Does Character Class Balance Matter in a Role-Playing Game?

Character class balance, the relative disparity (or parity) between different PC types has long been a source of strife among gamers. Usually this is an issue related to

Character Balance?
Character Balance?

combat efficiency (ie damage dealt or NPCs killed), but some PCs wield skill-based abilities that make them unbeatable in social situations as well.

Rule-based solutions to the  issue lie on a continuum ranging from “don’t care about disparate power levels between PCs” (Rifts) to the strictly enforced, Harrison Bergeron classes of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. I am not a fan of using rules to prevent power-balance issue.

Despite personal experience with pettiness at game tables arising from players with perceived “weak” PCs, I think that tolerance of diverse PC power levels in a game is the hallmark of a mature game group that values the story more than combat efficiency or “fairness.”

In service to the ongoing plot, some PCs might need to be mechanically  “better” than the other party members.  Take “The Lord of the Rings” as an example. Gandalf is scary powerful in relation to the other characters. He uses magic, fights with a sword and generally kicks ass. Oh, did I mention he killed a Balrog…alone? Gandalf, as a character, wields these powers in service to the story and it is all the better for it.

For me it is not an issue of balance or fairness, it is one of maturity and priorities. Maturity determines if the player can overcome the urge to compare the length of their character’s respective swords (figuratively speaking, of course) and priority to value the plot’s development above some “fairness doctrine” in combat ability.

Feel free to disagree with me, the comments are open.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer

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trask

Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

16 thoughts on “Does Character Class Balance Matter in a Role-Playing Game?

  • May 6, 2009 at 10:51 pm
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    I think it depends vastly on the kind of game you’re playing. If your game is more ruleset than it is story, you’d hope one type of character wouldn’t be totally screwed over compared to everyone else. If your game is more story than mechanics, you can probably get away with this by explaining with the story.

    If the imbalance in question is mild, you can also get away with it – but if one character is so wildly imbalanced that it’s completely better or obviously, definitely worse, that’s more glaring and problematic. Especially if it’s supposed to be interesting and draw players to itself.

  • May 6, 2009 at 11:06 pm
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    At least you labeled this a rant.

  • May 7, 2009 at 2:45 am
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    I find the whole balance argument kind of broken because it is only applied to game mechanics. It gives no credence to other aspects of a character. How would you stat President Obama? Anyone with some combat training could beat on him. Yet he is the commander in chief of the most capable military on Earth. He is personally protected by the most effective and highly trained bodyguards on Earth. What level is he? How many perks or advantages do you need to give him to balance him in a point buy system? What if you played a game where the President and his wife are characters? What level is she? how do you balance her to him? Broken.

  • May 7, 2009 at 4:41 am
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    You win the Gherkin seal of approval, Trask. Yes, the ability to accept party imbalance and actually make a virtue of it is the hallmark of a mature playing group, I think.

    However, I should point out that there are two issues that are being slightly confused here. There’s the issue of inter-party balance – whether or not the characters in a specific party are all of similar levels of capability – and the separate issue of balancing character classes.

    For a discussion of the first issue, I suggest taking a look at my earlier post on asymmetric parties.

    With the latter issue, it’s a case of ensuring that there isn’t a single obvious ‘winning strategy’ within the context of the game – though as Matterhorn points out, the victory conditions for the winning strategy are a subjective issue (what do you want to win at? Fighting, or being a leader figure?).

    The reason that a ‘winning strategy’ needs to be avoided is that it kills variety, because once it becomes obvious, people will tend to be drawn towards it, even with the best roleplaying will in the world. That said, designing classes that seem almost the same as each other barring a few minor differences and different flavour text isn’t the way to do it, either, because you’ve then simply pre-empted the players’ tendency to kill variety by doing it yourself at the design stage.

    It’s a tricky balancing act – classes (IMO) need to have variety between them and that has to include some truly distinctive capabilities to make them interesting, but there’s always the risk that someone will find an exploit for their distinctive capability that makes their class suddenly much more powerful than the others (because the other classes don’t have that capability, period, even dressed up as something else). But then, dealing with these sort of issues and mitigating them is exactly what human referees are for.

    If I were designing a game in a way that was highly conducive to being implemented on and moderated by a computer, I think I would have to balance classes by basing them on a core template and then tweaking it a bit and dressing it up in different flavour text – because this would prevent players from creating sneaky exploits that the computer couldn’t handle. If, on the other hand, I was expecting a competent human referee to moderate the game I’d want something a bit more spicy and risky with each class having abilities that are qualitatively quite different.

  • May 7, 2009 at 6:27 am
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    I think balance is important, otherwise level is meaningless, and it isn’t fun being pointless or even super powerful (I hate Superman – waste of time.)

    Don’t forget Gandalf had to die in order to beat the Balrog even if he did cheat and come back. I think character death is a fair (balanced) trade for killing anything, even a God.

  • May 7, 2009 at 8:28 am
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    I only view game balance as an issue when over half the player charcaters have the same race/class/feat/weapon/best-skill/best-attribute/etc.

    The main problem then is the increased blandness that generally rides side-saddle with uniformity. I normally then encourage some of the players to consider other options (either with mechanical bonuses or asking them if they would like to play something outside of easy-mode).

  • May 7, 2009 at 9:06 am
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    All it takes is running a few campaigns of Stormbringer to see where some amount of balance is nice. There are two types of characters in Stormbringer – Epic Characters and normal characters. Epic Characters come out of the chargen process about one time in six, whereas normal characters are the result the rest of the time.

