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Default Perfect Imbalance in RPGs

September 7th, 2014, 07:13
Ross Watson (2013):
RPG Design: Game Balance

He describes why Imbalance can be a major fun factor in RPGs)

Best line:
Looking back at my gaming experiences over 25+ years, I’ve concluded that many of my favorite RPGs have a great deal of imbalance built into their designs, intentional or not. Ultimately, I prefer a game that is fun and immersive over one that is perfectly balanced.
Article
Greetings, readers – this week I want to talk about a hot topic in the modern marketplace for RPGs: Game Balance. Fair warning! This is a somewhat controversial topic and is no doubt going to cause disagreements.

Game balance is a term that can mean a number of things, depending on whom you ask. There’s a movement amongst some critical gamers that believes game balance lies in the mathematics and mechanics of the game. Others say that game balance is a factor that combines spotlight time at the table (the number of “opportunities for awesome” that come up for each player during a given session). Still others say that game balance is largely up to the GM alone, regarding his enforcement of the rules.
It’s important for me to note here that several designers I know personally have declared that RPG game balance is, at best, a “myth.” I’m going to examine the issue from my own perspective in today’s post.
As always, the opinions and thoughts presented here are my own from my personal experiences. YMMV.


Ross’s Definition of Game Design
I’m going to start off with my own, personal definition of Game Balance for RPGs:
To me, game balance means this: Each character archetype has a niche they can fill to significantly mechanically interface with the game; a unique contribution only they can make.
The term “significant mechanical interface” may sound familiar if you’ve read my Hack Factor blog entry about the classes for 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons. What it means is a way for the character to meaningfully contribute to moving the game forward using his character’s abilities in a way that works with the game’s mechanics (whatever those mechanics may be, from using a D&D Feat to a Shadowrun Quality to a Dark Heresy Talent or anything else of a similar nature).
Also, the term “unique” shouldn’t be taken as an absolute; what I’m really trying to get at is that most groups are composed of varying archetypes. Rarely will you see a group with more than one of any particular character “type,” (such as Fighters, Clerics, Energy-Projector superheroes, Street Samurai, etc.). Therefore, I’m assuming that most groups feature exactly such a varied lineup and thus there’s going to be opportunities for unique approaches that would otherwise simply be “uncommon” (if, for example, your party consists of multiple Rogues, Sorcerers, Street Shamans, Brick Superheroes, and so forth).
So as you can see, my definition of game design leans heavily towards the experience of the players – the “fun factor” of the game. If the game offers each player equal opportunities to do awesome things, that’s what I would consider a balanced game. Roleplaying Games try to address this approach in several different ways; Dungeons & Dragons and the 40K Roleplay systems use class-and-level systems that encourage players to take on structured roles in the group. More freeform games like Shadowrun and Savage Worlds use “archetypes” that are less strict than classes but still steer players towards fitting into particular niches.

Game Balance and Math
As I mentioned above, there is a design approach that, in my view, worships at the altar of math. This approach defines RPG game balance as an absolute mechanical balance; each character does the same average damage per turn, attacks the same number of times, or achieves an absolute average number of successes in any given task.
In the interests of full disclosure, I rarely find games fun that are produced from this particular design approach.

