The Imbalance Principle

Which is the stronger?

Perspective, Scale, and the Modern Gamer - we decide wherein weakness lies


Due to a lack of clarity on my part in a post earlier this week, I find myself with a new post to write. The topic isn’t new, and I have referred to it in passing before, but in this entry, we will drag the bastard out into the sunlight and see what happens. To what am I referring? Unbalanced groups. In this incredibly long post, I intend to beat this dead horse to a fine paste, and smear it all over some suggestions like jam on a partially cooked gopher. It will be edible, but perhaps neither enjoyable nor all that useful. Enjoy!

Initial Analysis:

There are a few permutations of this situation. There are groups which have characters which outclass others because of:

  • character death
  • a difference in skill between the players
  • cheating, favoritism, GMPCs, or other group politics
  • a broken set of rules
  • a lack of understanding of the rules
  • a set of rules in which balance is left to the group
  • a deliberate choice by the group
  • the effect of a house rule or rules
  • a story or campaign set-up which favours one character over others

I think in most cases, groups tend to feel that balance between characters is important. As I have stated in other entries, I do not agree for the simple reason that unless the game is a competition, and the players and/or their characters are competing against each other, there is no need for all the characters to be equal. I feel what is needed is for the group of characters to be complementary, cohesive, and widely capable. If the group has a strong set of motivators to act and interact with the game world, have an entertaining and evolving set of hooks to connect each character to the others, and if each character has a distinct personality and area of expertise to offer then the issue of balance is rendered somewhat toothless.

Problems and Predicaments:

Placing the problem of competition to one side for the moment, the most common argument one hears against an unbalanced group is that of survivability. Physical or combat challenges which are capable of providing an interesting threat to the tougher characters in the group run a real risk of slaying the weaker characters in the group.

I agree that will definitely occur.

I think that most groups that I have played with over the years quickly get a sense of what their characters can and cannot do, and certainly what their characters should and should not attempt to do. That being the case, when there is a good chance that pressing onward will likely entail character death if each person wades into combat as if they were on equal footing, doesn’t it make sense to not do that? Instead of forcing the GM into tailoring opponents, fudging die rolls, and minimizing the threat of loss or death for a character, what about having the party prepare for these contingencies? Whatever happened to putting the wizard in the middle of the party? What about having the group react to threats or problems as if both the characters and the situations they faced were real? What about designing stories which provide opportunities and challenges for each player’s character? When we gripe about imbalance, aren’t we really just complaining about workload, and seeking to justify making everything easier?

It isn’t just combat scenes where this applies, of course. Whether the scene be a fancy dinner party, espionage, a tense negotiation, a delicate climb up a treacherous slope, or defusing a bomb, the character who cannot reasonably be expected to ‘survive’ the scene, had best figure out another way to go. If the group persists in plunging ahead, planless, in some vain hope that everything will work out, don’t they deserve to meet the bad end which inevitably awaits? Obviously, as these are tales designed for group play and enjoyment, the GM had best be planning ahead as well. If you plan an encounter for your players which they have no hope of overcoming, you have effectively declared that this story is about the group failing. If that resulting failure has no purpose, then what the hell are you doing?

Other issues which work against having one or more characters in the group outclass the rest are, of course, that the weaker characters expect the stronger characters to do everything, the players of the lower-level characters begin to feel like the more powerful characters can do everything that their characters can do, and do it better, and the player with the most capable character can tend to take over and dominate the direction of the group of characters.

Key 9 from Inner Space:

So – what then can be done? Actually, not a lot can be done in my opinion – but fortunately, not a lot needs to be done. While I am of the position that game balance is what you make of it, and I wholeheartedly believe that if we are not in competition that the level balance in the party is inconsequential, I do not consider myself an advocate for accidentally or intentionally imbalanced play… Well… if the intention is there, and has merit, then… ‘Whatever hoists your sail,’ I say. To rephrase, while I do not believe there is a driving need for characters to be balanced, I do believe that all players have a right to equal enjoyment. What is required to achieve that balance of enjoyment will be up to the individual tastes, interests, and maturity of the players in the group, but will definitely require that the group and their GM discuss things.

