Just For Fun: Tabletop RPGs – Game Balance OR World Trumps Rules


I've been a roleplaying gamer since 1977, when I first encountered Dungeons and Dragons – unless you count the venerable game of "let's pretend", which I was playing from the time I was 4 or 5, and even had some rules for to minimize the arguments. I discussed my initial encounter with commercial RPGs, and the influence it had on my life, in this prior entry: http://grandcentralarena.com/under-the-influence-roleplaying-games-rpgs/

In this entry, though, I want to talk about running RPGs and how I view this extremely challenging hobbyist task. I'll start by just clarifying a few basic concepts and terms (although I suspect most people reading this won't need the help) before moving on to the main discussion.

In an RPG context, "running" the game means being the person who directs the game in one sense or another. In classic D&D, this person was called the DM (Dungeon Master); a more generic term that I tend to use is GM (Game Master) as that applies to running any RPG campaign, be it a D&D fantasy game or a space opera campaign. Other games have their own particular name for the position, such as "Storyteller" for World of Darkness games (Vampire: The Masquerade, etc.).

A GM is in a position that ranges from "Improv Movie Director" to "Playing God Almighty" depending on the precise game and the expectations of the players. It is the GM's job to create the world in which the action of the game will take place, design the characters and other beings that the players' characters will interact with, determine the circumstances that surround what the characters are doing, and in short be prepared to bring the world around the characters to life with their descriptions and dialogue.

In many games, some of this work may be done for them by the game companies, as most if not all RPG companies have their own vision of the world or worlds their games are meant to be played in, and will market worldbooks and adventure outlines/modules to the players. Even with such resources, however, a GM is still going to be doing a lot of work running the game, as they have to mediate the events in the game – combats, discussions with characters who may be allies or adversaries of the players' characters, success or failure of their attempts to achieve goals ranging from picking a lock to casting a powerful magical spell, piloting an unfamiliar ship, negotiating a treaty with a suspicious foreign power, or trying to paint a masterpiece on canvas for presentation to a local lord.

(I'll note that there are a few gaming groups I know of that do not have a true "GM" – they run what amounts to an ensemble game. I'm unfamiliar with how they resolve the issues that I have generally seen require a GM, however, so I won't be discussing them here)

The players, in general, control the creation (with the GM's approval/input) of their characters, the portrayal of these characters, and their decisions and actions. In writing terms, usually the Player Characters (PCs) are the main characters of the story told by the game, while the Nonplayer Characters (NPCs) are the secondary characters or antagonists or, often, background characters of the story.

Whether I am playing or running a game, I like to achieve as much "immersion" as possible in the world of the game – to try to be the character, to envision the world I am playing in as real, to act and react as the character, or as a GM to facilitate this in my players, so that for a few moments they feel they are on Zarathan, looking up at the Ice Peaks looming before them, glittering diamond-clear mountains throwing rainbow-shattered light across their faces. To momentarily LIVE in the world created is one of the highest goals of many roleplayers.

Like the GM position itself, of course, this is not true for all. There are at least a fair number of RPG gamers who are "beer and pretzels" gamers, treating it more as a casual amusement in the center of a social gathering. For such gamers, the following discussion would be of relatively little value, because immersion isn't going to be a major goal.

If you do like immersive play, you need to try to avoid things that break that immersion – that draw your attention to the game (or the world outside the game) rather than the story, the events within the game. There are naturally many things that can do that, ranging from unexpected phone calls to clashing musical choices (for those who use music in their games) or mistakes/unexpected and apparently out-of-character behavior by other players.

By far the largest source for me and many other players, however, is world clash – when either the rules themselves, or something about the world, forces the play to stop and the players to have to ask questions not about what they see or hear, but about how the world is working, why the rules are doing particular things. That is, it's not terribly immersion breaking to interject a question like "How far across does Ragnar think the chasm is?", but it is immersion-breaking to have to ask "Why can't I just jump across this canyon when I just jumped twice that far in the previous adventure?"

As with writing fiction, consistency is one of the most important aspects of a functioning RPG world. The players need to know that the world behaves like a world – that the rules the characters live by (which may be modeled by, but are not identical to, the rules the players work with)are going to stay the same, that logical consequences or extrapolations of their behavior will tend to work out, and so on.

