being the mental wanderings of Collie Collier
Copyright © 1994 B. A. "Collie" Collier
I'd like to thank a number of people who've either made helpful commentary or forced me to see things I'd have otherwise missed. Without their input I would not have been able to personally work out the following issue for the games I'm in: Elizabeth McCoy (who also sent me relevant posts from the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.frp.gurps, so thanks to those anonymous people also), Bob Simpson, Ann "Nonie" Rider, Bob Quinlan, Mark Bailey, Bram "Bramster the Hamster" Ambrose, Scott "Scooter" Ruggels, and David "Dobie" Hoberman.
When we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free. --Charles Evans Hughes
For the purposes of this zine, "game balance" will be defined as:
When one (or a small group) of players control enough of the important elements of the game that they can -- and do -- use this superiority to control the action of the game.
How does one keep some sort of apparent parity between the PCs in a game? When one PC has the most money, or dramatically more experience points, or owns the macguffin, or whatever, will a game imbalance invariably occur? How does one prevent a game imbalance from occurring? Is this important?
There are two ways I've seen that apparent game imbalances might occur: a wide difference in capabilities within the PC party, and inequalities in conceptual power levels due to background differences in the PCs. Neither of them are invariably game-destructive, although both of them can be quite annoying if poorly handled. A creative GM can use them to enhance his world. On the other hand, these problems can also shatter a game.
The sleep of reason produces monsters. --Francisco Goya
The "too many eeps" issue is the easiest to address and the simplest to explain. When you have a party with both beginning and experienced PCs, there is obviously going to be a difference in PC skill and abilities. This does not have to be a problem if the GM is creative. However, the GM who simply denies there's a problem is lying to herself.
Problems of character imbalance due to wildly varying point totals can be exacerbated by which game system is used. For all that the various forms of D&D had their problems, the "level system" had its uses. If a new PC came along, a few runs with other, highly powerful PCs would even things out quickly. If a newbie whacked the monster even just once, she got to share in the points for killing it, and would go through the lower experience levels quite quickly. However the higher level PCs went up in levels more slowly, since they needed more points to do so.
Unfortunately "modern" mechanics systems like Hero and GURPS don't make it significantly more difficult for experienced characters to improve. If your PC has a huge number of points less than everyone else, your PC will always have a huge number of points less than everyone else. Hero makes no attempt to deal with this problem at all. GURPS tries to alleviate it with increasing costs for skills as one increases in ability in that skill, but this is not a perfect solution -- the beginning player is still and always x number of points behind. I know of no character build-point systems (aside from GURPS) that even attempt to mechanically solve the numerical imbalance problem.
The only way I've seen to consistently resolve point imbalance is for the GM to lend a hand. Starting a new PC up in an already established world with already extant PCs can be daunting. If all the problems your group meets are easily and quickly solved by a more experienced PC, you may begin to wonder why your PC is there. This situation is not helped when the GM puts in something tough enough to challenge the experienced PC -- something that would easily and messily slaughter any newbie unfortunate enough to stumble across it! When you're that much less effective than some of the other PCs, it's quite natural to wonder why your PC is in the group -- everyone else can do everything you can do, and better. Believe me, I've been there, and it's boring.
Imagine a game with brand new PCs -- and some very experienced PCs. Quick stats: the game is a "house rules" creation based on Hero system. New players have 175 points + disadvantages to build their PCs with. The older PCs also have all their experience points -- an indeterminate amount (as in the older players were told by the GM to stop bragging and not say exactly -- it "wasn't important"). However, from comments made in the game, one of the experienced PCs has 100 points more than the other PCs (a huge amount in this Hero home-brew rules-set), and another has more points than all the new PCs added together! A comment overheard during character creation: "Hmm... the fastest new guys are SPD 5? Okay... how's this then. I'll lower my SPD one point -- to 7. But... I think I'll buy up my DEX to compensate me for the loss. And more magic spells, I think... I've got a whole bunch of unspent points still."
