Balance in Roleplaying Games Part 2

Last blog update we talked about balance in roleplaying games.

Today, I’m going to talk about how to achieve balance in a roleplaying game.

First of all, here comes a warning: A good portion of this is going to be math.
A very good example of balance in my Opinion is the D&D critical system, and the “Improved Critical” feat.

There are 5 types of weapon in D&D when it comes to crits. You can increase the multiplier (x2, x3, x4), or you can increase the threat range (20, 19-20, 18-20).

Now these are not balanced with each other, they are supposed to be different after all, but lets look at how they react to having “Keen” applied to them.

x2 Keened gives a damage increase of 4.5%. (210 -> 220)
19-20/x2 gives a damage increase of 9%. (220 -> 240)
18-20/x2 gives a damage increase of 13%. (230 -> 260)

Now lets look at increasing the multiplier.
x2 Keened, as we just saw gives 4.5% (210 -> 220)
x3 gives a damage increase of 9% (220 -> 240)
x4 gives a damage increase of 13% (230 -> 260)

As you can see, Keen does it’s job equally well irrespective of what style of critical improvement is caused, yet they do it differently. Do you want to do damage more often, or do you want to do bigger damage in single blows? Either way the total is exactly the same.

The balance doesn’t go overboard and make all weapons the same. You still have a sliding scale of weapons, that have 2 styles, and that are impacted equivalently between the two.

This in my opinion is the perfect feat when it comes to demonstrating balance within a game system.

“But surely Mr. Baalthazaq, you should be comparing it to other feats, not itself!”

This is partially true. Each feat should be balanced against other feats to see if the feat shown here is worth more than some other feat. Of course it should. How should this be done though.

Unfortunately, actuary tables for one thing. Statistical analysis. If I get +1 DC to my illusion spells, there is no damage I’m comparing it to. I’m basically saying “How much more often can I trick things”, and how do we measure that against extra damage from a weapon?

The second way of doing it is simply going “which would I rather have?”, which skips a lot of the math. If you are having a hard time deciding which to pick, we might be able to consider it as “close enough” to balanced that it is acceptable, but don’t think for a second that means you’re necessarily correct.

This poses a new problem however. You don’t create feats based on the math, you create feats based on a concept, and so you should. “I want to be able to backflip through a window”, not “I wish a statistically equivalent bonus to the character when near portcullises to offset the rarity of the event”.

There’s no way however that I’m going to think of a feat that gives me enough of a bonus in any way that it’s going to compete with something as simple as Improved critical.

One way around this is not using a feat system that occurs every few levels (like D&D) or one where all uneven Talents cost the same (Warhammer), but to value individual feats according to the usefulness.

You want to jump out of a window? 25XP.
You want to do double damage when you are on higher ground? 250 XP.
You want to do triple? 500XP.

This way our imaginations are not limited by the system, the system becomes a tool to enable our imaginations.

You want to have the Great Cthulu as your mount? Why say no to it? Say 500’000’000’000 XP, and let the player earn it.

“Aha! But then what will happen i…”

Not so fast, I was getting to that. When the other players are running around with 499999999000 spent XP that the player is still saving up, he’s going to be in a world of trouble until that last point.

So don’t make it a single feat. Let him build it.
Ride a mount: 100 XP.
Ride exotic mounts: 150 XP.
Learn Magic: 400XP.
Summon: 200XP
Summon Monster: 1000XP.
Increase summonable monster’s level: 1000XP*level per level.
Ride Monsters: 350 XP.
Give monster tentacles: 100XP per tentacle.
Increase Monster Size category: 1000XP*Size Category ^2.

This lets him scale up his monster, and the things he can summon, slowly and on par with the other characters who can spend similar XP to do similar things. It doesn’t *have* to scale up to riding the great Cthulu, but there’s no reason to limit your system in that fashion.

It can be limited in play to determine what goes on:

If you’re doling out 5 XP per session, the players won’t be planning to get to their target in 38.5 million years of sessions (assuming we play every other week). They’ll be taking those 20XP feats like “+1% chance to hit” or “+1% Intelligence”.

The beauty of that is you have a system where the DM chooses the power level, not the system.
“I want gritty realistic modern detective story!”. Done.
“I want to play a Thor like character in a mythological story where we are the first gods!”. Done.

2 thoughts on “Balance in Roleplaying Games Part 2

  1. My two pennies worth:

    I think this is more about balance in the D20 system rather than in roleplaying games in general.

    Back in the dark ages of roleplaying when we didn’t have five foot steps, flanking rules that made no sense and miniatures were mostly for wargames not roleplaying we used systems like this to cover scale:

    However it comes down to what style of game you want to play. Gritty, realistic games are probably not best served by the D20 rules…better to use purer roleplaying games like World of Darkness or to a lessor extend Runequest and Warhammer.

    However if you want more fantasy based comic book games without too much realism d20 is well placed, especially if there are less upper limits placed on advancement (that said there are ways around that even as seen in Babylon 5 etc where level 20 characters can still die after a few shots – but it still had limits).

    Perhaps the most realistic game (for combat anyway) is Cyberpunk 2020…regardless of experience you couldn’t make your character better at taking damage unless you put on more mass (like muscle – augmented or real), wore armour or simply got better at dodging.

    Maybe I’m just an old fart who is biased towards games where the players have to think of tactics instead of relying on a good knowledge of the rules and which path of advancement they will take to get to the desired uberman status in their chosen class or multi-class :o)

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