A Balanced Review

Ah, balance. The Holy Grail of D&D Games Designers everywhere. It’s become something of an obsession in the RPG industry, to the point where it seems balance is more important than fun. Which is crazy.

The thing is that, if anything, it’s imbalance which drives a good Fantasy story, and that’s something completely ignored by all but four RPGs. I’ll come back to those later.

A typical adventuring party in a fantasy novel is a very imbalanced thing; just take a look at the Fellowship from Lord of the Rings for proof. You’ve the hobbits hovering around 1st or 2nd level (Merry and Pippin arguably being 2nd level Rogues), Boromir, Legolas and Gimli about 6th, Aragorn around 10th level and Gandalf….. start at 20th level, and keep lookin’ up.

The numbers might differ depending on your perception of the characters, but there’s no doubting there’s a huge spread of levels through the party.

Want more proof? Pick any generic fantasy novel and you’ll find a story about a young nobody who joins a party of experienced heroes to fullfil a prophecy and become some kind of demigod. This is a trope (hi, ChattyDM!) right in the heart of fantasy novels from the Belgariad to Magician and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Replace the words “young nobody” with “bitter leprous old hack” and you get Thomas Covenant. Turn the trope on it’s head (experienced hero/demigod teams up with a load of nobodies and becomes human again) and you’ve got anything by David Gemmell.

While it’s common in the fantasy genre, it’s less common in role-playing. Back to those four RPGs that break that mould (I’m sure there’s more); I’m thinking FASA’s Star Trek, Ars Magica, the Doctor Who role-playing game and the venerable and much-loved Tunnels & Trolls. Each system in their own way not only accepted imbalance between characters, but positively revelled in it in their own sweet ways. In Star Trek, the players could take it in turns to play the ill-fated redshirts as well as their own characters. If an away team was called for, one or two of the players would run their own Officer-class characters while the rest of the team would grab a redshirt – in 4th Edition D&D parlance, the rough equivalent to Minions. A large part of the fun was finding out if you were going to be the unlucky one, and which gruesome death would befall your redshirt. If a redshirt was lucky enough to survive a few away missions (yeh, right), they had a chance at promotion and a serious improvement in their survival prospects. I know long-term Star Trek gamers who grew more fond of their redshirts than they did their main characters.

In a similar vein, in Ars Magica the players ran a number of low-level grogs – servants and fighter/bodyguards – alongside their powerful Mage. While the grogs were more capable than Star Trek’s redshirts, they were still seriously out-classed by the Mages. D&D would put them around 1st level, compared to the Mage’s 8th-12th level power. That’s an unthinkable imbalance of power that would have D&D game designers sent straight to ER, but it worked, brilliantly, and helped ground an otherwise powerful game in the realities of a mythic Europe seen through the eyes of the grogs.

Then there’s Doctor Who. What more needs be said about a game where one lucky character is a Time Lord and the rest are lowly companions who’s main role is to run, scream and occasionally land a lucky punch on alien critters? But heck, playing a companion was fun!

In Tunnels & Trolls, the character generation system is inherently geared toward funky-ass adventuring parties. This is a game which positively encourages Balrogs and Pixies teaming up with who-knows what in a quest for treasure. Balance just isn’t in T&T’s vocabulary, and it’s a far, far better game for it.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that D&D adventuring parties start out with a huge disparity in class levels between the characters, but it does mean that there should be more emphasis on cohesive teamwork and what makes a darned good story over and above making sure that all those +2 bonuses balance between the players. In the best spirit of team-ups from the Fellowship to the Fantastic Four, a decent adventuring party should be stronger than it’s component parts. It shouldn’t matter one jot that the Rogue isn’t as good in combat as the Fighter – he shoudn’t be! (I’m looking at you, 4th Edition. Oh yes I am). Each character class should bring something different to the team, not just add yet more explosive and increasingly unrealistic combat abilities.

Role-playing should be about role-playing, and therein lies the balance. Any game where an “adventure” consists of 95% combat encounters and 5% where the GM reads a block of text and sets up the battlemats for the next encounter isn’t a role-playing game. It’s Talisman, or the D&D Board Game, or World of Fucktards or whatever. When combat is central to the whole thing and everyone becomes a combatant, the differences between the classes suffers.

But anyhow. Back to balance.

The point is that Fighter-types should be good at combat. It’s their thing. Rogues should be good at the sneaky investigative stuff, and Wizards at the mystical arcane jickery-pokery. Each character should be given a chance to shine by doing their thing, and that’s not necessarily kicking the crap of the nearest green scaly beastie. That’s the only balancing factor you need. I’ve run D&D games where not a single combat encounter occurs for several sessions, just pure role-playing interaction. This is the first time I can honestly say I’d struggle to do that in an Edition of D&D. The game just doesn’t support that style of play any more.

By making combat the central (indeed, near-as-dammit, only) measure of the game, 4th Edition D&D has ramped up the combat prowess of all the classes to “balance” them with each other. That’s Bad Game Design, and combined with all of the other Bad Game Design elements of 4th Edition (teleport at first level, illogical Powers and the loss of alignment matrix to name just a few) it turns D&D into…. well, a bit of a joke, frankly.

Shame I’m not laughing.

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