Roleplaying

Four Reasons Balance Matters in Roleplaying Games

In the game of real life, stabbing someone in the chest is mad OP.

Game balance is a fuzzy term, but in the broadest sense, it’s the idea that individual elements of a game should have a level of power appropriate to their role. That means if a shortsword does less damage than a longsword, the shortsword needs to have some other quality going for it, or else why would anyone use shortswords? The two weapons must be balanced.

Whenever anyone critiques a roleplaying game for having poor balance, a subset of commenters always chime in that balance isn’t important. These aren’t competitive board games after all, and the point isn’t simply to win, so why does balance matter? Why can’t we just stop with the min-maxing and enjoy the story? It turns out there are a few reasons, and I’m happy to share them with you.

1. Roleplaying Games Are Still Games

Most roleplaying games still have an element of competition in the form of combat.* Some of these, like Dungeons and Dragons or Iron Kingdoms, are designed to be played on a board. Others, like Mouse Guard, are simply mini-games. No matter the style, these combat systems are meant to be exercises in tactics and clever thinking, as players determine the best way to defeat their opponents.

For a competitive game to be fun, it must create interesting choices. If one option is obviously too powerful, the game isn’t as fun because everyone knows to always pick that option. In Mouse Guard, for example, the Attack action is so powerful there’s rarely a reason to use anything else. Conflicts quickly become an exercise in running out the clock while everyone simply mashes the Attack action over and over again. 

This aspect of game balance is more important in systems that focus heavily on combat. Mouse Guard is a diverse enough game that a poorly balanced conflict system isn’t a disaster. The same cannot be said of a more traditional game. In a system like Eclipse Phase,* PCs are likely to spend huge chunks of the session in combat, and poor balance will remove all fun from the experience.

2. Underpowered Characters Aren’t Fun

Your fighter has finally acquired their +1 longsword, and you take your first swing at a menacing kobold. You deal seven damage, a nice, solid hit. Then another PC walks up with their duel-wielding-scimitar-crit-machine, gets twice as many attacks as you, and slays the boss in one round. How does that make you feel?

The truth is that many players* don’t like playing underpowered characters. It’s not a pleasant feeling to know that the half-elf bard you spent hours crafting will never measure up to your friend’s tricked-out combat monster.

Unbalanced systems make this experience far more common, because they introduce traps that look like legitimate options to inexperienced players. The half-elf bard is one such example, long notorious for being the least powerful race/class combination 3.5 D&D had to offer. The same thing can happen to a Fifth-Edition Beastmaster Ranger or a 7th Sea character without enough ranks in Finesse.*

If a player is upset at their character’s underperformance, it does no good to tell them they shouldn’t be upset because this game is about the story and not the numbers. Some players may be perfectly happy playing Xander to another player’s Buffy, but many won’t, and that’s something designers need to account for.

3. Mechanics Create the World

The primary goal of most roleplaying rules is to simulate a kind of story. The rules recreate the atmosphere of whatever tale they’re emulating. Call of Cthulhu is designed to create stories of cosmic horror,* which is why PCs are so fragile in both mind and body. Not only can investigators be torn apart by monsters from the shadows, but their minds can also be unhinged by the very knowledge of such creatures. Meanwhile, Edge of the Empire is designed to capture the epic-adventure narrative of Star Wars, so characters are capable of amazing feats and can take several hits before they go down.

An imbalance distorts the rules, which then distorts the story. In Call of Cthulhu, the rules for automatic weapons are wildly unbalanced. Tommy guns and assault rifles are so strong that they can tear most mythos creatures apart with ease. That’s not how I remember most Lovecraft stories ending. In Edge of the Empire, characters that max out their brawn and pick up a vibro-axe are more powerful than anyone with a blaster, and yet the Empire’s legions of axe-wielding stormtroopers are nowhere to be found in any of the films.

