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General Worlds of Design: A Question of Balance

Some people think that every character class must be equally balanced with every other class, but why is that necessary? Are they competing with the other players in a co-operative game?
aquestionofbalance.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay
The Destination or the Journey?

When approaching a discussion of class balance, it's worth asking the question: is an RPG session a destination or a journey? Or to put it another way, is an RPG session "mental gymnastics" or an "adventure"? I think the latter in both cases. Consequently, shouldn't character classes be about different ways to succeed, not about "power" (or whatever it is that has to be "equal" between each character)?

The concept of asymmetry--different starting capabilities and assets on each side--is very important in some kinds of games, like historical strategy games. It's hard to sensibly reproduce history symmetrically, in which all players start at the same level of power; for an example of how this is handled in a board game, see Risk. There's good reason for this. One of the easiest ways to achieve "balance" in a game is to make it symmetric, with everyone beginning "the same."

The need for symmetric play has spilled over in video game design, with all classes being balanced against each other, even in single-player. That style of game development has influenced modern tabletop games for similar reasons: keeping all players equal smooths out the game's design. But I think something is lost in forcing symmetric design in a tabletop role-playing game.

What's Class Balance, Anyway?

The first problem is that "class balance" is a fungible metric. Presumably, all classes are "equally powerful" but what does that mean, really? If play is all about the individual, the game turns into a competition between players to see who can show off the most. For games where personal power is important, this can make sense--but I don't find it conducive to the fundamentals of teamwork Dungeons & Dragons was built on. If D&D is about cooperation, flattening out every character's power implies that they're in competition with each other.

When the game is about the success of the group as a whole, about co-operation, then there may be compensations for playing a less powerful class. In fact, some of the classes by their very nature are inherently unbalanced for a reason. Jonathan Tweet's most recent article about The Unbalanced Cleric is a perfect example. And there are opportunities for creativity in how your "less powerful" character copes with adventuring.

Variety is the Spice of Life

There's also something to be said for the variety that comes from characters of differing capabilities. It doesn't matter to me if some characters are more powerful than others, whether it's because of class, or items owned, or something else. Different characters with different power levels creates a form of interesting play.

Here's a real life analogy: The soccer striker who scores a lot versus one who makes many chances/assists and helps the team maintain possession. But in a profession where it's so hard to score, the one who scores a lot will usually be regarded as a better player ("more powerful"), or at least the one who is paid more. Yet both are equally valuable to the team. And offensive players tend to be more highly regarded than defensive players.

Magic is Not Balanced

Then there's the issue of magic. In earlier versions of D&D, magic-users did much more damage than anyone else thanks to area effect spells (I tracked this once with the aid of a program I wrote for a Radio Shack Model 100!). In a fantasy, doesn't it make sense for the magic users to be the most powerful characters? Heroes in novels, who often don't wield magic, are exceptions in many ways: without a lot of luck, they would never succeed.

Designers can avoid the "problem" of character class balance by using skill-based rules rather than rules with character classes. You can let players differentiate themselves from others by the skills they choose, without "unbalancing" them. And shouldn't each character feel different? There are certainly archetypes that character classes often follow, yet those archetypes exist for reasons other than "play balance!"

Still, won't magic use dominate? A GM/game designer can do things to mitigate the power of magic. For example. magic can be dangerous to use, and the world can be one of low rather than high magic, e.g. like Middle-earth more than like The Wheel of Time.

The Value of Combined Arms

In the only RPG I've designed--which is intended for use with a board game, so that simplicity is paramount--I use a classless system. But for a bigger game such as D&D, multiple classes help provide both differentiation and opportunities for cooperation ("combined arms"). And I enjoy devising new character classes. Whether you need a dozen or more classes is open to question, however. Nor do they need to be "equal."
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

EzekielRaiden

Adventurer
Logic here is one of those things that depends an awful lot on your initial assumptions. If you take something like a sneak attack or other precision damage to involve damage to vital systems or shock, then it makes sense for undead, plants, elementals, and constructs to not be affected. But you can adjust your assumptions to include things like vulnerable body structures and not just vitals.

