Chess is not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
RPG designer John Wick has written a lengthy article in which he tackles the subject of game balance and the definition of a roleplaying game. One thing's for sure - he's no fan of games with equipment lists!

http://johnwickpresents.com/games/game-designs/chess-is-not-an-rpg-the-illusion-of-game-balance/

I've always said that balance (or symmetry) for its own sake robs a game of flavour. Some stuff can be better than other stuff; I'm fine with that. Some choices can be better, as long as it doesn't lead to an environment in which some layers dominate a game to the exclusion of other players.

That said, I find a lot to disagree with in this article, too. In particular, he seems to be of the opinion that the only thing important in a roleplaying game is the roleplaying; I disagree. Yes, it has the word "roleplaying" in its name, and I see how that can be confusing, but that's just a label.

Roleplaying is part of the fun of an RPG, and different RPGs offer different flavours of fun. In common, yes, they all contain roleplaying to a greater or lesser extent. Having an intricate combat system does not make a game "not an RPG" it makes it "an RPG with an intricate combat system".

That's just my take, though. I know there are gamers of wildly varying styles and opinions on this board!
 
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It's a mix of good points and bad points, I think.

"RPGs are about story" -- yes, good point; I agree with that definition.

"RPGs being games where players are rewarded for making character-consistent choices;" yes, ideally -- but just because someone can take a RPG like D&D and play it with reduced roleplaying does not make D&D any less of a roleplaying game; catering to different play styles is a strength of good RPGs IMO. RPGs should be tailorable to a group's playstyle by the group -- the author is essentially suggesting that playing an RPG in a way other than he interprets it is badwrongfun.

"In a roleplaying game balance does not matter" -- disagree strongly. "RPG" includes "game;" games have rules and balance matters in games. That doesn't mean the game has to be precisely and equally balanced ... but if balance does not matter, you may be roleplaying but you're not playing a roleplaying game.

In the end I think the author loses the forest of gaming fun in the trees of gaming rules. Rules do not an RPG make, nor do they defeat the ability to roleplay -- it's the group's ability to come together to tell a story that makes the game. Groups that have that dynamic can do it regardless of what set of rules you give them, and groups without it can't regardless of what game they play.

(I acknowledge that depending on the game, rules may be more in the forefront or disappear more, and one should strive to make the rules disappear in play ... but that's a somewhat different discussion.)

However, after all that I'm intrigued by the idea of Chess as a roleplaying game. What can we do with that? Someone call Lewis Carroll ...
 
John Wick said:
What matters is spotlight. Making sure each player feels their character had a significant role in the story. They had their moment in the spotlight. Or, they helped someone else have their significant moment in the spotlight.
Ah, it's the ol' "The GM's job is to ensure that everyone gets spotlight time, so balance isn't important" fallacy, in extended blog-rant form! With a big helping of implied "You're having badwrongfun" thrown in for good measure!

News at 11.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
I don't disagree that rules that don't serve the story get in the way of doing so. I just don't think the author is accounting for how the story is being told.

Especially, rules intended to balance a game do, indeed, affect how a story plays out. In fact, they make a statement about the setting if that story.

To use as extreme an example as I can come up with, I think the game I developed for this site's 7-day RPG contest has no rules that do not serve the story, and yet requires a tight balance of the rules since the core mechanic is entirely driven by strategy (and not luck).

Could it be played without roleplaying? I really don't see how?
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Ah, it's the ol' "The GM's job is to ensure that everyone gets spotlight time, so balance isn't important" fallacy, in extended blog-rant form! With a big helping of implied "You're having badwrongfun" thrown in for good measure!
Ah, yes, the "thing I don't like is a fallacy" fallacy. I happen to agree that the only form of balance that really matters in the end is spotlight balance. Everything else is just one specific game's flavor compared to another.
 
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Everyone calling John Wick "the author" suggests to me that a number of posters don't realize that he's actually an accomplished game designer, albeit definitely closer to the rules-lite, story-game end of the spectrum. (He did not design, say, GURPS or Champions.)