This, however, hasn't always been a focus of RPG designers and worldbuilders. The classic example, going back to the original D&D, is the "mages in armor" rule. Under the original D&D rules (and continuing until Third Edition), magic-users simply could not wear armor. If they did, they couldn't cast spells. As a rule in isolation, there wasn't anything specifically wrong with it.

However, it didn't actually make much sense. There was no explanation for why mages couldn't wear armor, or rather, there were several, none of which held up under any examination. For example, some argued that it had to do with armor affecting the gestures and movement of the mage, that they couldn't perform their magic while hampered in the slightest bit by the armor. Leaving aside the fact that relatively light armors can be shown to interfere very little in these areas, that argument would imply that anything which interfered with a mage's accurate movement or balance should prevent them from doing magic – yet there was no penalty for wearing heavy winter clothing (which restricts movement at least as much as a chain shirt) or a backpack so heavy the mage was practically staggering under its weight.

Another explanation was that it was the metal in the armor that interfered with magical casting; however, that implied that mages couldn't carry much money around with them, and that non-metallic armors (dragon scales, tough leather, etc.) should be just fine, yet the game didn't have these consequences either.

Now, the reason for the rule – and quite a few more rules in D&D and other RPGs – was fairly straightforward: "game balance". The basic thinking was that since the mages got the advantage of being able to sling magic around, they needed something to weaken them with respect to the fighter types, so the mages were restricted in the weapons and armor they could use to give the fighters an advantage. It was also a "role enforcer" – it kept the mages to the stereotype of robed/lightly dressed guys waving their arms and using staves and the fighters to the ideal of the Knight, dressed in strong armor and with massive weapons to deal out death.

For me, the problem was that I really didn't – and to this day don't – accept the basic postulate that "game balance" came from having the right set of rules. It was many years before I could articulate why this was so, however, and it turns out there are two major reasons:

  1. All sets of rules are built with inherent assumptions about how people will play the game. This is true in pretty much all games. In games with a small enough set of rules, and sufficiently constrained universe of play – Monopoly, for instance – the assumptions in the rules will effectively cover any quirks of play, or simply reveal that some choices are better than others and players of the game will live with it; even Tic-Tac-Toe has inherently better choices (the center square) than others, even though it is possible to win against an inexperienced opponent without immediately taking that square.

    In more complex games, however, this tends to lead to problems due to conflicts between the designers' assumptions/blind spots and those of the universe of players who knew nothing of the designers and didn't share their assumptions. The release of Magic: The Gathering drove this home rather emphatically when a number of cards that had seemed perfectly reasonable and balanced to the entire in-house set of playtesters turned out to offer hideously effective combinations in play which had simply never occurred to the in-house playtesters because of the assumptions about the cards' purposes and use that they had all shared, but that which were not part of the assumptions of the hundreds of thousands of players who had just picked up the game at a store.

    For RPGs the problem is even worse; Magic, at least, is still a game with a clear set of arbitrary rules governing its use and an absolutely clear-cut set of win/loss conditions. This doesn't apply to any RPG; the universe of possible choices is effectively as huge as the number of different player/character combinations, and even win/loss conditions vary wildly – even "death" isn't necessarily a loss for a character who dies in a way that their player finds satisfying. Similarly, groups of players may have very different purposes in playing even if they are immersive – ranging from pure escapist heroism to psychological catharsis – and as such will choose to play very different characters with very different goals and approaches.

    Ultimately, this means that the rules of an RPG, designed with the assumptions of a particular group of gamer/designers, can only truly be balanced in that group, or those that share all of the key assumptions of the designing group, especially because many of the assumptions in the rules are unconscious. A set of rules built with the unspoken assumption that all your players will play shining heroes will break down when you have players that want to play gritty anti-heroes who make uses of various powers and abilities that were assumed to never be used by PCs, (or at least never used THAT way) and so on.

  2. A world is too big for any set of rules. In theory, an RPG takes place in a world that is as real as the one we live in; the players are able to choose to be pretty much anyone in that world, with any set of motivations, interests, and world-appropriate abilities.

    By necessity, the rules can only abstract elements of the world, and generally only a tiny, tiny portion of the world, for two reasons: first, if you had rules for everything – how your character breathes, chews food, turns their head – you'd never be able to get anything actually accomplished in the game. Second, because people – the players – prefer to control, themselves, a large portion of their interactions with the world, and not simply follow some set of codified rules. The basic purpose of RPG rules is – at its heart – to eliminate the basic flaw of the original children's "RPG" we call "pretending", where Jane says "I hit you" and Jenna says "No you din't!". Thus, rules are really only meant to be used to clarify interactions with the world and characters, and provide decisionmaking tools for the players and GM to use. Because of this, they are, of necessity, relatively sparse even in the most vast and picky of game systems.