My experiences with math-oriented design have rarely been positive; I’ve witnessed designers debating whether or not a particular ability is unbalanced because it succeeds roughly 12% more often than other abilities in the same category. I’ve seen designers defend designs that make the game less fun by insisting that the rule only comes into play 18% of the time on average. I’ve seen designers place every character design into theoretical “thunderdomes” to ensure that each type can defeat the others on a 50/50 basis. This is not to say that some of these issues aren’t legitimate concerns for the game; they are. My point is that the amount of time, effort, and passion spent on tweaking the game’s math was far out of proportion (in my opinion) to the effort spent making sure the game was fun to play in the first place.
In my eyes, perhaps the most disappointing result of this approach is a game where all the characters end up doing almost the exact same thing during the game, and I can think of no better example of this than 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. The performance of 4th edition D&D in the marketplace (currently third for sales behind Pathfinder at #1 and Edge of the Empire at #2) and its critical reception from gamers is the best evidence I can point to as to the relative success and popularity of its design.
To me, absolute mechanical balance is a great ideal to strive for, but is ultimately less important than the game’s “fun factor.” I will absolutely sacrifice mathematical balance if that sacrifice makes the game more fun.
As a small side note, mechanical game balance is far more important (and taken far more seriously by myself) in games without a roleplaying component, such as card games and miniature games. In those environments, making the math work just right takes higher priority. However, I stand by my approach as outlined above.
Here’s a short list of games that I feel has striven very hard for attaining absolute mathematical balance (to varying degrees of success).
  • 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons
  • GURPS
  • Hero System
Often, a game’s complexity has a significant effect on its mechanical balance, or the perception thereof. Rules-light games may appear balanced at first, but there’s no guarantee that a rules-light system is any different (keeping in mind my personal definition of game balance) based on its design.


Perfect Imbalance

There’s a concept in video gaming called “Perfect Imbalance.” It is best described by this Extra Credits clip. The short version is that there is a game design approach where one archetype option (in RPG’s, this would be a player character archetype) is slightly more attractive on a mechanical level. This an intentional choice, because the design approach builds in later improvements to other archetype options that, in turn, make them more attractive mechanically in a cycle. Similar to a “rock-paper-scissors” approach, perfect imbalance means that players stay invested and engaged with the game by always having something fresh to look forward to, even though it may appear on the outside that the players are dissatisfied with the perceived imbalance.

Perfect Imbalance is a design approach that fits very well into the life cycle of an RPG line, where supplements and sourcebooks introduce new options and features that temporarily make certain character types more attractive until the next book in the cycle is produced. When the “fighter book” is released, fighters look mechanically more attractive; when the “cleric book” comes out, the same can be said for clerics. The key is to make sure that the options remain viable and – most especially—relevant throughout the cycle.


Addressing Imbalance
Looking back at my gaming experiences over 25+ years, I’ve concluded that many of my favorite RPGs have a great deal of imbalance built into their designs, intentional or not. Ultimately, I prefer a game that is fun and immersive over one that is perfectly balanced. I think that possibly the best way to address any balance issues in a game is, first and foremost, an awareness of the problem. If the GM knows what the balance issues are (such as the significant advantages full casters have in a 3.0 or 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons game, or the advantages magicians have in a Shadowrun 4th edition game), then he can adjust the types of challenges he provides. Often, many problems of balance can be simply addressed by a group’s social contract before the game begins. It can be as simple as an agreement that a Star Wars RPG campaign should be either “All-Jedi” or “No-Jedi.”


In Closing

Is there such a thing as a perfectly balanced game? I honestly don’t know – and my personal design philosophy means I probably won’t ever find out. My approach has always been “don’t let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good.’”
At the end of the day, I am satisfied and fulfilled if I have produced a game that is “good.” Quality is important to me, but I consider perfection to be an ideal that – while worth pursuing – is ultimately going to lead only to disappointment, unacceptable delays, and interference with producing additional quality content.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong. - HL Mencken
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September 7th, 2014, 07:25
The concept of mechanical balance should never be confused with overall balance.

In short, I agree with the article - but I wouldn't call such a thing "Perfect Imbalance".

Balance isn't about everything being equal - it's about things ultimately weighing (approximately) the same - but with different advantages and disadvantages.

You don't want a balance where a character is more powerful in more situations than another, as a designer. You want a balance where a character is, potentially, more powerful in combat - but weaker in NPC interaction, as an example. Another example, if you want to focus on combat, is that you want a character that's powerful in terms of dealing single-target damage, but bad at soaking it up.

That's balance, not imbalance.

