Game Balance, Theme Preservation, and Consistancy

(This article is reprinted with the permission of larryghost - thanks, Larry! While WoD-centric, its core points make sense in any setting. Enjoy!)

Why this matters

Consider a hypothetical classical fantasy game. Let us say, an AD&D game.

The party has come to a city, let us say Targetville. The city has a law against weapons in the hands of any except its guardians. The DM does this so that the party has to face some issue inside Targetville without weapons for any reason which seems good to the DM at the time.

The party is not stupid and has done their homework, or alternatively they are turned away at the gates of Targetville; either way they are aware of the law in Targetville, but fully expect some kind of trouble and consequently want to bring at least some weapons along.

The party has to smuggle the weapons in. No problem; they have a thief. He will climb the walls, bearing a package of weapons for all the party, and the rest of the party will enter by the gate, unarmed, and pass unmolested. The party will rendezvous with their thief inside the walls of Targetville, arm themselves and proceed.

This unfortunately destroys the balance of the intended challenge the party is scheduled to face and moreover precludes the DM's further plot of having the party's weapons stolen from where they are cached while the party is in Targetville, thereby also confusing later plot developments. It is therefore imperative that the party be separated from their weapons.

The thief is told that there are guards on the walls. Ah well, c'est la vie, he'll do it by night. Well, they have torches on the walls. Oh.Well, no problem, the wizard will cast invisibility on the thief. But no, they will spot the thief's rope and hook and cut that. Ah. No problem, the wizard will cast spider climb on the thief. But they have magic alarms on the walls which will go off. Hm. Tricky, okay, but the magic user will cast fly. No, the guards all have gems of true sight, so the thief will be spotted and shot down anyway.

The party goes into a huddle after a few abortive efforts and starts to think. The mage could cast passwall, but the walls are magically impervious to it; they have defenses built in. They could tunnel through the walls, but the walls are mystically regenerating. They could dig through the earth and get inside but Targetville has hordes of earth elementals defending it. The party sends their thief in, unarmed, as a scout, to see what facilities are in Targetville to let them forge weapons, but there are no blacksmiths, fletchers, bowyers, nor even carpenters. Even staves are somehow unavailable. Winnowing flails are unknown, and there is no material strong enough for a garotte. No stone is somehow adequate to be flung in a sling, and even fighting children seem to be unable to pick up sticks with which to poke each other.

The thief returns and reports his findings. The party is concerned;obviously some terrible force is at work to utterly alter the nature of Targetville. But wait! Inspiration strikes: surely the guards can use their weapons, for they are all magnificently armed and armoured.

No problem, the party has a very competent thief. By now they've set up camp outside Targetville, and send the thief back in to case the joint and examine the feasibility of stealing weapons from the guards themselves.

It soon transpires that the guards never sleep, are completely immune to all forms of distraction, confusion, fatigue, subterfuge, disguise,befuddlement and pickpocketing. They always operate in teams of at least 50, and are never alone. Their strongholds (plentiful all around Targetville) are all guarded with a fanaticism which makes the outer walls look like so many open gates, and their source of weaponry is utterly unknown. Any attempt to touch any guard's weapon somehow makes an alarm go off which summons hundreds more guards in seconds, but there is no magic to be dispelled and consequently nothing to be done about it.

Soon the party comes to the conclusion that there is no way, period, ever, short of outright conquest, that they can ever get weaponry inside Targetville. Undaunted, they work on a plan. After months of cunning work,political and physical, through hints and corruption and bribes and treaties andplots they succeed in raising an army capable of taking on Targetville complete with all its guards. They have enumerated the guards, they are by now absolutely familiar with the defenses, the shape of the walls and so on but they are somehow unable, despite the most magnificently infallible plan, to succeed on the field of battle. Targetville gets reinforcements from thin air. They have inexhaustible stocks of all manner of supplies. All their citizens turn out to be masters of all weapons as well as unarmed combat. Their temples are beyond reproach and completely indestructible by any means whatsoever. Their walls turn out to be made of plotdevicium (a substance of which plot devices are made; impervious to all damage). Their armies cannot even penetrate the gates and thus bear weapons inside. The guards of Targetville never drop their weapons, nor in dying leave them where they may be taken by Targetville's assailants. Demons and devils are summoned to assail Targetville but are hurled back like so many schoolboys.

Ultimately the party's cleric (by now a seasoned man of great standing) sacrifices all he has and summons his god's own hand to clear a path into Targetville, but his god shrugs and says: "Sorry, little buddy, no can do."

Oh dear. The party, defeated at every turn, despite all their ingenuity, says to the dungeon master: "Okay, so how were we supposed to bring the fight to the big baddie who kidnapped the princess?"

The dungeon master responds: "Oh. Barehanded. You weren't supposed to bring weapons in."

