Recently, esteemed developer John Wick sparked debate over the subject of “game balance” in RPGs, arguing:
In a roleplaying game, game balance does not matter. What matters is spotlight. Making sure each player feels their character had a significant role in the story.
There’s a lot in the broader piece that I agree with, and a lot that I disagree with. Before reading any further, go read Wick’s post over at his blog, otherwise the rest of this post won’t make sense.
Wick argues that the only thing we need to worry about balancing is spotlight time. But I think there’s something else that’s important to divide evenly, which is inexorably connected to conventional “game balance” concerns: narrative authority.
Simply put, if roleplaying is about collaborative storytelling, then each of the players wants to feel like their contributions to the story are valued. Usually, this means that they are able to contribute roughly as much as everyone else does (with the possible exception of a GM, who is Special. Whatever).
And in most roleplaying games, the characters we play, with their skills and stats and equipment bonuses etc, are the instruments by which players exert influence on the story. Example: if a party visits a new town and one of the players narrates that he came to a festival here when he was a boy, that is a contribution to the story that is likely to go unchallenged. If that same player was to narrate that he made a friend during the festival, and that friend is now the mayor, and the mayor gives me his magical sword of dragon slaying now, that is likely to be challenged by your GM, requiring (at the very least) some kind of dice rolling to see if you persuade the mayor to hand the sword over. Your odds of success are determined by how good your character is at persuading people, meaning that your ability to contribute to the story as desired is dependent on the numbers displayed on your character sheet.
(Of course, those numbers only determine if you succeed or fail, not whether something interesting happens. Something interesting should always happen. But I think it’s fair to say that for most players, their desired contribution to the story is for their character to succeed. After all, if they WANTED the mayor to still be angry that they’d got off with his sister and to refuse their request out of spite, they’d have probably suggested it as their original narrative contribution.)
So for players to feel like they have equal narrative authority, they need to “succeed”, or at least advance their characters’ story as intended, about as often as their fellows do. This isn’t the same as being equally good at fighting or whatever – one player can influence the story by capably murdering NPCs she doesn’t like, whilst another might be crap at fighting but just as narratively influential by using social skills. But it’s also not the same as spotlight time. Many games are engineered to give players equal opportunities to act within a story, round-the-table scene framing for example, but that doesn’t mean that every player is getting an equal opportunity to leave a mark on the story.
A player whose character who is great at fighting but crap at social stuff is going to have less opportunity to influence the narrative as desired than a player whose character is great at fighting AND social stuff due to their exploitation of a poorly “balanced” ruleset. And I think that’s a legitimate thing for a player to be upset about, even in a group that doesn’t care about numbers and mechanics whatsoever.