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This post was originally a tweet thread: see the original @davehpurcell.

Yep, Shawn Merwin is right: definition is the thing. Some say “balance” and mean “any choice at level 5 is as good as any other”, some mean “in combat, any character has something to do” or “the GM has tools to balance challenges against the PCs”. These are very different things.

I think the most useful version of balance to keep in mind is the holistic “rock/paper/scissors” version: Are there ways for each player (incl. GM) to be good at some things some of the time, and (equally as importantly!) be bad at some things?

A game (or a mechanic/subsystem/etc) feels unbalanced when it feels like there are “good choices” and “bad choices”. “There is no reason to pick this option/attempt this action” will create a feeling of imbalance, as will “I have nothing I can do right now”.

It’s a game, so players should feel like they can succeed. It’s also a story, so players should feel drama, which is often created by failure or inability. Two seemingly opposing forces – thus, balance.

There’s that old fiction-writing adage about good story coming from insurmountable challenges. Characters should face something they don’t have the tools to overcome. And on the surface, this feels unbalanced.

But the satisfying part comes from eventually surmounting the challenge – the hero learns something new, or devises a way to use their unique skills to creatively solve the problem.

In game terms, this means balance comes from players feeling:

  • sometimes they are the best person for the job
  • sometimes they will have no way to solve a problem
  • sometimes they will have a left-of-field option to use, or at least attempt

(Not necessarily in equal measure)

I don’t think this means “every game system should allow for characters to solve all their problems”. Balance in a horror game might mean having options to escape or solve the mystery. “We all died but we sent the photo of the monster to the press” can be narratively satisfying.

It also doesn’t mean “every character should be the hero of every scene”. But it probably should mean that every character is the hero of SOME scenes, under at least some definition of hero.

This all ultimately may come down to finicky maths: if “being good” is defined by having a high number in this system, then balance will come from having ways for every PC to get some numbers to be higher.

More often than not, though, I think this comes from options. GMs having options to create different types of challenges. Players having options to perform a variety of actions. And then the system providing the tools to adjudicate that flexibility.

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