The Illusion of Game Balance – Part II

   A post a few days back on the Illusion of Game Balance led to a rebuttal, which can be found over HERE. The points made over there so far could be (very briefly) summarized as:

   1) The more attention a particular Role gets in a rules set, the more options and abilities it will offer – and thus it will be unbalanced in comparison to other roles.

   2) Game Balance is indeed a function of the rules, rather than the actual play of the game (with the rules, players, and game master all interacting).

   3) Game Balance “is about providing the potential for all things to be important. This is directly tied to being in the rules, and why rules need to be properly balanced… TORG is the game that comes to mind that mechanically rewards as many different styles of play as possible in one game, if we want to talk about your definition of game balance, and does it with an ever-expanding ruleset. For your Crunchy Players, it has a lot of crunchy rules bits to play with. For your Power Trippers, it’s got a lot of weapons and superpowers that make you powerful. For your Drama Players, the Drama Deck gives you opportunities to create plots and to shine in the spot light. If one side gets to strong, the game master is allowed to move or even change cosms mid stride, and suddenly, things that used to work just don’t anymore, and it’s all in the rules. TORG really is one of the best games to achieve mechanically a balance between Player Ability. Not that it was perfect, either, but it was very satisfactory.” – Kensan Oni.


   (1) simply isn’t necessarily true. “You are omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent” is only six words. The rules for being a realistic flying squirrel are a lot longer and far more complicated than six words – but somehow I suspect that a character created using the flying squirrel rules will be a good deal weaker than one created using that six word rule.

   (2) is essentially an argument over terminology; using “Game Balance” where I’d say “Rules Balance” – although I must note that I’ve never seen genuine “Rules Balance” for all possible role’s yet. Every RPG system that I’ve ever seen that was complex enough to be really interesting had imbalances, exploits, and lousy roles.

   (3), however, is far more interesting. TORG is an excellent game system and can be a lot of fun. It  offers a very good illusion of BOTH “Game” and “Rules” Balance – and it’s worth a detailed look at how it does that. I’ve been running the occasional game of TORG since it came out back in 1990. It’s one of the few games (along with World Tree, Shadowrun, Champions, AD&D, and a few others) where I own multiple copies of the same edition.

   Still, let us look at the basic rules of TORG for a moment.

  • In TORG, all player characters are presumed to be Storm Knights.
  • They are all possibility rated and start with a base of ten possibilities.
  • They all get to use the Drama Deck.
  • They all get 66 attribute points to split between seven attributes. That averages 9.4 – and an attribute of 8 is average.
  • They all start with 16 skill points.
  • Anyone who starts with any knowledge of magic gets 12 points worth of Arcane Knowledges.

   Being Possibility Rated lets you roll again and add on tens and twenties, instead of just on tens. It lets you shrug off wounds that would kill a normal person. It lets you instantly acquire skills. It lets them bend reality to make things work in areas where the laws of nature are against you.

   It lets you quite routinely accomplish feats that a normal human wouldn’t expect to have work one time in a hundred thousand For example, to reach a total of 41+ on a roll, a normal human needs to roll four tens in a row (well, OK, three tens and then 10+) – an 11 in 160,000 chance. A Storm Knight – even without spending a possibility to roll again and add – has a roughly 1 in 200 chance with assorted permutations of 10’s, 20’s, and other die rolls. If the player opts to spend a possibility, and use a few cards, he or she can pull off stunts in that range quite dependably.

   In other words, every character – including that orphaned street kid – starts off with attributes that are well above average (on a powers-of-ten scale yet), with plenty of skills, the ability to instantly acquire skills that would take a normal person months to learn, the durability of an action movie hero, and the ability to pull off incredible stunts.

   So much for all the “normal person” roles out there. Just being a possibility rated starting character says “junior superhero”. The label may say “Orphaned Street Kid”, but the actual character is closer to “Batman”.

   Now, the Drama Deck is also very important. A few well-played cards can easily turn a scene around. For example, when one group was surrounded by a dozen super-advanced hovertanks from the cyberpapacy they stalled for a few rounds to collect cards, then Robin popped up and – backed by everyone else’s cards – destroyed all one dozen tanks with a single multi-target attack with his automatic pistol. He was pleased that there were only a dozen though, since his magazine only held fifteen shots – and I refused to let him blow up more than one tank with a single bullet even though the rules would technically have allowed it.