And maybe I misread the piece last night, but I didn't see him telling you that your games that you enjoy are bad, but just that he doesn't believe most of the crunch in game systems has a lot of benefit and challenges the reader to try it his way. Even if you have different tastes, the idea of dumping rules that don't do anything for you is pretty sound advice, with a long history in RPGs. (Weapon speed, weapon type and encumbrance rules were probably skimmed over by 95+ percent of 1E players back in the day, for instance.)
 

fjw70

Explorer
It's funny he doesn't considet the RPG that started the industry to be an RPG.

I think his definition of RPGs is way too narrow.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
It's not for nothing that Wick has a reputation as a titanic ass. And I agree that his declarations of what are and are not RPGs are far too extremist. But I think he has some good points about game balance just the same. What he misses is that some of those choices (like weapon lists) can be used quite well to support role playing and story telling - all it takes is a character as interested in the gun porn as the player. And that's not at all hard to imagine.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
It's funny he doesn't considet the RPG that started the industry to be an RPG.
I think his definition of RPGs is way too narrow.
Well, it was an entertaining read. I'll give him credit for having something to say and trying to do it persuasively. One of his most interesting points: if you can successfully play the game without roleplaying, then it's not a roleplaying game.

I have never played D&D 1, so I don't know from experience. But, I have a suspicion that some roleplaying is required.

These lines about WoW were great:

"My friend Jessie tells the story of being kicked off a roleplaying server because he was talking in character. Another friend of mine tells the story of how she was wearing “substandard” armor and equipment because “my character liked it.”"

He was definitely talking about roleplaying and games at that point of the blog, but toward the end, I think he was referring more to improvisational acting than roleplaying games.
 

Rune

Once A Fool
Everyone calling John Wick "the author" suggests to me that a number of posters don't realize that he's actually an accomplished game designer, albeit definitely closer to the rules-lite, story-game end of the spectrum. (He did not design, say, GURPS or Champions.)
I can't speak for others, but I was aware.

I referred to him as "the author" because none of that was relevant to the points he was making.
 
Ah, yes, the "thing I don't like is a fallacy" fallacy. I happen to agree that the only form of balance that really matters in the end is spotlight balance. Everything else is just one specific game's flavor compared to another.
I know that when I get in a car, all that really matters in the end is getting from point A to point B. I don't need to drive super-fast like a race driver does, because racing is a different activity with different goals. I also know that if I'm driving a poorly engineered car, there's a higher chance I won't get to point B.

So yeah, engineering matters for cars and balance matters for games. Unless of course I'm an automotive enthusiast, and I enjoy DYIing in the middle of my trip.
 
These lines about WoW were great:

"My friend Jessie tells the story of being kicked off a roleplaying server because he was talking in character. Another friend of mine tells the story of how she was wearing “substandard” armor and equipment because “my character liked it.”"
I have to admit that I mentally roll my eyes every time someone refers to WoW or Diablo as a rpg, however much I do love those games. At the very least, rping in a mmorpg is very different from rping in a ttrpg.

But overall, Wick's thoughts don't strike me as very insightful, and I certainly won't be looking for more of them, or his games.
 

fjw70

Explorer
"How does this rule help me tell stories?”

I would change this to "how does this rule help my group enjoy the game."
 

Celebrim

Legend
One thing I've learned over 30 years of playing D&D, is that the famous Zeroth rule - humorously summed up as, "The GM makes all the rules." - is misnamed. In fact, it's one of only a fairly large number of unstated rules that govern how an RPG is played and it is in fact not the most critical. The true root and fundamental rule of RPGS, indeed perhaps the entire reason that role playing games have rules at all, is "Thou Shalt Not Be Good at Everything." This is the rule upon which all other rules hang, and to which all other rules are subject.

