Sunday, October 17, 2010

An Idle Thought About Game Balance

We've heard it all before; magic-users were too busy studying magic to learn how to use any weapons or armor, clerics are opposed to bloodshed and thus eschew swords (but apparently they are not opposed to bludgeoning someone to death...)and blah blah blah. All hand waving aside, it comes down to this:

In a world where some dudes can shoot lightning out of their fingertips, there must exist some incentive to play any other type of dude.


I've been playing in a RIFTS game for a few months now, as you have probably read about. RIFTS is a rule book that contains character classes that can literally stand up to clusters of missiles and have personal weapons that can level buildings. There are classes that have magic and psionics. There is a playable dragon class... and yet, there are also classes that are scientists, doctors, and petty thieves, characters who have only skills. There are characters who have cybernetics and big ass guns, but not as big as the walking tank characters. There are dudes who can shoot lighting (or worse) from their fingertips, and yet the game has no inherent mechanical incentive for playing a class like Rogue Scholar or Vagabond. (Dudes who know stuff, but have no lighting, and who have puny personal weaponry to start with)

So here is a little bitty theoretical question for you, readers: if all character classes in D&D could use any weapon and any armor, if everyone had d6 hit dice (for instance), would anyone still play a fighter?

Expand that...if your favorite game had absolutely no balancing factor at all, would you still play the character you wanted, or would you play the guy who can shoot lighting from his fingertips?


  1. Is the GM in question running a combat-fest, or a character-development game? Something in between?

    Is the premise of his/her game one in which all of the OCCs are equally available, or does the GM have a specific mood in mind, and carefully considers the repercussions of different power-levels in a party, disallowing OCCs that would throw that feel out the window?

    Too many variables to provide a pat answer to such a broad question, especially with so many (often bizarre) choices.

    Furthermore, is the GM indebted to the players to allow every OCC (etc.) in their game simply because it exists in print/.pdf?

  2. In B/X D&D there ARE reasons to still play a fighter over, say, a cleric...even when all characters only do D6 damage. Different saves, different hit dice (D8 versus D6). But mainly (for D&D) different prime requisites...even though a cleric may SEEM like an "improved fighter," the cleric advances faster with a high Wisdom and a fighter advances faster with a high Strength. For me, prime requisites (plus taste to a minor degree) provide the impetus for playing a particular character class.

    If magic-users wore armor, I would feel the same.

  3. This is a debate I hear often, fighters are better at low level, magic-users rules the world at higher levels. My group doesn't worry about balance as much as game play. Does it work within the world we are playing. Because I come mainly from an AD&D and GURPS background, a GURPS system balances itself out, but also can be abused to make powerful at low levels. I'm not sure if there can be an absolute balance. I like playing fighter types mainly and do get annoyed sometimes by all the special abilities other classes get and one of the reasons why I liked GURPS. I could make a fighter with special abilities. But I like the simplicity of S&W and LL. And I've done nothing but ramble. It's a good topic.

  4. I ran a rather short-lived RIFTS campaign. There were six players who chose a wide array of classes. One fellow really wanted to play a Rogue Scholar. He was motivated by the role-play aspects of the class but was useless once the battle suits appeared. I felt bad for the guy. The other players would be out chucking nukes and he'd be hiding behind a car with his SDC pistol.

  5. TS- Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the campaign will feature roughly equal parts combat, exploration, social intrigue, and character development. Let us also suppose that, whatever be the game that you are imagining, the GM allows all classes from the core rulebook, but only from core. As far as I'm concerned, games with a lot of splat books tend to fill them with what the writers perceive to be upgraded versions of the character classes they feel are lacking. For a RIFTS example, check out the Triax stuff... apparently someone thought that Glitterboys needed to be elevated that much farther above the other classes. For a D&D example, look at 3.5's Tome of Battle; there is an entire sub-system and several classes designed to "fix" the fighter. (The 3.5 players I knew just could not stop bitching about how underpowered the fighter was in 3.5)

    Christian- Your experience with RIFTS mirrors my own, prior to our revolution and the ousting of the previous GM; there were characters who literally could not mechanically contribute to combat. The current GM has done a lot to ensure that our campaign is more interesting and multifaceted, but combat is still out of reach for some characters in the group.

  6. JB- Clerics, if I recall (the books aren't in front of me) pretty much own the other human classes when it comes to saves, and they own the fighter and magic-user in terms of advancement speed. Of course, they are theoretically bound by the tenets of their faith, but I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen a cleric's religiosity be actually enforced in over 18 years of play.

    Tim- I ran some one shots and a brief campaign with GURPS 3rd edition. I never ran any fantasy, so I can't say how it holds up when characters are built on similar amounts of points. I do recall that damaging spells are not really heads above the damage you can do with some melee weapons or guns, so that might be a factor as well... and I do remember that magic use is a fairly heavy point investment. I've always wanted to play in a GURPS game, but at this point in my life I find it entirely too fidgety and fiddly to want to run it again.

  7. I went through a phase (started around the year 2001, oddly enough) where I thought I should be creating the character that would 'play best' rather than the character I most wanted to play.

    My friends and I had all jumped on the 3E bandwagon quickly, seeing all the options as the ability to run anything we wanted! Finally, you can make that character any way you want!

    And a couple players ended up with decent characters who were optimized for combat, or exploration, or social situations, but most players' characters just pretty much sucked. They'd chosen all the things they wanted, and realized they didn't play well.

    So we started making characters that played well, even if they weren't quite what we wanted. And I, at least, was always left feeling unsatisfied with that.

    These days, I'm more likely to just play the character I want, and not worry about the bells and whistles (but playing Classic D&D makes this easier). If I've got it in mind to play a Fighter, that's what I'll play. Even if the M-U may outclass me for raw power, I'll be playing the character I want in the way I want to play, and I don't have a need to stroke my own ego by having the 'best' character in the party.

  8. I never thought fighetrs or at least fighterish classes in 3.5 were underpowered it always seem that wotc always splatted them the best toys and feats