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Presentation: Balance, power, spotlight, agency, talking

I initially composed this as yet another reflection upon the game of Undiscovered that I'm playing with Sam, Helma, and Lorenzo, but decided it was more generally relevant to bring into Seminar as its own thing.

As a prelude, I'd like to repeat something I recently mentioned at the Patreon. It's the marked contrast I've experienced between playing games designated OSR and those I've categorized as Fantasy Heartbreakers (in which this game definitely qualifies): I have never learned anything from playing OSR games and I always learn something from playing a Fantasy Heartbreaker. Whether this means anything to anyone besides myself, and what it means, remains open to further discussion.

The presentation itself addresses two issues, broken down as follows:

  • Are we unbalanced? I explode the term to address differences in effectiveness, in spotlight, and in relevance (consequence, presence; the term is uncertain).
  • Can the GM talk? Or in talking about textual rules, is legal ruling automatically invoked? Or in talking about options for actions, is direction/imposition automatically in place?

Anyway, it's a lot of strong stuff, and forty-six years (probably more) of table-top role-playing has not provided us with sensible concepts or context, as well it should have so I wouldn't have to do this. Frankly, if someone says they "just know," or "it's obvious," or "well, when I hear 'balance, I think dot dot dot," then they are full of shit. They don't, it isn't, and who cares. We need to consider these things critically and crucially.

Department: 
Seminar
Games: 
Undiscovered

Comments

I think there is a real benefit in watching this video for anyone who has wondered about 'balance' or has been in a situation where there were competing influences to 'choose a side' on the topic. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Thanks Anthony! Real benefit is what I'm after with this whole endeavor. We can go anywhere on the internet to amass clickbait and blither by invoking "balane" regarding role-playing. I intend instead that we get past it and never to have to endure such things again.

Greg's picture

Hi! In some way, I think this discussion is related to this one : https://adeptplay.com/comment/2990#comment-2990

At least in my group, I know that some people doesn't like "old games", which means "more letal games". One thing has often be mentioned in our discussions: the possibility to die stupidly by missing a saving throw (the famous poison saving throw in Holmes or Moldvay), or by opening the wrong closet in an investigation (a litteral classic of the Masks of Nyarlathotep), in other way, losing a character in which you were emotionaly engaged, suddenly with  no dramatic and escalading tensions and no reasons lead by "the story" (the one we played). Most of my friend wanted to play this character badly, and if he has to die, it should be something, and something great, not dumb bad luck. Sorcerer, for instance, consider this really well in its rules - you don't want to lose this character, all this prep from its kicker, for no interesting reasons. Reading this and the other thread about a character's death, it seemed to me that character death and "relevance" are intertwined?

 

Greg's picture

Just after I posted, my thoughts went a bit further. 

In this discussion about "I don't want to lose a character stupidly", I think it has a lot to do with this "relevance" (what is the character's death relevance for us at the moment it happens) than this "balance" that haunts some discussions. 

Helma's picture

you got me thinking. I do not think whether character death is relevant or not is coupled to how stupid or heroic the character dies but on how that death is going to fit into the over all experience for the whole group. As in everything else that we do there are multiple layers. For me as the person who's PC just died that sucks (big time) in the moment. For me as part of a group it might be perfectly ok. For what is going on in our game it might even be crucial, it has not necessarily to be the end of the game. Would I hang around after my PC's death even if the game in question isn't giving me anything to do. Probably, I would still be curious how things develop.

Greg's picture

I agree with you Helma, I think you articulate very well my feeling. I was accounting how the discussions went within our group, but I think it is a matter of relevance, as Ron had described it. How is it relevant, in the story. 

In one of our circle of hands session, a character I played died on a bad roll and a not really smart decision, but it was totally relevant, dramatic, and intense, and it didn't felt weird. 

Helma's picture

Undiscovered most certainly is a game that makes me think a lot more about how games provide me with tools for playing my character and handling the environment around them. Maybe it partly is that I'm "growing up" as a player, but I'm sure part of it is the game. I'm happy to be able to toss my thoughts to Ron and get answers that not only help me understand why I have had that funny "something is odd" feeling popping up in the back of my mind and coming upp with a much better formulation and explanation of what is going on and what I try to express than I would myself. Videos like this and the conversations that we have at the table are a big part of why I like roleplaying.
On a side note, I started looking into Dialect (the rpg) and though the game may not be what I was led to think by the title, I realized that the community here very much has it's own language, I'm usually being reminded of it when I try to use the "right word" to describe what I'm wondering about. A lot of terms that seem perfectly adequate when you come from the "outer world" are quite loaded around here and it does not help that english is not my native language. Effectiveness, spotlight and relevance are far better in describing what we are looking at then the "b"-word which I shall no longer use when talking about role-playing.