Pedantic point, I know - but I'm seeing this mistake of balance being "every choice is the same" in the minds of too many designers these days.
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September 7th, 2014, 07:46
The term Perfect Imbalance is a reference to this Extra Credits-clip.
It's a good interesting clip, but the voice is nerv-racking

BTW:
I used this article as a counter argument for Josh Sawyer's new ideas of balancing, which in fact try to equalize characters more and reduce the effect of character stats.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong. - HL Mencken
Last edited by HiddenX; September 7th, 2014 at 08:16.
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September 7th, 2014, 08:25
Balance much too often means game design built upon spreadsheets, devoid of niche abilities and items that make the overall game interesting.

GW2 classes are balanced. GW2 classes are boring as hell because they all play 95% the same. EQ skills/items were wonderfully varied before the devs gave up and simply starting copy/pasting the same lineup again and again but with +2% power increase with each expansion. And of course there's the debacle of SWG…

All three of the above are of course MMO's and are more susceptible to the wanton balancing act that saps all creativity from a game experience. I personally find balance to be irrelevant in a single player game, just so long as there's enough personal character imbalance as to still allow for a [subjectively] 'fun' experience catering to various god complexes.
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September 7th, 2014, 08:46
There's also a big difference in balancing party CRPGs vs. single avatar CRPGs.

In a party CRPG the game should provide interesting playthroughs for various parties. The fun for the player is to experiment with different combinations of characters and their respective attributes, skills and traits.


In a single avatar CRPG the game should provide interesting playthroughs for most character builds. The fun for the player is to experiment with different attributes/skills/traits of his avatar.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong. - HL Mencken
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September 7th, 2014, 22:27
There's only imbalance if there's a class that completely overshadows another one. If a paladin can heal as well as a cleric, and has better armor and access to weapons, that makes the cleric redundant.

It's also not only about classes. If there are items or spells that mimic another class abilities, that can also make the other class redundant. Example, why have a warrior if a wizard can summon a golem that can act as a warrior. Or why have a healer if there are potions and magic items that heal as well as a healer, and are abundant/cheap enough to last you through the game? Or why have a thief if a wizard can cast 'open locks' or 'remove traps' spells?

Basically, a perfectly imbalanced game is one in which each class has a role that nothing else can fulfill one on one. Maybe you can get away without a cleric by having a paladin and a druid, that's ok as you're using two hybrids to replace one class, presumably you're also losing capabilities in the other side of the hybrids (a warrior would fight better than a paladin, and a wizard would do more damage than a druid). That's the type of balance I like.
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September 8th, 2014, 17:56
Originally Posted by DArtagnan View Post
The concept of mechanical balance should never be confused with overall balance.
In short, I agree with the article - but I wouldn't call such a thing "Perfect Imbalance".
I don't like the word so much either. Maybe Ross wanted to sound edgy

The better word for imbalance in this context IMHO is diversity.
Games should be fun because of diversity and different tactics regarding different playable characters.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong. - HL Mencken
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September 8th, 2014, 19:01
Originally Posted by HiddenX View Post
I used this article as a counter argument for Josh Sawyer's new ideas of balancing, which in fact try to equalize characters more and reduce the effect of character stats.
As I see it, balanced diversity > unbalanced diversity > lack of diversity.
By balanced diversity I mean a set of options which come with strengths and weaknesses adjusted in such a way that they feel more-or-less equally viable from a perspective of progress through a whole game, but lead to varied experiences/difficulties at the individual progress points.
Ergo, I agree with Sawyer´s article.
Originally Posted by HiddenX View Post
Games should be fun because of diversity and different tactics regarding different playable characters.
I don´t see how this is at odds with Sawyer´s article since its main point to me is precisely about promoting diversity.
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September 8th, 2014, 19:20
Josh Sawyer wants to eleminate "trash options" and class restrictions.
For example a mage can hold a two-handed sword and fight with it without much penalty even on low STR in PoE.

This is not diversity this is equalizing of all character archetypes and the reduction of the influence of basic character stats.
This shows in the current beta of PoE: Character creation/progression feels rather pointless.

