The Sword
The Cabiri Chronicles
     Life of a History
     Under the Hood

     Balancing Act

     I was just acting!
     Lucifer as a Player
     Player Types Defined
     LARP Boredom
     LARP Survival

     Economics in D&D 3.5

     Sept 11, 2002
     Columbia Disaster

     A Letter of Vocation
     Evidence of Evil
     In Defense of a Reflection

     A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Balancing Act
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 fun.
          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.