Balanced? Yeah, but is it fun?

When 3rd edition D&D came about, one of its promises was to have a balanced game system. In fact, game balance had become so prevalent that it seemed that every other topic on some forums was about whether some element of gaming was balanced. Is the new prestige class balanced? What about X spell from Y sourcebook? It would go on and on and on.

I have to admit that it reached such levels that I wondered if this is what new players thought gaming was about. Were they assigning numerical values to every class ability and weighing them against one another? Was there a mystical set of scales by which all things were weighed upon? Were those scales provided by Hiddukel, the evil god of tricks and lies in Dragonlance known for his symbol of the broken scales?

I wondered how all this talk of the almighty Balance entered our vernacular. I remember the occasional talk of something being “overpowered,” but we never used the term “balance.” That isn’t to say the term wasn’t used, just that my own experience never saw the use of the word. I would say that it was the internet that saw the term gain prominence. Despite the mass-communication medium, it also takes a force to drive the new terminology. Enter the game designers, perhaps most notably Monte Cook. They used the term “balance” quite frequently.

Needless to say, the almighty Balance began to annoy me to no end. Why was it that people were asking if every little rule was balanced? Why this obsession? Did nobody ever have fun before the almighty Balance? I sure remember having fun playing AD&D with some off-balanced rules.

That’s when it clicked with me. Why do we ask left and right if something is balanced? Why do we not ask instead if something is fun? I mean, that’s why we came to game, right? To have fun?

Don’t get me wrong. As a game designer, I fully understand that game balance is an important factor in the game. You don’t want your wizard doing nothing while your fighter is having all the fun. Everybody should be able to take part in the gaming experience.

However, we should not forsake the fun in the name of game balance. Keep balance in the background, but focus on the fun. You will find your gaming experience to be so much more enjoyable because of it.

Comments (7)

LeeDecember 30th, 2008 at 3:20 pm

Fun certainly comes first. However, when I have balance concerns, I’m making sure that everyone has a chance to contribute meaningfully. It’s disappointing when a player feels their actions aren’t making a difference. In essence, I’m trying to avoid the Angel Summoner & BMX Bandit* scenario, where “your ability to summon a horde of celestial superbeings at will is making my BMX skills look a bit redundant.”

I do think games should avoid homogeneity, where everything ends up to similar, but that’s largely disassociated with balance, which ensures that everything ends up comparably useful. You can obtain balance without a homogeneous feel (most easily by setting up rock-paper-scissors-style interdependencies).

(*)In case you haven’t seen it:

BreetaiDecember 30th, 2008 at 4:49 pm

Yeah I hear ya. Keeping the game fun and interesting is important but allowing some classes to be superior over others does lead situations that are buzz killers. I remember a lot of great AD&D & 2nd ed campaigns as well as a lot of buzz killers mostly with their roots in a lack of game balance.

I’ve been on both sides of it creating Uber characters leaving everyone in the dust and it just didn’t feel fun (I hated the feeling) and getting left behind. I also created a character that I like to say I min/Maxed for flavor and he absolutely sucked from a game mechanics POV and the PC was totally fun times. Then a Psion was introduced in the team and the Buzz was totally killed.

DragonhelmDecember 30th, 2008 at 8:37 pm

I’ve seen some odd things where balance is concerned in my times. I’ve seen those times that you didn’t have fun because another character is overpowered.

Yet I’ve also played a character who was nearly identical to a friend’s character stat-wise in Shadowrun, and yet he had a tendency to roll better than me on initiative. By the time it was my turn, the bad guys were almost always defeated. The two characters were balanced, yet it was the luck of the roll that made all the difference.

I also find that game balance can be quite subjective. There was no clear-cut way to figure out if things were balanced in 3e. You just had to eyeball it.

Again, I do think it’s important to keep it fair. I just don’t think it should be taken to the extreme of nitpicking.

DougDecember 31st, 2008 at 1:18 pm

I get that it can be a tedious conversation about “balance”, especially when there is no way to really measure all the intangibles that go into a tabletop rpg they way you can with, say, an MMO, where dps and tps and overkill and whatever else is measured out to the micron.

In a game like D&D, balance is at the core of fun (I think). This is because D&D is a game where all of the players are doing similar things – killing monsters to get xp and take their stuff. That’s what the game’s mechanics are mostly about (with a light dusting of skills, but hit points and attack bonus and magic items to use in combat are the core of the game still). So imbalance between two game features can easily lead to less fun – because in the game of killing monsters, one player is pulling ahead, and if you are playing D&D, you almost certainly find killing monsters fun.

In other games, it matters less, because the PCs might be doing a wider variety of things, so each can be good at their shtick. But when everyone’s shtick is ultimately winning tactical combats, I do think that balance is a more acute concern.

