May 24, 2023: Balance

A stack of six polyhedral dice. Image by Júlio Cesar J. Cesar from Pixabay.

The new Dungeons & Dragons movie is out now for home streaming, and it’s been on my mind since I’m looking forward to watching it, which explains why last night I dreamt I was running a D&D game at what looked like to be a convention.

The group I was running the game for in my dream were experienced players, almost jaded and slightly uninterested, and they were doing quick work of every obstacle and combat I threw at them. That’s when I paused and asked a few questions, looked at their character sheets (all things best done before starting the game), and realized I was running a 4th-level adventure for a group of 13th- to 15th-level characters. Ok, got it, time to switch gears. At that point I scrapped the printed adventure and started throwing new challenges at them, not necessarily combat-related (although there were a few), but situations that tested what each of the characters was supposed to be good at, giving each of them a chance to shine. Time was compressed in that way dream-time works, but I know when we finished the game, the players were all happy and excited about how much fun they’d had.

Sharing my nerdy dream aside, let’s use that to talk about balance in role-playing games.

There is no balance in role-playing games.

It’s made up, a construct.

“Balance” also comes from the gamemaster providing each character with something to do. Tailor encounters to specific characters’ abilities. Make it about spotlight time.

— Lightspress Media (@lightspress) February 13, 2022

Some systems try like heck to achieve it, but ultimately it’s an ethereal concept. I’m not talking about mathematics here, though. Balance truly exists in a role-playing game when all the interacting elements are operating in harmony with each other, with each having a chance to show its worth. To have balance in a game, all the players (including the GM) have to be equally challenged to their particular skills and needs so they can each shine by providing a productive contribution to the whole.

A combat encounter may be “balanced” in terms of the Challenge Rating math, but if it’s only the fighter, rogue, and cleric bashing the monster while the wizard sits twiddling their thumbs because they only have burning hands left and the monster is immune to fire, then that encounter is not truly balanced. There are ways to make it balanced so that each party member can productively contribute, but that takes work that goes beyond simple math.

Find the thing each player does that makes them cool, and make sure they have a chance to do it. Give each player a chance to have the spotlight on them. That’s how you achieve balance. It’s not necessarily about the numbers, it’s about the fun.

5 thoughts on “May 24, 2023: Balance”

  1. Lightspress is an idiot. Everyone knows that balance comes from rules. Lots and lots of rules. If the rules aren’t balanced, the thing to do is add more rules. Many, many additional books with new rules created to fix the previous new rules that were meant to fix the — you know what, never mind, let’s just make another whole new edition to so we can get it right once and for all and never have to worry about unbalanced rules ever again. Just remember that the guys who wrote the original rules were infallible geniuses

    Liked by 1 person

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