ESSAYS ON GAME DESIGN: To Hell With Balance

ESSAYS ON GAME DESIGN

Essay Two: To Hell With Balance

I’m gonna say something that might shock some of you guys. Then again, maybe not.

Balance, go to the Devil, and burn in hell. And while there sip septic tea with him til you’re really needed again. And chances are it won’t be often. But whatever the case, don’t call me, I’ll call you.

I’m working on a fantasy Role Playing Game, I’m not designing an algorithm, doing covalence equations, or writing a computer program to calculate a moonshot at apogee.

So sometimes in-game my players get their noses busted and spleens ruptured by a dragon that in real life they couldn’t ever easily kill. Not with bow-sticks and knives and harsh words anyways. Good, it’ll teach em a lesson about danger and risk and what it actually costs people.

And sometimes they’ll whip out their Horn of Resounding and bring down the walls of Jericho, or slay a few giants with the Jawbone of an ass. Good, sometimes you catch a miracle in midair, deserved or undeserved. Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes he gets you. That’s life.

But in any case, as far as the game goes, the player is fascinated, interested, intrigued, involved, worried, anxious, and maybe even occasionally excited again. Perhaps shocked and ecstatic from time to time too, just to boot.

Balance, he ain’t my god. I don’t owe him any real sacrifices. He’s more like the grey-skinned Graeæ sisters than bright Apollo. Only one eye to see with, a lot of double talk, the bite of a one-toothed wonder – and in the end, disaster, not glory. You can’t trust Balance to point the way to the future, cause he’s more consumed with his own reflection in the mirror than with anything remotely heroic happening. Static, stale, sterile, sluggish, and simple-minded. A dotard of dullness. No poetry of soul, just an arrested arithmetic of tedium. More Echo and Narcissus, more Sound and Fury, than Thunder and Lightning.

I liked the original version of D&D. I like the 4th Edition, at least many things about it. But I see now that this pernicious idea of “balance” that crept in like the Serpent at Eve in Paradise, balance as an end in itself, especially in a fantasy game of all things, is more assassins’ poison than golden Ambrosia. If I have to kill wonder and potential just to achieve balance, then I have to kill fantasy just to achieve boredom. Thank you modern RPG Fantasy Game Theory of Balance, but I think you’d be happier working as a stock-boy in the warehouse of modern mediocrity, than a gate-keeper to the temples at Mount Olympus.

So Balance, my fine feathered fowl of gutless acquittal, go to hell and burn awhile. Maybe you’ll cook into a decent potpie.

Invention is as invention does. So, I’m gonna start designing fantasy games and adventures again, even D&D ones, where magic happens, miracles save the day, monsters are dangerous and feral, the voice of God rumbles across the sky, kingdoms topple, heroes struggle, players say, “Now that’s what I’m talking ‘bout!” and imaginations catch fire.

Balance can burn in his own oven… and stew in his own juices.

 

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About Jack

BRIEF BIO: Jack Gunter is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and songs. He is the co-owner of Open Door Communications, a copywriter, an inventor, and a former broker and private investigator. He is a naturalist and an amateur scientist and cryptologist. He likes to compose music and to design and play games and puzzles of all types. He homeschooled his children. He lives in the Upstate of South Carolina with his beautiful wife, talented two daughters, his old friend and Great Dane Sam, and his three Viking Cats.

Posted on September 9, 2017, in Adventure/Adventure Development, Commentary, DESIGN OF THINGS TO COME, Dungeon Master/Game Master, Essay, Game Design, Gaming, MY WRITINGS AND WORK, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Balance is not an end unto itself, balance is a tool to help you get the end result you desire. Like any tool, its effectiveness depends on its user’s ability to use it effectively and to the proper degree. You may proclaim balance to be unnecessary, but your essay fails to properly address a reason why aside from some half-formed rage against 4th edition for bothering to set up a form of regular formatting and encounter design. I fear in your rage you are throwing the baby out with the bathwater in your failure to understand the true nature of what balance is and how so many take it for granted.

    Balance is not some straight edge that demands everything be in correct proportion to another, balance is a rope with varying tightness and looseness. The tighter the balance the more fine detail has been paid attention to sculpting the numbers to provide a desired experience, while looser balance could just be a vague sense of ability. While some systems can use a balance so tight it becomes a noose, we rarely see such a situation occur.

    Balance is what allows a dragon to defeat a bear using the game mechanics 99.99% of the time. It’s why the difference between a longword and a greatspear is player preference instead of one always being an optimal decision. It’s why even though fighter progression is linear and wizard progression is quadratic in 1st edition they can still stand side by side, without the fighter having access to 9th level spells at level 1 then switching to 3rd level spells at 5th or devolving into unorganized chaos. No, what you’re bemoaning the existence of isn’t balance, it’s SYMMETRY.

    Symmetry and Asymmetry are both necessary to a degree in developing a game. While symmetry makes everything as exactly equal as possible (like chess), asymmetry creates distinction between others (though chess boards are symmetrical, one player goes first, creating asymmetry). Asymmetry adds spice to a game by expanding the range of possibilities. Instead of a 1v1 fight, create a 1v1v1 where nobody knows who to look out for. Instead of all class progression following the same experience totals, let some progress faster and others slower relative to their inherent power levels. Asymmetry is a tool of balance.

    What then of Symmetry? We cannot and should not abandon it entirely. symmetry is the reason why a sword always does 1d6 or 1d8 damage. It’s why if we see an enemy with a sword we can estimate how powerful its attacks may be. If all goblins share the same basic template that all goblins share, it’s an element of symmetry that simplifies the game and creates the internal consistency necessary to create a believable world. If every goblin had different stats, names, and weaponry it would balloon the time of adventure creation for DMs a thousandfold if it was all determined independently.

    I hear a lot of people ragging on 4th edition, a lot of cries of “MMORPG mode” and “too much balance”, but they’re failing to understand the true nature of what 4th edition is. 4th Edition is D&D with its bones exposed and laid bare. Is there truly any difference between an “at-will power” that does damage based on your weapon to a target adjacent to your enemy and a class feature that adds the same amount of damage to a single attack made during your turn?

    These people who were so used to the simulationist nature of 3rd edition fail to understand that 4th edition was created to streamline presentation, cut costs on printing out that aged vellum texture, and trust players to create their own flavor for the mechanics put in their hands. 4th edition was the version where it doesn’t matter if you wield a katana, or a longsword, or a saber, or a dueling blade. Where you can say your “spells” are different bombs you throw around the battlefield. 4th edition invites the player to become a designer by allowing the players and DM to dictate the flavor of their game without worrying their “laser gun” wielding wizard (actually magic missile) will be able to bypass antimagic fields or need to look up the exact gold cost of a chicken.

    To conclude, balance is not the problem, it has never been the problem. Instead, you are coasting on the anti-4th bandwagon and ranting about a misrepresented feature. When I play 4th, my players cower in terror of dragons as much as yours, my kobolds die and my players progress just like those in 3rd. If you don’t like how the developers decided to reduce the complexity? That’s perfectly fine, all the old editions are still here for people who like them to play. Each edition is not just a balance patch thrown on an aging core. Each edition is a fresh re-imaging of the rules and mythos of D&D, seeking the right blend of flexibility and simplicity to ease new players in while allowing old pros to try a fresh new system.

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  2. I thought you meant no balance like, bring back, “Linear Fighters, Quadratic Wizards.” But I agree not every challenge PCs come up against should be surmountable right away, or at all.

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