Game balance is an illusion. No matter how clever you are in crafting your rules so that no one can exploit them, there will be players and gamemasters that are move clever than you. Not that this sort of creative sneakiness matters. Every game group operates on an agreement, and if that agreement includes the use of house rules, minor tweaks, or ignoring certain parts of your carefully crafted, “balanced” mechanics, well, then, your efforts in that direction have pretty much been for naught.
I’m not saying that rules don’t matter. I’m saying that they’re only part of the equation. They’re not the be-all, end-all of a tabletop roleplaying game. They’re guidelines. They reveal creative possibilities so that people can craft characters and tell stories and build worlds. They create some semblance of order so that disputes can be resolved regarding the degree of success or failure around any particular action. They’re the foundation, but they’re not the whole house.
Game balance comes from people and, more specifically, from the gamemaster. It’s not about making sure that no player character is objectively more powerful than any other character. It’s not about making sure that every single character, character class, character archetype has the exact same number of abilities so that no one can cry that one player character gets more toys than another. I’ve seen a lot of game design leaning in that direction lately, and I don’t agree with it, for a couple of reasons.
I grew up reading reprints of Doc Savage pulp novels. Clark Savage, Jr. was obviously the star of the series, and he was a physical and mental marvel, but he wasn’t the only character in the book. He had a supporting cast, and they were all interesting characters with their own special abilities. Were they his equal? No. Were they still interesting, and important? Yes. I also read superhero team books growing up. Is Hawkeye the equal of Thor, in terms of power? No. Is Aquaman playing on the same level as Superman, or even Batman? Of course not. Do they all still get to be in the “adventuring parties” of the Avengers and the Justice League, respectively? Yes, they do.
Allow me to keep hammering this point. I love ensemble television shows. On The West Wing, are Jed Bartlett and Charlie Young equal in power on any level? No. Could they be built on the same number of points, in a roleplaying game? Of course not. You can look at any ensemble cast in any television show or movie and virtually no arguments can be made that all regular characters, regardless of genre or setting, are equal in power, whether that’s measures as physical might, intellectual prowess, or influence.
What roleplaying games do, by their nature as “games”, is violate basic rules of fiction and storytelling. We justify this with the battle cry of “balance!” and it’s crap. Pure crap. Balance comes from being sure that every character has a role and a function in the story. Balance comes from giving each character something to do that plays to that function, their background. They need things designed to play to the strengths of their abilities, and challenges designed to draw out their flaws and weaknesses not to punish them for having drawbacks, but for the characterization and story possibilities.
I’ve have variations of this conversation dozens of times,, and I get a lot of the same questions and comments over and over. No, you don’t need to make sure you have a thief in the party to deal with the traps. You don’t need to make a player who wants a different type of character play something he’s not passionate about. How do you keep balance in the party, then? Well, how about having fewer locks and traps, and more of whatever highlights the abilities that do exist in the group? Oh, the group is “fighter-heavy”. Well, but the combat challenges. But there’s no cleric, so how do they get healing? Um, NPCs, potions, local temples, magic items?
People have told me that I’m not playing the game right — it never matters what game it is — because I don’t care about party balance, rules balance, power balance. I care about every character getting an adequate turn in the spotlight, every character having something to do, every character getting to live their story. If you think that the needs to the rules, the needs of the game designer, and the needs to the game’s fan base outweigh the needs of my players, at my table, in my campaign, well, I think you’re wrong.
“Balance” isn’t something that happens by rote because the rules say so. Balance is a creative challenge. Balance is something you have to work for. Balance is work, but balance is also the reward. Balance is something you earn. And this definition, my definition, of balance, is what has made tabletop roleplaying the incredibly rewarding experience that keeps me in the hobby and coming back for more week after week, year after year.