because this concept didnt exist in 3e, it was usually 3 times a day). So yeah, there were classes that could do things daily, at will and 3 times a day.

I can't play a fighter that has abilities on par with spells (at least until the end of the 3e run and we're at the beginning of the 4e run).

I don't get what this means? There were fighter/mage classes in 3e.

Really? People liked playing a boring fighter that just did an attack every round for 20 levels and continued to play said fighter without ever getting feats that allowed more options or increased things like bull rushing, leap attacks, whirlwinds etc...

Yes, many people played "boring fighters" in 3e. Many people who weren't really into D&D (just a way to hang with friends) liked the simple class where they could just easily level and roleplay and attack. The whole stand and attack thing was a criticism of 3e fighters. So obviously some people played this way. I had a fighter my last campaign that only took "toughness" because he didn't want to learn the rules for wrestling and all the other options for example.

And you imply that you can't have fun unless the system was unbalanced?

No. I am implying that for some people it is more fun to play in a system with different subrules. Mages work like this. Fighters work like this. Sorcerers work like this. Clerics work differently to. ect ect Of course I want the subrules to be as balanced as possible. But making all class follow the same subrules/progression removes some of the variety.
I feel equally creative in 4e as 3e and I would say there's a huge difference in balance.

The sort of creativity being discussed earlier was designer creativity, not player creativity. In a game where balance isn't much of a concern, ideas which aren't balanced can still be included.

That isn't necessarily a good thing, of course.
Diplomacy - incredibly balanced game (though you can't tell by looking at it as all seven countries have very different starts) and enormously fun.

Star Craft - incredibly balanced game, very different between the races and still a fun game.

Who was saying balanced games can't be fun? I am not.

Actually I always thought the StarCraft races were unbalanced. Terran seem to be overly popular online, just like wizards were popular in Living Greyhawk.
(no encounters because this concept didnt exist in 3e, it was usually 3 times a day).

Please read the Barbarian's rules for Rage. Encounter limitations were hard-wired into the system from the first PHB. 4e didn't come up with anything new here.

No. I am implying that for some people it is more fun to play in a system with different subrules. Mages work like this. Fighters work like this. Sorcerers work like this. Clerics work differently to. ect ect Of course I want the subrules to be as balanced as possible. But making all class follow the same subrules/progression removes some of the variety.

Mechanical variety does not create playability variety. Prep-Mages, Spon-Mages, and Mundanes are the three styles of variety that was present in 3e. There were a few hybrids, and even the Mundanes had a few "powerful" tricks they could accomplish. But that didn't make the play-styles of the character sheets diverse, Just the math-keeping.

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Are you serious? What would have been the problem with doing this in 3e? There were many many classes with different subrules and this would have been a viable option. The warlock had at wills and dailies (no encounters because this concept didnt exist in 3e, it was usually 3 times a day). So yeah, there were classes that could do things daily, at will and 3 times a day.

If we're going to play the 'close enough' game, you can argue that 4e gives a 'close enough' system for Vancian casting. Your dailies are your top level spells, the ones you can prepare three times. Encounter powers? Mid-level spells that you have multiples memorized. Dailies are your cantrips and low level abilities that you have to prepare for every 20 levels.

You cannot make a class that has access many more powers but sacrifices something else in exchange for this, this option does not exist because of balance (hence why all classes have the same amount of powers in 4e) except for the wizard who has a little bit more access, but not a signifigant amount.

I don't get what this means? There were fighter/mage classes in 3e.

We have multiclassing in 4e too.

Yes, many people played "boring fighters" in 3e. Many people who weren't really into D&D (just a way to hang with friends) liked the simple class where they could just easily level and roleplay and attack. The whole stand and attack thing was a criticism of 3e.

If that floats their boat, why not play a ranger and use basic range attack the whole game. I still can't believe that someone would spend more than a year playing a game where they just did a standard attack every... single... round.

No. I am implying that for some people it is more fun to play in a system with different subrules. Mages work like this. Fighters work like this. Sorcerers work like this. Clerics work differently to. ect ect Of course I want the subrules to be as balanced as possible. But making all class follow the same subrules/progression removes some of the variety.

Fighters have marking, wizards have zones. The different 'roles' play different and have different rules. I don't see the problem. They've imbedded the subsystems so they aren't so incredibly jarring/confusing/jumbled and have made them easier for the DM who, ultimately, needs to juggle every single one.
Well, some of those players believe the current edition has sacrificed options for the sake of balance. For example:

...list of things you could do in 3rd Edition but not in 4th...

So yeah, its natural that some people will look at the things they can no longer do, and then think, well I had fun in an unbalanced system... maybe balance isn't the be all and end all.

Other people like the balance. Its all preference. But when people say silly things like you can't have fun in an unbalanced system, it shows a level of ignorance that is stunning. 1e and 2e were signifigantly unbalanced, were people just pretending to have fun?

And in 3.5 I couldn't make a fighter that could fly and shoot laser beams from his eyes. Blah, blah, blah.

Seriously, what's your point? That 4E and 3E are different? Because I can come up with a list of things I can do in 4th Edition that I can't do in 3rd, too. But what does that prove? It doesn't prove that there are more options or fewer options. It just proves that there are different options. And frankly, it doesn't even prove that 3rd or 4th had better or worse game balance.

But when people say silly things like you can't have fun in an unbalanced system, it shows a level of ignorance that is stunning.

Rereading these posts, I think the general consensus is not that it is impossible to have fun in an unbalanced system, but that the more unbalanced a system is, the more difficult it is to have fun. Maybe I am misreading. But what you have said here is just insulting, amount to: "When people express an opinion I don't agree with, they are stupid."

The Angry DM: D&D 4th Edition Advice with Attitude http://angrydm.com Follow me on Twitter @TheAngryDM "D&D is a world where you are a great champion, and the creator of the universe is frequently disorganized, highly distractable, and alarmingly vague on the rules of the universe he’s trying to run." -Shamus Young, Twenty Sided Tale (DM of the Rings)

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