Lord_of_SorrowJanuary 8th, 2009 at 3:18 am

My biggest problem with the “balance” discussion has always been that they never emphasized enough that the Dungeon Master (or GM, or Storyteller, or whatever) is really the person responsible for game balance – and even if an ability/class/skill/feat etc. is “unbalanced” – the DM is ultimately responsible for reacting to it in the context of the game.

Fun is intrinsic to Dungeons and Dragons (as well as every other RPG out there), but I don’t think that everything has to be “balanced” for it to be fun. The Dungeon Master’s other job is to make things fun, and I really do believe that such can be accomplished without fine tuning every ability or every spell in the rules to make sure that the Rogue isn’t outshining the Fighter in every way.

On the other hand of the spectrum, if things aren’t fun, then the Dungeon Master (and the players) need to take action, have a talk, and figure out what’s going to make the game work for all parties involved. There’s always been a lot of give and take in gaming, especially when it comes to having fun – and everyone is responsible for making sure the game is fun.

@Doug – One of my biggest problems with how D&D is seen by many people is that it’s all about the combat. I’ve run games where initiative has never been rolled, and swords have never come out of their scabbards. I don’t award XP solely for winning fights because if I did that, it would encourage my group to pick fights. I award XP as a reward for accomplishing something (this is perhaps because of my early exposure to Vampire: The Masquerade). This usually involves moving the story ahead, doing something cool or interesting, and/or doing useful things outside of combat (such as convincing an NPC to see things the PC’s way, or unlocking a door, etc.).

But, every person has their own playstyle. I just wish more RPGs would be capable of supporting multiple playstyles, rather than the one that they specifically endorse (D&D and tactical combat, the Storyteller system and non-combat actions – combat is notoriously difficult to run, particularly the nitty-gritty details).

To each their own, and balance and fun in the hands of the Dungeon Master and players.

PiMacleodJanuary 1st, 2010 at 6:01 pm

This may sound like I’m playing Devil’s Advocate…but oh well.

Imbalanced games can be fun, but not for for than 2 people, generally speaking. If you have a game where fighters have everything and the other classes are just mediocre, then what you’ll eventually have is a bunch of fighters, because no one’s going to want to level up the other classes, since they will not benefit as much. Sure, that’s very trifling, but that’s how a generic gamer is — they want more! More points, more stats, more everything. It’s a more ‘rare’ breed that will take the talkative, charismatic route to get the job done.

This is where game balance is needed. No, ths does NOT mean that everyone should be able to do the same damage, the same spell castings, have the same HP, etc. Instead, it means that everybody’s actions should be of equal value. There will ALWAYS be ways to build a character that is better for combat situations than others, but it’s at that point that a charismatic character should be able to get an equal amount of ‘work’ done through his words. A small rebelous mob should be able to be taken care of by a fighter, or instead swayed to rethink their actions by the diplomat/bard.

This is one of the reasons that (personally) I think D&D is somewhat boring and unbalanced. If you were to weigh out the characters and have 1 on 1’s with all of the base characters (in D&D 3rd ed.), the Paladin would win most of the battles. Ability to wear armor, use larger weapons, heal himself, turn undead, have a special mount, and then don’t forget his higher HP, and adding his CHR bonus into his saving throws! Right there is the lack of balance… this guy can do everything! Sure, there are weaknesses, but he does more things very well than most other classes can do. Poor fighter… he just fights, but Paladin can do that AND heal. Why pick the cleric??? This guy does more!

This isn’t to paint a portrait of what I would normally do… I have more fun being a tactician or a mage. I like having options at my disposal.

It’s for the reasons of ‘balance’ that I love GURPS (Generic Universal Role Playing System). Sure, it’s more complicated, but it has so many facets to it that actually give a cost to social, mental, physical, etc. advantages and disadvantages. Everything has a cost, and you can customize all of the skills/advantages/disadvantages with the painstakingly detailed enhancements and limitations.

I will admit, however, that when people think of these games, they generally think of killing and looting for fun. It’s actaully for social gamers (like myself) that balanced rules are needed… this way, it’s not your brutish friend that has all the fun and spoils of war, but so that you can have fun in your own way as well — and be rewarded for doing it just as well as your buddy’s sword can slice off an orc’s head.

I could probably keep going on, but I have other things to attend to… like my website. And my own game that I’m still ‘testing and balancing’. Thanks for reading my lengthy addition to this article. :)

Mikey WilliamsApril 19th, 2020 at 10:44 pm

I wanted to thank you for posting this, I’m doing an RPG Podcast as well and needed to find a resource that I completely agreed with.

I will provide a link to here and credit to you for this. thank you once again.

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