Monday, June 11, 2012

Balance and Spotlight

Recently I had an interesting discussion regarding the importance of balance and spotlight time.  This lead me to some thoughts regarding balance, spotlight time, rules and creativity.  Let's start talking about spotlight time and its relevance to game play.  Spotlight time is important because it allows players the opportunity to star in the adventure.  If one player steals the spotlight time the other players will become bored as the GM is pretty much playing with a single player.  By having a particularly strong character said player can steal spotlight time from other players as his character can do a great deal more than the others.

To prevent this, games and in particular D&D look for balance among character classes.  Usually established as a set of rules in the game, balance sets out to grant players an equal opportunity to star in the game.  But is balance really necessary?  Is it attainable?  And if so is it attainable by the current rule based mechanisms.

Here's the way I see it.  Simple and leaving aside all prior theory posted in this article.  Forget balance and forget fairness.  Better yet don't forget them, screw'em.  Who needs balance and fairness?  Balance and fairness are all against adventure, creativity, and excitement.

Adventure is about going out and taking a risk.  What's fair about that?  If you lose you die.  That's it.  You wanted the dragon's treasure.  Now you complain because it wasn't fair that the dragon killed you.  Tough luck.

Some may claim the GM is not being fair.  The GM's job isn't to be fair.  The GM's job is to be objective.  To look at the big picture and say this is where the story is going.  To make you sweat as a player.  To put plot twists and unexpected things and things that don't make your life easy.  But they do make the adventure exciting and that is what this game is about.  The GM isn't out to kill you.  He's out to make you suffer.  To sweat.  To feel how close you come to death.  Yea and some times to kill you.  But face it, if the risk of death wasn't latent in every adventure it wouldn't be an adventure.  Obviously a GM who levels the whole party with a breath weapon as they leave the inn isn't being unfair, he's being an idiot.  But that's got nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with bad DMing.

Unfairness is a necessary part to a good adventure.  Life isn't fair so why should your adventure be fair too?  Some would say they don't want to replay life in the game.  That's why they're playing the game.  To get away from everyday real life.  Yes, but that doesn't mean you get away from life to play a lame game session.  You go to the movies to immerse yourself in another story not to see a lame movie.  You want to see an exciting movie, a movie with characters fleshed out, a movie where characters suffer it through.

Ripley was lied to and made to land on LV-426 by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation or risk loosing all payment benefits.  The science officer was a robot mole.  She lost all her crew and then inside the rescue ship she finds herself with the alien after blowing up the cargo ship.  How fair is that? I mean it was one big bug and there were bigger spots to hide in the cargo ship.  Why tuck itself in the salvage ship?  Was it smart?  Was it aware something was going on?  How did it know that was the salvage ship?  On top of being a soulless and efficient killer it's also smart?  C'mon that's not fair.  Guess what, it isn't, but it's damn exciting.

Then she gets rescued.  Wew, what a break.  Only to go back to LV-426.  Why?  Well if you see the extended version her daughter is dead of old age.  She was going to get back to her 11th birthday and she missed her burial.  Oh and did you catch the part about never married.  Tough luck Ripley no grandchildren either.  On her way back to LV-426 nobody listens to her.  The half assed commander of  the mission lets the team get creamed in less than five minutes.  What's that I hear Hudson?  Oh you were two weeks from getting out, well that's just too fucking bad.  Yup, it isn't fair, I know I know.  Then the aliens find the roof passage that wasn't on the blue prints.  I mean how unfair is that.  They had blocked everything.  James Cameron is one sick GM.  On top of that he lets the little girl get lost and caught by aliens.  Just as they were almost home free!  The only fair part in that section of the movie is seeing Burke get caught by aliens.  Enjoyed that, jejeje. That aside its conflict after conflict.  The girl gets lost, they go after her.  Even Bishop is genuinely surprised. "We're not?",  he says when Ripley says they're not leaving. Se goes in, gets the girl and barely makes it out.  Home free?  Not yet.  They've got the queen holding on to the ship.  What the heck?  A xenomorph, violent, fast, extremely effective, smart, bad assed, huge, vacuum resistant, nuclear blast resistant queen on the mother ship?  That's not fair James Cameron!  But it's exciting and makes for a great sequel to an already great first part.