    In a game with a mix of EPIC and normal characters, you have to include opponents for both… but should the opponent of the epic character actually win, then the normal characters are meat because there is no way they have the capacity to take care of the opponent.

    And this doesn’t just apply in combat, this is in politics, social settings, or wherever. Claim that “balance” is just a combat measure fall flat in skill-based systems where social skills are just as important as combat skills.

    SOMETIMES I enjoy playing Stormbringer, but it quickly strains the suspension of disbelief when the “big” bad guys only ever target the epic hero, and the minor villains target the other characters.

  • May 7, 2009 at 10:22 am
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    I know. I am doing an upgrade this weekend to resolve the issue.

    Trask

  • May 7, 2009 at 8:24 am
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    I think what’s actually important is “spot-light time” In a game where nothing ever happens except combat, then being effective in combat will be important; in a game where nothing happens except social interaction, being a combat monster doesn’t balance anything.

  • May 7, 2009 at 2:21 pm
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    @Matterhorn: There are plenty of games where all those elements about President Obama /ARE/ given game stats and thus could be balanced against other characters.

  • May 13, 2009 at 11:07 am
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    I think it depends on the group being ok with someone being the lead character. I just GM’d two sessions of Savage Worlds. It was a very pulpy adventure, and one player was basically Indiana Jones. One player was “the girl” and another was a scientist. On the far end of the spectrum, one player was a boy scout. Shortround, basically. What I found was that fights would seem to focus on the Indy archtype since he had the guns and the brawn, and at first the other players didn’t seem keen on this idea. Their ideas were quickly turned on their head when the boy scout emptied his bag of marbles on the floor which knocked out three thugs at once. Clearly this was more powerful than shooting and killing a bad guy, and is even logical to the setting.

    However, the next week I had a new players who were not satisfied with playing second fiddle, and this caused a lot of friction. I had to completely change the dynamic of the game. It was not as fun when you had a lady librarian wield a tommy gun because it “looks cool.”

    Coming back to the Lord of the Rings analogy, obviously Gandalf is the most powerful. But would he really have been able to just walk into Mordor and drop off the ring (well probably), but that was a role where the hobbits could shine.

    The key is to make sure that everybody has an important place in the game, and to make sure every one is on board. When you want start to see the friction, it may just be time to try a new game.

  • May 13, 2009 at 1:56 pm
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    I don’t think it’s really so much about “maturity” that, if I sit down to play the game, I get a fair chance to contribute and have fun playing my character.

    Power imbalance is just one kind of imbalance, and the imbalance that can be adressed in game.

    But in the end, it’s all about player spotlight. Watching people play the game is often not as much fun as doing it yourself.

  • May 17, 2009 at 5:41 am
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    Well, the thing is, Lord of the Rings is a novel series, not a game.

    There’s nobody actually losing out (even if only perceptually) if Gandalf is a thousand times as powerful as, say, Samwise, because Sam and Gandalf are both “controlled” by the same person.

    In a game, Sam and Gandalf would be controlled by two different players, and Sam’s player might be a wee bit bored if the game focuses on things Gandalf is good at and Sam is bad at. Which is where game balance comes in.

    In the novel, Sam is of course a vital character. He’s arguably the one who, in the end, makes the most difference.

    In a game following the same course of events, the player might not stick around through all those early sessions to reach the point, near the end of the campaign, when he finally gets to shine. It takes a very self-sacrificing sort of player to be happy with “playing second fiddle,” as David put it.

    Power differences among the party can certainly be made to work, but not in the way Lord of the Rings handled them. Spotlight time must be shared early and often. Otherwise, you are cheating the players of the “lesser” characters, who are after all investing just as much time into the game as the players of the “main” characters.

    In the typical group, there are few enough players that there’s no problem in having them all be main characters, anyway. I find a better policy is to let ’em be Legolas, Aragorn, Gimli, and Boromir, and leave outliers like Gandalf and the hobbits to NPCs unless someone clamors to play a “secondary” role.

  • May 17, 2009 at 11:11 pm
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    I agree with the earlier statement that there are two issues at hand here, player class balancing and imbalance within a party.

    In my opinion classes must be balance to ensure that each one is interesting and worth plying, it allows players to create the character they want knowing that they’ll be able to stand in line with the other heroes, in one form or another. The warrior classes are obviously going to be the best fighters, and the rogues are going to be the best thieves, players know this going in, a player with a thief knows that in combat he’s going to spend most of his time hiding and avoiding threats while the warrior takes the spotlight. But he knows that when they reached a locked door or a trapped hallway, or need to do some fast talking, he’s the parties only hope to progress, and in that sense they are balanced.

    As far as unbalanced parties, well that falls in the hands of the GM, its his responsibility to ensure all involved are having fun (including himself), so he must take into account the players strengths and weaknesses as well as who they are when devising challenges so that everyone gets to save the day, and has the chance to feel awesome, because isn’t that what it’s all about?

  • June 3, 2009 at 3:24 pm
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    this “rant” brings up some good points and as i can see from the 15 or so comments many people have there own ideas and types of game play my problem with the balance issue is that me and a small party of people (normally 5 including the DM) play a very dumbed down version of dungeons & dragons V3.5 unfortunately because the dm is fairly new and lacks experience and because the game is simplified it lets one of the players be the “Gandalf” of the game and get around every challenge the DM throws at the party whether its a combat scenario or a social experience and on top of that he is a real ass hole often killing and manipulating other members of the party making the game far less enjoyable. my question is how would a player deal with this all powerful almost godlike player, is there something a DM could do, are there rules that need to be enforced to create balance in the game

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