In both examples, the rules encourage behavior that doesn’t match the game’s intent. That can happen in any system. If you design a system that’s supposed to simulate the modern world but include rules making Ford Pintos the best car available, players will wonder why everyone isn’t driving one. 

When balance issues crop up, GMs can either ignore them or create house rules. Ignoring imbalances leads to PCs mowing down Elder Things and to stormtroopers running through the Death Star with axes raised high. House-ruling is usually the better option, but it’s an imperfect process that takes time and energy, something GMs rarely have in abundant supply. It would be better for everyone if the designers had fixed the imbalance before the game hit stores.

4. Power Determines Story

A common thread among roleplaying game discussions is that the only people who care about game balance are those who play optimized murder-hobos, looking to squeeze another attack per round out of their combat builds. Concerns about balance can be dismissed because they don’t affect the true art of roleplaying that is the story. If only that were true.

In reality, players with optimized characters have a great deal more influence on the story than players with weaker characters. Powerful characters succeed on more rolls, so their players can make the story turn out however they want. This has nothing to do with combat. If one PC is super-optimized for diplomacy, they can decide if the elves and dwarves go to war or not, while a PC who doesn’t roll so well will have a more difficult time.

This dynamic is true across nearly all games, even super rules-light ones like Primetime Adventures.* If a game isn’t properly balanced, the problem gets worse. An Eclipse Phase PC who abuses the implant rules to get +50 on Deception rolls can leverage that power to move the story in whatever direction they damn well please.

A vigilant GM can and should take steps to remedy this situation, making sure the less powerful PCs get chances to influence the narrative, but this is another expenditure of time and energy. Whatever is spent correcting for imbalanced rules isn’t spent planning out the most epic story possible. And of course, no GM is perfect. Mistakes will happen, and players who take advantage of imbalanced rules will dominate the story, even if they don’t mean to.


Balance affects every aspect of a roleplaying game. It isn’t the only thing that matters, and poorly balanced games can still be fun, but it’s critical. To say otherwise devalues all the hard work GMs and designers do to balance their games.

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Comments

  1. Chris Sham

    Broadly, this article makes two major errors:
    1. Conflating the narrow combat rules component, with the entire roleplaying game, from technical skills to social encounters to weather and environment generation, and a dozen other unbalanceable elements. (If you want a pure combat game, find and play that instead.)
    2. Shifting the goal posts from “balance is worthwhile in some contexts” to “an entire game is ruined if it is not balanced throughout.”

    These errors seem to be frequent Ashkenazi bugbears, and I’ve objected to them in several previous articles.

    It’s strange that Mythcreants overall is so heavily focused on good story-telling (this is what originally drew me here), and yet Oren keeps trying to pull in the opposite direction, towards bland stories restricted by artificial, unnatural rules that don’t actually help to simulate a realistic world, nor stimulate a good story.

    Just from my own 19-year-long roleplaying career, I’ve had the following excellent experiences with “unbalanced” and “underpowered” characters:

    1. A protestant priest on a 1933 Antarctic exploration expedition, with nothing really to offer but moral guidance and some basic first aid skills. He established himself as a central character that the others respected and cared about, and then died gruesomely to mark the point when the campaign turned from challenging to nightmarish. I’ve never had a more dramatically appropriate character death.

    2. A gnome alchemist in a group of serious munchkin power-gamers. He couldn’t keep up in a fight at all and needed frequent rescuing, but didn’t let that stop him from driving the plot in directions that suited his personal agenda. Treating the physically superior PCs as inferior servants made no sense on paper, but it was played out convincingly enough that he got away with it and rode the others’ prowess to the point that he himself gained enormous political power and wealth.

    3. A campaign built around the Maquis from Star Trek. The PCs were always under-equipped, outnumbered and lacking crucial skills, whether facing Starfleet, Cardassians, or space monsters. This gave a nice contrast with the usual Star Trek sense of preparedness and competence (and balance?). Their inevitable failure wasn’t a sign that the game should have been more balanced, it was an enjoyable, realistic story of an underdog uprising. (There can’t always be an exposed particle exhaust vent to instantly beat the baddies’ super-weapon in one simple step.)