With respect to mind-affecting effects, same thing. If you assume those things need a live mind to affect, then undead should be immune even if intelligent and free-willed. It might also come from a niche protection assumption - that necromancy should be appropriate magic for controlling undead rather than magic used to control living beings.
I'll certainly grant that. But I think it shows yet another aspect of the (thorny, sprawling, everpresent) balance problem with 3.5e that the Rogue can have one of its few Special Things negated so, so easily, while it takes a Wizard hyperspecializing in specific, easily-countered options to end up in a similar state. That is? The Wizard is flexible enough to, at least in principle, have a tool for essentially any occasion the designers could meaningfully prepare for, which is a pretty substantial set of occasions. The Rogue cannot do this, and even the intervention of other party members isn't likely to fix the problem.

Now, if the design of the game is supposed, explicitly, to include a "naturalistic" perspective on things (which is a perfectly cromulent design value in isolation), that can complicate things a lot! But "naturalism" is never listed as a pillar or focus of game design. It is, at best, vaguely alluded to as something some people appreciate...and it is just as often ignored (see: hit points, whether you think they're meat points or abstractions, they're not naturalistic) as it is obeyed. PF changing the Sneak Attack thing without it causing an enduring hue and cry is a perfect demonstration that this really is "a game," not a world-engine-simulator, and people can accept abstractions or handwaving when it serves the design goals of the game.
 

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fadecomic

Villager
Overbalanced classes make the classes either generic or stiff. I get that everyone wants to participate all the time in every combat, or they're bored. Alternatively, when you assign roles and balance participation time, you get to the point where everything is prescribed for the characters. You see a lot of both of these in MMOs. Class choice either just changes the color of the pretty lights on the screen, or it makes it so that you have a specific, linear set of actions you need to do in a combat situation. It's so formalized that a lot of MMOs have their own jargon for for what each class does in combat. Yeah, no one's sitting around during a battle, but you're right back in boredom territory again, because now everyone is just following a script every single battle.
 

For reference:
...one definition of balance I ran across that seemed to work really well for RPGs was something like:
"a game is better balanced the more choices it presents the player that are both meaningful and viable."

Overbalanced classes make the classes either generic or stiff.
"Overbalanced" isn't really a thing. I mean, literally, something "overbalanced" has lost it's balance.
overbalanced -
fall or cause to fall over from loss of balance.

... choice either just changes the color of the pretty lights on the screen, or it makes it so that you have a specific, linear set of actions you need to do in...
What you're describing there is imbalance, in the form of choices being presented that may feel meaningless, "colors of the lights," and only one combination of which is being judged viable, "linear set of actions you need".

But, while some MMOs may or may not suffer from exactly that sort of imbalance (IDK, not into 'em, myself), no version of D&D has ever really suffered from the former. Differences among D&D classes and PCs have generally been pretty meaningful, even in the WotC editions, all of which allow for some player re-skinning of their characters.
The latter, sure, there have been times when quite specific combos dominated, most notably in 3.5 optimization exercises, or when specific SOPs became ingrained, the way you "needed a cleric" or groups would have a "door drill" or the like back in the day, for instance.
 
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EzekielRaiden

Adventurer
That's the definition of "overbalance". I didn't make the word up. It means to push past balance to the toppling point, which is exactly what I've described.
If something is, as you say, "overbalanced," then it isn't balanced anymore. Since I am advocating FOR balance, I am obviously NOT advocating for overbalance. As that would--literally--be not the thing I'm advocating.

I grant you that things that have become sterile are bad. Show me where balance automatically means sterile.
 


EzekielRaiden

Adventurer
@fadecomic - are you using "overbalanced" to mean "overly balanced"? If yes, other posters' confusion explained.
There is no such thing. To be overly balanced is to be not actually improving the quality of the work. This is like saying that an article or clothing is "overly tailored" or a musical instrument is "overly tuned." To be "overly tuned" (if such a term were even used) would actually mean being OUT of tune. To be "overly tailored" would mean failing to be a good fit.