This rule goes back to the simple story of RPGs, which is, if you are playing a game of Cops and Robbers, or Cowboys and Indians, or Spacemen and Aliens, or Napoleon and Wellesley, or really any other game you could be playing which has conflict, and someone says, "I shot you." or "My cavalry charge smashes your infantry square", and the other person says, "No it didn't.", how do you resolve this disagreement. The fundamental law says, "Thou shalt not be good at everything.", and so RPGs must at some level require that each side has moments of failure and disadvantages to exploit. Or in other words, the story cannot be allowed to be controlled entirely by one person only - not even the game master. This is why the fundamental law precedes the zeroth law and puts it in check. The GM can in fact make all the rules, but he must not make the rules such that the GM always wins and his forces are always good at everything.

Or in other words, balance is the most fundamental aspect of an RPG. When a person says, "Balance doesn't matter", it suggests to me that they neither know what an RPG is or what balance is.

Now granted, the balance of an RPG isn't the same as the balance of chess. RPGs are cooperative endeavors and ensuring competitive balance in an RPG isn't always foremost among your balance goals. And success in an RPG doesn't always mean victory. It can be the story goal of a player to not win. Indeed, for the player who wears the hat of Game Master in traditional RPGs, not winning is very much part of his story goals. But achieving equal access to the story ought to be among your RPG goals, and if that equal access is thwarted because one person is always good at everything and always achieves his story goals to the exclusion of all other input, then you really don't have an RPG in the first place. What you have is some sort of writing or improvisational theater script jam session, where you put together a script and act it out but there is not really any sort of game involved.

When you say something like "RPGs are about the story", you've said something true but not sufficient. Lots of things are about "the story", but not all of them are RPGs. Two role players named Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck cooperatively wrote a novel called "Leviathan Wakes" and that novel has many tropes and features that suggest its RPG heritage, and Abraham and Franck negotiated among them how the story would advance and shared that responsibility, but while this process prioritized story and was social and was cooperative and had a social contract and produced a story, the actual process of writing that novel wasn't itself playing a role-playing game.

My feeling is that some people who with the best of intentions want to elevate RPGs to the level of art forms have got so frustrate with the relatively slow advancement we've seen in that goal, that they are ending up advocating for short cuts that amount to importing so many techniques and ideas from what works for other art forms, that they end up advocating for the destruction of the actual elements that make up an RPG in the first place.
 
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Janx

Hero
I think this guy's got some valid points, but he's all over the road and he's making some major assumptions that aren't necessarily true.

I think his metric that "if you can play the game successfully with out role-playing, then it's not an RPG" is kind of useful. It's certainly a valid test, though not absolute.

I suspect he's missing a concept that I figured out a few years back. There's at least 2 definitions of "role playing" that are both valid in almost any RPG.

1) playing a role as in position on a team, such as Cleric or Healer.
2) playing a character with personality, individual goals etc


D&D and WoW most certainly have #1 present. Heck, it's got to be the primary reason the Class system was created in D&D.

I don't think you HAVE to have #1 in a story-telling RPG, but I think it happens in just about any RPG. Even Call of Cthulu has the Scholar, the Brawler, the Mechanic. They might not have Classes, but people will make a character and fall into positions.

I get that Wick is proposing simplification of game rules. But ironically, his proposal of abandoning Game Balance is very likely going to cause harm to his proposition of giving equal amounts of Spotlight.

Because in just about every instance of people complaining about Game Balance, it's because they aren't getting enough Spotlight.

I don't know that one drives the other, but one guy having way more power than the rest of the players tends to mean he's dominating the Spotlight.

So Game Balance does matter. Odds are good we simply have quantified what Game Balance really is.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
On Facebook, Benoist Poire posted a long response to Wick's blog... with Wick replying. It is worth a read. You can read it here.
Interesting. In his reply, John Wick confirms that he did, indeed, mean to say that D&D is not a roleplaying game: "D&D was designed to be a table top tactics simulation game. If you can successfully play the game *without* roleplaying, it can't be a roleplaying game." But he then later says "D&D is a roleplaying game. It has rules for players choosing roles, exploring an environment with a game master who has the task of playing the antagonist to their goals." So I'm not clear on his position.
 