The party, in frustration, knocks the dungeon master over, and takes the city plans. They discover that Targetville is a simple hamlet with five mercenary guards and a wooden palisade to defend them from attack.The big badass who kidnapped the princess was an ogre with a limp and bad breath who wouldn't have stood a chance against the party's armies even if there were a thousand of him. The thief, even if suffering from a bad cold and a hangover at the same time, should have been able to steal all the weapons from all the guards, vault over the palisade, and … have copies made of all of them in Targetville's smithy which is clearly marked on the map. Targetville's actual denizens are bucolic pacifists who could no more defend themselves against rampaging armies than against a rampaging troupe of transvestite washerwomen.

What is the meaning of game balance?

Game balance means that, no matter how smart, hard working, ingenious, parsimonious or otherwise virtuous someone is, no matter what resources they bring or what sacrifices they make, no matter what abilities they have developed or what skills they have honed, no matter what knowledge they have or what preparations they make, if the game master determines that some barrier is insurmountable to them, then it is insurmountable, period, forever, despite any terms stated in the books, despite any definition of the rules.

Game balance means that hard work on personal development is only meaningful when the game master says it's allowed to be meaningful.

Game balance means that hard work on intelligent solutions or inventive approaches is only meaningful when allowed (usually not, because it's usually unnecessary except when faced with otherwise insurmountable odds).

Game balance means that accumulation of resources is only meaningful when the game master has previously determined that they can be accumulated,and that they can then only be used in such a fashion as the game master deems fitting.

Game balance means that everyone is doomed to equality under the bar of what the game master deems permissible.

Is White Wolf's World of Darkness designed with game balance in mind?

No. In fact, White Wolf's games explicitly deny game balance at the very outset in many ways. Garou have always been able to get the jump on vampires through shiny surfaces; it's a favourite trick. Garou have always been able to sense the Wyrm in vampires (within certain parameters). Garou have always been able to operate during the daytime. Garou have always been fur-covered blenders which can shred all but the toughest vampires almost on a whim. Vampires have always been able to dominate, cajole or otherwise control mortals by scores, and feed on them with near-impunity. Mages have always been able to see and comprehend things on a level unthinkable to any other race. Fae have always been able to comprehend and sense banality, a concept practically meaningless (and irrelevant) to everyone else, not to mention heal rapidly in freeholds and so on and so forth.

Mortals in the World of Darkness get shafted with frequency and thoroughness. Funnily enough, it's possible to play a mortal in the World of Darkness. Does game balance preclude this? No, but game balance would suggest that the mortal be as impervious as Targetville otherwise it would be short shrift atthe first opposition. Garou would inflict delirium on the mortal, vamps would dominate him, mages would turn him into a frog and a heron pooka would eat the frog.

To make things worse, the World of Darkness is unstable. The sabbat break masq all the time; it's a favourite strategem. Miraculously mortals are totally blind even in sabbat-controlled cities where any camarilla efforts at maintaining the masq are impossible. The technocracy has no precept equating to the rule of shade, and to the traditions the rule of shade is not even a formal protocol (look it up!), so the moment that it becomes an inconvenience rather than a useful sop to the paranoia of ancient masters who were around during the Burning Times, there's no real reason to stick to it. The garou have part of their own litany which maintains that, and so do the fae, but (mirabile dictu) not even all garou or changelings adhere to those rules.

It's all only a matter of time. Moreover, every single game … every single one with the possible exception of Wraith is essentially millenarian. They are all waiting for the equivalent of the bomb to drop. Gehenna, the apocalypse, the final grandiose battles of the ascension war, the war against coming winter, they are all part of the backdrop of the World of Darkness and not just in a sentimental or theoretical way; they all have constant and significant effects on the day to day lives of the players and it is as clear as crystal that at least some of those are imminent.

Game balance would dictate that, in the interests of maintaining the inherent mystery of whatever it is that is so crucially mandated to remain inherently mysterious, the veil/shade/masquerade/whatever shall remain inviolate for all eternity amen because what comes of a world in which mortals' eyes are open? Good question, and a very interesting one on many levels but the gods of game balance rail against it. Obviously informing everyone of all these dreadfully unstable secrets is contrary to game balance, because it's always a game balance argument I hear whenever people object to alterations in a milieu.

Game balance is also almost invariably the argument behind GM fiat. The players getting too intelligent, to creative or too active? Suddenly their powers stop operating. Why? Umm, just because.

What is the problem with GM fiat?