Balance, as with most valuable things, is contextual and purpose-specific. "Some vices miss what is right because they are deficient, others because they are excessive, in feelings or in actions, while Virtue finds and chooses the mean." (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
There is no such thing. To be overly balanced is to be not actually improving the quality of the work.
Exactly - balance can be overdone, at which point it stops improving anything.

Balance, as with most valuable things, is contextual and purpose-specific.
And, as with many things, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. In the case of game design balance, however, we all see the cutoffs between unbalanced, good balance and too balanced at different points along the grade: what's unbalanced to some might be good balance to others and even too balanced (i.e. overly balanced) to a few.
 

EzekielRaiden

Adventurer
Exactly - balance can be overdone, at which point it stops improving anything.
No. If you take an action that would make anything "overdone," that isn't balance anymore. It's something else--or, you have used a tool or method intended to produce it incorrectly, and thus created non-balance.

Like, take sound balance. There is no absolute "perform this action to create more balanced-ness, which can go too far into excessive balanced-ness." You can shift the volume (and, for a speaker array, direction) of sound one way or another, and finding the correct point for a given context produces balanced sound. Any motion away from that point produces unbalanced sound. It can be unbalanced left or right, up or down, loud or quiet, bass or treble, but it can't be excessively balanced.

If you wish for more precise terminology: imbalance is distance away from context-appropriate balance. It is a measure of "far-ness." There is no such thing as excessive "close-ness." You can absolutely argue that the wrong center has been chosen (e.g. Celsius temperatures are useful for everyday use, but inappropriate for calorimetry), that there are extra criteria that weren't considered and thus the whole fails to achieve balance (e.g. "sure, you balanced the center two speakers, but the front speakers and back speakers are now out of balance with them"), or that a particular method is unreliable for achieving balance when used incautiously (e.g. "making all speakers have the same average output doesn't help if you're trying to balance for sound position"). But for something to be "overly balanced," it must become imbalanced--likely in a different way than it was imbalanced before, but still.

Hence my Aristotle quote. Balance IS the mean; context tells you what kind of mean(s) you're looking for (sets the parameters), and analysis tells you how to find the mean(s).

And, as with many things, too much of a good thing is a bad thing.
Great adage, but not particularly useful. Courage is not one pole with cowardice as the other. Courage is the mean (chosen for each context) between cowardice and rashness. It is not possible to be too courageous, because courage lies in avoiding both deficiency (cowardice) and excess (rashness). It is not possible to be too sincere, because sincerity lies in avoiding both deficiency (dishonesty) and excess (discourtesy). It is not possible to be too magnanimous, because magnanimity avoids both deficiency (pusillanimity) and excess (profligacy).

Balance is not itself a virtue; it is "being at the mean, chosen for each context." The status of "balanced" means that the thing in question (be it a game, a person, a collection of massive objects in a gravitational field, whatever) is actually located at the context-appropriate mean for as many parameters as possible (this is, after all, practical wisdom, not theoretical wisdom). If there is a presence of excess, then it is not balanced. It may be excessively precise, or excessively verbose, or excessively complex, but it cannot be "excessively avoiding excess and deficiency." You can't excessively balance a scale; either the two plates are in (effective) equality, or they are not, and once you reach equality, the only direction you can move is away from it.

And if you want to actually talk about what really is in excess, please, do so! Because that's actually a useful thing to do, as it gets us closer to the state of "as many things as possible are neither too much nor too little."
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
No. If you take an action that would make anything "overdone," that isn't balance anymore. It's something else--or, you have used a tool or method intended to produce it incorrectly, and thus created non-balance.

<snip the balanced sound of hairs being split>
Must I really spell it out?

In an RPG, perfect-at-all-times mechanical balance between characters can only be achieved by having every character played be exactly the same - same stats, same abilities, same feats, same skills, same race and class, same hit points, same level, same possessions and wealth, etc., etc. - in short, a party of clones. That way, every player has exactly the same tools, resources and mechanics to work with as they play the game.

If such an RPG exists I don't know of it, nor do I know of anybody who would play it. Every RPG I can think of has or allows for at least some mechanical variance in many if not all of the things listed above after the word "same"; and as soon as you introduce mechanical variance you introduce imbalance in some form or other, be it on the immediate-term, short-term or long-term scale.

