Friday, June 22, 2012

Balance dilema - Part 2

Character feature "value" measurements is an element I find missing in a lot of games when they look for balance in the system.  I see "value" as the worth of something at a given point in time.  Versus say cost which is what was paid to adquire something.  Value is the key element in realtime balancing of a game versus say preemptive balance in which balance is preset in rules and character settings.  Value changes from time to time while presets don't.  A machine gun for which there are no bullets has the same value as a bat.  What's the value of a great climbing skill if there are no walls to climb, or pick locks in a dungeon with no doors?

In the post about activity tracking vs resource tracking I mentioned the difference between games that track what the character can do vs games that track what the character has power to do.  Now I'll talk about value and how activity tracking influences it, as well as balance and inevitably min-maxing.

Just a couple of days ago I was talking with a friend and he put forward an event that occurred to him during and adventure.  His magic user was facing a goblin and a snake pit.  How to survive?  Engage the goblin or risk the snake pit's poisonous vipers?  He knew the mage had no spells  left and only a dagger, and so did the GM.  The goblin on the other hand doesn't know this.  The value of his spells in combat is null from his perspective, but quite powerful from the goblin's (if the GM plays it well, more on this when I recap on fairness and balanced play).

Working on this example lets look at defining character feature value.  Clearly there's an underlying value set by character class/configuration and level/development.  I'm using the term class, configuration, level and development to cover games that have or lack classes and those that have or lack levels.  This underlying value we can call character strength, and it is generally derived from rules. Rules can limit how strong a character is at a certain point along its progression path.  For example how many spells would be available at the start of the adventure or that day in particular.

Yet character value isn't a constant.  Its value changes as the character advances through the adventure.  It's strength diminishes as weapons, spells, items and all sorts of expendables are worn out.  The character feature "value" drops.

Finally and most importantly value depends on context.  If your skills, spells, weapons, items and what not are not applicable for a certain moment in the adventure you net value is null.  On the other hand a creative player can turn a cero value moment like the one in the example to a win scenario by simply bullshitting his way out of it.  He does some hokus pokus, fools the goblin into believing he's got some power and walks right by.

In past articles I've been pretty agressive against the terms "fair" and "balanced" not because I don't think they're important or because I'm some sort of evil and sadist GM.  I'm against "fairness" and "balance" because it is usually used to pamper characters and thus players.

For me the mage's encounter with the goblin is fair, hard yes, but also fair.  What I do find "unfair" in a lot of GMs is putting their knowledge into the monster.  To be "fair" the GM doesn't need to do a triple die roll plus table lookup to find the exact match for the encounter.  The GM HAS to play the monster just as it is.  The goblin does NOT know the mage is out of spells.  Only the GM knows that.  To play otherwise IS unfair.  There is no balance if you look at the encounter combat wise, but the mage is way smarter.  If the player narrows down the options to just combat then there is imbalance.  If the GM forces an encounter then he IS being unfair.  If you look a the big picture the encounter is balanced and fair.

This takes me to the key question in my Balance Dilema posts: "Is it worth establishing balance by restricting what a character can be?"  I'll look at this question from two angles:

  • Preemptive balance : that which is set into the rules and define what a character class can or can not have.
  • Realtime (tabletop) balance : that which seeks balance by measuring character value in game at the tabletop.
In the next part of this series I'll go deeper into the two models and look at the pros and cons and why I think realtime tabletop balance is simply better than preemptive balance.
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