I’m a smart guy. And I have a damned good memory. Those aren’t the same thing, by the way. Lots of people think they are. Lots of people who remember lots of s$&% THINK they are smart. And D&D most RPGs certainly don’t distinguish between memory and critical reasoning. Instead, they lump those two things together and then try to feed us some bulls$&% about how common sense is a thing. And then they also try to tell us that it should be somehow possible to play a character who is smarter than you in a game that is based entirely on YOU making decisions for YOUR CHARACTER.
My point is, I am smart AND I have a damned good memory. And that serves me well as both a GM and a content creator. I can remember campaign and setting details that I established and then moved on from years ago. That’s why there isn’t a BOOK about the Angryverse. I don’t need it. It’s all in my head. And when I’m writing the scripts for the GM Word of the Week or articles like this, I can refer back to things I said in previous articles without having to look up which article or episode had what bits in it. Yes, even small asides.
Every once in a while, I do forget SOMETHING. I may be an exceptional human, but I’m still just a human. And no human is perfect. Which is a problem when I’m trying to write an article – like this one – based on something I definitely remember ONCE saying SOMEWHERE and I just can’t remember where I said it. I’m pretty sure it was on this site. But who the f$&% knows? I COULD search for it. But frankly, I don’t care enough to be bothered. So if you’re expecting a reference back to a previous article, sorry. You’re out of luck. But, hey, there IS a search feature on my website. Maybe YOU can find it. I’m just going to write the damned article based on what I remember saying. And I do remember saying it because it made a lot of people angry. What I said was this:
Everyone likes to piss and moan about game balance. But no one understands game balance. I don’t even think any game designer can actually define game balance in any useful way. I’m not even sure I can define it myself. But I’m pretty sure I can get closer than anyone I can think of. Because I’d at least start from the premise that there are several different TYPES of game balance, that they are different across different mediums, and that there are at least three different types of game balance that need to be considered in table-top role-playing games.
That statement – whatever form it originally took – sure got a few feathered panties in a jimmy. For the next week or so, I had to listen to people proving themselves to be utter morons by (a) offering completely stupid, useless, and vapid definitions of game balance, (b) explaining that game balance was something that meant different things to different people and therefore demanding a single definition was stupid, or (c) insisting that their favorite game designer sure had a keen grasp of game balance by pointing me at some stupid interview or blog post that offered a stupid, useless, vapid, or at least incomplete definition .
It was a fun week.
Anyway, now I’m here to set the record straight. I’m going to offer the best and correct explanation of game balance specifically in table-top RPGs that you will ever find and explain why it’s important to understand it and why it’s also not that important to understand it. Because I may just be a human, but I’m an exceptional human, dammit.
Game Balance, Brokeness, and Whiny F$&%ing GMs
Game balance is one those things that GMs LOVE to use to rip apart things they don’t like. Because people can’t simply not like things. Not liking things is emotional and irrational and totally f$&%ing human. But analyzing things and recognizing their flaws make them fundamental unlikeable? That’s rational and logical and makes you totally f$&%ing smart. Like a robot. And that’s why robots are notoriously fun to hang out with and play games with. I spend hours and hours watching movies and playing D&D down at the local Coca-Cola bottling plant with the capping machine and the pouring machine and that arm that sticks the labels on the outside of the bottles.
Game balance is also one of those things that GMS LOVE to use as an excuse to rip options out of the game. Because they can’t simply think that something doesn’t fit the tone of the story. Because tone is emotional and…
You get it.
Game balance is directly related to the word “broken.” This is broken. That’s broken. Druids are totally broken. Gunslingers are totally broken. And so on. But, here’s the thing with brokenness. If you really want to make the case that something is broken in the game, you have to demonstrate how it works at cross purposes to other – more fundamental – aspects of the game or creates a perverse incentive or something like that. You can’t just say “well, it’s totally broken.” And once you can point to the specific problem, that pretty much explains everything. You no longer need to say “broken” or “unbalanced.”
