How to Run a Game (Part 20) - Game Balance

There has been this thing in roleplaying circles ever since I started playing back in the late 1980s, it probably goes back to the beginning of roleplaying games. It's a discussion about "fairness" and equivalence between the players. It appears in discussions about other forms of game play too.


In game development, the concept of fairness refers to the idea that the game should be balanced and unbiased, with all players having an equal chance of success regardless of their skill level or other factors. A fair game is one in which all players have the same chances of winning and losing, and where the outcome of the game is not determined by random chance alone.

There are a number of ways that game developers can strive for fairness in their games, including:

Balancing gameplay: This involves adjusting the game mechanics and rules to ensure that all players have an equal chance of winning. This can include adjusting the power level of different characters or items, or adjusting the probability of certain events occurring.

Randomization: In games that use randomness or chance, developers can use techniques such as seeding and uniform distribution to ensure that the randomness is fair and unbiased.

Testing and debugging: Developers can test and debug their games to ensure that there are no bugs or exploits that give some players an unfair advantage.

Fairness ensures that the game is enjoyable and engaging for all players.

    - Chance, Probability and Fairness (Medium, 2023)

This begs the question, "what is fairness in an RPG?" and the follow-up question "is it necessary?". I've basically been answering this over the last few posts, but first a bit of extra context (because I love providing context).

One of my formative gaming systems was RIFTS. Those who know a variety of systems will be aware that RIFTS is one of the most unbalanced systems out there. I loved it but it really shaped the way I address play. RIFTS is a game where one player can portray a baby dragon (with enough strength to punch a hole through a car, enough toughness to take a direct hit from a tank, and shapeshifting abilities so they can wander around without causing a stir), another player can portray the pilot of the most powerful suit of armour in history (with a weapon so powerful it causes a sonic boom when it fires, and can punch through buildings), while a third player can portray a homeless dude with no special powers what-so-ever (but has a couple of extra skills). How do you account for that?

...or at least I don't.

D&D (especially in recent editions) has been all about making sure characters are on an even footing. Classes are beefed up with advantages in new books, other classes are nerfed via errata. My theory instead says that characters don't need to be equally capable of smashing one another, or equally capable of taking the beating imposed by other members of their own party. I don't even make sure that encounters are "balanced". That's a really gamist way of addressing the situation, and I tend more toward a narrativist bent (with a healthy dose of simulationism for flavouring),     

I want every character to tell a meaningful story in their own context, and not be dominated by other players at the table. Hence the idea of the traffic lights. I similarly try to make sure there are adequate choices in the narrative where the first priority is for every player to have the opportunity to tell their own story, and the second priority is for every player to have the opportunity to shine in collaboration with someone else's story.

I've often found that time in the spotlight is a more important gauge of what is fun, and whether a session is going well. 

This often means hardcore gamists who spend hours (days, weeks...) working out optimum builds to cause utter havoc on a game don't like my table. There are posts doing the rounds about the ultimate long range sniper, the ultimate close range damage dealer, the wizard who ends up untouchable by level 5, and similar character types... sure I'll give them the chance to shine if their build compliments the story, but I've always been a fan of characters out of their element, or learning through failure. Life isn't fair so we don't need our stories to reflect fairness and equality. Engaging in escapism is often a way to resolve issues in the real world without needing to confront them directly in physical space (and that's why we created the liminal shared imaginary space for our stories to unfold in). 

Winning all the time is boring, and watching other people winning all the time even more so. We need drama, changes in the narrative, we need the unexpected...

...we need that homeless dude to make twists to the story that the heavy hitters could never contemplate.


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