Bluenose

Adventurer
I'm not entirely sure he's clear on his position either, given the places where he's contradicting himself.
 
Ah, it's the ol' "The GM's job is to ensure that everyone gets spotlight time, so balance isn't important" fallacy, in extended blog-rant form! With a big helping of implied "You're having badwrongfun" thrown in for good measure!

News at 11.
That's not a fallacy, it's simple fact. I've run many, many games with wide power spreads where the players still all had plenty of fun. Or look at games like Ars Magica where party power imbalances are built right into the system. Somehow a lot of people still love and play the game anyway. I never really heard balance whines until the folks started trying to bring MMO ideas into RPGs. That's fine for MMO's; balance really is important there - there's no DM. But for RPG's it's just not. I've seen far more fun removed from RPGs in the name of balance then has ever been added.
 

Dausuul

Legend
Everyone calling John Wick "the author" suggests to me that a number of posters don't realize that he's actually an accomplished game designer...
So what? He's the author of the article under discussion, therefore it is appropriate to refer to him as "the author" in this discussion. Anyone who's read the article knows he's a game designer, since he is at pains to point it out in the very first paragraph. I simply don't see why this is relevant to what I think of his article. And what I think of his article is... as soon as you start saying Dungeons and Dragons (pre-5E) was not a role-playing game, you need to stop and rethink your definition, because something is seriously off here.

It's a bit hard to respond to an article which is, to put it charitably, rambling. But Poire's reply hit the nail on the head: Wick's argument follows the Forge conceit that an RPG should focus intently on a single mode of play. This misses the point of games like D&D. Such games are toolkits that support multiple modes of play, not just between different campaigns but within the same campaign. They allow the casual gamer, the hardcore tactician, the thespian roleplayer, and the storyteller to sit at the same table and play together. Considering how hard it can be to find any players at all, this is absolutely essential for an RPG. A game that is "good enough" for everyone in my gaming group is one that I can play. A game which is "perfect" for me but "boring as heck" for the rest of the gang is one that will sit on my shelf. (Furthermore, what I myself want out of D&D varies from day to day and even hour to hour! Sometimes I want in-depth roleplaying. Other times I just want to whack some monsters.)

To the specific concern of numerical balance and details like rate of fire: It is of course easy to overdo this stuff, and many RPGs do. 5E's decision to streamline the rules and avoid getting too caught up in minutiae was wise. But remember that what the rules punish, players will avoid; what the rules reward, players will do. If the rules make no distinction between sword damage and teacup damage, one effect is that you may see teacup-wielders adventuring alongside sword-wielders. More importantly, the sword-wielder's behavior also changes. If confronted with a guard who demands she set aside her weapons before having tea with the king and queen, she will do so without a qualm, reasoning that she can simply use her teacup if a fight breaks out.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it depends. Do you want PCs to act like they're in a cinematic world where people kick butt with teacups? Or do you want them to act like they're in a grittier world, where a hero with a teacup dies to a guard with a sword? The rules determine which they will do.

The pursuit of balance is simply a recognition of the truth that players do what is rewarded and avoid what is punished. Wick says it should be about time in the spotlight rather than mechanical balance--but mechanical balance is the system's contribution to helping the GM allocate spotlight time! Take 3E's CoDzilla as an example. If you were a naive player in 3E, you might create a fighter, thinking that melee combat would be your time in the spotlight. Then you discover that the cleric can fight better than you and do other stuff too. Your "natural" spotlight time has just been hogged. The GM must go out of her way to compensate. If the fighter and cleric were better balanced, the GM would not have to work as hard to make sure everyone gets spotlight time--it would arise naturally from gameplay. The fighter would shine in combat, the cleric would shine elsewhere.
 
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