Ultimately, it changes the rules of the game in midstream. That is the problem. Tools supported in the rulebook, supported by use in play, supported by common practice and the shared vocabulary of players, are either suddenly whisked away or altered with no notice, usually at crucial points. It's never when the assailants of Targetville are quietly praying in a camp that their god suddenly changes his mind about something; it's at the cusp of action when the stated interests of the deity in question are most fundamental to his actions. The gun never jams when the PCs are at the range without their botching a roll, but somehow decides all on its own to jam irrespective of the eight successes achieved in the field when the PCs were about to shoot the GM's favourite plot handle. The mighty spell which sweeps all before it, or even the humble spell which prevents a rope from fraying, neither of them fails when it doesn't matter, they only fail when it actually makes a difference to some antagonist. Why? Because otherwise the PCs would know that their chosen tool might be unreliable, and would use something else which might work. The rules change in midstream.

What happens when the rules change? It's a different game. It's not the same game any more when the rules which run the world change (unless the entire point behind the game is: what the GM says). When people are just along for the ride, they might as well be watching a movie. The outcome has already been predetermined and nothing they could do or say will ultimately have much significance. A collection of the biggest boneheads in history could march along arm in arm down the streets of Mordor singing showtunes, and the ring will still be destroyed. The most fiendish plan in all creation which takes all the variables into account and has all the odds in its favour will utterly fail for no better reason than that it was preordained.

Partly, this is murdering suspension of disbelief. Suspension of disbelief is a very tenuous thing which strongly relies on there being a minimum of cognitive disjunction. Altering the rules, changing the world under some player's feet, results in cognitive disjunction.

The opposite? This is consistency. Consistency in the applications of rules, consistency in the underlying explanations which allow the rules to have sense. Consistency minimizes cognitive disjunction, and strengthens suspension of disbelief.

Consistency also rewards those who work hard and think cleverly.Consistency means that someone who really puts their back into solving some problem, someone who involves themselves heart and soul in the spirit of the game is much more likely to reap rewards than a dilettante who contributes little to the game.

What is the price of consistency? The price of consistency is that occasionally the game master must bow his head and sadly confess that the players outwitted him. That they thought of something he had not foreseen and that they reaped the rewards of their genius.

The alternative of course it to pout and cry and change the rules so that the game master shall reign supreme and his beautifully flawed plot shall against all credibility be carried to fruition (if the players even put up with this rather than popping some corn and asking for a description of the rest of the plot so that they can go do something where their efforts are actually rewarded in a consistent fashion).

Changing the rules in the middle of the game is generally not only the mark of poor planning but poor sportsmanship. It may sound like a cliche but everyone plays the game. Everyone brings themselves to be tested on an anvil. Not all are equally strong, fast or cunning. Mortals quail before the terrible powers of garou and are confounded by the bewildering networks of vampiric politics. Vampires may well quail before garou as well while garou are puzzled and confused by the web of deceit and mystery which the vampires unfold before them. Nonetheless once one has entered the game there is a silent contract of honour that one plays the game as well as one can within the rules presented. To change these rules without notice is to render meaningless the very rules on which the game is founded.

Is the game unbalanced? Maybe. Put a couch potato in a ring with a professional kickboxer. Unbalanced? To be sure. Does that mean that the kickboxer shall be prohibited from kicking and can only punch with a left hand wrapped in down pillows? Not without making a mockery of the rules.

When one comes to play a game in White Wolf's World of Darkness, then the game is unbalanced. White Wolf plainly acknowledges that it is unbalanced and moreover it is plainly written into the way the rules work. To attempt to shoehorn these rules into some semblance of balance is to fundamentally change them. To do this without telling the players how and why is to cheat them of the game that they thought they were playing.

This is why I pay no attention to pleas for game balance, nor to suggestions that the rules should be changed in its interest. I play for consistency, and I strive for consistency.

Setting consistency

To head off at the pass any claims that what one changes rules for is the consistency of the setting, rather than any nebulous and fantastic adherence to a mythical standard of game balance, I must point out that the rules are part and parcel of the setting. If a man with strength 1 can pick up 40 pounds while a man with strength 5 can pick up 400 pounds, that is in fact a part of the way the world works, a part of the setting. If a vampire with auspex 5 could divine somehow that some person is threatening his being, it only stands to reason that having done this the vampire would annihilate the person in question or at least prevent the threat from being followed through.

The setting is dynamic. It changes. To declare in the interests of posterity (or some similar argument) that the setting must remain inviolate is to immediately and permanently prevent any power which could meaningfully alter the setting no matter how efficacious the power in every other sense. This is a change of the rules, and subject to the same criticisms as those stated above, and changes the setting inherently to a permanent stasis.

What thrill of danger is there or echo of doubt when one knows that everything will be the same no matter what happens? It is the same problem as above and one might as well pop corn and ask the game master to narrate the outcome.

Summary

Consistency, good sportsmanship and mutual agreement go hand in hand with suspension of disbelief and all its benefits. Efforts to make ad hoc changes to the rules without prior notice to all concerned areantithetical to these goals and therefore not to be countenanced.

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