Those words just aren’t as useful as people think they are.
Does that mean the concept of game balance isn’t important? You’re expecting me to say “of course it’s important and here’s why” aren’t you. Well, guess what? I’m not going to say that. To the average GM, it really isn’t super important. It doesn’t become important until you’re a content creator. Now, many GMs ARE content creators. They create their own encounters and monsters and magical items and adventures. And content creation does require a certain awareness of the idea of game balance. But many, MANY GMs go overboard with that awareness. Truth is, the average content creating GM doesn’t have to worry too much about game balance. I’ll explain more about why chasing too much balance is just f$&%ing stupid and kind of impossible. But even before we get into that, you have to realize that f$&%ing up your game balance isn’t a giant disaster. It might break your game, but it won’t BREAK your game. Because you’re running the game, right? You can see when something has gone wrong. You can fix it in real time. Or you can, at least, stop the game and “whoa, sorry, I f$&%ed this up and it’s going to wreck everything, so we’re just going to pretend you never started this fight” or “found that magical item” or whatever. Simple as that.
Honestly, until you’re actually selling content to other people, you really don’t have to sweat balance TOO MUCH. And even when you are, the only reason you have to have any sense of it at all is that people have some really crazy, unrealistic expectations when it comes to game balance.
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades
I realize I still haven’t defined game balance. Nor have I described the three different types of game balance that specifically apply to table-top role-playing games. The thing is, I just don’t feel safe talking about game design until I get you – yes YOU – to drop some of your crazy, stupid expectations about it. Here’s the thing: game balance isn’t exact, it isn’t objective, and too much of it can wreck a game. Yeah, you heard me.
Conceptually, game balance is about how all the different elements of the game interact, right? Now, most of those elements are designed by the game designer, but there are some pretty big game elements that aren’t designed by the designer. Those elements are the players of the f$&%ing game. The human beings who are interacting with all of the other game elements and smashing them all together. And table-top RPGs are extremely open-ended. They have a lot of game elements, those elements can be combined in a lot of different ways, they don’t put a lot of constraints on how the players interact with the elements, and all interactions are ultimately presided over by another unpredictable human being. It’s a f$&%ing mess.
The point is, you can sit there and figure out all of the encounter math and determine where all the numbers should be for every attack and every monster and every character class and situation. But you’ll never account for the player who forgets that a particular spell can be used in a particular situation or the player who manages his resources super stingily and so always has an ace-in-the-hole or the GM who lines up a series of encounters that are just enough on the difficult side of normal that they overtax the players a little too much. And that’s just for the mechanically rigorous combat parts of the game. The rest of the game is even more of a tossup.
Game balance is built around a lot of assumptions about how “most players” or “the average player” will approach things. And it’s all a best guess anyway. The game designers literally cannot test every possible interaction between absolutely everything in every situation. So it’s fuzzy as hell. You can think of balanced as a big, smeared out space somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. And, in table-top RPGs, that smear is a BIG smear. Especially in games like Dungeons & Dragons. Because of the amount of freedom afforded to the players and the GM, the game isn’t that easy to substantially break in a way that most groups can’t find a way to cope with. GMs can adjust on the fly. Players can think out of the box and extract themselves from dangerous situations. And characters can come back to life.