This needn't have been a problem. Some points difference isn't a bad thing. In one gaming group I know of, you always get the same number of points for a new character in each new campaign. On occasion frequent character turn-over occurs -- in one of their campaigns, one person brought in three new characters. Also sometimes old characters from different campaigns are retired. In all cases, it's a 100 point new character that gets brought in. Huge point imbalances amongst PCs almost never occur, and character specialization makes sure that point differences don't become a problem.
My correspondent from that group noted that bringing in new PCs this way seemed to work okay -- at least so long as the newbie doesn't have his heart set on being better than one of the other PCs, in that more experienced PC's specialty. I quote:
Whining from the player [about having fewer points than everyone else] is a serious danger signal that the person doesn't want to role-play -- he wants to power-game. ... If the starting number of points is sufficient to create a decent character, then is it a penalty? Is it even noticed?
She feels that proper character design will make point differences irrelevant.
I should note that point differences per se aren't the real culprit in unbalancing a game. It's easy to have a character with a huge number of points fit comfortably within a lower point level team of characters -- just make sure most of the experienced character's points aren't overwhelmingly in one power or skill. One of my favorite PCs had a huge number of points, but was so broadly defined that she didn't do any one thing overwhelmingly well. True, she was a tough little monster to fight, but she had the same attack and defense abilities she'd had at game's beginning. Her points were all in other things -- she had an enormous number of skills (none at outrageous levels), perks, contacts, and other interesting game baggage.
If the GM wishes to have all her players at the same approximate point level, there are some ways to accomplish this. One way is to simply hand the new player a larger chunk of points to start with. This immediately puts everyone at about the same point total. However, this doesn't allow for character quirks that are inspired by game-play. Also, this type of points expenditure tends to encourage massive, straightforward "whack-the-monster" types of powers, rather than a multitude of more subtle and interlocking skills and abilities.
If having a huge chunk of points is not how the other PCs are designed, you might want to simply disallow powers or abilities above a certain number of points. Or you might want to work with the new player to "evolve" the character: build it on the same base number of points as everyone else had. Once that's done, allow a certain number of points to be spent, in stages, to model a gradual "evolution" of the character to the level of the other PCs.
Another way to handle point differences between new and old PCs is for the GM to arbitrarily give the new player a few more points each time eeps are awarded. For example: at the end of an adventure everyone gets 2 eeps -- except for the new player, who gets three. At some point, this will no longer be necessary -- the new PC will be able to hold her own, points-wise, with the long-standing characters, without warping the character concept.
Let's check again the game example given above. To quickly recap: we've got several completely green PCs, and several very experienced PCs. What else can the GM do to deflect any potential new player frustration? My correspondent writes:
Wheeeeee! That almost sounds like the GM should think about doing another campaign -- maybe in the same world, but with different characters who are all at the same level. Maybe after a little adventuring, the more experienced characters could join up with the older ones...
Start everyone with new characters -- a simple solution, but a good one. And, as my correspondent pointed out, at some point the experienced, previous players' PCs could be returned into the group with the new players' now-more-powerful PCs. However, as another correspondent noted:
Based on the groups I've played with over the years, tossing out old characters and starting from scratch to accommodate a new player would not be an acceptable option. For many of the players, long-term character development was the big payoff to role-playing. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Starting with all new characters would probably be most helpful when approximately half or more of the players are new. For only one or two new players in a group, I've seen the "a few more eeps for the newbies" technique work marvelously well.
There are other possibilities, of course. For example, during character creation the players and GM could be very careful to make sure there were strong intercharacter personality and skill differences. Doing this would prevent the newbies from being left with nothing to do, due to constantly being overshadowed in abilities by the older PCs. These kinds of differences may also require the PCs to have totally different points of view on life, or totally different powers, or something similar. As my correspondent exemplified it:
Okay, Super Mage will extinguish the fire, while New Speedy will zip around and check for people who look suspicious, like they might have set the fire.
This solution could potentially produce a group with nothing in common. Obviously great care would be necessary during character creation, in order to make a smoothly running team of connected PCs.