If a group discovers that one or more characters have grown to overshadow the others as play progresses, for systemic, or comprehension reasons, it is not unreasonable to make adjustments. A method I prefer is to shift the emphasis of the reward system to counteract the previous imbalance, normalizing the progress of the character that benefited from the imbalance, and allowing those who were left behind to earn their own way up to a commensurate level. The tougher character loses nothing, and can still progress at the adjusted rate, while the others can briefly enjoy the benefit of imbalance in their favour, and then, once a healthy balance is established, advance at a more acceptable pace.

Character death is a harder issue, and many blog entries from various points of view have been written on the topic. My take on it is that the new character needs to have reasonable and believable cause to become a member of the group. I also feel that while each player has an equal right to enjoyment, character death should be both memorable and have a palpable effect on the group. This might entail a period of time where the character group is short a member. That does not mean that the player needs to sit out while waiting for a moment to insert their newest character, but it does mean that they might have other roles to fill before that comes to pass. How things like experience rewards, and determining the level of ability for the new character really need to be addressed by the group and agreed to by each player. Again, only in a situation where the players are competing or where the encounters are all scripted by some equalizing mechanic, does the new character need to be the same level as the rest. To be clear, it isn’t necessarily the case that a replacement character needs to be at a lower point in ability, either. What needs to be ensured is that the new character becomes a member of the group in a realistic and believable fashion, and that the existing agreement for establishing equal player enjoyment be observed throughout.

What! There’s more?

In some types of stories, unless the player group wishes to, or agrees to follow a GMPC or an NPC leader, someone needs to play a more experienced or capable character. BF Wolfe cited one such situation in the comments of the post which sparked this entry. In his example, he played a character recruited by a formerly retired Mechwarrior Merc, to join a new lance of mercenaries and get back into business. Said Merc was significantly more capable than his recruits, and as a player, BF was left feeling extraneous. In another example, a friend in college (Bruce!) once told me of a pick-up game of D&D where the DM, floundering for a motivator to move the group forward, opted to have a potent wizard appear on the hilltop before them, clothed in majesty and dramatic hoopla, demanding that they bring him an artifact of power. (Sadly the item was a set of dice… the dice of power).  When asked to identify himself, this wizard described himself as a being of great and awesome power. The party followed up by asking if he were so great and powerful, why he didn’t just go get the dice himself. (The answer: “Ummm… I… can’t.”)

In the first example, I feel the set-up was well-intentioned, and quite realistic. That it didn’t work out for equal player enjoyment in play was the result of a combination of factors, not the least of which was the experimental nature of how things were put together. Communication and subsequent adjustments could have taken care of these issues, but life (real life) got in the way. It was a massive project.

The second example is, of course, clearly one where a lack of planning and an absence of internal motivation robbed the encounter of its usefulness.

In my own GMing, I once saddled the group with a mysterious NPC employer who hired them to back him up on a long and dangerous journey into Palladium’s Old Kingdom. I was attempting to develop a foundation which would lead to an epic war in which the group would figure prominently, with pretty substantial subplots for each of the characters individually. To set it up properly, however, I needed (or felt like I needed) the identity and background of that NPC to remain a secret. It was a ridiculously complicated plot. What I actually accomplished was annoying the crap out of each player, and having them plan but never enact a revolt against the NPC. An actual revolt, and the ensuing action and roleplay would have been fine. Grumpy players? Not as welcome.

The biggest error in this example was that by working so hard to preserve the revelation of key story points for later in the campaign, I made the secretive aspects of the NPC more important than the enjoyment of the players. The result was that they did not enjoy themselves in that story, and worse, I denied all of us the thrill of seeing what cool results their plots and plans would have brought about.

Clarifying the clarifications:

What I am getting at with these seemingly unrelated examples is that it really wasn’t the imbalance between the characters which was at issue; it was how that imbalance was used or allowed to manifest in play which created the problem. I believe this holds true across the spectrum of examples.

What I mean by that is, the greater experience of the one character is not automatically the source of discontent. How it appears in play often is.

