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Character and Game Balance! or... um, not.

Started by DevP, September 03, 2003, 03:29:02 AM

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Please point me to the right thread if this has come up before. <g>

Among the many reasons I can't sleep tonight is this singular, eerie thought:

I'm happily playing a campaign with a relatively simple, generic simuationist system with friends, and... Character creation, with set numbers of points and such is nicely balanced, but. Are they ready? Would they be ready for me to just tell them to "write whatever skills you think you have", and not worry about the cost?

My question is: *when*, and with which kind of players, could I just turn off some of the character creation rules in a system? I'm not sure how to properly judge this.


First: Generic simulationist? I assume by this you mean some kind of D&D-type fantasy? You've always got to be simulating something specific, so I'm missing how it could be generic in any way, shape or form. . .

As for when to turn it off.. why do you want to? Does have structured character generation rub you the wrong way? Further, it really depends on what system you're using as to whether or not "turning it off" will have a noticable affect or not, not to mention depending on the players.

I dunno. Your post seems a bit too vague to offer any real advice. "Mature roleplayers familiar with the system," then, is my vague response. =/
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Callan S.

Is it just about them being ready?

I mean, their going to go from a book based balanced point system to a balanced point based system held inside their head. One which may not be so balanced in your opinion. But the balance doesn't matter so you trust them to work with you toward some mutual roleplay fun?
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Ben Morgan

With the group I have now, I went to great lengths to modify the system, mostly character creation. I came up with point limits for this section or that section, and you know what? I didn't need them. I didn't need to tell them "spend 60 points in skills" or whatever.

They were assigning points to their skills based on what was dictated by the concepts they'd come up with. They didn't add the points up until after, and when they did, they all had points left over. Bottom line, these guys were ready. I knew that from now on, I could dump the idea of point limits in pretty much any game I wanted to run with them.

Are your players ready for this? I don't know. What do their priorities seem to be, as far as in-game behavior? Are they clamoring for XP and/or crunchy bits (magical spells, powers, items, abilities, etc)? Or do they seem to be concept-driven?

Btw, I'm guesing by generic sim you're referring to something akin to GURPS maybe?

-- Ben
-----[Ben Morgan]-----[]-----
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Mike Holmes

Everybody is ready for this. That is, the only people who are theoretically not ready are those who have preconcieved notions of how to play. Assuming the appropriate system, and a willingness to play it open-mindedly, everyone is ready. This is basic GNS stuff. As long as the players know what they're supposed to be doing, they'll do it right.

For example, with new players sometimes I use GURPS for some games. But I don't give them points and a book, or even describe how the sytem works at all. I instead tell them to describe a character, and ask a series of questions about them. Basically it's like an interview. Then I stat the characters out in GURPS terms, but ignore the points. Invariably they create "appropriate" characters.

It's only the suggestion of power balance that the points and stats themselves provide that make player think about those issues. Look at it this way, would you be "ready" to use such a system? I'm sure you are. So what makes you different from the other players? You understand what you want, right? Make them understand via talk or system or whatever, and they'll be fine.

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Rob Donoghue

I think the real question is: Are you ready?

It's not a dig or anything of the sort, but I figure, you know your players by now, you should have a sense of how far they're going to push things.  Even if they're all well behaved, there's going to be some technical discrepancy between the characters.  It might be as small as the Merry Men of Sherwood, or it might be as big as the spread in the Avengers or JLA.  Can you accept that, move past it, and still make the game fun for everyone?  Trusting your players this way means that the burden is much more upon you, and that can bring a lot of pain.

If you think they're ready and you want to try it, I say, more power to you. It should be an excellent trip.

-Rob D.
Rob Donoghue
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Well ...

My answer might be "maybe never."

As a generic simulationist myself, I've thought a lot about "point balance" and "play-balance"--and while it's generally conceeded that the terms in broad strokes are pretty much meaningless, there are some areas where they can come into focus.

1. Power-Limits
Let's say we're playing supers. I may want to make the most powerful super I can while still being "fair"--that is, I may win the odd battle handily but the convention of the group agrees that it's due to my demonstrated skill with character creation and not due to simple mathematics.

