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In one of my long-term PvP LARP games, we've done a lot of work trying to balance the system we're using, either by banning certain "classes" or "powers" or by altering their specs slightly to make them less "overpowered" so that people who choose to go this route don't have an automatic advantage over the other players. At what point does the crusade to provide balanced powers and whatnot for all types of characters tip over into nerfing cool wooj to the point that the players spend more time missing what they don't have available anymore than enjoying what's left? Essentially what strategies can you use to balance a game fairly while keeping it fun for everyone?

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What system are you balancing? –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 2 '11 at 19:09
Well, the question was meant to be more of a general discussion, but the game I'm in is Vampire: The Requiem. –  Axle Dec 3 '11 at 18:39
instead of focusing on putting everyone in the same valley, why not focus on putting everyone on their own mountain peak? –  B.A. Thomas Oct 28 '12 at 13:22
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5 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It's possible to balance an RPG. How much work you want to spend doing it, or how important you think it is, is up to you.

The thing to remember about balancing an RPG is that you're working with a mechanical rules system. In order to achieve game balance, codify the rules, as if it were an ordinary board game, and figure out how each power or character build plays out. Most RPG authors are so interested in the theme of the game that they don't spend a lot of time thinking about the nitty, gritty mechanics of the system.

I would strongly recommend looking to video game balance as a model. My experience is that competitive online games are almost universally better balanced than tabletop RPGs. This is because the nature of the medium makes balance more important, and imbalance more glaringly obvious. You can play 4-8 League of Legends matches, each one consisting of dozens of individual battles, in the time it takes to have one battle in D&D. Consequently, it's a safe bet that LoL is better balance-tested, even if D&D has been around for years.

An article on gamasutra that might be of use to you: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/2843/applying_risk_analysis_to_.php

A couple of important points:

  • Players don't like it when you take away their stuff. Rather than banning powers, you should find ways to tune them, and bring them in line with the existing metagame.
  • Come up with hard numbers, and stick to them. No player should be able to do more than X damage per turn at level Y.
  • Most competitive games have some sort of rock-paper-scissors feel. Ensure that every character build has a counter. In Magic: The Gathering, and similarly balanced games like Guild Wars, each color (character class) is given a certain subset of the different power mechanics the game has to offer. The more a particular deck (character) diversifies their powers across colors, the less power they have in a specific area.

One of the tricky things about RPGs is that the game encourages you to bend the rules. If you want a truly balanced game, you have to curb this tendency, and let the characters' powers dictate how well they fare in an encounter. If you introduce things like movable scenery, hazards, et cetera, make sure they have codified rules, and they're considered in the game balance. Since there's no way to simulate everything out there in the world under one rules system, you'll have to make judgment calls about fairness versus freedom to improvise.

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-1 for Videogames as a model for balancing –  aramis Dec 4 '11 at 2:41
I think it's an appropriate metaphor, but I don't really think the video game argument is the core of this post. I think he makes a lot of good points about game balance after that metaphor is used. –  Axle Dec 5 '11 at 1:36
I was definitely thinking of the rock-paper-scissors weapon balance in games like Fire Emblem. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Oct 9 '13 at 13:24
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Balance in Roleplaying games is an illusion. It doesn't truly exist.

Even in Tabletop, using point based systems, balance is illusory. The best balanced game out there is probably Hero System 5E. But, given 100 points and no character disads, I know guys who will be pulling off 16d6 ranged killing attacks, and others struggling to get 6d ranged killing attacks. And I know guys who will do more with those 6D attacks than the guys with the 16D attacks...

In LARP, the issue is even worse.

In non-contact LARPing, it's pretty much the same issue as Tabletop gaming - some will make better use of the mechanics than others. But, because so little is resolved mechanically, the charismatic and/or brilliant players will get much more accomplished.

In Boffer LARP, some people are inherently better at the various physical actions than others, so any balance in the combat mechanics is usually much overwhelmed with the various skills of the players.

The only real test for class balance is the standard three-fold test for Tabletop:
Does everyone want to play it?
Does anyone want to play it?
Can you play without it?
Ideal answers are No, Yes, and Yes. If it's seriously underpowered, no one wants to play it. Seriously overpowered, and no one wants to play without it, and almost everyone will take it.

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-1. I strongly disagree. The issue is not that there is no such thing as balance in RPGs. The issue is that most mainstream RPGs (D&D, Shadowrun, vampire) have laughably poor game balance. Use competetive online games as a model - they are mechanically very similar to tabletop RPGs, but the good ones are much better-playtested and more professionally tuned than your average tabletop game. –  RMorrisey Dec 3 '11 at 5:50
@RMorrisey while entitle to disagree, I think you're suffering from a severe fallacy - that RPG's are about combat. Most RPG rulesets (including many LARP ones) are not combat centric. And combat-balance is easily broken by creative players in even the best balanced TT RPGs and LARPs. Something not possible in the constrained and fundamentally non-role-play environment of so-called "online RPG's" they're as much a RPG as Ski-Doo is a motorcycle... the similiarities under the hood belie major differences in how and where used, as well as stability and performance. –  aramis Dec 4 '11 at 2:19
Game balance in a "D&D-ish" PVP RPG is about combat. Non-combat only requires balance insofar as making the difficulty and reward of obstacles (e.g. 4E skill challenges, 3E traps, RP rewards) appropriate to the abilities of the PCs. I agree that combat is not the most important, nor even the most interesting, aspect of an RPG, but that isn't the question being asked. –  RMorrisey Dec 4 '11 at 4:41
There are also PvP social challenges to consider in addition to combat, depending on the RPG system. –  Axle Dec 5 '11 at 1:04
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I substantially agree with @Aramis's answer. There are some important caveats though.

