Balance & trade-offs

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Balance is really important to me when it comes to game design. What is that, you say? OSR heresy! It’s true though. The principle that I operate under is that nothing should be obviously optimal or suboptimal outside of specific circumstances. Everything should require meaningful and feasible trade-offs.

The common discourse about balance is about something different, though. It usually focuses on power balance between PCs in order to facilitate spotlight sharing. In general, I assume that characters of different levels may be adventuring together (based on either PC mortality and replacement, or from new players joining the campaign). Once you assume that different level characters will be working side by side, this kind of balance goes straight out the window (and good riddance, too).

Games where, practically speaking, 2 or 3 weapons are pretty much always the best choices, are a failure in my mind (at least in that dimension). The three dart per round AD&D magic user is a really good example of this (why would they use any other weapon?), as are weapon specialization rules in virtually every game that uses them (because such rules create a structure that destroys the possibility for interesting trade-offs). (For an example of weapon specialization rules that don’t suck structurally, consider something like weapon tricks that require setup time but have interesting side effects, like entanglement or stunning.) The whole AD&D variable damage weapons system is something of a mess, because it requires so many other fiddly subsystems to be operating (weapon speed, weapon length, weapon versus armor type, damage type) in order for the whole thing to not collapse into two or three optimal choices (long sword, long bow, two-handed sword). Some people might criticize the traditional spell list in this manner too, but I believe they are misunderstanding the use of many spells.

This does lead to several interesting corollaries. First, it reinforces my desire for a logarithmic power curve. I want PCs to develop, both for interest and adventuring incentive, but broadly rather than deeply, and in a way where the top level characters don’t totally outstrip the beginning level characters. Higher level characters should have more options, and more staying power, but scary monsters should always be scary, tricks should always be tricky, and traps should always be devious. There have been good arguments made that medium and high level D&D play models a different kind of protagonist than low level play, but it seems to me that barring some cosmetic mechanical similarities, these different tiers are actually different games (or they are just smoke and mirrors using scaled difficulty mechanical illusionism). I was just in a FLAILSNAILS game where one of the PCs “outgrew” the setting because he advanced above some level. This seems like something of a flaw in the D&D level model, at least as commonly implemented.

Second, how is a great power not automatically better than a lesser power? For example, a +1 sword is in all dimensions always a better option than a mundane sword (barring something like a curse, or an angry previous owner). The answer is that a great power is not automatically better than a lesser power if it is not of unlimited use. Go ahead, give a party of first level characters a scroll of meteor swarm or time stop and watch them agonize over when to use it. Make using power cost something.

13 thoughts on “Balance & trade-offs

  1. Psychochild

    I agree with your premise, but I’ll quibble over some of the specifics. In my day job as a video game designer, I define balance as “when all options are equally valid depending on situation.” Of course, it’s that last bit that causes a lot of headaches.

    All the times I played AD&D, we ignored most of the optional rules you say are “required”. I never played in a campaign that used AC vs. weapon category. Really, most of the weapons do roughly equal damage; a 1d8 long sword does the same average damage as a 1d6+1 mace. The part that messes things up is when you get to the “large creature” damage, which is where longswords and two-handed swords reign absolutely supreme in AD&D.

    You also get interesting situations when you start combining some of these systems. Take, for example, magical weapons and variable die weapons. Say your fighter chose the statistically superior longsword. But, in a cave full of goblins, you stumble upon a dagger +2. Technically does the same average damage as your longsword, but it has 2 better to-hit. Is it better to give this to the fighter to improve chance to hit? (Assuming the fighter wants to be known as the one with the tiny pricking weapon… 😉 Give it to the rogue to hit on those backstabs more? Give it to the mage so he has a chance to hit at all? A smart bit of loot generation on the part of the DM can add back in interest where the mechanics seem to point to limited optimal selections.

    I’ll repeat a sentiment I read before: (A)D&D’s greatest strength was that it was a deeply flawed system. It encouraged players to tinker with the mechanics and make the game their own. I’m not sure I would have gone into game design without (A)D&D providing the environment for me to tinker with the game. Yeah, some of my tinkering sucked, but it was different than any other game I had played before.

    1. Brendan

      2-7 compared to 1-8 is actually an interesting choice, but there are also weapons that only do 1-6 or even 1-4 damage that are virtually never chosen. Like you, I have never actually seen all those other subsystems active and functional in a real game. And yeah, the “large” creature damage made things even more complicated, which could maybe be interesting (carry one weapon for ogres and dragons, and another for humans); I don’t remember it workout out that way though, as there are still clear favorites.

      I agree that magic weapons can add an interesting wrinkle potentially, but optimally the weapons system will work well even if all the weapons are mundane, and least that would be my desire.

  2. Paul Thornton

    You can come across what you think of as balance ina few surprising games. The first one to come to mind is actually Feng Shiu. I’m not going to go on about at length – I don’t think your readership fall within this game’s target audience – but if you get the chance, take a look at their ranged weapon stats. they have dozens upon dozens of 9mm auto-mag pistols, with tiny variations in the way of damage, conceal-ability, and magazine size (the only stats for such weapons) and the choice of what you want becomes a trade off on those three things, with nothing bringing a massive amount more to the table than any other, and a purely aesthetic choice.