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September 8th, 2014, 21:18
Originally Posted by HiddenX View Post
Josh Sawyer wants to eleminate "trash options" and class restrictions.
If doing so will lead to more freedom at how to define my character within a class, as opposed to just picking between few templates, then I don´t see much wrong with that.
Originally Posted by HiddenX View Post
For example a mage can hold a two-handed sword and fight with it without much penalty even on low STR in PoE.
Don´t see anything inherently wrong with this either, as long as such character plays differently than a fighter and low might leads to at least moderately worse damage.

To be honest though, I haven´t checked PoE yet so there´s not much point discussing this with me .
My post was strictly related to Sawyer´s design intents, as stated in the article (your link lead me to a thread discussing it so I assumed that´s what your counter point was to), not the current implementation in PoE.
I´d also wager a guess that PoE is currently far from its final balanced state.

Originally Posted by HiddenX View Post
This is not diversity this is equalizing of all character archetypes and the reduction of the influence of basic character stats.
Well, in PoE character stats influence more than combat prowess.
Besides that, I don´t think PoE is already past the "doubling and halving" phase Sawyer mentions in his article.
That said, at least on paper, I don´t see how your mage with a two-hander example necessarily means equalizing of all character archetypes. A front-line mage? Why not?
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September 8th, 2014, 21:29
I'll say this. I'm a fan of "unbalanced balance".

By that I mean, I don't mind if there's some "poor" choices to make. That's half the fun to me. As long as the choices are interesting and have value in some sense to me (from a role-playing perspective or just a personal choice perspective), it's worth it to me.

For example, in Arcanum, you can select from many starting traits, such as "Elf-born", where you start the game with a magical suit of chainmail, or "Beat with an ugly stick", where you start the game with bad looks but a bonus in some other category, etc. I personally LOVE stuff like this. I would rather have 100 options with interesting choices to make, rather than 25 options that are perfectly balanced.

That's just me, though. I want more interesting choices to make even if they aren't completely balanced. It lends to more role-playing opportunities and deeper customization.

I'll even go further and say that not being balanced lends a certain quality to my role-playing that I can't quite put my finger on. It's sort of a feeling of, "this character is flawed, but he's MY character, perfect with his flaws". It also leads to some challenging game encounters when the balance is not perfect (I prefer to be under-powered in RPGs rather than over-powered. Again, a personal preference).

Those are just some of my thoughts on balance. I trust Josh Sawyer, though, and I think PoE is going to be amazing. It might not be *the* definitive hardcore, old-school experience, but I'm sure it will be a quality RPG nonetheless.
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September 8th, 2014, 21:35
@DeepO
In games without class restrictions most of the time you end up with characters that can wield a melee weapon, can cast healing and some offensive spells and on top of that can use a bow, too. That's the opposite of playing a role for me.
Every character of your party looks more or less the same after a while.

I like it much more to play with class specific skills, traits and restrictions.
So that classes are really different from each other.

Spiderweb games (classless games) work at least with some attribute requirements so that you cannot be master of everything at the same time.

@Fluent
I hope PoE will be a good game, too. But what I've heard so far from the beta doesn't sound very good and combat is a complete mess.

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong. - HL Mencken
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September 8th, 2014, 21:59
Originally Posted by HiddenX View Post
Every character of your party looks more or less the same after a while.
Abilities and talents should hopefully bring some diversity.
That´s also one reason why I don´t mind the "mage with a two-hander" possibility - it will still be a mage with a two-hander, therefore someone with an access to different capabilities than a fighter-y "archetype" and likely with different synergies.
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September 8th, 2014, 22:24
Abilities are class specific, but not all talents.

Josh system sounds not sooo bad in theory but just read this thread from beta players

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September 8th, 2014, 22:25
Originally Posted by HiddenX View Post
Josh Sawyer wants to eleminate "trash options" and class restrictions.
For example a mage can hold a two-handed sword and fight with it without much penalty even on low STR in PoE.
There is no STR attribute in PoE.