The farther the game design moves away from the extreme-of-balance I posit above, the less perfectly balanced the characters will (likely) be; and for each of us there's a different sweet spot where that increasing imbalance leads to peak enjoyment and playability after which further imbalance makes the game less playable and-or enjoyable.

Which means that yes, it's very possible for an RPG to be too balanced.
 

EzekielRaiden

Adventurer
Must I really spell it out?

In an RPG, perfect-at-all-times mechanical balance between characters can only be achieved by[...]
Did I ask for perfection? Have I ever even implied perfection was desirable? Because your entire point depends on me expecting perfection, and you may be surprised to know I don't expect that. I mean, for goodness' sake, I even said, "Will they always participate at absolute peak performance, killing it every single session guaranteed no question perfectly forever? No. That's an impossible, foolish, and most importantly strawman goal, one I never stated and would never state." (Emphasis in original.)

You are completely correct that perfection is impossible. I'm not asking for perfection, so it's an extremely annoying nonsequitur--at best.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Did I ask for perfection? Have I ever even implied perfection was desirable? Because your entire point depends on me expecting perfection, and you may be surprised to know I don't expect that.
Of course not. All I'm trying to point out is that - and on this I think we even agree! - perfection isn't desirable. But desirable or not, it is in theory possible.

I mean, for goodness' sake, I even said, "Will they always participate at absolute peak performance, killing it every single session guaranteed no question perfectly forever? No. That's an impossible, foolish, and most importantly strawman goal, one I never stated and would never state." (Emphasis in original.)
We tend to mock situations that are highly unbalanced the other way - where, say, one or two characters are hella more powerful than the rest of the party - as being too out of whack, while acknowledging that such situations can exist. We can equally mock situations where all the characters are identical clones, while also acknowledging such situations can exist. They're two ends of a spectrum - perfectly balanced <===> completely imbalanced - and somewhere on that spectrum between them is, for each person involved, the ideal point of peak enjoyment and playability.

What we're then discussing are our own preferences for where on that spectrum we find things work best.

You are completely correct that perfection is impossible. I'm not asking for perfection, so it's an extremely annoying nonsequitur--at best.
Sounds like you're agreeing that 'too balanced' or 'overly balanced are both possible and undesirable situations, then. We're good. :)
 

There are so many unexamined assumptions in this post that I thought I'd break it down.
Some people think that every character class must be equally balanced with every other class, but why is that necessary? Are they competing with the other players in a co-operative game?

First, the reason balance is needed is because a balanced game is one in which the game behaves as it describes itself as behaving. No one complains when Ars Magica is a game about magic users and muggles because Ars Magica is very open about this and it is woven into the background. On the other hand D&D makes the implicit claim that the classes are approximately equal (more so in WotC era D&D than TSR era because they normalised the XP curve and have things like Challenge ratings). But even TSR produced its modules for specific level ranges. Which means either TSR thought that level was a measure of approximate power or it was deliberately lying to you. And to be blunt it's not nice to lie to people.

Further you make the assumption that RPGs are purely cooperative and that you never have characters with their own agendas or motivations, or with incentives to get across the group. You are tightly narrowing down what sort of stories can be told using D&D in a way that is neither necessary or, in my opinion, desirable. And all to criticise those who want games to do what they say on the tin,

The Destination or the Journey?

When approaching a discussion of class balance, it's worth asking the question: is an RPG session a destination or a journey? Or to put it another way, is an RPG session "mental gymnastics" or an "adventure"? I think the latter in both cases. Consequently, shouldn't character classes be about different ways to succeed, not about "power" (or whatever it is that has to be "equal" between each character)?

The concept of asymmetry--different starting capabilities and assets on each side--is very important in some kinds of games, like historical strategy games. It's hard to sensibly reproduce history symmetrically, in which all players start at the same level of power; for an example of how this is handled in a board game, see Risk. There's good reason for this. One of the easiest ways to achieve "balance" in a game is to make it symmetric, with everyone beginning "the same."