The Merc would not have caused such problems if the player had been empowered by the situation and the story to serve more in the role of mentor and protector, guarding the backs of his new lance-mates, instead of having to make them feel like they had to struggle to keep up and dying when they couldn’t. They all could have been in and fought the same battles together, but their tactics could have been approached very differently – in and out of the Mechs – if the situation had been anticipated and planned for. To be clear, I can offer this opinion only with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, everything seemed okay to me. I can only hope that were I to try something similar in the future in my own gaming, I would be able to predict this sort of outcome and take steps to deal with it before it developed.

The Great and Powerful Wizard, with a little planning, could have been transformed into a potential ally, a useful employer, and perhaps even a benefactor, with time taken to consider character motivations, group motivations, and to evaluate the normal reaction to threats from NPCs in RPGs. I do not list this tale to ridicule it (although it has its comedic aspect), but as an example which due to its extreme nature can isolate the effect that keeping characters in a vacuum, not considering how they will affect others and by what they will be affected, can have on the story and its enjoyment by the players.

In my own tale of woe, my approach to the story and the NPC was flawed from the outset, and were I to attempt that type of tale again I would definitely allow the story to be altered by the actions and intentions of the characters. In this case, the natural curiosity and suspicion of the characters should have been given greater consideration, and rumors, partial facts, clues, misdirection, and hints should have been planted for them to use their skills and contacts to uncover. I did none of these – choosing to create a monolithic secrecy around this NPC to the exclusion of all else – including enjoyment. The outcome would be no different if an NPC were to have superior social, mental, combat, or technical skills and the characters were prevented from ever offering to or detracting from that status.

Fasten your seatbelt, it’s time to get to the point:

Shall we consider the dead horse well and truly beaten? Good, let’s move on.

If one were to decide to set up a game with a deliberate and significant imbalance between the players in the group, how would one go about it? (I am going to leave most of the why’s up to you, Dear Reader. I am going to stick with the how’s.) To keep this article from dragging on forever, I will present three different set-ups where there is an intentional disparity in ability for a single member of the group, and how it might be run to maintain player enjoyment.

Iconic Heroes:

I am currently in the planning stages of a game wherein such an imbalance might occur. You can read about the details in the series of posts called Iconic Heroes. In a nutshell, if one were to model a story around concepts like those found in the TV show, Heroes, how do you address the problem of Sylar and Peter Petrelli? These two characters have multiple abilities, where all the others essentially have only one. Worse, these characters can steal or emulate everyone else’s abilities flawlessly. Most groups would either ban this sort of thing outright, or let everyone have it. The third option is to let one person have it, just like it happens in the show. I think it is likely that everyone agrees with me that the limitations placed on these characters do not reduce their effectiveness to the point where they are equal in capability to the other characters. Even with their specific flaws, they are clearly in a different class than the others.

Technically speaking, there is nothing to keep the Multiple-Power Character (MPC) from being able to shine in every scene. It’s our game though, so we shape it, and make it do what we want. In this example, we can focus on things like the learning curve – making the MPC able to use a power, but with less panache and refinement than its original possessor. We can also focus on the nature of the power as described in the show. Peter states that the secret to harnessing each of his abilities was to bring the memory of the specific Single Power Character (SPC) to mind. When actually in a scene with that SPC, it stands to reason that he would expect them to use the power and get things done, not him. He is not a dominator or scene-stealer; he is a group-shaper and bond-former. To run the game with one MPC and a group of SPCs, the group will likely need to reach the agreement that the MPC will defer to an SPC in cases where they both possess a needed power.

More importantly, each character needs to have things to offer beyond their special ability, and a distinct personality which makes them a valued part of the group.

Quest Fiction meets the Tabletop:

Some groups seem to like to create versions of their favorite fiction, such as Lord of the Rings, and that could entail the possibility of having a very mixed bag of power levels and basic physical ability. Often, the source fiction itself will have most of the balancing done for the players in terms of motivations and hooks. However, that won’t be enough to ensure equal enjoyment for all, unless – as BF clearly stated in the comments of the previous post, they are in it just for the acting.

