What is "balance" and is it necessary?

Here I go again, rambleposting trying to provoke some conversation :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

I read cavegirlgames’ article, “fuck balance”, a sort of manifesto for “Disempowerment fantasies”, where a powerhouse character can be just as fun as a reactive “weakling” who has stuff happen TO them.

And it gets me thinking. What kinds of balance ARE there?

  • Perhaps there’s within-system balance, where every character does roughly as well in a system. E.g. 4E combat where most classes performed equally, give or take a few roles like tank or healer.
  • Across-system balance, where one character is good at fighting, while another excels at social stuff, and another might be a crafter of useful items. This might lead, I think, to mechanising what doesn’t need to be mechanised, e.g. making social interactions “too much like combat”, or overly-niche characters that are unfun to play outside of their “trick”
  • ???

So I’m trying to think at a meta level. What you’re really trying to balance is, at the bottom line, “fun”. You’re trying to make sure that players are roughly equally engaged, comfortable and excited.
Assuming a group with diverse goals, but generally non-gamey ones (e.g. +1 swords, 50 damage), it would seem to me like the real topic of balance isn’t systemic, but tension, challenge and decision.

Balancing how much each person gets put in the spotlight (although some might want less than others), and what they do with it (decisions, risk, impact, narrative). Perhaps this includes the GM themselves? Maybe “spotlight balance” would mean that they don’t have to do too much or too little, or that their own decisions, expression and tension is something to balance, rather than having them be a “CPU” that runs the game.

Anyhow, this is hoping to spark some conversation. What are your thoughts on balance? What does it mean in a NSR-ish context? Can there be balance without uniformity or niches?


Well first I’ll copy over something I wrote on the Discord when this article was shared there a month ago:

I do think that for player vs. environment games though, “balance” can be a misleading term… It’s less about “balancing” and more about making each class feel “equally broken”—broken, that is, in the sense of feeling “overpowered” or “OP”
You want each class to make people say, “Hot damn, this class lets you do that?”
It’s the same feeling as rolling up a crazy starting oddity or mutation in Electric Bastionland, for example
But I think a character class system is a better tool for reducing overlap and making everyone feel distinct than a huge random table

To add a few thoughts: I think you’re right, it’s extremely hard to balance characters across different aspects of the game without mechanizing those things to the degree that combat is mechanized.

The original version of the Ranger class in 5E D&D is a good example. It has all manner of features for navigating various types of terrain, but since wilderness travel is unstructured and uncommon in 5E, many of the Ranger’s abilities never saw use in play. So, it was “underpowered.” New versions of the Ranger focus on combat abilities like every other class.

I, for one, have no problem if the best way to differentiate characters and encourage teamwork is to focus their abilities on combat. But I think many designers around our community are uncomfortable with even a slight focus on combat for various reasons. Because of that, the trend has been to make “classless” games where characters are only slightly differentiated by starting items and/or skills.

1 Like

To me “balance” is often the wrong word to use to describe what people are expecting. To me this is largely because ‘balance’ means equal (the whole balance scale with equal masses on each side). But what is often actually desired is a fair distribution. Each person will have different desires, needs, and expectations. To maximize ‘fun’ we want to maximize the desires, needs, and expectations of each person… which are not the same/equal.

To me, this means that a key part of getting things to be ‘fair’ is clearly marking what those expectations are and how things will match those expectations.

  • Does every type of character need to be equally effective at the thing? No, but it should be communicated what that effectiveness is, so that people can match their desires, needs, and expectations accordingly.
  • Does each character need to have a particular place where they shine above others? No, but again communicate what is happening so people can choose accordingly.
  • Does each character need to have equal fictional weight and agency in the story? No, but make sure the people are getting what they want.

There’s another balance that often something I think about, and it’s creative contribution.
There are some people who just want to be along for the ride, and are happy sitting by and doing their small contribution when it’s their turn, but would otherwise watch and just be there with friends as the story unfolds.

This is a perfectly valid way to play. Trying to get them to contribute more or be in the spotlight more, can make it LESS fun for them.

