The Basics: Game Balance

Game balance is a term that is bandied about all sorts of gaming industries, not just the RPG industry.  It is used in the board game industry, the video game industry and in fact most game industries use this term like it is the be all and end all of their game.  The thing is though is that it is a very important thing.

Let me talk about the effect that the game balance has in a game.  The game balance is the thing that makes you nervous when your character takes an action that is uncertain.  When my summoner Coltyn enters a new room and sends Grellyk (his Eidolon) to do a reconnaissance I get that feeling in my stomach.  What will happen?  Will I succeed?

Balance is a very carefully considered thing in games

That is the effect of game balance, it builds a tension that makes a game fun to play.  If a game had no uncertainty then it would not really be a game.  But that is aanother conversation which could fill books!  What is a game?  Not such a simple question when you scratch the surface.

Most games build this balance with the mechanics.  A game of Pathfinder (and most d20 games) build that balance with the centralised roll of the d20 against a target number and the random effect.  This mechanic is finely tuned and also thoroughly understood.  Balance of battles is carefully managed and tested thoroughly.  The special abilities of spells, monster abilities and classes are all measured carefully to make sure that they fit at the levels that they are intended for use.

Take for example a Staff of Power.  This is an item intended for magicians at the height of their power.  As they close in on twentieth level they may get their hands on it and truly increase their legend.  But give one to a 1st level mage and find out how that item unbalances the game.  As you throw swarms of CR 1 encounters the magician does not even break a sweat.  The game gets boring because there is no real challenge anymore and you may as well be watching a movie.

I have of course broken this down to a simple level because game balance is really a very complicated idea.  This post is really just a way to introduce the idea of the concept to new players and GM’s alike.  The reason for that is if you alter ideas and rules you need to work out if the ideas you are playing with are integral with the game balance.  Handing a Staff of Power to a 1st Level character is not a great idea, but what if it was at hand with only one charge?  It can generate excitement, and then maybe they save the magician who owns the staff and they take it back.

So you see, game balance is a thing that is intangible at times but well considered by designers who create these games.  I almost guarantee that you will find a section in most RPG’s that tell you to play with the rules if you want and that is good advice, but make sure that the changes you make enhance the game and don’t hurt the game.  Keep rolling!

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