Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pondering Balance, the Nightspawn approach

Game balance is something I believed in in my younger days. I now believe that "balance" (to me meaning one choice is as good as any other, and any character is effective as much as the rest of the party) can only be created through the sacrifice of verisimilitude and common sense.... see also, the following things from 4th edition (which I consider the most balanced system I've ever played, and no, that is not a compliment) tripping a gelatinous cube, hitting an incorporeal opponent with a normal club, bull rushing said incorporeal opponent, and so on...

Balance is easy to disrupt, when not ham-fistedly enforced by your rules system. Case in point...

Back in college, I ran a 3.5 game where the party made some unfortunate choices that lead to the land being absolutely infested with undead. At this point in the campaign, balance was destroyed: the cleric became MVP in the party. Not only could he turn (and turn he did), which came in handy nearly all of the time, but his spell set was optimized against undead. Meanwhile, the poor rogue was completely screwed, because most of the mindless undead were immune to his sneak attacks, not to mention his high Bluff skill and the trickery he had previously used it for. The ranger, who had gone bow-crit-crazy, was spared obsolescence by taking an undead-whoopin' prestige class and changing focus. Still, there was no balance to be had with the rules as written... the rogue just wasn't very useful anymore.

I could cite a million other examples, but I think the reader probably gets my point by now, even if he disagrees.

Tonight, I was making some characters for Palladium (gods help me), because I have been invited to a game and I want to get a little familiar with it. I don't have RIFTS yet, so I used the next closest thing I have: Nightspawn. (Er, Nightbane... I have the copy of the book before the whole MacFarlane fiasco)

I noticed that, aside from the titular characters (who can transform into jacked up monsters with crazy powers), the book contains rules for playing other character types: psychics, sorcerers, mystics, etc... I decided to make one Nightspawn and one psychic.

Okay... if you're not familiar with Palladium, this will likely mean nothing to you, but...

the Nightspawn has 193 S.D.C. points. The psychic, after taking a couple of physical skills to beef himself up, has 33. Before the physical skill bumps, he had 10.

If you're not up to speed with Palladium, go ahead and read S.D.C. as hit points, which is close enough.

Now, imagine you're a GM. You're going to play this game. You have one party member with 193 hit points and one with 33. They are the same experience level.
Oh, and the guy with 193 hit points can regenerate 10 per round.

I consider it practically impossible to create a straight up encounter or combat or whatever that challenges both of these characters equally. A .45 pistol, according to this game, does 4d6 damage.

Now, a situation like this is extreme, and it seems to me that a group that is preoccupied with balance would have to mandate that all characters be Nightspawn, or that they must all be psychics, sorcerers, or whatever.

...but I'm not preoccupied with balance. I say play whatever you want. The Nightspawn starts with three supernatural powers whereas the psychic starts with 10. Does that equalize them? It depends on the situation. The Nightspawn can pretty well handle himself in a fight...he'll mop the floor with normal or near-normal opponents, whereas the psychic is going to want to stay out of direct combat, especially with vampires and demons and other nasties that lurk in this setting.

You know... you could almost see it as a more mathematically extreme analogy to a 1st level fighter who rolls 8 for hit points and a 1st level magic-user who rolls a 2.

When I join this campaign, I'll be playing in a game world where there are character classes based around having forbidden access to scientific and academic knowledge, and there are guys who start with weapons capable of literally leveling buildings if you look at the rules as written.

As I type this, I cannot help but wonder... why is balance such a big deal? Isn't this supposed to be a cooperative game? Must you and I be tit-for-tat if we are supposed to be on the same side and collaborating?

The masses of gamers must think so, as game design seems to be moving toward Equivalency No Matter What.

I'm curious to know how you all feel about the matter, particularly any Palladium veterans who happen to be out there.


  1. Not a fan of balance, I like Ars Magica's approach using troupes (pools of characters) So, each player has a super awesome mage, above normal "heros" and some schmucks. They just don't play them all at the same time. Takes right group of non-power gamers.

    Balance of power is for the birds. Balance of player "facetime" is what matters. Just most RPGs devolve to combat and so devolve to combat balance.

    As you came around to noticing the 183hp vs 33hp isn't all that out of whack. Much like fg and mu in D&D. Wait to you learn about Mega Damage.

  2. Balance of power is for the birds. Balance of player "facetime" is what matters. Just most RPGs devolve to combat and so devolve to combat balance.

    That's it there. Each player needs a chance to shine, even if their character is taking a beating.

    I always let player's set the agenda for the session, but I try to keep large combats to no more than one per session (that would still dominate a game of 4E, but I play much faster games)

  3. Man O Man...I have strong opinions (or rather strong feelings that come out as opinions) on the whole subject of Rifts and balance.

    It's easy to say "leave the issue of balance to the GM" in Palladium games...unless you are the GM. Then you face living hell OR (dum-da-DAA!) force, railroading, and cliche combat encounters.

    OR you can try playing with a GM that doesn't give a shit about game balance (as I have once or twice)...and your 30 SDC character gets wiped out in an encounter aimed at the other player characters' power level ('cause they all took the "nightbane" type characters).

    I've blogged a lot about Palladium in general and Rifts in particular...I think it can work with very specific settings (as opposed to trying to incorporate all the various world books). But who knows what you'll get. Good luck!