The importance of game balance in RPGs
Okay, you and your friends have all settled in for a game.
Everyone's got their characters ready and you start them on their
first adventure. Unfortunately, one of the characters seems to shine
more than the rest. Perhaps they were lucky when rolling ability
scores or quickly start hoarding magic items. Then, another player
gets jealous. You, as the GM, are facing the tremendous "game
balance" issue that, somehow, has to be resolved.
First, of course, you have to ask yourself "is this really a
problem?" If you're playing a point-based system, such as GURPS or
Vampire: the Masquerade, then the complainer doesn't really have a
leg to stand on. Unfortunately, many find the concept of point-based
systems to trade balance for realism: real people have more
advantages than others with a similar level of training (trust me on
this one…as a proud holder of an English degree, I can assure you
its worth less "character points" in the real world than a CS
degree). So, these people opt to go with a roll-based system such as
D&D and FASA's Star Trek RPG; whenever you introduce randomness,
some are going to be more lucky with the dice than others and
balance may become an issue.
For the sake of this article, lets assume you are using a
roll-based system for determining attributes and skills. As a GM,
you have to honestly ask yourself "did I follow the rules?" If you
let one person re-roll their scores and didn't let the others do
that, you've cheated the other players. While GMs should "cheat" in
certain situations, character generation isn't one of them. But
sometimes, you can follow every rule in the book to the letter and
someone ends up with a more powerful character. Perhaps they were
lucky and rolled more than a couple of eighteens, while the rest of
the party is mucking around with a twelve as their proudest
attribute. Or maybe they decided to be from the region of your
campaign world that the game is to take place in and the others
decided to be from foreign lands, far from their base of contacts
and friends. Whatever the reason, one of the players has a greater
advantage than the others, even though you followed the rules.
What's to be done then?
Well, as GM, you have two avenues you can follow and neither of
which will be considered fair by your players. One is to kill off
the offending character and have them roll up a new character
(presumably with lower ability scores). The other is to tell the
complainer to shut up. In the former option, you're being unfair to
the lucky player. If you are this concerned about game balance,
maybe you should look into running a different sort of game, one
that doesn't rely on random determination of ability scores and
skills. In the latter option, your players' concerns aren't being
addressed and an overpowering player character may dominate your
game. That's not good either.
The central problem here isn't really that one character has
higher ability scores than another…the central problem is with the
role playing ability of your players. In the end, ability scores
don't matter: it's how you play your character. RPGs aren't meant to
be competitive…they're supposed to be cooperative. If someone has a
higher combat bonus than someone else, that just means that the
party, as a whole, has a higher chance of survival. If someone has
more contacts, that means that the party is going to be more
successful in finding out what they need to know to be successful.
The complaining player should be less worried about who's got the
better scores and more worried about role-playing their own
character. In the end, those people who have dominant personalities
are going to dominate the game, regardless of their ability scores,
where those who are more passive are going to play a lesser role.
Being overly concerned with game balance is detrimental to good
play…it means you're more worried about rolls and rules than having
So my suggestion to the hard-working GM who finds himself being
accused of favoritism or of having an over-powerful PC in the party:
get your players together and discuss what's important to them in
and RPG. If they describe the tenets of creating a good computer
game, maybe you need new players.