I'm also not sure if you understand what J.E. is saying with "trash options". He's talking about putting class items/abilities into the game that the player can select that are totally useless based on that game content. He's not talking about removing class restrictions or homogenizing classes.
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September 8th, 2014, 22:54
Originally Posted by azarhal View Post
There is no STR attribute in PoE.
Even worse he introduced Might -> for physical AND magical damage

I'm also not sure if you understand what J.E. is saying with "trash options". He's talking about putting class items/abilities into the game that the player can select that are totally useless based on that game content.
I like my trash options - make them interesting for a while. Like the rusty sword in the beginning of Gothic. Like some skills of lesser use in Realms of Arkania. Not every option in an RPG mus be awesome or optimal. Some are just for role-playing (class restrictions) or good for "I have no money" situations or good for real world simulation (example: trash weapon: kitchen knife).

He's not talking about removing class restrictions or homogenizing classes.
There are a lot less class and stat restrictions in PoE than in classic IE games.
As an effect every class plays more or less the same in the current beta.
In other words that's homogenizing of classes.

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September 8th, 2014, 23:28
Originally Posted by HiddenX View Post
I like my trash options - make them interesting for a while. Like the rusty sword in the beginning of Gothic. Like some skills of lesser use in Realms of Arkania. Not every option in an RPG mus be awesome or optimal. Some are just for role-playing (class restrictions) or good for "I have no money" situations or good for real world simulation (example: trash weapon: kitchen knife).
"Trash options" are not "sub-optimal options". They are "you can't finish the game if you pick it" options.

There is plenty of sub-optimal options in PoE, like Archer Fighter or Melee Wizard/Cipher.

Originally Posted by HiddenX View Post
As an effect every class plays more or less the same in the current beta. In other words that's homogenizing of classes.
Whoever told you that haven't played the beta. All the classes have their own gameplay. Even if everyone can use all weapons and armors, the classes feel more restricted than in the IE games. In fact, it's one of the complain in the beta forums (see sub-optimal Archer Fighter above).
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September 8th, 2014, 23:49
Originally Posted by azarhal View Post
"Trash options" are not "sub-optimal options". They are "you can't finish the game if you pick it" options.
In other words:
Regardless which option I chose in PoE they'll all make sense and I can still win the game?

How boring - A game is only a game if you have the chance to lose.

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September 9th, 2014, 00:20
An Example for perfect imbalance for me would be if I had the choice in a D&D Game to add i.e. a "normal" Character like a Sorcerer or a gnome Professor with an encyclopedic knowledge about rare Monsters and ancient architecture to my party. The gnome can neither fight or use magic, but you could get more glimpses of the lore and you might come to this one puzzle, that is written in Runes from some prehistoric Lizardmen Tribe, that he studied some 120 years ago

Also I often find it tactical challenging to protect my glass canons from some nasty mob where a sawyeran muscle wizard might simply cast fist…

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September 9th, 2014, 18:59
Originally Posted by DArtagnan
but I'm seeing this mistake of balance being "every choice is the same" in the minds of too many designers these days.
Agreed. Unfortunately they do it because they stick to one mainstream trend nowadays - "let the player do anything he likes and dont punish him for doing that". With such rule its hard to give more variability and weight on decisions.


Originally Posted by HiddenX View Post
Josh Sawyer wants to eleminate "trash options" and class restrictions.
For example a mage can hold a two-handed sword and fight with it without much penalty even on low STR in PoE.
This is bad decision and I am surprised that experienced RPG developer thinks that way. It would make more sense in one-hero RPGs (usually class-less), but not in party RPGs where you need to have all classes generally more unique in order to give each of them some purpose. Some people already wrote that here.

Personal note - I really dont like this shitty super-hero combinations - mega mage, mega warrior, mega leader, no weakness, no problem… like children who always imagine they have all the best and all the advantages over the others. It reminds me of some powergamers from P&P who bully over "simple" classes. They want to be super warriors but also have some strong magical powers or some thieving skills so they dont need anyone in a group. In fact they dont care about role-playing or planning or coop in a group - its just about boosting their ego with some kind of super-hero who can master almost everything thats cool.
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