    4. Most of the classic ’80s and ’90s campaigns for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which I’ve GMed several times. There is absolutely no promise in any of them that the players can succeed or even survive, and there’s no promise of any material reward if they do succeed (similar to Call of Cthulhu, but with fewer deus ex machina magic rituals to banish end bosses). This makes for far greater dramatic tension and much deeper character roleplaying, as player characters need to really stop and think through their options, and find better motivations for each other than merely “let’s see if there’s a pile of treasure in that cave”.

    By contrast, I struggle to remember much about the “balanced” characters and campaigns.

    I challenge you to think back on your own most memorable, least balanced roleplaying experiences. Compare this also with characters in non-interactive fiction; how often are the protagonists and antagonists seemingly “unbalanced”, and when does this help or hinder a good story.

    • 3Comrades

      I have to disagree with you. And yes, I too have had enormously fun experiences with underpowered characters, but I also am a huge proponent for balance for one reason… story and mechanics don’t have much to do with each other.

      It’s true. Maybe a handful of games out there have the mechanics actually interact with the story, but normally they are just a determinator system. So unless it’s a dungeon world thing where if X happens in story you can use Y, criticism of mechanics have to come outside of ‘if you roleplay it is all about the story’.

      When I don’t like the rules, me and my players throw out the book and just narrate things. There, yes, balance doesn’t matter because mechanics don’t matter. My favorite game never had any of that come up because it was all about the drama between the characters. Sure, one character was a huge subpar fighter compared to the other two but when combat was reduced to a one liner of “I beat them” that doesn’t really matter.

      Yes, I had a pathfinder game where I loved that my character was horrible, but my fellow players enjoyed I took it so well. I became the straight man with huge wisdom, so I could get them out of the mess, but being just a servant had no say. But there, the enjoyment came from the comedy. Comedy has no stats in pathfinder. We all groaned when combat hit because it was long and boring, what made my character shine was comedic gold.

      And the truth is that all the cases you described can be put on the GM and the players…you know the elements that don’t come with the game? The worst games I ever played were unbalanced and had GMs that played the game “straight” like the game presents itself in books. Not saying some games Can’t work with unbalance, some do. But the vast majority don’t.

      If we only care about the story when criticizing games, then all nearly all systems are terrible. They all limit what you can do and place arbitrary rules. If I can tell infinite amount of stories with no rules at all, then what’s the point in having any rules or buying any games? I’ve had players say they love a system until I sat down and explained that we just use the world, the rules sucked so I gutted them and just added narrative componenets. I would be insane to think the system was good because I made it fun for the players.

      We can’t reward systems for having good GMs. We reward systems that if played “straight” are fun. And part of that is proper balance. Story can be good with the worst mechanics out there, so that doesn’t enter the equation of a good game. Players failing can be a great game, but it would easily send one of my players into a blind rage, and the other into a fit of tears. Play styles and set up have to do wth players and GMs, something few game mechanics touch on.

      So when criticizing how Systems and mechanics work then yes, balance matters. What a good GM and a great group of players can do with a bad system doesn’t matter at all. Either criticizing any RPG is worthless and owning any rpg different from another is worthless because y’know story doesn’t really enter into the equation, or mechanics can be criticized for not holding up/not being balanced.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        That’s a good point 3Comrades, I really like your line about not rewarding systems for having good GMs.

        But I would contend it’s actually *more* important for systems where mechanics influence the story to be balanced.

        For example: In Mouse Guard (one of my favorite games), you can influence the story by setting conflict goals. If I were a well built Diplomancer, I would set a goal like “If I win this argument, the Rat Army will join us against the Weasels.”

        That’s a big influence on the story, and it’s great that I can do that. But if my Diplomancer is using unbalanced options that make me way better at arguments than other PCs, it gives me much greater control over the story than the other players.