That is: I may derrive satisfaction out of creating and playing a powerful character within the guidelines provided by the rules. Taking those guidelines away removes the challenge and therefore might lessen my enjoyment.

2. Structured Design
Let's say I'm making a teenage computer genius. I approach the system without a clear idea of 'how smart' this guy should be--smart, yes, *real* smart--but ... PhD level? Super genius? smart-normal-guy 'cause he hasn't been to college yet? How smart? It's possible the system will tell me that level of intelligence within some framework (i.e. if he's utterly non-atheletic then he can be college-grad smart. If he's nerdy and ostracized then I can get him up to genius level).

Now, this certainly may not appeal to everyone--and there's clearly RPG exercises where 'trade-offs' are not welcome (and often deemed unrealisitc)--but the fact reamins that if the player in question *likes* the structured environment given by the game and it appeals to the other participants as well--then I think it's value added.

Note: if you want a super-genius guy with social skills and some atheletic abilities, a way to do that is simply to raise the point total.

3. Game-World Measure
How well does your character stack up in the game world? Often that's going to boil down to a matter of points (although in some cases it simply points out some pecuilarities of the system (GURPS Special Ops) ).

But using point totals can be a pretty exact way to say "this kind of character is appropriate."

Telling someone "make a character on par with Bruce Willis in Die Hard" or "These guys should be like Rambo--but less over-the-top" isn't getting *close* to a real description of power level (was Bruce a low-point but very intelligently played character? Or was he a bad-ass able to shoot it out with elite terrorists? What about in Die Hard 2 or 3? How far can you 'dial-down' Rambo before you reach 'the top.')

So in terms of being "ready"--it's not that--it's more like "What benefits are you derriving from point limits right now? And what would the trade-offs be for removing them?"

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Wow. Lot's of awesome answers. Thanks.

Firstly: I'm using Active Exploits Diceless, in something of a space-opera; I'm liking the diceless so far, although I am attemping gentle mods on the system to bring in some more interesting bits (like increased playering authorship). I'm glad to have dicey fortune less in the picture, but that does make the choice - and level - of skills that much more important in a character's ultimate experiences.

QuoteAs for when to turn it off.. why do you want to?

Insomnia. Also, I realized that limiting the players' skill choices might tend to that whole "whiff" factor, and moreover only prevents them from investing in non-essential skills. If they have a limited number of skill selections (my AE level allows for about 6-7), then they will certainly prioritize towards the most "effective" ones for their profession; I realized that if I could trust them to take extra skills, this detail might just add depth to their characters, while not making them totally invulnerable.

Several of their character concepts are generally focused on being badasses; I think this is apropos, and in any case I want to make pure skill contry to emphasize forethought and such more than pure skilled combat. (If someone already has a gun drawn on you, it doesn't matter how agile you are; and so on.)

QuoteAre your players ready for this? I don't know. What do their priorities seem to be, as far as in-game behavior? Are they clamoring for XP and/or crunchy bits (magical spells, powers, items, abilities, etc)? Or do they seem to be concept-driven?

For the most part, they want to not suck (they want to live out their inner image of badass-ness) but don't care too much for crunchiness as a general rule (and neither do I). I picked a rather light system for that purpose. They generally stick to character concepts, although they're a bit too pragamatic for my taste.

QuoteEven if they're all well behaved, there's going to be some technical discrepancy between the characters.

This is a major concern; I don't want balanced characters with weaknesses to feel diminished in comparison with, say, SamuraiMan. There is certainly adjusting their individual conflicts so that everyone is challenged to their specific abilities, but that can be difficult to maintain.

Quote1. Power-Limits...
2. Structured Design...
3. Game-World Measure...

In this particular context I'm not as interested in #1 (the lack of system granularity would disuade that for me), but I can see that #2 is an issue, at the very least for some newer players; whereas it's easy to come up with six skills, a blank page might just be intimidating. #3 is a big deal; it's a lot of responsibility if I'm merely arbitrating between character concepts "by hand". What I might consider is describing what kind of life they're generally expected to lead, and what they should expect in the end. (in the vein of "you had a tolerable youth, you get by, but by the time you're 40 you're either going to be working in some factory job, or in jail for a minor violation, or dead from a bar fight.")