This isn’t me on a typical day, but there are absolutely times where I am just drained, but show up to play with my friends and I let folks know, that “hey, I’m really drained today. I want to hang out, but I am going to be way more passive today and be along for the ride”. When that happens I am very appreciative of my fellow players who help me match my desires and needs at that moment for the play I want and need.

1 Like

I think this points to the way that OSR/NSR games effectively (if maybe not intentionally) offload some balance concerns into the GM and, to a lesser extent, the players. If opportunity is a component of balance, then ensuring balance will mean fostering opportunities for each character type to flex. In a tightly structured module, that onus is on the designer, but the more free form you get with the narrative, the more incumbent it is on people at the table to make sure the world bends toward the proficiencies of the characters in play.

Playbooks and backgrounds, in particular, feel like a development tailored for at-the-table balance adjustments. How, for example, do you right a module that’s balanced for a game with 40+ standard backgrounds, like Troika? The most practical answer, it seems to me, is that you don’t. Rather, you leave a lot ambiguity in the text and let the GM and players fit play to the characters they’re playing.

It strikes me tgat this whole question of “balance” focused on individual character ability, especially mechanical powers (often exclusively combat power) is a very contemporary one.

I think it even makes sense in the context of tactical combat games like 5E, but I struggle to grasp why it takes on importance outside such games.

The sort of early D&D that I use primarily as reference only looks at balance at all from a fairly simple perspective of basic fairness (was the challenge offered clear, did it make sense in the fictional context and/or was it possible to overcome) between players and referee/setting. The unit that’s balanced, when things are considered, is the party as a whole - the collective resources of the players.

Similarly there’s always an assumption that individual players will be able to act usefully and be involved in play via acting outside or beyond the mechanics.

Obviously the second is less of a possiblity in games that try to mechanically model all actions, but the first - PC vs. Party as unit of balance seems like it would apply to many games?


I think it even makes sense in the context of tactical combat games like 5E, but I struggle to grasp why it takes on importance outside such games.

I don’t think it does take on importance outside such games. Asymmetrical PCs (by which I mean PCs with significantly different capabilities) are something you introduce to a game, because you want the benefits of player assymetry (a stronger sense of teamwork, greater engagement, etc.).

The drawback is the need to balance the different character classes. Every designer has to decide whether they’re willing to risk that drawback to get that benefit.

For a videogame example, check out Counter-Strike vs. Valorant. They’re basically the same games, but the latter has characters with different abilities. The designers made this choice to enhance teamwork and engagement, but it introduced the need for balance in areas of the game where there was no need for balance before.

Yeah, that seems like the sort of balance that takes center stage when you’re designing on the premises that the fun of your game is facing a given challenge and that players play and/or win as a team. Basically: Don’t make the challenge so hard that the team can’t win.

It’s pretty easy to see how that other sense of balance can begin to exert demands on designers who were previously focused on the fairness of their games’ win conditions. If some classes are less useful than others, then the players who favor those clasess will tend to be less satisfied with the game. And if they’re vocal with their complaints, then designers and GMs may start casting about for ways to make the classes more consistently playable, more balanced.

And those two forms of balance can be viewed as axes on a graph. I’m not sure you could get away with designing a game that was unbalanced on both axes, but the modern scene offers numerous examples of games that are better balanced in terms of character, while deliberately tipping the balance in terms of challenge. Blades in the Dark, for example, is lenient both in terms of the probability spread afforded by its dice mechanic, and in terms of the range of additional player-favoring mechanisms it provides (flashbacks, resisting consequences, etc.) At the other end of the spectrum are deliberately punishing games with high lethality, like Mörk Borg or Trophy.

That’s a design reason, yes, but it seems to me that character asymmetry also arises simply because players want to play distinguishable characters. In part, that’s a result of influence: one of the most identifiable touchstones for the basic role-playing party is Lord of the Rings, where the Fellowship is made up of characters distinguished on a spectrum of characteristics, not least of all their occupational skills.