Balance, in a LARP, is not about power. Balance is about activity. Make sure everyone's choices allows them to provide a real contribution to problems they choose to be able to solve. No one player should obscure many other players at what they choose to do.

The critical thing to accomplish in your balancing act, especially if adapting from a table-top RPG, is to remove "I win at everything" abilities. The beauty of a socially focused larp is that characters who win at combat are useful and marginalized. Allow people to "win" at combat, but make sure that they require the other players to function.

Having played in a 3.5 derived larp for a couple years, the first thing to do is to not play in a 3.5 larp. Barring that, don't allow all the sourcebooks.

Instead, find a minimal set of rules that allow players to express what they want to do. Players express what they want to do by showing that their characters are good at those activities. By having simple rules, there will be less conflict between those who choose to read the rules and those who don't. By avoiding splatbooks, you avoid the rules-based aggrandizement that people who are willing to invest the time into system mastery almost naturally get.

Have simple, flexible rules that can handle all manner of conflict, rather than martial combat, and that prohibit anyone from winning at more than one thing, and you'll have a solid basis for a larp.

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Also, never ever have a 7th level character lead an assault on Asmodeuous's lair. Especially don't require that he take a bunch of first level mooks along, and especially don't allow arbitrary resources. If you do, make sure that there are consequences besides "you win because plot requires it." –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 2 '11 at 21:28
Every player needs opportunity, and access to activity. It is only gross imbalance that is the biggest problem. –  ChuckCottrill Oct 9 '13 at 3:41
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Boom! I was just writing on (a smaller factor of) this today, and it comes up again.

Balance requires balance.

As funny as this sounds, it's something we often don't consider. For balance to work, we have to consider intraclass, intrarole, and intracharacter balance, a trifecta of parts that go from large to small. It's important to consider exactly how balance will work without thinking we know it.

Intraclass balance strictly refers to specific outcomes. Can one guy built with a high Pistols skill compare to another guy built with a high Pistols skill? Many games do this by managing abstraction, but some will provide differentiated but (hopefully) equivalent pathways to accomplishing the same goal.

Intrarole balance refers to a specific type of activity. Typically, the focus of this is combat. The general rules of this in terms of balance are that there are several methods of achieving an end-goal. In traditional combat, this means damage, defense, attack rate, attack coverage, and health. A sorceror's fireball may do good damage and have an area of effect, but takes more time and can't be used as often as a fighter's standard melee attacks (I'm analogizing to D&D here; the question you're asking is game-design based and can be difficult to translate to LARP).

Intracharacter balance refers to all types of activity holistically. If your game is focused heavily in a certain area of play, characters will need to be able to be competitive in that way (D&D, for instance, has all player characters be adventuring/combat focused). If not, you need to consider if you want characters to all have identical intrarole balance or if it's okay to allow them to have separate roles that are not necessarily performance-equivalent.

Determine Importance

You want to figure out what's the core element of your game and what players will want to have be an outcome. When crafting a game, for instance, you may need to include a mechanical consequence for failing in certain areas. I'm working on a Gothic fantasy game that has a penalty for bad social standing just as penalties are granted for being injured or stunned. Why? I want people to have to focus on social interactions, and if that means they have to either keep a dedicated talker to keep the group and its members from falling too far into disrepute or each be able to prove their valor and honesty, so be it.

Another thing to consider that I've seen in my studies is that a lot of games fall into a fallacy of reward variables that are extrinsic to play; this doesn't necessarily hinder balance, but it's something to consider outside of simply "who does the most damage in combat". For instance, in D&D characters often wind up using a lot of magical items, but some builds can't take advantage of this. These characters will lose a chance to shine if they can't compete with the winners of the dump truck lottery or they don't have intrinsic benefits to make up for the external assistance of magic tools.

Similarly, in your LARP, is it strictly combat, or are there certain goals? One thing I'd consider is studying something like Counter Strike or Flashpoint and looking at how in an environment filled with guns and knives the best solution is often the least violent one; sneaking past the bad guys, picking open a locked door, or talking down an enemy is superior to combat, and depending on how deep you go in mechanical modeling you can consider things like that.

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Balance does not equate to bland. Though you might conflate balance with equality or sameness, really balance is more that each character class, skill, treasure, power, etc, has strengths, but is balanced by providing a commensurate weakness. That weakness does not have to be direct, but can be from a cycle derived imbalance.

Think about the simple game rock-paper-scissors, and ignore the 'meta-game' strategem that you know that alice always picks rock. There is a cycle where paper > rock, rock > scissors, and scissors > paper. That simple game has balance. Each game element has (ultimate) strength (rock > scissors), and (ultimate) weakness (paper > rock). Expanding the game by adding lizard and spock, and you gain a much more complex game, but with the essential balance preserved. Not a balance of equality, but a balance of opportunity.

Every Rpg and yes, that includes Larp, can have cyclical balance, but the problem is that it takes playtesting, willingness to change and be flexible, and a certain analytical bent. Many folks who play Rpg are analytical, but most Rpg and Larp gamers are very creative. And though analytical and creative are not opposed, they are independent.

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