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.