It is of course subjective, but for me, the most important thing to consider is whether a given character is so good or bad at situations that come up in play that it becomes predictable, boring and unfun. If, as in the article, the players are into the idea of an overpowered character, great - apparently it’s not a problem for that group.

But for most groups I have been in, it has -especially if the game runs for a while.

This all makes sense to me (though I think Trophy and Mork Borg are less about balance and more about genre emulation of tragedy as victory). The Sacrament of Death Essay comes to mind as well (linked). Almost an anti-balance, but one that works because dying stylishly is the point of play.

Where this sort of intraparty balance seems to come in is that it’s the kind of balance that @Gardens and Emmy Allen (in the linked post) are concerned with. My immediate reaction is much the same as @flyrefi - that such balance isn’t the kind I care about (and largely even the Ref v. Party or Obstacle v. Party balance I care about largely as a table ethics concern not a GM facing subsystem etc.). Though I think reading Allen’s post I omitted the sort of implied PVP game that is Vampire in the character balance is a meaningful concern category.

However, I know this is a concern for some Nu/POSR system authors and certainly for people coming from other play traditions. I am curious as to how it endures within the ultralight design ecosystem.


For me something that has been present in the last few posts is how balance matters more when there are ‘win conditions’ such as in team competition video games like counter-strike or Valorant. But, what is the win condition for a TTRPG?

If the ‘win condition’ is killing the opposing team is WAY different than ‘genre emulation of tragedy’. To me, when someone is making an "under-powered’ character, they are maximizing to a different win condition than the default expected one that others are assuming. This can work out fine, but for me, I’ve had WAY more success when people are clear about what they want and need and communicate. It’s a lot easier to help you achieve your ‘win condition’ if I know what it is.


“balance” means so many things to different people but it seems to often be understood as a math problem. Are the probabilities of success in this important aspect of the game (usually combat) equal for all players and is there a mathematical chance of success?

Not only do I not have the math skills to answer those problems but I also think that in trying to solve that problem with design games have a tendency to grow in complexity relying more and more on those mathematical elements over other aspects of play.

To me what is important is that things “feel right” and that answer is deeply unsatisfying to players who see game design as design rather than as a product of play.

5e players can feel that something is wrong with the ranger in the play context of their games. No amount of game design can fix that but a good DM can do it on the fly.

Perhaps this is a bit of a reductive answer, but it’s one I’ve come to: balance is what everyone agrees to enjoy at the table. I usually frame all my mechanics and design elements as a question either of 1) Engagement or 2) Agreement - things to promote people’s full participation and creative investment or help them reach consensus on how the story proceeds. When there’s “imbalance,” I frame it more as “disagreement” or “disengagement” - someone’s feeling left out, overruled, disempowered, or as if their approach or story isn’t being valued.

That approach is likely most because I’m more focused on Fellowship, Narrative, Expression, and Discovery styles of Fun in my design and at my table. Challenge, for me, is less appealing - I find the challenge in telling a good story to be about discovering interesting, moving, and compelling characters and interactions, not so much about “if we can win.” I’d rather choose a meaningful loss in a story than achieve a difficult win by rolling, though I’m always open to “minigame” style boardgame bits (which is how I usually frame using miniatures, though lately I’m usually doing “sports” style stuff).


As someone who is beginning the work on a 4e spiritual successor, balance is the player feeling they’re contributing about the same as everyone else, or at least have the same opportunity to do so.

So numbers need to be pretty damn close, and then class features need to break the game a similar number of times, with similar levels of intensity.

Not the same. Similar.

And not even the same output, but the opportunity to do so. Even if you don’t, it’d your choice at that point.

Fortunately 4e managed to get that part down to a science. The parts where it didn’t were pretty blatant and easy to fix.

For a more narrative game? I don’t think it matters nearly as much. I wouldn’t want someone to step on what I was doing, but beyond the need for tactical balance I don’t see a point? Just make sure everyone is doing their own subplots and it’ll work out.

1 Like