Another solution would be to make the old, experienced player need the other PCs in some way. If the players feel their new PCs are useless and pointless, why would they want to play? But if they feel they are an essential and valued part of a team, why would they want to leave?
T'lum Unud is physically a human, but culturally a troll. His father was a slave of the trolls. When very young T'lum was marked as favored by the troll god, and was raised as a paladin. Humans that meet him notice that he wears slightly peculiar armor, and his body language is subtly off. This would mark him if he were alone -- but he does not stand out that much in a group of adventurers. Thus, he needs the other PCs -- as camouflage. Also, he is a powerful fighter with a few clerical type spells -- but he's only one man. A few mages and fighters round out the PC team nicely -- and are necessary and valued members of the team.
One of my correspondents had another suggestion:
The other option would be to bring the new characters in as students of the old characters -- the oldsters have to play mentor, protector, and teacher to the newbies. This would mean there'd be times when the oldsters would step aside 'and let the student try'! ... Meanwhile, the mentor would probably be getting most of his/her points in Teaching skill!
In reference to the exorbitantly better PC in the game I mention above, my correspondent notes:
With someone who's that megagood in some way, all new characters either have to be apprenticed to that character (and therefore on the fast track to being able to do [similar things], or to enable both [the new and old PCs] to do even bigger, better things), or so totally different that they never come into 'conflict' like that.
I rather like this suggestion. It explains why such comparatively rank amateurs are around -- they're in training. The more experienced character(s) could take on all the problems that are presented by the GM, but they won't, because the newbies need the practice. Since the new characters would be doing most of the work, they could naturally get a few more eeps each game. Given time, the huge points difference would be softened, and everyone could start playing together, as a team of equals.
He is always the severest censor of the merit of others who has the least worth of his own. --Elias Lyman Maggon
Another potential difficulty for GMs is background differences amongst the characters. PCs from different social classes are the most obvious version of this seeming imbalance. As a quick example, if everyone is nobility except for one guttersnipe PC, there may be some problem including the alley-rat in your average run.
Status problems are most easily solved by the GM being alert during character creation, and making everyone from comparable social classes. However, this is neither required, nor a given. Campaigns with wide differences in social class can be both entertaining and challenging to run and play in, so long as this doesn't polarize the group or marginalize one player. As one correspondent wrote:
One thing that seemed helpful to me was framing the campaign at the very beginning as something akin to an ensemble cast TV show ("Hill Street Blues," "ER," etc.). That way everyone knew they'd get their share of 'screen time' overall, even if they weren't critical to the immediate plot thread. A couple groups I did this with were so good that after a plot thread was resolved, they'd actually decide by consensus which character would be the focus of the next one.
Thus one could have PCs that were of varying levels of influence, status, or class, within an 'ensemble' PC group or team. To continue with "ER" as an example: doctors, EMTs, cops, nurses, social workers, and medical technicians all have different statuses and influence in the hospital game setting. However, if you have a good GM and players, several of those different types of people could all be in the same game. As the same correspondent added later in his note:
Realistically, though, I think this was more a function of having really good players with decent social skills, more than anything I did.
A good group can overcome differences in status -- but they must all work together. All it takes is one player refusing to "play along," and a heretofore marvelous game can be ruined.
So how might one use differences in status interestingly? Let's use a fantasy perspective, since I've had that genre referred to me as one of the most problematic concerning this problem. Perhaps the guttersnipe has a noble, secretive, and eccentric patron or lover. Perhaps a "Prince and the Pauper" or "Prisoner of Zenda" situation occurs, and the alley-rat will need help from the other PCs, or risk exposure. Or the GM could have some dramatic change of fortune be a part of the game: the guttersnipe is recognized as the long-lost child of the Duke of Something-or-Other, or a natural or man-made disaster impoverishes the noble PCs. Maybe the guttersnipe has somehow acquired (or is) a valuable macguffin that is desperately needed by an NPC noble. Whether that NPC is friend or foe is up to the GM, of course, but in each of these situations a difference in social station has been interestingly included in the game.