The need for symmetric play has spilled over in video game design, with all classes being balanced against each other, even in single-player. That style of game development has influenced modern tabletop games for similar reasons: keeping all players equal smooths out the game's design. But I think something is lost in forcing symmetric design in a tabletop role-playing game.

Once again this is nothing but a strawman of the pro-balance argument. 4e D&D is not and has never been even close to being symmetric even if it's closer than oD&D. And neither was oD&D - but Gygax strived for balance and even went on the records on these boards saying that added things like weapon specialisation and classes like the cavalier because playtesting and having Rob Kuntz as the main fighter player lead to an underpowered fighter.

Another game with exceptional asymmetric balance is Apocalypse World. The Hocus, the Hardholder, the Gunlugger, the Brainer, and the Maestro d' all have extremely different resources available - but the game is pretty well balanced because each playbook/class presents itself as being what it is and having its own advantages and challenges.

What's Class Balance, Anyway?

The first problem is that "class balance" is a fungible metric. Presumably, all classes are "equally powerful" but what does that mean, really? If play is all about the individual, the game turns into a competition between players to see who can show off the most. For games where personal power is important, this can make sense--but I don't find it conducive to the fundamentals of teamwork Dungeons & Dragons was built on. If D&D is about cooperation, flattening out every character's power implies that they're in competition with each other.

When the game is about the success of the group as a whole, about co-operation, then there may be compensations for playing a less powerful class. In fact, some of the classes by their very nature are inherently unbalanced for a reason. Jonathan Tweet's most recent article about The Unbalanced Cleric is a perfect example. And there are opportunities for creativity in how your "less powerful" character copes with adventuring.

First, if you want a "less powerful" character in a balanced game then volunteering to play a level or two down or the equivalent is trivial. Balance does not prevent you doing this. On the other hand if you don't want to play a less powerful character and the game has told you the characters are balanced it is very difficult to balance it.

As for the Unbalanced Cleric, it's ironic to look at a post-mortem where someone is saying "my bad" and say that maybe it was the right decision. The simple fact is that Tweet says something is impossible when it was done by 4e - and I don't believe too many people complained about the balance of the oD&D cleric. It did its job and had its niche. They might have complained it was boring - but that's a different matter entirely.

Variety is the Spice of Life

There's also something to be said for the variety that comes from characters of differing capabilities. It doesn't matter to me if some characters are more powerful than others, whether it's because of class, or items owned, or something else. Different characters with different power levels creates a form of interesting play.

Here's a real life analogy: The soccer striker who scores a lot versus one who makes many chances/assists and helps the team maintain possession. But in a profession where it's so hard to score, the one who scores a lot will usually be regarded as a better player ("more powerful"), or at least the one who is paid more. Yet both are equally valuable to the team. And offensive players tend to be more highly regarded than defensive players.

If you want different character power levels in a balanced game then volunteer to play a couple of levels behind everyone else. This isn't hard, and it isn't complex. Balance doesn't mean that you can't make weak characters. It means that it's harder to make weak characters by accident.

And once again we can refute your claims with a simple example of the warlord from 4e. A warlord normally has two abilities - the ability to enable people to dig deep and spend their own reserves of energy to stay in the fight (mechanically modelled as spending a healing surge - a resource of the character being healed), and the ability to hand their attacks over to someone else - so instead of the warlord making an attack the barbarian gets to make one of their own.

Now I'm not disputing that it's harder to make support characters that feel good and can play their part without being overwhelming - but good game design is hard work. Even 3.5 managed a solid Tier 3 one that could work in a low magic group - the Bard (although of course the learning curve for the bard was steep).

Magic is Not Balanced

Then there's the issue of magic. In earlier versions of D&D, magic-users did much more damage than anyone else thanks to area effect spells (I tracked this once with the aid of a program I wrote for a Radio Shack Model 100!). In a fantasy, doesn't it make sense for the magic users to be the most powerful characters? Heroes in novels, who often don't wield magic, are exceptions in many ways: without a lot of luck, they would never succeed.

