On Game Balance

It Ain't a Noun; It's a Verb

Note: This post has content disclaimers.

In some areas of role-playing game discussion, I read a lot about concern around balance. Words like: This character build is over-powered or under-powered. Or I want to optimize my character.

What is often missing is a description of the full range and parameters in which those posters are expecting balance to exist.

Looking quickly at Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition (5E 📖); if your group takes a short-rest after each combat, then the Warlock is more powerful than when your group takes a short-rest after every other combat.

Burning Wheel

Over on Reddit someone asked about mixing stock and balance. What follows, is a refinement of my response:

I’m going to share my experience with an “imbalanced” party. I played in a game where the players chose to make siblings. I made a 3 LP character, one made a 4 LP character, and another a 5 LP character.

I wrote good beliefs and instincts. Fueled by the virtuous Artha cycle, I threw my character into trouble pursuing those. I was having a blast with the various system cycles. The character’s efficacy grew fast.

Yet even in all of that, I was still the “weakest” character. But I had efficacy in what interested my character. (I also aligned my character’s beliefs with others, or pointed them to nudge their characters.)

All of this is to say, you challenge characters in Burning Wheel by targeting their BITs. Balance is in that action.

Critical, however, is that everyone aligns with the game’s situation. In the below LotR post, I’d much rather be playing Sam, Pippin, or Merry than Legolas, Gimli, or Aragorn (or Gandalf). And within that framing story, the characters develop and support the situation that emerges.

Burning Wheel (BWG 📖) focuses on transparency. The Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits (BITs 📖) telegraph how you want the Game Master (GM 📖) to challenge your character. And the Artha rewards you for playing to your BITs.

Interestingly, even if your GM railroads your characters, you can write your BITs to ride those rails.

Favor Balancing over Balance

Each game is a unique setup. There’s the rules system, your table’s implementation/interpretation of those rules, the players, the immediate in game situation(s), and all of the real-world influences brought to each session.

The rules system is a small part of a role-playing game experience.

Balance is a false concern.

The better thing to focus on is: Are we setting ourselves up for fun? Are we all having fun? Do each of us feel we have fair and mostly equal opportunities to engage in the game? That our characters can bring about meaningful change to the fiction?

In other words, balance is a verb; that thing you want balanced will require your attention.

One part of balancing Burning Wheel is helping each player understand and engage with the reward cycle.

During sessions, keep checking on character beliefs. Help the players craft beliefs relevant to the situation that can help them garner Artha.

One part of balancing Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition is having a conversation around the expected time between rest cycles; those are critical rules assumptions.

For me, I don’t worry about balance and instead focus on “Are we having fun in the moment and do we reminisce fondly about the games we’ve played?”

I started seeking feedback for the games I run; what’s working well and what’s not. I to give feedback around the games I’m playing. That’s another part of the balancing act.