Fair and Balanced

We talk a lot on this blog about issues of balance. This is tied to fairness1. There’s a strong unspoken assumption in game design that, if you believe balance is a relevant category for your game, then your game should have it, should be balanced.

I’ve just been talking with Austin about why I’d rather play D&D 3.5 than D&D 4 if I’m looking to play a minis game, and in so doing, I had a realization. Two rogues with spears in a party, flanking at long reach? It’s great. It’s something hard to do with 4e. It’s something particular to the ways 3.5 is broken and imbalanced. And it’s part of why I would play 3.5 not just as a minis game, but as an actual role-playing game.

Role-playing games should be unfair, but they should be unfair in both directions. If I’m playing a normal minis game, like Warhammer 40k, I’ll be playing with two balanced armies, seeing if my strategy and luck are better than my opponents. If I’m playing a role-playing game, and it’s interesting, I’m almost certainly facing opposition that is massively more powerful than me, at least in the obvious ways2. A large part of the game lies in trying to find ways to use my advantages and undercut my opponent’s. So it’s still about strategy and luck, but strategy lies in doing unexpected, innovative things that circumvent the predicted options. D&D 3.5 allows this, in a way that I don’t find in D&D 4. It’s this ability to make choices in a space constrained only by narrative—to fight dirty, as it were—that is a large part of the fun I get from a role-playing game.

So, characters should be able to be very good at certain things, and their opposition should likewise. It’s the idea of horizontal rather than vertical boundaries again, but here, I mean to focus on gameplay as a way of sliding the arena of conflict around horizontally, until it lies in your wheelhouse.

At this point, the essential nature of the conflict becomes one of fictional positioning: how can you adjust the fiction of the conflict to be in line with your strongest areas of mechanical power? This is one thing I really like about In a Dragon-Guarded Land: fictional positioning is mechanical power, so conflicts are necessarily approached this way.

  1. See Rob Donoghue for more thoughts on that. []
  2. A favorite example of this, for me, is trying to stop a vampire with Potence and Obfuscate in Vampire: the Masquerade—such a vampire poses an incredible threat, but if you can find the right situation, that threat can be neutralized. []