Designers can avoid the "problem" of character class balance by using skill-based rules rather than rules with character classes. You can let players differentiate themselves from others by the skills they choose, without "unbalancing" them. And shouldn't each character feel different? There are certainly archetypes that character classes often follow, yet those archetypes exist for reasons other than "play balance!"

Still, won't magic use dominate? A GM/game designer can do things to mitigate the power of magic. For example. magic can be dangerous to use, and the world can be one of low rather than high magic, e.g. like Middle-earth more than like The Wheel of Time.

So many unexamined assumptions here.

The first is that magic use will only dominate if and only if magic is fast, reliable, and consequence free the way it is in D&D. I'm playing a game where we are all playing mages but in combat my character is normally using a spear because only the weakest spells can be cast in a single turn, but a spear through the gut is fast and often fatal. Also it's less likely to blow up in my character's face than a spell would be even if magic is ubiquitous in the setting. Warhammer is a great example of a system where spellcasters don't want to cast spells because they will blow up in your face.

The second is that the Wheel of Time demonstrates two things. The first is that the initial party of Lan, Perrin, Mat, and Egwene was done by giving the non-casters really cool stuff (luck in Mat's case, werewolfery in Perrin's) so they aren't left behind in the first few books. The second is that you can level-cap characters - with the non-casters becoming NPCs later on in the campaign.

If you present a fighter as being equivalent to a spellcaster then have it as equivalent. If not, don't. No one complains in either Ars Magica or Mage: the Ascension that spellcasters are more powerful than non-casters because that's how the game is set up. But that's not D&D and has never been D&D. Instead D&D presents the fighter as being on the level of the wizard at the same level. If you want to do that then follow through. If not, don't.

The Value of Combined Arms

In the only RPG I've designed--which is intended for use with a board game, so that simplicity is paramount--I use a classless system. But for a bigger game such as D&D, multiple classes help provide both differentiation and opportunities for cooperation ("combined arms"). And I enjoy devising new character classes. Whether you need a dozen or more classes is open to question, however. Nor do they need to be "equal."

But combined arms are relevant because everything helps everything else. When the fighters get out-fought by the clerics and druids we aren't talking combined arms so much as trying to use obsolete hardware.

If you haven't made your class useful and able to contribute significantly without it being overwhelming then you've designed a bad class and shouldn't present it as being on the level of the other classes in the game.
 

One problem is that those games are also quite narrow in focus.

I appreciate that D&D's scope is incredibly wide. I can use the same rule set to simulate a plane-hoping intrigue adventure with wizards who can end the world with the flick of the wrist, an animated suit of armor who wants to be a real knight (in which the armor is played simultaneous by 3 players), and a bunch of commoners trying to make in a rough economy by taking odd and dangerous jobs. In fact, the plane hopping adventure and the commoners and dangerous jobs were actually the same campaign with many of the same characters.

D&D as a scope that is at least as narrow as any of the games you mention. In it the first level fighter is literally called a veteran in older editions, everyone is trying to do the same job (adventurer), and the rules as written give you experience the same way.

Yes, if you are willing to house-rule you can have three players playing a sentient suit of armour between them or give the players either 0th level characters or NPC classes to start with - but neither of these are done by D&D RAW. (They are, for what it's worth both done by Fate - and I can do both with Apocalypse World). But you are comparing games you have house ruled with games straight out of the box.

I'm not really talking about 5e D&D - I've only played a few sessions of that version. I usually play BX D&D. I like that BX provides almost nothing in the way of non-combat mechanics so my players and I can play all of those things out using dialogue and negotiation. I only really need mechanics for spells, combat, monsters, and special abilities. Everything else can handled by ability scores and common sense.

I'm not really sure how Fate can "do anything" - at least not with the system as written. When I look at it, I see I system that lacks tools. It's like the a toolbox with many different empty compartments. It can't do anything (that I'm interested in) that BX can't already accomplish, and requires a lot more work to do so.