But there are damned good reasons for the smear of game balance to be as big and fuzzy possible. In role-playing games, anyway. See, role-playing games at their core, are about players making decisions. They make decisions to define their characters. And they make decisions that affect the outcome of the game. If you take those things away, you don’t have an RPG anymore. Now, different people enjoy different aspects of defining their character. Some players like to find interesting, unusual combinations and see how they work. Some players like to optimize their characters to give their characters the best chance to win. And some players like to struggle against flaws and handicaps to challenge themselves. All of those things are only possible because the balance in character generation is fuzzy. It’s smeared out. There are some choices that aren’t AS GOOD and some choices that are A LITTLE BETTER. Now, I’m not saying that the variation can’t also lead to problems. I’ll come back to that. But the variation is also rewarding for many different types of players. And the same is true of the decisions inside the game. The fact that you can make a bad choice that leads to failure or make a bad choice that you manage to mitigate or make a good choice and fail anyway or make a good choice that leads you to victory, that fact also makes the game fun. Your choices affect the outcome, but they don’t outright determine the outcome. You can make good choices and bad choices. And you can succeed or fail. Good choices make it more likely you will succeed. Bad choices make it more likely you will fail. But choices don’t guarantee success and failure either. That is something else that lives in the fuzziness of smeared out game balance. The game is neither perfectly random (like a coin toss) nor perfectly strategic (like chess). It’s a mish-mash of both and the amount of each change from situation to situation, table to table, and group to group. That makes the game exciting.
That’s the first thing you have to accept. The game balance – whatever the hell that means – in an RPG is vague, broad, fuzzy space, not a single point. The game is balanced within a certain degree of error. It has a wobble to it. And that wobble is good. It adds to the fun of the game. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t reduce the fuzzy space to a single point anyway. The encounter math in D&D – or the monster design math – is a best guess that probably works for most players most of the time. But it isn’t exact and no one ever intended it to be.
The second thing you have to accept that that big, broad smear isn’t centered firmly in the middle of the hypothetical game balance spectrum. Most table-top RPGs are designed to make player success much more likely. All things being equal, the players are probably going to succeed most of the time. Even when the players screw up or make poor or sub-optimal choices, they are still likely going to succeed. And that’s because table-top RPGs are not competitive games. In a competitive game – a game in which two or more players compete against each other – the balance smear is centered around the middle of the game balance spectrum so no one player has a substantial advantage over any other as a consequence of the system. Random chance might favor one player. One player might be more skilled than the others. But the game itself isn’t leaning toward anyone. That, by the way, is what we mean when we say the game is fair. Players of equal skill with equal investment in the game are equally likely to win.
RPGs ain’t like that. The players are competing against the game itself, as portrayed by the Game Master. And the Game Master is not competing against the players. The GM is providing a game against which the players can compete. It’s different. And so the balance smear doesn’t have to be centered in the middle of the spectrum. The game doesn’t have to be fair. It can be unfair in the players’ favor. Or, if the players like a good challenge, it can be unfair in the game’s favor. The game designer can literally select anywhere along that spectrum to be the center of the vague cloud of balance.
Got it? RPGs aren’t perfectly balanced. Balance isn’t a point. It’s fuzzy and wobbly. The math isn’t exact and it can tolerate a lot of variation. And that makes an RPG what it is. And the balanced cloud is rarely set exactly in the middle point of the game balance spectrum. Whatever the hell that actually means. If you’re good on that. We can talk about what the hell the game balance spectrum actually is. What it defines. And how there are three different types of balance in the game.
Balance in the Spotlight
First of all, let’s talk about the thing I’m calling Spotlight Balance. Someone less interested in clever heading names might call it Participation Balance. But I’m not that f$&% guy. So it’s Spotlight Balance, dammit.
A table-top RPG is a team game, right? A group of players works together to accomplish a goal. Kill a princess, rescue a dragon, crush the rebels under the heal of the authoritarian Empire, whatever. And while the players – as a group – want to succeed, part of the fun of the game is playing a part in that success. Right? Obviously, each player wants to feel like they had a hand in the victory. In fact, every player – if we’re totally honest – wants to feel instrumental in achieving the victory. They want to feel important. Special. Like their decisions mattered. Certainly, no one wants to feel like they were just along for the ride.
That means that each player needs to feel like an equal contributor to the game. And that’s what Spotlight Balance is all about. It’s the balance between each player’s contribution to the outcome. A player who doesn’t have any influence on the outcome isn’t having any fun. They feel marginalized. And if one player has far more influence on the outcome than the other players, everyone else feels marginalized. And that means no one is having any fun.
