Game Balance

by David Meadows 4. September 2017 20:12

How powerful/skillful/well-equipped should the players' characters be? This is a fundamental decision I need to make, as everything I then put in front of them in the game has to be designed to be at a level that challenges them without being either impossible or too easy for them to overcome.

I don't want characters who are so powerful that they can win the war single-handed, but conversely I want to make sure the super-humans are actually better than human. My feeling is that if you put a super-human in the middle of half-a-dozen armed soldiers, the super-human should beat them comfortably. A dozen soldiers or something like a tank ... that should make them at least pause and plan.

Setting the game in the middle of a world war introduces a significant problem that most traditional super-hero settings don't have: all the weapons are designed to kill you. In a standard super-hero comic (or movie, if movies are your thing), most weapons are non-lethal. Other super-humans will punch you or zap you with generic energy designed to incapacitate (rather than vapourise) you. The heroes who have built-in claws and love to slice people open are, thankfully, very few and far between. Likewise, the run-of-the-mill villainous henchmen and agents of super-spy organisations have weapons set to "stun". A few might have lethal weapons like machine guns, but they're generally rubbish shots so that's ok.

In a world war, it's senseless (unless you’ve got a very solid plot reason) for your soldiers to hold back from killing their enemies (i.e. the player characters). They want to kill them, and what's more they’ve got rifles and machine guns and grenades and, if you're really trying to scare the players, tanks and dive bombers. And that's a problem.

The problem is that in a game you don’t want to kill the players' characters. You want to scare them into thinking they might die, but if they actually do die it really messes up the game. You've got a player who has nothing to do for the rest of the afternoon (possibly the rest of the year, depending on how you've set up the situation) and everyone ends up really depressed. A GM's job isn’t to "beat" the players by killing their characters (that would be too easy, considering you control the entire universe), it's to make sure the players have an enjoyable game.

Let's be clear: player characters shouldn't be immune from dying. Death should be a real and present danger, otherwise there's no challenge. If they die heroic deaths while saving the world as part of the big adventure climax, that's fine. Don't aim to do it, and allow the players to cheat it if they possibly can, but if they die for a noble cause, that's a satisfying end. Then there's deaths because the players have been utterly stupid despite your best efforts ("It's a pit of lava. Nobody can survive it." "Ok, I'll jump in just to make sure."). If that happens, well that serves them right (and anyway, your player has probably done it because he's not really enjoying the game and he'll be happy to sit the rest out). But random, "senseless" deaths in the middle of a game just because you misjudged how powerful to make the villain's energy blast, that's something we all want to avoid.

So when literally every single opponent has the motive and means to shoot the players' characters, you need to make sure the characters are bullet proof. Or too fast to hit. Or invisible. Or simply clever enough to be somewhere else.

But not too bulletproof, or fast, or sneaky. They have to be fallible, to have something out there that can pose a serious threat to them, or where's the challenge? And with no challenge, you have a boring game and an even more boring story. So you need to strike a balance.

This is what we call "game balance".

The old D&D game, for all its faults, did game balance better than anything since. It used the concept of "levels", which told you which monsters were good matches (on average) for characters of a specific power/skill level. Your "fifth-level fighter" should be fighting "fifth-level monsters". Seventh or eight level monsters would likely be too much for him, while first or second level monsters are not even worth his consideration. It all worked really well, and nothing has ever found a better way to do it, despite "levels" now considered an unrealistic, old-fashioned idea. 

Games that don't have rigid levels generally have a lot more flexibility in how you design characters, but with the flexibility it can be pretty hard to know exactly how two wildly different character designs stack up against each other.

The only way to know for sure if the game balance works, then, is to test it. Some things you can test mathematically: you know the damage a bullet does within the rules, so you know how tough the character has to be to survive it. But some things have too many variables to work out statistically and you can only really find out if characters are matched to the threats you've designed by testing them by actually playing the game.

Ok, so statistically the character can survive everything the riflemen throw at him, but can he move fast enough to reach the heavy machine gun (which can hurt him) before it reloads? Or what if he engages the riflemen in hand-to-hand combat while his slower (but better protected) friend advanced on the machine gun nest? You can create a handful of characters and test things like this before you unleash the game on the players (or vice versa).

Once you know this sort of thing, you can guide the players through character generation by hinting at the sort of threat they might face (not giving the plot away, but reminding them of the background): "Yes, that’s a great character but he'll die as soon as somebody shoots at him. What do you mean, he'll avoid people with guns? The whole point of the game is to fight Nazi soldiers!" Or, to the group collectively: "Look, here are the game statistics for the armour on a Panzer II tank, and none of you have an attack big enough to hurt it."

You can't dictate to the players how to create their characters, though you can put an outright ban on some abilities if you've decided they will unbalance the game: I've already decided to ban long-range teleportation powers, for example, because that completely kills the challenge of infiltrating behind enemy lines. But despite my best efforts, I probably will end up allowing some power or combination of powers that will cause an imbalance, simply because I can guarantee that my players will out-think me no matter how hard I try to challenge them, and they'll figure out how to make a power work much more usefully than I expected.

Because the other problem with game balance is that you can never anticipate how well the players will play the game, though you can be pretty certain that collectively they will be cleverer than you. "A Panzer II tank rolls down the road ... you know that none of you have the power to stop it, so ..." "Wait! I’ll mind-control the crew!" "Uh ... ok ..." (You hadn't anticipated that, and suddenly your "unbeatable" obstacle designed to make the players go in a different direction has been beaten, plus you've given the players a pet tank. Uh-oh. Hope you had your contingency plans in place ... )

Anyway, I'll leave this now while I go away and double-check the rules for the mind control power and decide whether I'm banning it or not ... 

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The Heroes Universe is an ongoing work of fiction, conceived and chiefly plotted by David Meadows, with help from a group of friends, over a 30-year period.

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