I think this statement could be rewritten as "Is it difficult if not impossible to create a character creation system for RPGs that is balanced while allowing for customization capabilities?" Balanced characters or not optimized ones seem to put a constraint on customization capabilities. The problem as presented by the question is that more capability options leads to greater optimization. At first glance it seems that controlling optimization means reducing options. If you can't customize your character so much you can't thus optimize so much.
This question came at a time I was finishing off the character generation system for Era. One objective among others is to develop a game that has no classes and no levels. As I found the concept of classes and levels way to limiting to the potential of a game and a campaign. Yet without classes and levels there would have to be another way to supply customization options and improvements as the character advances. At the time the game had a pseudo level mechanism that has since been ditched and replaced with one based on a self balancing mechanism.
The answer I gave Monte to that question is the seed to the recent posts about balance, class design and other controversial threads that have even ended up labeling me as a troll. The answer was in a way a question in itself. Yes it is difficult to build such a system. But the real issue would be proving it. The problem is not coming up with the system itself. The problem is proving that it doesn't greatly encourage optimization.
You can create a character creation system that "doesn't greatly encourage optimization". You play test it a bit and do some adjustments. Now it feels even better. Then you play test again and adjust a bit more. When you feel it's ready you publish it and then it breaks. Why? Because it was poorly designed? No. It was well designed, but not tested for all options because that's impossible. It becomes even more impossible the more customization capabilities you add to the game. Play test complexity and cost growths exponentially with character class complexity.
This lead me to think of balance as preemptive or tabletop (or runtime as I personally call it). Preemptive balance is that which the game designer seeks during game design. It is embedded in the character generation system and is meant to be a force that allows for customization while discouraging optimization.
Some thoughts on preemptive balance:
- Long term uselessness. Provides out of the box balance, but does not guarantee the discouragement of optimization down the road. Will break the more customization options we add.
- Counter productive. Trying to define these rules is counter productive. While it gives the GM's life a bit easier in the beginning, it also makes game design more demanding. Yet it might actually not provide any long term benefits. Remember all those min-max players out there the GM ends up dealing with? It also takes time to develop and test these rules and it takes even more time the more options the game gives in terms of customization.
- Strongly coupled mechanics. Strongly coupled mechanics might sound like a good thing. It has the word "strong" in it. But it is actually a very bad thing. Strongly coupled mechanics means the operation of one part of the game strongly depends on the other. Change one part and the other is directly affected. So if you reach a balance based on how magic works or how weapon specialization works and then you change that you break balance quickly.
- Dissociated mechanics. Preemptive balance also leads to the addition of rules like the dragon lord class gains the dragon breath ability once a day when the character reaches 10th level. These extras are added to give the character class a bonus in something the designer feels is lacking. The quick and dirty solution of including these "bonuses" to balance game leads to greater complications down the road.
On the other hand we have balance which we seek during game time at the tabletop. This is the one I've decided to embrace and support. Leading to the controversial position that initial balance is not important. Well it is. It is certainly necessary, but character development, creativity and imagination are more important in the beginning. As we'll see in the second part I say create first and balance later. That captivates the player into the story rather than discourages him by preemptive and limiting balance rules.