In D&D – and most other table-top RPGs – Spotlight Balance comes from making sure that all of the various character options are more or less equally powerful. Or, at least, equally viable. All of the character classes are roughly the same in terms of their power level. All of the races are pretty much equal to each other. And so on.
D&D is very much focused on Spotlight Balance in combat. It didn’t use to be. Or rather, in older editions, it DID use to be. Just not in a very fun way. At low levels, fighters were the MVPs in every combat. Wizards would shine in one or two battles and then sit on the bench for the rest. Clerics had a few good, big battles and then assisted the fighters in the remaining fights. The trend reversed at high levels, where wizards had enough resources to excel in every fight, clerics had lots of good options in most fights, and fighters were basically speed-bumps for the monsters. Technically, that did strike a balance. Over the course of a campaign, anyway. But it wasn’t fun because it meant that half the players spent half the campaign bored and then switched places.
Nowadays, D&D is very focused on Spotlight Balance in combat. It hit its peak in 4th Edition, though, where every character was designed to fill a specific role and all characters had the same resources to play with and the same general number of abilities. And I bring that up to make a very specific point. Remember how I said that trying to be too balanced can f$&% your game up? Trying to tighten your balance cloud down to a balance point? Well, whatever you might PERSONALLY feel about 4E, note the sheer number of people who complained that the classes felt like they were all the same, that there wasn’t enough differentiation between the classes. What a weird f$&%ing coincidence, no?
Outside of combat, D&D really doesn’t handle Spotlight Balance at all. It’s kind of “eh, who gives a f$&%?” about it. The designers of 5E outright stated that there are three pillars to the game: combat, exploration, and interaction. Of the three, combat has a high degree of Spotlight Balance. That can’t be denied. But the rest of the Spotlight Balance is pretty much nonexistent beyond “let’s try to limit the DCs so specialization isn’t a giant factor” and “everyone has pretty much the same number of skills, except fighters because of f$&% fighters.” The thing is, if you’re really serious about providing THREE core experiences in your game in equal measure, you damned well better make sure you think about the Spotlight Balance in ALL THREE.
But I digress. Here’s the thing. It IS possible to take Spotlight Balance too far. And, except for social interaction scenes, 5E demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be TOO tight. Combat takes up a lot of screen time. So you want to make sure everyone can participate mostly equally. But it’s also nice if characters do have a chance to outshine the others in combat once in a while. And that’s where things like specialized abilities and vulnerabilities and weaknesses and things play a big role. Undead creatures give the cleric a chance to shine. Flying creatures are fun for wizards and ranged combatants. That kind of s&%$. Spotlight Balance doesn’t have to be perfect every time. In fact, it’s more fun if everyone has a scene now and again where they are more special. And players can tolerate a scene now and again where they are less special. Which is also why it’s okay for everyone to have different skills for different exploration scenes. I still think they missed the boat on Spotlight Balance in social interaction, though. But whatever.
What does Spotlight Balance mean for you as a GM? Well, it means two things. First of all, it means that when you design your own content – classes or spells or whatever – you have to make sure the new things you design aren’t outside the Spotlight Balance cloud. That’s why, when you design a new 3rd-level spell, you start by looking at what all the other 3rd-level spells are capable of and making sure your spell sits nicely alongside them. Second of all, it means making sure that no players are being CONSISTENTLY MARGINALIZED over the course of the game. That isn’t the same, by the way, as making sure that everyone can always participate equally in every scene. Not only is that impossible without some extremely obvious contrivances, it also means that no one will ever have the chance to shine a little more. Spotlight Balance is about making sure everyone gets time in the spotlight, not making sure the spotlight is big enough for everyone to share.
Balance, Statistically Speaking
Now, here is where things get tricky and complicated. Because this is where other people who aren’t as smart as me would claim that the second kind of balance has something to do with combat encounters or math. Well, it does. But it doesn’t. Not the way you think.