In short you use BX as a toolkit for a mostly freeform RP, making most of the rules in B/X worthless. And you are claiming that Fate has fewer tools - when for anything out of combat you are also claiming that you simply don't use tools, instead only using them for spells (Fate can), combat (Fate does), monsters (Fate Fractal), and special abilities (Fate isn't short of). The only thing you name Fate does very differently from B/X is the spell list. So I'm confused about where the problem is. Of course I can see the appeal of pure rules light (I think you'd probably get on well with Fudge but already do most of what you'd get out of it with B/X).
 

Must I really spell it out?
It helps to be clear, since 'balance' is used in very different ways.
In an RPG, perfect-at-all-times mechanical balance between characters can only be achieved by having every character played be exactly the same - same stats, same abilities, same feats, same skills, same race and class, same hit points, same level, same possessions and wealth, etc., etc. - in short, a party of clones.
Aside from the point that perfection is not achievable, that's not balance, at all.

What you're describing is fairness, at best. It's no different from the play of an absolutely imbalanced game, one in which there is exactly one optimal character, and the choices to create it are so obvious, and the gulf between it and the next-best alternatives so vast, that nobody plays anything else.

Moving a game towards balance means moving away from both extremes: adding options, without overshadowing existing ones.

A perfectly-balanced game, then, would be one with infinite choices, none of which obviate, overshadow, or render redundant any other, allowing every player to have exactly the character they envision, and fully realize that character, in play, while contributing to the cooperative success of the party as frequently, meaningfully and significantly as each other player in the group - all without GM intervention or player restraint.

Talk about unachievable perfection. ;)
But, it does mean that every game can always be better-balanced. There is no such thing as too-balanced.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So many unexamined assumptions here.

The first is that magic use will only dominate if and only if magic is fast, reliable, and consequence free the way it is in D&D.
The way it is in modern D&D.

In 1e magic wasn't as fast (all spells had casting times), wasn't as reliable (much easier to interrupt), and in many cases wasn't necessarily consequence-free (some spells had significant risk attached e.g. Teleport, Poly Other); and IMO it was thus much more balanced than, say, 3e where many of those drawbacks had gone away.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
It helps to be clear, since 'balance' is used in very different ways.

Aside from the point that perfection is not achievable, that's not balance, at all.
Sure it is.

What you're describing is fairness, at best. It's no different from the play of an absolutely imbalanced game, one in which there is exactly one optimal character, and the choices to create it are so obvious, and the gulf between it and the next-best alternatives so vast, that nobody plays anything else.
I see there being a rather vast difference in design between A there being one optimal choice with all other options being essentially non-viable (i.e. extremely unbalanced) and B there being only one choice with no other options at all (i.e. extremely balanced). They're at opposite ends of the 'balance' spectrum; both are more or less unplayable, but playability doesn't enter into it yet - it's a whole other variable.

Moving a game towards balance means moving away from both extremes: adding options, without overshadowing existing ones.
This moves a game toward playability, but away from perfect balance; one to some extent is always the enemy of the other.

A perfectly-balanced game, then, would be one with infinite choices, none of which obviate, overshadow, or render redundant any other, allowing every player to have exactly the character they envision, and fully realize that character, in play, while contributing to the cooperative success of the party as frequently, meaningfully and significantly as each other player in the group - all without GM intervention or player restraint.
That'd be a perfectly balanced and perfectly playable game, unachievable twice over. :) You're equating balance with playability, while I'm breaking them out.

There is no such thing as too-balanced.
Still don't agree. Above, A is too unbalanced and B is too balanced, rendering both nearly unplayable.
 

To be clear, for reference:
...one definition of balance I ran across that seemed to work really well for RPGs was something like:
"a game is better balanced the more choices it presents the player that are both meaningful and viable."
What definition do you prefer?
I see there being a rather vast difference in design between A there being one optimal choice with all other options being essentially non-viable (i.e. extremely unbalanced) and B there being only one choice with no other options at all
Both are functionally identical. In fact, the only viable choice in the former, and the only choice in the latter - and all the other applicable mechanics in both cases - could be identical.

When two games play exactly the same, it's absurd to assert they're opposites.

You're equating balance with playability, while I'm breaking them out.
Nothing about the two extremely imbalanced games posited above necessarily renders them unplayable.
 
