How to never have a balance problem

It’s very easy to make a game that never has a balance problem. I’ve done it multiple times. Heck, even back in college a team and I worked together to make a whole pen and paper RPG called Wanderlust that was so balanced the strongest characters you could create in it were only 8% more powerful than the targeted average. At least, the record-breaking RPG optimizers we got to test the system couldn’t find anything stronger than that after a month and more of searching. Compared to the industry giants like Dungeons and Dragons, this felt like an extraordinary victory.

It wasn’t. After the initial freedom of the system lost its magic, as it did give you an extraordinary number of options to choose from, players generally lost interest in making characters in it. At first I assumed this was just apathy toward a new system, but then I talked to the RPG manager at Fantasy Flight Games about it. He had a different perspective.

“Your job isn’t to make the most balanced game possible. Your job is to make the most fun game possible. Fun differs from group to group, but I’ve never met a player that looked at an ability and said ‘Wow! Look at how balanced these numbers are! I seriously want to take this ability, so I can deal exactly the same amount of damage as my buddies.'”

That rocked me back. I started thinking about all my own favorite characters and what made them stand out in my mind. Would I want to build a character in this system? No, but I thought that was just because I like optimizing characters. Meanwhile my previous homebrew RPG, which was a balance nightmare and horribly hard to GM, was still seeing new games pop up. Even today I still get questions from players building new characters and being introduced to that unbalanced mess of a system.

The bottom line was this, Wanderlust was perfectly balanced. But I’d had to sacrifice things in achieving it. Wanderlust didn’t have all the same cool options that most RPGs do, just with magically better math. Preventing overpowered combos meant preventing abilities from synergyzing with eachother in any exciting way.

For example: If an ability provides +N damage to each of your attacks, normally you take advantage of that by picking other abilities that let you attack half a dozen times each turn. Wanderlust would only provide the damage boost to the first attack you made each turn.

This is fine for portions of a system, and designs like this are a great way to prevent insane combinations that are WAY too strong from happening while keeping the fairer ones intact. We did things like that in my previous systems too. However, Wanderlust was all about two things: Balance and Character Options. Our pitch was that you could create nearly any character you could imagine, and the result would be balanced and perfectly fair. Want to play a flying spellsword that channels lightning through his blade? You can! And at level 1 as well.

But the imagining of the character was the only truly exciting part. Character building after that felt rather dull. Pick the stuff that fits your concept. Don’t worry, all the options will produce exactly the same value. There were no exciting combinations to discover, no powers that glowed with clear potential.

Games that tend to break more often aren’t usually breaking because the devs don’t know what they’re doing. Usually the devs are just willing to take a few more risks in the pursuit of a more exciting game.

It’s easy to make something balanced. Just never take a risk and never make an exciting ability. If you’re making an exciting, customizable game there’s a good chance something’s going to end up overpowered. That’s not necessarily a sign of failure. That’s often the natural result of what happens when you’re taking necessary risks.

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