Ron Edwards's picture

I think I need to apply some damage control.

Helma, your use of "balance" is sane and understandable. The problem is not that gamers avoid it, but rather that they do use it, uncritically and badly, and you've encountered my critique of their use.

Therefore this presentation isn't directed toward your understanding but rather toward the (mis-)understanding of these concepts which pervades, infects, and harms the hobby participants' ability to talk about what they do.

Helma's picture

no worries, I got that, I myself am rather prone to weight words carefully and as good as I can because it usually helps to be as concise as possible in discussion. I've grown up with a linguist and there are some standards to live up to.
But I admit the little dragon inside me spontaneously had some rather fiery thoughts, which is why I waited with answering, how could you tell?

Sean_RDP's picture

I think the breakdown is effective in conveying the ideas. An understanding of them and how they interact, if they interact, is a function of experiencing play.

I am on record, and others may disagree, that the ability to spotlight is one of if not the most important tools a game master (or whatever you call it) has. But I think it is of equal importance to have as a player. And the root of that is taking an interest in the other people at the table. So maybe we can eschew terms like GM and player in regrds to "spotlighting" and just say the ability to take an interest in and provide space for other players in the imagined space is an important skill to have. I guess I feel that way about it. 

Effectiveness is more nebulous for me, because it is not just the function of how effective a character is in a given situation, combat being the big example but in social situations as well, but also a function of how a given situation is presented to the players.

As an example, I think super hero games showcase this to a great extent. If we are playing as the Justice League and Darkseid attacks with his army, who takes on Darkseid? Superman does and well Batman, because he is effing Batman. The other League members break off and take on Granny Goodness or something.  In supers games, even ones with a balanced point buy, one or two characters are going to come out as the obvious power houses. It is a function of the idiom and that is okay. Other idioms / themes / genres have similar effectiveness break out. But then effectiveness is often situational as well. 

Ironically the percived imbalance between fighters and magic users has had a long-term effect on game design, especially of those games in the D&D mold. Or I tend to agree with those who think it has. The balance question is one that people (myself included at times) have tried to "fix". 

LorenzoC's picture

I think in most of these scenario, the perceived "lack of balance" in this case is simply a problem of misalignement between the goals of the players/designers and the produced effects in play.

For example, in our Undiscovered game the fact that some of us are more or less effective in several different scenarios is never a problem because that was one of the expectations during character creation and dare I say also for the design goals of this type of "create anything you like" game.
There was never any stipulation or agreement that the system in use would grant us that we were all capable of contributing to various situations in the same way. Considering how character-centric play is, the fact that Helma's character is so effective is a resource for playing Farith, because it directly feeds into his sense of wonder and his longing for something glorious and mystical in his heritage. It doesn't take anything from me, in fact that inbalance in effectiveness is something I can use. 

If we were playing a game where the entire premise is that we're a team of experienced dungeon-dwellers and we're all cooperating by bringing in our talents, than the fact that one character ends up being immensively more effective because of choices they made before play is a problem, expecially when there's nothing that allows you to address it during play.
Another problem could be what happens when even using the rules in the intended, explicity stated way, you get effects that contradict those expectations. For example, I choose to play the sneaky rogue who opens doors and climbs walls but through play we discover that the wizard with his spells or the druid by polymorphing can do everything I set out to do in a more effective manner. Or when I pick a certain class/feat/skill/feature that says "Badass Undead Slayer" and it turns out I'm actually less effective at killing undead monster than the guy who simply went for "Hitting Stuff Very Hard".

And I think labeling a lot of this stuff as balance or lack thereof is simply propedeutic for somehow justifying what simply is poor design with arguments like "Balance isn't important/the game isn't meant to be balanced", which is absolutely true, but the issue wasn't balance in the first place. Uneven distribution of power, effectiveness or agency are absolutely fine and functional as long as everyone agreed to it and wasn't "tricked" by the rules into thinking he was getting a different deal.

