Defining games through combat balance and utility

Wednesday, 1. September 2010

We’ve all played games that have absolutely no balance of what classes or characters can do in combat. If the majority of what you do in a game is fight, you will absolutely hate such games if you’re always consistently underpowered. The real problem comes in though, when the characters are equally useless elsewhere, and the game fails to recognize it by describing such a character as weaker. We like to think of games as being somewhat balanced in characters being equivalent in some abstract sum of their abilities.

If what you’re truly working with is a tactical combat game, then everything has to be equal in some form in that arena. What characters lack in brute power need to be made up for in utility or perhaps durability, or mobility. MMO’s are notorious for this (Notice I didn’t say MMORPG, because the latter part is basically nonexistent.) because they’re glorified combat simulators, often in very, very slow motion. D&D is attempting to do that same thing as a holy grail, simply because that’s what the system represents. Bashing things in combat and taking loot. It’s no fun to be useless in such situation.

The lesson taken from that of course, is as mentioned above some sort of abstract balance is required. Balance = fun after all. That’s hardly the case though if it were, scales would be the majority of modern entertainment. Reality of course has no such qualms when it comes to balance. People vary wildly in both their abilities and the sum of their abilities and skills. We simply attempt to recognize talent when we see it, and along with it… lack of talent as well.

If anything coming up for such a formula is incredibly difficult, particularly when you factor in non-combat skills. Is stealth more powerful than medicine? It’s completely abstract. Well developed political and persuasive power is one of the strongest human forces on earth and yet is incredibly difficult to quantify on paper. The best that can be done is purely an abstraction. Pure balance is obviously not the answer.

Therefore what we really need to produce are interesting characters, interactions and situations. Players need to feel useful unless they are playing something that is intentionally useless. Good role playing and planning of situations by storytellers can easily make this happen. Drama is also required, with a lesser or greater extent depending on your style of play. If characters are truly weaker, simply recognize such a fact and work with it.

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