    All things being – moderately equal – just pick the gun you like you like the sound of…

  3. Jeremy Murphy

    This is one of the things that makes me cautiously optimistic about Next – character options include fairly non-mechanical, RPG-related elements. I think that you can make a much more interesting and durable game by including a minimal, standardized set of equipment, fairly simple core mechanics and obvious places to “plug in” additional features – either purchased or homebrewed. Balance doesn’t have to come purely from the mechanical bits – this is were 4e fell down for me.

  4. Tony Demetriou

    For an AMAZING system of checks & balances, check out “Exalted”

    It’s about gods fighting each other, where they have crazily overpowered attacks (and the players can then combine those attacks to create custom even-more-overpowered) attacks.

    The balance comes in with how many powers you can activate each round, and strategies for activating defences (to survive more than a few rounds) vs activating powers that buff future attacks, vs activating the “big hit” powers. And keeping defensive powers in reserve, so you can avoid the opponent’s “big hit” powers. So you end up with a system where PCs can throw attacks that can destroy stone buildings with one hit, yet is amazingly balanced at the high level.

    Not suggesting anyone switch to that game (since it’s very setting-specific) but it’s well worth a look to see how to create generally-useful-and-cool powers that can be set up to be tactically situation-specific.

    1. Brendan

      At one point I really liked the idea of Exalted. I studied East Asian history at university, and the vaguely Chinese mythology appealed to me. I actually owned a copy of the first edition for a while, but I never got a chance to play it, and never really spent enough time with it to really grok how the system worked.

      I gather there is a big “character build” aspect to it though, which I have come to approach with trepidation recently (the time and effort required for system mastery just don’t seem to offer much payback, ultimately). More recently, I have come to prefer choices to come during play (things like what spell to memorize or what weapon to carry), rather than in selecting combinations of feats or skills before the game begins, if that makes sense.

  5. Andrew

    I really like Old School Hack (and my version, Fictive Hack) for dealing with weapon issues. There are kinds of weapons (light, heavy, reach, very heavy, ranged) that get advantages based on the arena type (tight, dense, open, etc.)

    You can describe what the weapon looks like. So a light weapon might be a dagger, axe, rapier, or spellbook. A reach weapon might be a chain mace, a staff, or a polearm.

    Using those broad categories gives you choices because each one has a different advantage, and they have further advantage based on the surroundings. Neat stuff.

  6. Gusty L.

    I don’t know it’s level exclusively that messes up balance, it’s power level – which I am starting to think is a function of equipment more than HP and to hit (which goes up pretty slow – except for 4th Edition Flailsnails).

    At least that’s the situation in my crapsack universe G+ game when someone comes from a 1st edition module universe where magic is common.

    1. Brendan

      Yeah, agreed. The equipment side of the power curve I will be addressing in the referee guidelines (stuff like stocking rules and treasure tables). I think both equipment and character stats are important.

  7. jackstoolbox

    So, I’m a little late to the party, but I wanted to say…

    (1) I think I generally agree with your notion of balance, and I know I agree with Psychochild’s. I want every choice to be evenly weighted in the long haul, so that taking a group of 4 Fighters is a viable strategy, but will cost the group in ways (downtime for healing, taking traps on the chin, having to go the long/hard way instead of getting a shortcut). Big part of that is adventure design which, in ways, puts it out of scope of wider game design, as long as each class has a specialty/advantage identified.

    (2) I think Level means more in D&D than you want it to; I don’t think that’s bad, but I think it should be recognized. For the most part I think the game works fine as long as PCs are withing a level or two of each other, but a Lvl2 character is more awesome than a Lvl1 character in a lot of ways. And when you start crossing tiers (1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20), you’re really talking about drastically different hero types.

    (3) I do think that the different tiers of D&D offer “different games,” at least in some sense. It depends on how you want to define the “game.” For me, D&D (and RPGs generally) are about picking a role and making decisions based on that role; part of that role is setting and power level and in as much as those shift from tier to tier (or even level to level), the game is different. But it’s still playing a role in a fantasy setting. In fact, even mechanically it’s a game about resource management, exploration, and combat. So for the most part, I don’t think the tiers are really that different. It’s not like comparing Arkham Horror and Backgammon and Spades.

    (4) I think the FLAILSNAIL issue was a flaw of the setting (that it could be out-leveled) rather than a flaw of D&D. That being said, I think that the common implementation of the D&D XP system is flawed, in that it doesn’t require an epic campaign in order to reach epic power. By the book, you could kill a few thousand goblins and hit Level 20, but that strikes me as absurd on it’s face. At some point it’s the responsibility of the GM to manage the flow of the game, in terms of both challenges and rewards. It’s one of the greatest benefits of RPGs over video games: humans don’t have to mindlessly follow the RAW, and I would argue often specifically should not.

    1. Brendan


      Yeah, I agree that scenario design is very important here, and traditional D&D includes that aspect with things like dungeon stocking rules, encounter tables, treasure hoard types, and treasure tables. I hope to expand around those ideas in the referee-facing parts of Hexagram later.


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