    Moreover, the effectively analog nature of a real world, or the envisioned fantasy world, will always utterly defeat the limited powers of a descriptive or prescriptive ruleset, unless part of the ruleset explicitly cuts off the complexity available to the players – the general solution used by CRPGs (Computer or Console RPGs – video games like Fallout, Final Fantasy, Skyrim, etc.). In computer games there are explicit limits in what you CAN do which allows the rules to cover the entirety of world behavior. For instance, if you have to open a safe, you can only do so by means envisioned by, and then programmed in – i.e., explicitly contained within the rules of the game. If the designers only allow you to open it with the proper key (from some particular NPC) or by "safecracking" skill, then even if your character has demonstrated superhuman strength and power you can't even attempt to force the safe open.

    In a tabletop RPG, by contrast, the GM is expected to permit the players to try any approach to solve the problems or address the goals presented in game. Sure, they may expect the players to attack the goblins and kill them, then discovering a scroll on one of them that gives a clue as to where the bad guy's stronghold is, but there is absolutely nothing stopping the players from trying to take the goblins alive, or even negotiate with them for the information, or even deciding they're going to change sides and work for Mr. Evil!

    Rules cannot encompass such an unbounded universe of choices. Thus, they cannot enforce game balance because there will always be a nigh-infinite number of choices, or combinations of choices, made by the players that are either not addressed by the rules, or, as previously, go against the rule's unspoken assumptions.

Because of this, my position has always been that game balance can only come from play – from the Game Master and the Players making choices that produce balance appropriate for their world. As is probably clear from the above, it thus follows that it will not be uncommon for the GM and/or players to encounter situations where the rules conflict with the game style or play choices that they want to make – with, in short, the world they envision for their characters.

To maintain immersion, the most important thing is that the game not conflict with the players' vision of the world. This is most often manifested in a situation where a player thinks of a perfectly reasonable action of their character, perhaps using some set of powers they have in a way not envisioned by the game creators but perfectly sensible in a world context, and is told that either they cannot do that, or that the logical consequence of their action doesn't happen.

Using the prior classic example of the mage-armor rule, someone might have been told that their GM thought the reason mages couldn't use armor was because of the way metal interfered with the flow of magical energies. The character ends up fighting a giant centipede with a very tough shell, and is suddenly inspired to make a suit of armor from the non-metallic shell. The rules, however, make no allowance for this, so despite this making perfect sense to the player and character, it fails to work.

To me, this is an unacceptable situation. If I provide a player with in-world facts A and B, and A and B imply C should be true, then a player whose character acts upon C being true should succeed, unless I can give a DAMN good reason why C is not true in this case – and will always have that explanation be true in any similar situation.

Fortunately, nearly all RPGs include a version of what is called "Rule Zero": the GM has the right and authority to change the rules. This doesn't (or shouldn't) mean they do so arbitrarily for their own amusement or to annoy or punish the players, but that they can adjust the rules to fit their needs.

In my case, I hold that the PRIMARY use of Rule Zero is to change rules that conflict with the world. No set of RPG rules yet written really properly reflects the way I envision magic or combat working on my world of Zarathan, even though it was originally built on the foundation of D&D and I've worked on it (and run games in it) for almost 40 years now. So when a player comes up with a new idea, and it fits my conception of how the world's magic works, but conflicts with the way the rules work… I toss out the rule.

In short, "World Trumps Rules". What makes sense in the world is paramount. The standard Call of Cthulhu rules will lead PCs to an almost inevitable spiral of madness and death; but a GM who wants to use the Lovecraftian background without the utter HOPELESSNESS of the universe may have to change many of those rules to allow success where there would have been failure; a GM in the old days of D&D running a Lord of the Rings game would have had to severely change the rules to allow for a Wizard who wielded a sword (and did so better than many warriors).

This basic philosophical approach affects pretty much everything I do in both running games and writing stories, and has a tremendously powerful effect on my choice of gaming systems and mechanics – as we will see in the second entry in this set of rambling RPG posts, Effects Versus Causes!



Your comments or questions welcomed!