Because I'm nosy- er, For variety's sake, I asked one of my correspondents much the same question:
[W]hat do you do when there's an apparent imbalance amongst the characters, e.g. one of the PCs is the only millionaire in the group, or one of the PCs has contacts out the wazoo and the others don't?
Her reply was right on the mark, as far as I was concerned:
I think that you can have both of those and have no problem, unless the millionaire/contact-happy person lords it over the others in some way -- buying their way out of trouble at all opportunities, hiring a special ops team better than the PCs, doing all the talking in an adventure such that there's nothing for the others to do... Or even just the player being a snot about it. ... For a character with Contacts... that probably won't hurt unless he's got the equivalent of an unlimited Favor advantage -- i.e., he can get people to do things for him, making the rest of the group superfluous.
One potentiality for the Wealth thing is that the other characters could/should buy that character as a Patron, take a Duty, and the Millionaire should be encouraged to take a Sense of Duty (employees). If everyone has the same package, give them extra points or something to cover it exactly, and say it's a mandatory package for the campaign.
I thought this was a creative solution -- not only is instant team cohesion accomplished, but there's also the possibility of a few more interesting personality quirks for the characters. Role-playing would be encouraged.
There is one other factor the GM must consider in this type of gaming situation -- the players. Another correspondent of mine notes:
You make some good suggestions about creative ways to use unequal power/status to actually enrich the game. These are great, but I believe they also require good players to make them work. ...as an example, I recall running a Bushido game where the players all rolled randomly for caste. Not surprisingly, we had a ridiculous spread across the spectrum. One fellow had a ninja, who was travelling with a very idealistic samurai -- not necessarily a problem for a good ninja, who would assume an appropriate disguise and do his real work in the shadows. The player (who was not so good :), had his character walk right up to the samurai and announce, "Hi! I'm a ninja! I can kill people in their sleep for you!" Sigh. I stopped using random tables soon after that, at least for rigid caste cultures.
Well... perhaps the ninja's player was trying to be helpful? :-)
Unfortunately, I find I agree with him: you may be the most wonderful GM/player possible; you may do everything imaginable to enrich the game and try to increase the enjoyment of all the other people involved... but in the end it depends on -- the other people. For the GM and the players, the other players are the ultimate determining factor in this kind of situation.
Say a postulated solution is fine with all the players but one, and that person chooses to bitch and moan about it. I'd have to say you should get rid of her. If that player can't think of anything that all the other players and the GM like (e.g. she's the sister of the powerful and employing PC in a game thats going to have differences in status as an integral part of the game world), then that player is going to be trouble for that campaign. A creative GM can offer solutions and/or present interesting problems. They can't force someone to not be a jerk, or to not use their background abusively. As a correspondent points out:
In my limited experience, play balance has only seldom been an issue. When it has, it typically has centered around one or two players, and it was not responsive to game-level fixes.
To put it bluntly: if there're serious problems, it's probably really based on a problem between two or more of the people involved... and it's going to take serious efforts on the GM's part to fix it -- if it can be fixed.
However, there are some things a good GM can do to try to ameliorate problem situations, since it's not always an argument between two or more players. As one correspondent pointed out:
If you have a player who doesn't realize she/he is demanding a disproportionate share of gaming time on "center stage," and ... the other players are going to be unhappy with it, it's going to be problematic[emphasis mine].
Sometimes a player just needs a little encouragement or a request to ease off for a bit -- they may not even be aware they're causing problems! That type of person is easy to work with.
Also, make sure the game doesn't revolve around that player's PC. For example, if you have a millionaire PC in your game, put in situations where there are no ATMs immediately available, or it's after business hours, or the currency is foreign. More amusingly, perhaps supers could get caught without their ATM cards in their costumes, or discover that someone else's powers wipe magnetic strips! In a science fiction campaign, you could have your players be out on the fringes of known space, exploring. To quote a correspondent:
...we're often entirely out of contact with the rest of the universe, and definitely out of quick 'oh, deliver a pizza and a nuclear aircraft carrier' range.
