Get Off My Lawn!!!!! RPG Rant of the Day.

“Fair and Balanced” is not just a Fox News blurb, but a constantly cited principle for RPG game design. But what is balance? An arbitrary viewpoint? Neutral game mechanics? “Fairness”? Often it comes down to personal opinions and long accepted norms established long ago in D&D.

RMU development is a perfect case study in the tension between rethinking a ruleset and an unquestioning loyalty to RPG tropes. The most basic assumptions are often the most discussed: Magic Users can’t wear armor; magic is broken down into 2 or 3 realms; the balanced party (Fighter, Thief, MU, Cleric); Class tropes and the definition of a particular class, etc.

Rolemasterblog has discussed and deconstructed many of these tropes, but it always seems like the fall back argument is “balance”—without ever a real discussion of what balance means. Like most of you, I started playing D&D and AD&D—you know what? That was a broken, unbalanced system. I recall playing a higher level Cleric at a CON and just destroying everything. (Blade Barrier anyone?). It wasn’t fun, it frustrated the DM and while I got all the glory it didn’t feel earned.

Table top RPG games have too many variables to allow for true balance. Players can make unexpected choices, it’s impossible to create encounter parity and role-playing actions can usurp game mechanics. Also, the adventure or GM can emphasize other aspects that rely less upon game mechanics and more on problems solving or role-playing. The problem with “balance” is that it assumes the following paradigm:


This model positions the GM on opposing end with a ruleset balancing the two. This is a false dichotomy, with the main focus on the impact of rules on the player and PC’s.

However, if chasing “balance” is a false choice, then a better mental model switches the positions of “Rules” and “GM”.

This model accepts that no open system can ever be truly “balanced” and recognizes that the GM is the final arbiter AND best able to adjust game flow to handle unpredictable outcomes, player behaviors and rule shortcomings.

I’m less concerned with a PC being able to cast spells AND wear armor, than a flexible set of rules that handle in game action resolution. Profession constraints, skill access and player roles within a group are NOT really RM/RMU game mechanics. The game mechanics are maneuver resolution, skill check resolution, spell resolution and combat resolution. Period. Whether a mage can wear armor or what skill costs should be for a Ranger is purely arbitrary or setting specific and not part of game balance.

“Balance” is the last argument of the scoundrel! So GET OFF MY LAWN!!!!

6 Replies to “Get Off My Lawn!!!!! RPG Rant of the Day.”

  1. As I’ve mentioned before, I always considered RM’s flexibility to be its core virtue, and RMU in my view seems to be taking much of that away.

    That said, balance to me is part of the rules for any game, but it has more to do with hitting a balance between realism and playability, not necessarily some of the other things people like to lump in. And by realism and playability I tend to mean mechanics. I do feel that skill costs can come into some aspects of balance, but they are also subject to setting considerations and other factors and thus should have some innate flexibility or adjustability built into them.

  2. I have never really seen it as a RULES<--GM-->PLAYERS balance or the alternative GM<--RULES-->PLAYERS.

    To me balance needs to exist between the players in the group. As a GM is can create a challenging encounter for 5 1st level healers just as easily as for four 20th level adventurers. The challenges would be different but as soon as I know the target I want to hit then I can build to the specification.

    On the other hand if I have one PC who can fight, heal, fly, go invisible and cast fireballs while a second can barely heal a sprained wrist then creating challenging and exciting games for them will be extremely difficult.

    As you said about your cleric that stole all the glory. That was not good for the rest of the party.

    I like just enough skills so that the characters back story has an impact and shapes character. There is no right number for how many skills that is. That is a GMs call.

    I like just enough realism that combat is bloody and dangerous. How dangerous, again, is the GMs call.

    I need balance though to protect each players investment in their character and make that investment worthwhile.

  3. My view of balance is more like Peter’s I guess. I see balance mostly as balance between characters, with characters on the two sides of the teeter totter.

    That sort of balance though is important to me. The example in the article, of the DnD Cleric, is precisely what my great fear is when balance is not carefully taken into consideration. In DnD, this has become legendary, encapsulated in the term ‘CODzilla’: meaning that anyone that wasn’t a Cleric Or Druid was seriously underpowered. That made for a game that wasn’t much fun.

    I think the RMU design team has done a reasonably good job of trying to achieve balance, in the sense of every character having a moment to shine, or something that s/he is good at. The weakness of lower level pure spell users in earlier editions has been addressed by giving them more PP at the start, and I anticipate further rules changes when Spell Law is finalized. I’ve suggested simplifying the rules so that spells below a caster’s levels take no preparation, spells of a caster’s level take one round, and spells above take two rounds prep.

    The one are I think is still a problem for RMU balance is the spells. Some classes’ spells are well designed and powerful, such as the Paladins. Some classes though have weak or lacklustre ones, most notably the Dabbler. Many posters on the boards agreed that the Dabbler’s spells were lacklustre, and one poster suggested giving them kind of alchemical fire/bombs that I think would have been really neat. I’d also like to see some of the old Druid lists come back, such as Druidstaff and the one that gave them Stones Throw, which were very unique and powerful spells that made the Druid a lot more distinctive than just a generic Channeling Pure Spell user.

    1. “In DnD, this has become legendary, encapsulated in the term ‘CODzilla’: meaning that anyone that wasn’t a Cleric Or Druid was seriously underpowered.”

      Interesting, never knew that was a thing. I’ve basically ignored most other game systems for the last 30 years, and just started catching up on retrospectives for game design theory.

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