If we wanted fair in the first place they wouldn't even have landed on LV-426 in the first place.  Or they would have warned the colonists, just to be double sure.  Or they would have fallen back on the first sight of acid damaged structures and barricades.  And on and on.  But it would have made for a very boring movie.  On the other hand James Cameron and Ridley Scott might be sick DMs, but they're good DMs.  They keep you hanging throughout the movie.  Give you good plot twists.  Put the characters in danger and pull them out just in time.

Enough talk about fairness and let's talk about balance.  Here's what I think about balance.  Balance is boring.  Balance sucks.  Balance is limiting.  Balance prevents you from playing the character you want to play.  Once you bind your character to the rules of "balanced" you forfeit all the other possibilities your character could be.  So what if you want to be the underdog.  Or maybe you want to be the super uber strong character.  You think your character is strong and all powerful?  Wait until you meet player 0 aka the GM.

Now this doesn't mean take out all the joker cards and start playing anything you want, blast the world, megadamage Rifts reincarnated.  It means don't bind your options to a need for preemptive balance.  By preemptive balance I mean try to balance the party prior to the adventure or worse yet independently from the adventure.  Trust me even the strongest character can find himself challenged with the proper setting, and the weakest shine given the right opportunity.  The setting is more important that the character in terms of defining balance.  Even a so called balanced character can outshine others in its party if the setting is incorrect, particularly if the setting is reiterative.  What use is a balanced party if all they meet are secret doors and locked portals?  Then only the thief enjoys the adventure.

As a player you need to be yourself and play your character for better or worse.  As a GM you need to explore alternatives.  You, the GM, are the balance in the game.  You're at the table seeing how much spotlight each player has.  No rule, no matter how well thought out or written can beat that.

Like I said in yesterday's DM advice.  If the player wants a motorcycle for the paladin give it to him and make him adventure for the gasoline.  If the player complains, give him the gasoline.  What's he going to do?  Load the whole party, four horses and three donkeys on the motorcycle and ride off?  He'll ride off quickly, but  find himself alone leaving his party behind.  He'll run out of fuel.  He'll get a flat.  The engine will scare his good horse away.

The options are endless.  Yes the motorcycle example is an exaggeration, but a good one.  A good one because it shows how balance is relative.  Yes, relative to setting.  What is weak in one case is strong in another.  What is strong in one scenario is weak in the other.  If you find your balance being universal you have a problem.  It means you've simplified your campaign setting to a point where a relative element has become a constant.

Not all party members need to deliver the same amount of damage per round.  Back to the Aliens example.  Ripley triumphed because she was creative and adapted.  She did not know how to drive the APC, she kinda guessed it.  She didn't know how to fire the rifle.  Hicks gave her a crash course with the weapon and she took off from there.  Burke was an interesting character and he never held a weapon.

Don't bind your campaign to balance promoting rules.  If James Cameron was a rule abiding GM he wouldn't have let Ripley drive the APC because she wasn't proficient.  Well she did crash it into the wall, but overall managed it.  James Cameron would also have said "Oh five minute training is not enough, you can't use the rifle nor the flame thrower.  Only the marine class can use those and you're just an unlicensed pilot".

Obviously if your adventure dwells on fighting room after room of monsters then yes weapons and fighting skill balance is important.  But if you break away from that and have different settings you'll realize that said "balance" quickly becomes more limiting than balancing.

GM the burden of balance lays on you.  It does not lay in the rules.  The rules may help.  But the more you rely on the rules for balance the less creative freedom you'll have for your setting.


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