This in my opinion bleeds into the second point, about the GM's power/curse of directing play simply by vetting/discussing player options.
Notice how in large parts magic bypasses this problem in many of these heavily codified and detailed games: I need to discuss with the GM about how climbable the tower is, how solid the foundations are and how thick the walls are, if the guards are corruptible... But I don't need to negotiate the use of Transmute Rock to Mud on the tower's foundations. I don't need to ask how Fly or Invisibility work. I know Charm Person is going to work.

Perhaps this is due to magic spells (and other codified abilities) being written in "game code" and thus capable of interacting with the other rules of the game without having to be filtered by negotiation with the GM. That's probably what a lot of people who complain about of balance actually end up being frustrated with. And it's equally frustrating as a GM because the same moment you start discussing if the plan is going to work you've inevitably influenced the players. It's another thing that pushes me toward the direction of thinking that "roll first, narrate later" may be an approach closer to my preference.

Sean_RDP's picture

Well I think the issues with the second game, which (may) promise a certain degree of effectiveness but does not deliver, are exasperated by the fact that the tools provided to the gm-player are often arbitrary. I can make an encounter that is easy for the very effective character and challenging for the others , or I can make an encounter that is a challenge for the VEC and completely out of bounds for the others and maybe even beyond what is considered 'fair' or 'aceptable'. This also gets into the idea of niche protection and giving the undead slayer the spotlight when undead are around. 

I also prefer a roll first mentality IF the actions are clear from a game perspective and the player has all the information the character should have. A character knows (in most cases) what a spell will do, so I think it is reasonable to have a certain degree of clarification and authoritative decsision making before they use a spell for the first time or in an unusual circumstance. The GM has decided if they are going to allow the action to work or at least, allow a chance for it to be successful. If I say nothing or am super vague, knowing I will not allow it to work, that seems like I am not playing fair at a social contract level. So saying yes or no before a roll, if the outcomes would be clear to the characters involved even if not to the players, to me seems to be supporting that social contract as opposed to crossing a line.

Sean_RDP's picture

I admit to being thoughtful about this portion of the video. I have watched it twice now and my consideration of the specific situation, as described in this video, is:

Just tell them it works. 

My resoning for this is that the character's know how the spell works even if the players do not. Unless "I do not know know what my spells do" is part of the character's thing. If the GM thinks the interpretation is reasonable given the rules, there is no reason not to just say that. And even say it with authority to mitigate any "but are you sure?" kind of questions. And having made that decision it would not occur to me to question it in terms of overstepping my authority. 

And I want to be clear: not that you need my approval, but I am not critiqiuing your decision or decision process. I think our different thoughts (if they are indeed actually different) could just be a difference in "GM"/play style, but that also seems a bit dismissive. I am really trying to understand the decision and why you felt how you did. I will likely be going over that portion again to make sure I am not missing something. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I don't think you're connecting with what I'm talking about, or rather, exactly what my concerns are in that section. We may have to take it to a voice conversation.

Sean_RDP's picture

Yes I think so to. That might be easier. 

Sean_RDP's picture

The discussion of balance came up on Discord and we were reminded that this discussion exists and I can see that it stopped abruptly in a few spaces. It came up I think out of the idea why I was going to use Magic World / Stormbringe 5th edition vs. the lovely chaos gift from Lord Arioch himself that is Stormbringer 1st edition. The reasons themselves are not important, but balance came up as it always does with SB1e. In short the game is not balanced and is not designed to be. The imbalances are not mistakes, but design choices based on the source material. 

As an example, using the character generation as designed, you can be a powerful, demon-summoning noble from Melnibone' OR you can be a degenerate hunter from Org OR you can be a beggar from Argimiliar missing 2D4 fingers OR a myriad number of other things. Do you see the disparity in character? It is mentioned in the beggar section that new players should not try playing a beggar, but experienced role-players may enjoy the challenge. And the beggar is useful in many situations that a meloncholy Melnibonean sorcerer might not be. 

I think balance has been one of the driving forces of mainstream design for a while. One common line of commentary has been D&D's issue with linear fighters and quadratic wiards. But balance, in my opinion,is a boondoggle. At the end of the day if the players are sitting around wondering why one of the other players is "so powerful" , then that is a different issue. 

I'd love to hear what others have to say.

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