The second type of balance is what call the Statistical Balance. Basically, given a particular situation and a particular group of payers, Statistical Balance is what allows you – the GM – to predict the outcome. When a party of PCs encounters a locked door, what is the likelihood that they can successfully open that locked door? Basically, this is the balance behind all of the math of the game. Well, all of the math that isn’t concerned with Spotlight Balance. Or rather, the math that feeds off the math that is concerned with Spotlight Balance. Whew, this is getting confusing.
Basically, Spotlight Balance sets the basic power level of all the different character options, right? It’s the thing that assures that any given 5th-level PC is of roughly equal capability to any other given 5th-level PC. Statistical Balance is the math that says “and if either of those 5th-level PCs encounters this situation, they are umpteen percent likely to succeed.”
But Statistical Balance isn’t JUST about the numbers. Otherwise, it would be a simple formula. And it isn’t. Remember that player CHOICES affect the outcome of every situation in the game. In combat, if the players make good tactical choices, they are more likely to succeed. If they make dumb tactical choices, they are less likely to succeed. In other situations, the players can come up with clever plans to hedge their likelihood of success. And, believe it or not, how much they can hedge things toward success is actually determined by the system. In Pathfinder, for example, the GM is generally advised to give 2-point bonuses and penalties in most situations. In D&D 5E, the GM is advised to use Advantage and Disadvantage. That means, all else being equal, in D&D 5E, the players clever or stupid choices have twice as much impact on the outcome of single actions than in Pathfinder. Or it would if that sentence meant anything. But, again, there’s no rock-solid formula for this.
Statistical Balance is built into the game system. And it’s there so that GMs and adventure designers can create and run adventures that provide appropriate levels of challenge for a reasonable group of players at a certain power level. And it’s this sort of balance that’s skewed in favor of the players. After all, adventure designers and GMs do want players to win. They just don’t want a victory to be assured.
Most RPGs – especially those like D&D which provide rigorous monster and encounter building systems – make a lot of promises about Statistical Balance. And those promises are mostly a pack of filthy lies and the game designers are a bunch of lying liars. They are usually predicated on these pretty looking tables and formulae and systems which makes it seem like they are made of actual math. But they aren’t. I mean, they are made of math. But it’s fuzzy math. It’s math that gives you the right answer within a certain degree of error. And the degree of error can actually be pretty high.
The thing is, it’s impossible to be exact with Statistical Balance. First of all, it builds on Spotlight Balance. And Spotlight Balance is necessarily fuzzy and smeared out. As the computer people say, “garbage in; garbage out.” If you build something on top of a fuzzy system, it’s going to come out fuzzy too. Second of all, fuzziness in Statistical Balance provides space for that all-important push-and-pull between player choice and random chance. The game is exciting precisely because the Statistical Balance is fuzzy and not totally predictable. Not even the probabilities are completely predictable once you move beyond one single die roll into something as complex as an entire goddamned encounter.
But there’s something that makes the fuzziness even fuzzier. Statistical Balance is built on assumptions. That is, the center of the fuzzy cloud of balance that is Statistical Balance is tweaked to a certain baseline experience. And the size of the cloud has also been tweaked. How likely should success be, all else being equal? If a 1st-level character faces a 1st-level challenge, how likely should success be? 50%? 65%? 90%? How much do the character’s abilities change all that? What’s the difference between a talented character and an average character and a sucky character? And how much should player skill play a role in the outcome?
And keep in mind we’re still talking just about basic action resolution. But before we even move beyond that, note that the designers of D&D aren’t very transparent about these assumptions. You can work out the assumptions they used. You can determine that D&D is built on the assumption that a 65% success rate for single actions feels good and that the swing for character abilities runs between -10 percentage points to +20 percentage points at very low levels +100 percentage points at very high levels while the swing for player choices is between -20 percentage points and +20 percentage points. Those are just broad averages, though.