If a group goes this route, a detailed assessment of what each character is capable of doing is just a starting point. The group will need to consider how they will divide certain tasks in a natural and internally consistent manner, what strategies and tactics will be required to keep characters from suffering harm, or causing harm to befall the group, and each player will need to clearly understand their character’s role in the group dynamic in order to establish realistic goals for measuring development and success.

For a warrior, this could be simple and already reflected in the game:

  • kill crap
  • protect the others
  • don’t die.

For a pathetic, barefoot, bumpkin of no appreciable stature, good goals might not be reflected in the system, but are easily created, such as:

  • get the players to laugh
  • augment the effectiveness of others
  • learn to cope with the cruelty of the world
Trot out the Troupe:

Games like Ars Magica are actually built on this premise, and attempt to harmoniously balance the interaction between different social classes, and different thresholds of ability in the day-to-day interactions of the characters’ adventures. The key mechanic of this is the use of troupe-style play. I wrote another post on that not too long ago, and you can read it for more on that approach. This is not exclusive to Ars Magica, but it is where I first encountered it realized in quite this way.

The idea here is to have each player alternate between running one of the powerful magi, and running one of their numerous aids, allies, and servants. As the campaign progresses, each player gets to focus on developing both their minor and major characters, and can experience a wide range of play experiences from being the star of an adventure revolving expressly around their mage, or standard group fare wherein they play a group of companions and peers sent on a mission or task, or playing a supporting role backing up someone else’s mage. Each scenario has them playing a fully-realized and equally important character thematically, but not necessarily equal in terms of social stature, raw power, or control over the group’s actions. As the focus of play is rotated equally among the members of the group, no one gets short-shrifted.

This approach also has applicability to other genres, such as Vampire. Instead of forcing the group to suspend its disbelief even farther than they are already doing, one can structure the Chronicle as one would in the above description of Ars Magica game play, and have characters rotate between directly running their leeches, and running the mortal and ghoul allies and servants of the others in the group. What’s more, one is also freed of the burden of having to have each PC built on an equal number of points. One can instead introduce some more creative imbalance by having each group of Vampire + Assets be built on a pool of points which the player can spend freely… with GM and group approval. Better yet, as the tension of the Chronicle ratchets up and things come to a head, more and more of the vampires can be called into direct play, until finally everyone is chanting Undead, Undead, Undead with Peter Murphy in some crap-ass club on the wrong side of town.

Not only does this approach increase the reasonability of running a Vampire Chronicle, it also expands options for variety in both times and locations for settings, as well as for character options. In addition, it helps preserve more of the mystery of the Kindred, and can be manipulated as a Storyteller tool for dramatic tension.

I find this also works well in Call of Cthulhu, and the next time I run a long campaign, I will definitely employ it again. Combining the approach detailed in my posts on Generation Games, with what I have detailed above for an intentionally imbalanced Vampire Chronicle, a Keeper can have players create a mix of experienced and inexperienced investigators as well as teams of experienced and inexperienced operatives from various fields and disciplines to really round out play, minimize the crushing effect of sanity loss by having more appropriate characters handling certain tasks instead of the main character having to do everything, and again, can increase tension and fear of loss when everyone comes to realize that what is about to happen means that the experts have to dust off their tomes and step into the pentacle at noon.

Had enough?

In conclusion:

We’ve rocked, rolled, and rambled, but I hope some of this massive post has been useful in helping to pin down issues with imbalance in play and how it can be spotted, curtailed, or used to your advantage. If you would like to add or take issue with anything I have written here, please do! That’s why comments sections evolved from the primordial soup.