        Now, it’s always possible that the other players don’t care, in which case great I can argue to my heart’s content. But if they were expecting a more equitable share of influence over the story, we’re gonna run into problems.

        • Bronze Dog

          As a video game fan as well as a tabletop player, I have to add that mechanics can be a subtle but powerful force for telling a story. That makes it important that rules match the tone of the setting. I’ve spent a lot of time playing systems that reward being an action hero, but as my tastes change, I’m studying up on Chronicles of Darkness (nWoD). I can see how the system wants to reinforce the setting’s horror mindset. I could try doing urban fantasy horror with D20 rules, but I suspect the power fantasy the mechanics encourage would slip through.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            You’re absolutely right. It’s difficult to make your party fear a vampire when all their mechanics are built around kicking vampire ass.

          • 3Comrades

            Oh I completely agree that rules are there to support the story and that is actually the core of having rules. I collect rpgs so I don’t actually think they are the same. But I do believe that a GM able to pull things off shouldn’t be an excuse for games.

            Although unrelated, Monte Cook did his own version of WoD that is pretty loved with d20 rules if you are interested.

  2. Jesse

    Game balance really is important, up to a point. A clear example of poor balance is D&D 3.5/Pathfinder, where there are so many traps that an unwary player can easily make a bad character without even realizing it. Any character using a two handed weapon needs to take power attack, which for some reason is not a class ability/option but a feat. And why does the great axe exist, exactly?

    Or take the significant difference in regular bows vs crossbows. A composite longbow is great because you can buy/craft one to add your strength and it’s really easy to get a load of attacks. But a similarly built character who uses a crossbow has to use several feats to be as effective (and in so being, will be the equivalent of a few levels behind). Sure, house rules can fix this, (my personal favorite in Pathfinder is to make the Vital Strike feat work with crossbows, thus making them really useful against Damage Reduction and making them an equally viable option compared to a composite bow, but still unique) but that really shouldn’t be necessary. Especially not as often as needed in 3.5/Pathfinder.

    And I don’t buy the “simulation argument” that crossbows should be slower to shoot because of real life. This is a game with hit points where people can get stepped on by a dragon and not die. So…yeah, not so realistic.

    In a game like D&D 3.5/Pathfinder, combat balance is important, because most games spend a lot of time in combat and even at mid levels combat can last a really long time. If you make the character that’s awful at combat on accident, that isn’t fun. It may be nice to be able to get a great deal when buying stuff or convince the king to listen to you, but that’s only so useful when a troll wants to eat you, then, strangely, boredom ensues for that player.

    Of course, you can go too far the other direction and end up with D&D 4.0, where every class is basically the same thing in a different hat. Ideally you end up with different options that are approximately equally viable and unique enough that each seems interesting, at least to someone.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh, I love the bow vs crossbow example. There are so many advantages to using a crossbow that the game doesn’t represent. Much greater stopping power, much easier to aim (point and click), the ability to keep a bolt loaded for long periods of time (with a bow your arm will start to shake if you draw back the string for more than a few seconds).

      So if it’s not going to represent those, why is it representing a crossbow’s slower loading time?

      • Jesse

        I’m not sure why they gave crossbows the shaft. At least in 3.5 low level spell casters could use them as backup when they were out of spells. Since Pathfinder has infinite cantrips, crossbows don’t really have a purpose anymore. Which brings up another point about game balance, a change in spell casting can make a weapon useless. The more complex a game is, the more likely a small tweak (such as a house rule) can accidentally make a problem worse or cause a brand new problem that needs to be addressed.

        That’s why I’ve started to prefer games with simpler rules. It’s alot easier to fix something when a problem arises (and there tends to be fewer problems, as the developer probably had time to actually playtest everything).

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          If you want a system where the crossbow is properly represented, I would recommend Burning Wheel. A crossbow bolt will absolutely ruin your day.

          I also feel ya on the simpler systems. I love me some crunch, but games with fewer rules are a lot easier to deal with.

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