   In terms of analysis, the important thing about those cards is that you don’t have to actually succeed at anything useful to get more. You just have to attempt an approved action against a soft target each round – which means that your character doesn’t actually need to do anything useful for the player to make a major contribution to the party. All you really need to do is to be there, get more cards, and play them when the other players ask you to do so. With access to the Drama Deck, you could be playing an ordinary hamster and still be a valued member of the party.

   The Drama Deck does make it easy for a player to introduce subplots and such – but a player or a game master can do that in any game; all the player needs to do is either come up with an interesting idea and agree to cooperate with the game master in implementing it or to simply start something (presuming the game master is competent enough to develop such free hooks). Drama Deck subplots are a good crutch for players who are reluctant to try to introduce elements of their own into a game though. That’s why I created a similar deck for some of White Wolf’s games. (It’s the Scion Legend Cards file in the downloads box).

   Of course, in TORG, it’s very difficult to make an ineffectual character. I have, in fact, one player who often tries that – and in TORG, it turned out to be impossible. He tried to be ineffectual in combat, but in TORG all seven attributes have major combat applications. Worse, using Maneuver (Dexterity), Trick (Perception), Mind (Test of Wills), Charisma (Taunt), and Spirit (Intimidate) are all almost as effective as actually attacking, and yield extra cards more often. Thus his elderly, noncombative, shakespearian actor turned out to be more effective in battle than many of the more diversified combat specialists.

   The skills were so general that there was no way to actually take useless ones either.

   Is this bad? No, of course not – but it does have its consequences, just like any other game design decision. It makes it easy to write adventures, since you can presume that any small group of random characters will be similarly durable and effective. It makes it easy to introduce new characters into an experienced group, since the card-play will make them valuable in any tense situation no matter how specialized or behind-the-curve their talents are otherwise.

   On the other hand, that same effect subtly devalues player decisions during character creation, since most of them don’t really matter much – and can make it easy for players with experienced characters and practice using the system to stomp over pretty much any opposition, right on up to the cosmic-evil-in-a-can Darkness Devices themselves.

   In fact, one experienced group managed to casually destroy a Darkness Device by simply using their cards and other resources to achieve two grossly high Reality skill checks – pushing it through two reality-transformations in a single round. As per the basic rules, the first drained all it’s possibilities and the second destroyed it.

   Now, TORG isn’t especially mechanically balanced; it’s just that Possibilities and the Drama Deck overshadow most attempts to build high-powered starting characters. That doesn’t last if a player is clever and determined though. Arselin, for example, was a serious magical specialist; he took Mind 13 (the maximum, ten times as intelligent as a normal person), Strength 3 (the minimum, one-tenth that of a normal person), Toughness 12, Perception 12, Dexterity 11, Charisma 7, and Spirit 8 (exactly average). He spent most of his initial possibilities on more spells – and got through his first adventure on the strength of his magic without spending a single possibility on anything. By dint of hoarding his possibilities and drama cards (which can be turned in for more possibilities at the end of an adventure), and spending every possibility he got on more magic, he was soon an archmage capable of improvising grandiose effects. Now it was dramatic when he whipped up a force-sphere to protect the group when they were trapped in a sinking submarine at a depth of 3000 feet, took it on a magical-telekinesis powered sub-orbital jump to the other side of the planet inside of ten minutes, and then created a decompression spell to make sure no one got the bends when he dropped the force-sphere – but it certainly outshown several of the other characters. Of course, Robin had regularly outshown everyone during the early sessions, since he had routinely spent almost all of his possibilities on immediate boosts in combat.

   That, of course, is without even considering exploits. A few characters tried exploring some of those. Stormlord (Super Skills: Reality and Weird Science) demonstrated the most direct path to near-infinite power (get into a reality storm and use your super-reality skill to suck in an endless supply of possibilities). Richear thought about the magic system carefully – and when he was cornered in the Cosm of Marketplace chose to suicidally combine that knowledge and a nodding acquaintance with physics to improvise a spell that destroyed the planet by conjuring a substantial mass of free electrons. Another mage came up with a way to summon entities that were far more powerful, and tougher, than any Darkness Device (although he never did it; the player felt that it wouldn’t be any fun and so had his character decide that it was just too risky) – and there were lots of other exploits to use as well.