I'm encouraged by several responses enough to suggest this thought to a few players, and gague by their responses how they'd fare with it.

Ben Lehman

Quote from: DevAre they ready? Would they be ready for me to just tell them to "write whatever skills you think you have", and not worry about the cost?

BL>  I often do this (at this point, pretty much whenever I GM a system that I have some experience with before.)  My answer is: anyone is ready if you let them into easy.  I say something like this:

"Write down whatever you you feel is appropriate to your character.  If you need a point total to base yourself around, call it about *n* points (or, in a random-roll system, roll in *such a* manner).  If you are clearly abusing this trust, we will need to edit your character down, but I imagine that won't be a problem."

I do this for D&D all the time.  Works great.

I would note that I think such a method is necessary for truly simulationist play.  Other forms involve certain gamist assumptions about the nature of RPGs.



Some players cling fiercely to the idea of mechanics-based game balance yet long to portray character groupings like those found in film (Indy and Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), television (Buffy and Xander or pre-magic Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and literature (pulps heroes and their entourages, such as The Shadow or Doc Savage).

In my experience, balance is a narrator-derived thing, and more powerful characters typically have both a greater number of story entanglements and more complex ones to boot. This has always been the great equalizer in any campaign in which I have participated, and unburdens players to look beyond "the points" or whatever other artificial means the mechanics inflict upon us to preserve this notion of "game balance".

Michael Bjorklund

In my Runequest ver. 3 campaign we have successfully managed to dump the entire character generation system and replace it with a narrative generation instead. The player details what their character's backgrund is and from this we derive the skills that he/she is experienced in.

Furthermore, whether the character becomes very powerful or extremely rich or not doesn't really matter because the world reacts to what the players do with their characters.

Don't know if this is in any way new or helpful or even useful elsewhere, but nevertheless .. :-)

All the best

Edited for spelling error 'campaing' changed to 'campaign' .. sigh!
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Mike Holmes

Before this starts off on a tangent, I suggest that people look up some of the many good threads here on what the term balance can mean to different people. There are different meanings to the term, and discussions like this tend to simply rehash over and over the fact that it can mean different things.

The point is that some people want certain kinds of balance and others want different ones. So saying that you don't "need" to have one or another is, once again, a statement of preference more than anything.

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M. J. Young

I'm also of the school of thought that anyone can design an appropriate character if they have some understanding of how the system works and of what an appropriate character would be.

In Multiverser, we usually play it as an I Game, and we have no problem getting people to honestly discuss where they fall. It works something like this.
    On these attributes, are you one of the best, like top two percent of everyone who ever lived, one out of fifty? No? Above average? How much?

    On these skills, are you an amateur, a professional, or an expert--a professional is someone who gets paid to do something, and an expert is someone to whom professionals go for advice? A professional? Typical, above average, or low end?[/list:u]
    When you're playing the Not-I characters in Multiverser you do it essentially the same way: you imagine that you're the character you're trying to portray, and you answer the same kinds of questions. What can you do, and how well? That information is converted into the game rating system rather smoothly, and if you understand how the game rating system works in terms of where you land on the curve, it's fairly painless. We get no complaints about people rating themselves too high or too low on things.

    Alternatively, I suggested this somewhere probably on a thread that was discussing creating the major characters of Flash Gordon. I suggested that each player could write a description of his character in a few words, just enough to capture the character concept, and then pass the description to another player who would flesh out the details, in essence trying to take that character concept and make it a playable character under the game rules. Because the player actually doing the write-up of the abilities isn't playing that character, he's less tempted to push the envelope on what the character can do; and because the characters will work together as a team, he's not terribly likely to short the character's abilities.

    Those might help you get where your going.

    --M. J. Young


Quote from: Dev
My question is: *when*, and with which kind of players, could I just turn off some of the character creation rules in a system? I'm not sure how to properly judge this.

As soon as they understand/internalise the thematic or representative points embodied in the CharGen process.

That is, CharGen may be limited in such a way as to make, say, Xenoarcheology horrendously difficult to get.  Once players know that the system intends for this to be so, they will know not to take Xenoarcheology in freeform design without appropriate rationales and excuses.  IOW, once they have learned the lesson the CharGen subrule is there to teach.
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