5 Responses to “The Imbalance Principle”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    Apologies first, if I caused you more writing, but I’m happy for the thoughts in this post it triggered. You talked above about competition like it was bad thing, but you only mentioned competition between characters in a group (though this can also be enjoyable if part of the plot and guided by a good GM). I see role playing as epic story telling, and my mind keeps going back to the one class in grade 10 literature that I actually attended. Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs himself (we didn’t care about PC gender neutrality in grade 10). Good stories are based out of conflict and a player’s ability to deal with those conflicts is to a large degree influenced by their character. Exceptions abound of course, a creative hobbit solving a riddle that confounded the mighty Gandolf, etc. But even in this story the lowly hobbits had an integral niche in being able to resist the ring’s power. And I think that sums up my approach to player ‘equality’. a lot of uneven character setup can work if everyone has a niche. Power difference is fine for all the reasons and approaches you mentioned, but power monopoly – like peter and skylar, I can’t see working.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I have to admit I am a little surprised at how long it got… and I truncated a lot of things, as usual.

      I do see competition between players as a negative. I don’t mean competition between characters – just players. By competition, I don’t mean trying to be the first to reach a goal, or being the one to solve a particular riddle for the benefit of all, I mean competing with the rest of the group to be better than they are. Personal taste~
      (That was why in my sparring classes, I wouldn’t use scores – just analysis).

      Thanks for goading my into writing this post. I am kind of curious to see what I think of it in the future.

  2. Murderbunny says:

    A well-thought-out post on the topic of balance and what it means, how to apply balance and how to handle player-character disparity.

    It comes down to each player wanting to feel that their character is relevant to the action at the table, irrespective of the character level or number of points spent on each character, or whether there’s a GMPC hanging around. Even if all the characters are built with the same number of points, the player who built the talky con-man is going to be disappointed if the scenarios are all players-vs-monsters combat arenas. There’s no use for a con-man when the only solution to every problem is to kill the thing that is trying to rip your face off. Conversely, the burly-brawler is going to be disappointed if they never get to save the day by punching the antagonist(s) in the nuts. Balance is situational.

    There are plenty of situations where a GMPC can work very well, to prevent the scenario from stalling, to occupy a niche that no other player character occupies but is necessary to the success of the group, and so forth. The GMPC needs the players and the players need them. There are also situations where it works very badly (the aforementioned all-powerful wizard who can’t do anything, the hyper-experienced Merc leader who can do everything), but let me share an example where I think I handled it well:

    I was testing out Changeling: The Lost with my players, and designed a very simple, linear scenario that was intended to be a one-shot (it wound up going longer). An important Winter Court Wizened (like goblins, boggins, wee folk, knockers and the like) has disappeared from his home, and the Winter King suspected foul play. He had sent his tracker into the Hedge (a deadly magical wilderness, basically) to look for the Wizened. The tracker returned without success, claiming that he had gone as far as he could, but it became too dangerous for him to continue.

    The King gathered the player characters together and told them to accompany the tracker back into the Hedge to search for the missing Wizened. It’s worth noting that the tracker was stronger and more experienced than any one member of the player group, and was a friend/mentor to one of the player-characters in their prologue.

    Naturally, the PCs began to question “Why us?” and the King outlined the skills that each character possessed (two characters were very combat capable, one was stealthy and agile, the last was a doctor with magical healing abilities to boot) that would support the NPC tracker and protect him from the hazards of the Hedge.

    They went into the Hedge and started looking, trying to pick up the trail from when the tracker last left it. As they searched and talked, they started to discover some inconsistencies in the tracker’s story, and his odd, nervous behavior started making them suspicious. One character had an ability to sense fear and learn the motivations behind that fear, and used that power to discover that the tracker was afraid of getting caught.

    The player characters started turning on the tracker, demanding to know what was up and why he was acting this way, until one character finally accused him of killing the Wizened. The tracker confessed to his crime, more or less, then used a magical item to attract some dangerous Hedge-creatures to the scene and tried to make his getaway while the player group was busy trying not to get eaten.

    Long story short, the player group managed to pull together and defeat the monsters, the doctor patched up the worst of the wounds, then they successfully tracked down the tracker.

    Anyway, the relevance is that since the tracker was “better” (as in, having been built with more points) than the PCs, and controlled by the GM, there could have been a risk that the tracker would take the spotlight, with the players serving as backup. Instead, the tracker was someone that the players first had to protect, then he turned out to be The Mole and the primary antagonist of the scenario. The players got to be the center of action and they got to beat up a GMPC to boot – everyone wins!

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