The "barbarian lands" would fulfill the same purpose in a fantasy campaign.
In the case of a PC with a huge number of contacts, perhaps a contact gives information that she doesn't know is false, or the contact is being blackmailed by someone else. Or perhaps the PC does have a contact here -- but it's someone she jilted, or owes money to. This type of thing was nicely done in one of the Star Wars movies, where Han Solo meets Lando Calrissian -- and isn't sure if Lando is friend or foe!
The GM should also make sure the other players get a chance to shine. There should be things that only the streetwise kid can get, or places where there are no people -- and thus no contacts. No one PC should be the answer to all the group's problems.
An alternative response to the 'differing statuses' problem in a game is for the GM to have everyone come up with a variety of characters of differing 'classes.' That way, no matter which group of PCs is being played on any particular night, they will all be of the same social class and/or interests. Shadowrun and Ars Magica are both game systems that can encourage this sort of multiple character/single player solution.
A player in a game with potential imbalances has some options open to her also. As my correspondent notes:
[Go to your GM] and suggest that you'd like to see more games with x, where x is a bit more interesting to the characters in general. Perhaps [you could] GM a session (or a one-shot, with different characters entirely) that has the quality of x in it. Ask the GM if she'd like any suggestions as to how to do x. ... And if the GM's style/experience just won't manage to grasp the way to do [this] (which is sort of like explaining how to paint to a cat), seek a new game or new campaign.
As she notes later, sometimes GMs don't even know they're putting this kind of favoritism in their games -- and sometimes helpful suggestions are gratefully accepted.
Keep in mind that I've listed only a few variants on this problem. Left untended, such a situation can breed resentment amongst your players. Whatever your game's situation may be, remember that it's not insurmountable, and that it can be used to add richness to the game.
I know but one freedom and that is the freedom of the mind. --Antoine de Saint-Exupiry
As referee you are the ultimate arbiter of your game. It moves and grows according to your directions, and it will reflect your management. Don't let your players decide for you that there is an overwhelming problem in your game. You are the one that sets up the game's situations, and with player input you can change things, if you wish. If one of the players feels their character is pointless and useless, then probably discussion with you is the best way to fix that. Ignoring it certainly won't fix anything. Also, if you really want your game to succeed, be part of character creation. That's the best way I know of to make sure each PC is hooked into your game.
If you've got one player making everyone else's life miserable, don't let them. Talk to them, evict them if necessary. You don't have to be a tyrant in order to do this. If it makes you feel more comfortable, think of yourself as a GMing 'editor' when you tell a player that your game will be run in the fashion you wish.
It is true that keeping these kinds of potentially unstabilizing situations in balance is not easy. As GM, your work will be cut out for you. It requires a lot of creativity to come up with situations that challenge everyone in the game. Also, it's never fun to have to ask someone to leave. I know from personal experience that it's very easy to procrastinate; to hope that a situation will improve any day now, or that a player will finally learn some flexibility. Real communication isn't easy, and isn't always possible. In spite of all this, I don't want to give up. I still feel that if you give your imagination free rein, in the long run your game and/or your fellow players can only benefit.
All very reasonable sounding, yes? *sigh* I'd like to think that reason would win out -- I've never believed in lowest common denominator gaming ["Player X doesn't know how to play such-and-such a role -- so you can't either."]. Unfortunately, I've also seen far too many games shatter due to one or more of the players feeling their character(s) are worthless within the game. This usually happens because one or more players chose to fight each other rather than creatively discuss the perceived problem, in order to come up with some acceptable compromise. One of my correspondents noted:
The more I think about it, the more strongly I feel group social skills are the real determining factor.
I'd have to say I agree -- ultimately it boils down to how you and your group feels and games together. If it isn't fun, why are you doing it?Comments on previous Interregnums, all mixed up together: Firestarter #6 comments.
Last Updated: Tues Mar 24 1998