Statistical Balance goes beyond the action resolution numbers though. It also informs everything that has stats in the game. Everything that has a number is keyed to the Statistical Balance. Sort of. Because things start to get very strange here. Monster statistics are all keyed to Statistical Balance also. And they are based on assumptions too about how many rounds it should take to kill a monster and how much of a characters’ resources should be used up killing said monster. And that feeds into the monster design rules and the encounter balance rules and all that s$&%. But I don’t want to discuss that stuff in too much detail here because here’s where things all fall apart. Because those things rub up against the third type of balance.
For now, let’s just draw the line here. Statistical Balance is about setting the numbers in the game to determine the outcomes of individual actions based on assumptions about what a good level of success is, how much character ability should play a role, and how much player skill should play a role.
The Game Balance Secret Game Designers Don’t Want You to Know About
And now we come to the third, secret type of balance that no one ever talks about. The one no one thinks about. The one that frequently gets short shrift in table-top RPGs. The one that the designers don’t even think about to any great degree because they can’t tell where Statistical Balance ends and this one begins. I’m talking about Scenario Balance.
Here’s the thing: Dungeons & Dragons isn’t actually a game. It’s a game system. It’s a set of rules for making games. Encounters? Adventures? Modules? Those are the actual games. Spotlight Balance and Statistical Balance are built into the system. But there’s another type of Balance that they TRIED to build into the system because, well, frankly, I don’t know why they tried to build it into the system. Because in doing so, they have made life very complicated for GMs and adventure designers. But if you understand it, you can do some really pretty cool things. And if you understand it, you’ll also understand why officially published D&D modules don’t seem to follow the rules very well at all.
Scenario Balance is like the Statistical Balance for the entire adventure as a whole. It allows an adventure designer or a GM to design encounters and adventures that present fair and satisfying challenges to the players. Or at least, it would, if the designers of table-top RPGs recognized that it was actually a thing and gave adventure designers and GMs the ability to do anything with it. But no. No. We can’t have nice things. Because the designers can’t see the difference between Statistical Balance and Scenario Balance and so, they tried to set both.
In D&D 5E, the Statistical Balance sets the statistics for monsters of a given level of power. The Scenario Balance tells you that an encounter is made up of a certain number of monsters of a given power level and that an adventuring day should include four to six such encounters. In D&D 3.5, the Scenario Balance tells you that an adventure should contain 10% hard encounters, 60% medium encounters, and 30% easy encounters or some s$&% like that. I don’t remember the exact numbers. But you know what I’m talking about.
The rules for various table-top RPGs don’t differentiate between Statistical Balance and Scenario Balance. And so, they hand the GM a bunch of apparently hard-and-fast rules. THIS is an adventuring day. THIS is a proper encounter. They give you a few little knobs to tweak, but don’t tell you how to tweak them. Well, they give you one knob. The knob that reads: Easy Encounter, Medium Encounter, or Hard Encounter. And that’s it.
So what do you do with Scenario Balance? You obey it. It’s written down. Follow it. Or just accept that the game is going to be wonky. Don’t want an adventuring day of six encounters? Fine. But the designers won’t be responsible for your sucky game. And that’s a shame because Scenario Balance actually has a direct impact on how satisfying the challenges in your game as a whole are. And it should be totally in your control. Of course, the secret is, if you’re willing to disobey the rules and if you have a good understanding of the underlying systems, you can futz with the Scenario Balance yourself. And if you have a basic understanding of things like scenario pacing and flow theory, you could actually do some really cool things. After all, Scenario Balance isn’t any more likely to break your game than Spotlight and Statistical Balance are. So you can f$&% with it.
But that’s not my point. My point was just to define the three kinds of game balance to show off that I understand it better than anyone else and also to convince people not to worry so much about game balance beyond just understanding the three different kinds of balance, what they do, and what to expect from them. And I’m sure no one wants to hear me blather on about scenario design and flow theory or any of that other crap. Which is good, because I’ve hit my word count limit.
Oh well. Come back next week and we’ll talk about designing custom armor tables for your awesome D&D campaign or something like that. Have a great week.