RPG Balance

So, I’m currently in a fairly ironic situation.  I’ve ranted far too much on the Conan forums about how out of balance the classes are (among other things).  Yet, there’s a thread on the L5R forum where a longtime poster is going on and on and on about how a particular build is broken with a recent errata to the rules that makes me just want to say, “Dude, it’s a RPG, all you have to do to fix the problem as the GM is say I don’t allow it.

Terrible inconsistency?  Possible hypocrisy?  How can I be so obsessed with balance in one RPG and so nonchalant in another?

I think I’ll come back to this later.  Before then, what is the context of RPG balance?  As I argued in college philosophy, stuff doesn’t have meaning without context.

Given that every campaign I’ve ever played in, including living campaigns, has had house rules and that GMs have carte blanche to disallow or change anything they don’t like and GMs (typically) create challenges not for some abstract and objective party power level but for actual parties, in what way does balance at the publisher’s level even come into the discussion.  After all, unlike other games that have objective environments, RPGs are subjective and just tools for the play group to have make believe adventures.

Of course, there’s an obvious fallacy there.  If balance didn’t matter at all, then the mechanics wouldn’t matter at all.  There must be something about the mechanics that causes them to justify themselves.  To steal some verbiage from someone I met with today, few things are binary.  It’s not that RPGs will ever have perfect balance and they obviously don’t function as rules sets for games when there is no balance.  There’s some spectrum where some points are acceptable and some aren’t.

Why does balance (fairness) even matter to me?  Doesn’t it matter to everyone?  Sure doesn’t seem like it when you read other people’s comments, but I just think it’s a matter of them having a greater tolerance for unfairness than I do as opposed to a complete disinterest in the issue.

It seems even more odd that I should care so much about balance/fairness when I’m so willing to play sidekicks, when I’m so willing to intentionally design weak characters.

It’s not actually weakness that I crave.  It’s uniqueness.  As with optimal strategies in boardgames and tier 1 decks in CCGs, well designed characters in RPGs are usually nothing different, nothing special.  Oh, look at my high Strength barbarian in Conan or my Mirumoto blender in L5R – whatever.  In my attempts to create uniqueness, whether it’s characters or decks, I frequently mine suboptimal territory.  Then, with RPGs where competition shouldn’t exist, I have no real incentive to create powerful characters, just useful ones.

Referencing my last post, I don’t care nearly as much for boardgames because there’s really nothing unique you can do.  In my mind, every character and every deck should be unique and that’s only possible when you have variety.

But, variety is a function of balance.  There’s no point in playing a deck that can’t win or a character who adds nothing to the party.  To be value add to the party means not being completely overshadowed by other player characters who have better builds.  Now, it’s true that loser PCs can add value just by taking up space, just providing more hands or more chucked spears or more hit points.  But, NPCs can do the same thing, so why bother playing nothing but a spearchucker?

My ranting about how pointless the borderer and nomad classes are and how awful the noble and soldier classes are in Conan stems from having a character who was essentially a spearchucker.  After being fairly useless most of the time, I started crunching the numbers in the game and realized that you can very easily make strictly superior characters.  Ironic within the context of comparing and contrasting with L5R is that the classes in Conan aren’t that imbalanced in comparison.  Borderer is strictly inferior to barbarian, but it’s not an unplayable difference, just an idiotic one.

Idiocy.  This is getting to the crux of the matter.  Conan d20 is a very rigid game, a relatively flavorless game because d20 mechanics are flavorless.  There’s just no comparing d20’s Improved Two-Weapon Fighting to Feng Shui’s Both Guns Blazing.  Because Conan d20 is so mechanical, mechanical imbalances should not only be easier to pick out but mean more in defining what your character is about.

It’s not just that L5R is less crunchy than Conan, it’s that it’s so much more flavorful.  While one can ignore that L5R’s ethos lends itself to brokenness far more than Conan’s by noting that any brokenness is problematic, imbalances are more acceptable when they come with cool flavor and, getting back to the importance of uniqueness, unique identity.  In Conan, there’s no real flavor difference between a barbarian and a borderer for all that people want to pretend there is.  In L5R, a Hida Bushi occupies entirely different design/play space from a character in another bushi school.

That the Hida Bushi/Elite Guard combo the person is complaining about is broken is within the context that lots of other builds are broken in other ways.  Actually, the game is highly broken to where someone complaining about this or that rank 5 build is fairly laughable to me as I consider playing the game above rank 2 to be an exercise in excess.

There certainly is an element to why someone should care about one broken thing in a game rife with brokenness.  Would I feel the same way even without the superior flavor and vastly more options that L5R provides just because it’s idiotic to complain about smoke when the house is on fire?

A lot of the argument against the person’s complaints involves pointing out how you can deal with such a character easily enough.  There is a strong rock-papor-scissors element to L5R that I just haven’t seen in any other RPG.  I’m never in favor of games becoming RPSish as it, again, means a lack of variety.  What’s the point of playing a game if only three (true) options exist?

But, then again, this RPS nature to L5R is one that becomes more obvious when you have broken fight broken, when characters are far more powerful than I think is playable.  So, just the lack of caring about high rank builds is a difference to my analysis of Conan where I can clearly see how I’d build a far more effective character than my main by switching which classes he took, which attribute assignments he made, etc.

To be consistent, which is important to me, I can’t argue against the whiner’s arguments that are rooted in the idea of improved balance.  Lots of obviously broken stuff has been dealt with by the AEG folks, even underpowered stuff has been addressed, something that CCG companies so often ignore.  So, it’s entirely reasonable to have the company look at a possible new problem caused by the rule errata.  By the way, the new errata changes the game back to how it used to be played; the rule that has been overturned was instituted to address problems such as the one the person has brought up.  Now, whether this build is any more broken than a lot of other stuff appears not to be the case.

RPGs are flexible in ways that more objective games aren’t.  Yet, they still are games that provide mechanics for resolution.  Those mechanics should strive for balance.  Perfect balance is never achieved but not striving for it produces far more imbalance than what would be achieved otherwise.

GMs/play groups can fix anything they don’t like for their home campaigns.  Challenges can be tailored to provide worthy challenges to actual parties rather than be generated out of theoretical exercises.  Yet, the better the tools given to play groups, the better the experience.  Less work needs to be done fixing things.  Less energy can be spent on the idea of fixing things.

And, yes, as a final comment, RPGs aren’t really supposed to be about mechanics but about telling good stories.  Worrying about how strong something on a character sheet is comes after worrying about who your character is (personality, appearance, etc.), what your character is doing, what your character is trying to do, and what has happened to your character.  At least, ideally.

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