   By the “giving all roles equal chances to shine” definition TORG is anything but balanced. It’s mechanics only really support a very narrow range of roles (action hero to superhero, regardless of labeling). Moreover, by its own statement, only the one-in-many-thousands who happens to be a Storm Knight is really important to play. It disguises that lack of “balance” fairly well by giving all the characters a good deal of power to start off with, by using the Drama Deck to make sure that – at least initially – character-design decisions play a secondary role to simply being there, and by encouraging the players to slap any sort of cosmetic disguise they please over their characters basic action-hero framework.

   It’s easy to make sure that all the roles you offer get “equal chances to shine” when you actually drastically limit the variety of roles available. Just start off by giving them all very similar underlying abilities, seriously curtail the initial effects of player choice, and limit the effects of all but the most dedicated attempts at character development (in TORG that’s done by allowing – indeed, by often almost requiring – Possibilities to be spent for immediate benefits rather than being saved for later in buying character upgrades).

   You can provide a pretty good illusion of “Game Balance” that way, but it’s still an illusion; you’re just drawing attention away from all the rest of the world and to the limited set of roles you want people to be playing.

   Simply from observation, actually “providing the potential for all things to be important” through the game rules is apparently impossible; I’ve collected hundreds of game over the past decades – and I have yet to see one that accomplishes that, even barring exploits and determined players.

   On the other had, I’ve also run most of those game systems – including systems like the original Marvel Super Heroes, where it was easy to wind up with characters like Julie Power (a little girl who could fly) and The Mighty Thor, God of Thunder, on the same team. It’s always been pretty easy to make sure that everyone got their moments of glory and had a chance to contribute to the game and the group’s success. The same goes for running AD&D parties with levels spread from four to sixteen, or for similar “imbalances” in hundreds of other games. The rules – including the times I’ve run systems that were invented on the spot – really don’t matter much. Producing the illusion of game balance is easier with a well-designed rules set that supports your style of play, but it’s the same illusion regardless of the rules – and it’s always the job of the game master.

   At a small convention, I once left the last game slot open for requests; what I got was four of them – a request from a trio of gamers for high-level AD&D, a request for Continuum II (from Charles, who wanted to play Garm, the golem-death-machine guardian of the great northern glacier), a pair of players requesting Shadowrun, and a request for Battletech.

   So I gave a few moments thought to converting effects, than gave each set of players a separate briefing on the situation and on their victory conditions, brought them together, and played out a four-sided encounter with each side using their own game system. Eventually, through a mixture of battle, treachery, and expedient alliances, three of the four sides managed to achieve their victory conditions – the Battletechers obtained a foundation for their later development of personal “elemental” armor (and swore never to come near this insane sector of space again), the AD&D characters got a good report for their sponsors and a selection of weapons from the Shadowrunners and Battletechers, the Shadowrunners managed to abscond back to their own time with many of the secrets of Battletech Clan Technology (which was used to start the course of development which would later lead to the Star League), and even Garm wasn’t too unhappy – while he didn’t manage to evict all those pests from his glacier, they left on their own eventually.

   Were the four entirely incompatible rules systems in play at the same time “Balanced”?

   Mechanically? Of course not. In play? They worked just fine. Everyone had a good time, the fights were exciting, and the gamers wanted to play again – and were disappointed that the convention was over.

   I think that “everyone had a good time” is one of the major goals of gaming – but rules alone aren’t going to get you there. Yes, a good, smooth, rules system can help, but “Game Balance” is something that only exists in the perceptions of the players; you know that it’s not something objective because two people can look at a rules system and disagree as to whether a particular rule is balanced. “Game Balance” is a part of having a good time though, and so it’s always up to the game master to provide that perception – that illusion – for the players.

2 Responses

  1. Yeah, fun is far more important than balance.

    Something a number of people seem to not grasp.

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