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D&D as a scope that is at least as narrow as any of the games you mention. In it the first level fighter is literally called a veteran in older editions, everyone is trying to do the same job (adventurer), and the rules as written give you experience the same way.

Yes, if you are willing to house-rule you can have three players playing a sentient suit of armour between them or give the players either 0th level characters or NPC classes to start with - but neither of these are done by D&D RAW. (They are, for what it's worth both done by Fate - and I can do both with Apocalypse World). But you are comparing games you have house ruled with games straight out of the box.

I don't think anyone ever used those level titles to representative anything objective, nor do the rules force players to be adventurers, they just provide some guidelines for adventuring activities.

What I like about BX is the lack of universal system. Fate's skills, in my opinion, are less flexible than BX ability scores. I'm not sure what to do, if a player's action falls well outside any of the listed skills, like teaching a chimp sign language. Yes, I can modify the list, but that's difficult to do inside a multi-year campaign. In BX, I feel more comfortable improvising. I feel FATE Accelerated might do a better job here, though.

Again, my main problem with FATE is my inability to understand what spending a FATE point (or not spending a FATE point) a means inside the fiction. I don't get how to visualize it.

The one time I played FATE, a player took the stunt, "I end the world." At any time, the character could simply cause the universe to implode. Another created the stunt ,"Mouse Man," which caused everyone around him to think he had become a mouse (when he hadn't). It was fun, but not what I'd call balanced. If I ever play FATE again, I will probably need to create a list of stunts for players to choose from.

In short you use BX as a toolkit for a mostly freeform RP, making most of the rules in B/X worthless. And you are claiming that Fate has fewer tools - when for anything out of combat you are also claiming that you simply don't use tools, instead only using them for spells (Fate can), combat (Fate does), monsters (Fate Fractal), and special abilities (Fate isn't short of). The only thing you name Fate does very differently from B/X is the spell list. So I'm confused about where the problem is. Of course I can see the appeal of pure rules light (I think you'd probably get on well with Fudge but already do most of what you'd get out of it with B/X).

We play BX using all the rules. I've never needed to ignore them, and they all provide an excellent framework. Sometimes I add things (new classes) or have to make rulings, but I don't house rule - so I wouldn't call what we do freeform RP. Also, the simplicity of rules allows me to support what sometimes amounts to 12-14 players, which is a huge bonus.
 

Arilyn

Hero
I don't think anyone ever used those level titles to representative anything objective, nor do the rules force players to be adventurers, they just provide some guidelines for adventuring activities.

What I like about BX is the lack of universal system. Fate's skills, in my opinion, are less flexible than BX ability scores. I'm not sure what to do, if a player's action falls well outside any of the listed skills, like teaching a chimp sign language. Yes, I can modify the list, but that's difficult to do inside a multi-year campaign. In BX, I feel more comfortable improvising. I feel FATE Accelerated might do a better job here, though.

Again, my main problem with FATE is my inability to understand what spending a FATE point (or not spending a FATE point) a means inside the fiction. I don't get how to visualize it.

The one time I played FATE, a player took the stunt, "I end the world." At any time, the character could simply cause the universe to implode. Another created the stunt ,"Mouse Man," which caused everyone around him to think he had become a mouse (when he hadn't). It was fun, but not what I'd call balanced. If I ever play FATE again, I will probably need to create a list of stunts for players to choose from.



We play BX using all the rules. I've never needed to ignore them, and they all provide an excellent framework. Sometimes I add things (new classes) or have to make rulings, but I don't house rule - so I wouldn't call what we do freeform RP. Also, the simplicity of rules allows me to support what sometimes amounts to 12-14 players, which is a huge bonus.
Fate is extremely flexible, but requires buy in from whole group. Your examples of stunts and aspects from the group you were in are ridiculous. No wonder the game seems unplayable. 🙄 Stunts should be giving unusual abilities, like seeing in the dark or give bonuses to skills like empathy. Even if your group was using Fate for a supers game, your examples sound like players being immature.

Anyway, if you love BX, that's great. Seems to be a game that hits all the right notes for you.
 

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