John Wick’s post Chess is not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance is making the rounds of the RPG blogosphere (I stumbled across it when Michael “Stargazer” Wolf wrote about it here) . I started to write a comment, but it blew up into an entire post.
I was suspicious when I saw Wick start talking about telling stories, since that’s not really what I think RPGs are about, but it’s a common-enough starting point for discussing them. Where Wick completely lost me, though, is when he proclaimed “The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games.” Sorry, but if that’s where your argument ends up, it’s obvious you need to reexamine your premises.
Riddick and the teacup is a terrible example of why weapon stats shouldn’t matter: the thing that makes the scene stand out is that we all know that a teacup is a lousy weapon. In a game without weapon stats, players will be completely unimpressed if you manage to kill somebody with a teacup because they’re aware that the rules make that no harder than killing with a gun or sword. They might give you points for style if it’s the first time anybody’s done that, but nobody’s going to conclude your character is a bad-ass because of it. Even having it built into your character “Can kill a man with a teacup” is less impressive than accomplishing it when according to the rules you need to roll two 20’s and then max damage to have a chance. And I say that as the designer of a game that indeed doesn’t have weapon stats precisely so that characters with the right kind of abilities can accomplish feats like that.
My take on balance is the only important form of balance is whether the players are all getting satisfactory amounts of time to do their things. It comes up in combat more frequently only because a lot of systems make resolving combat take a lot of time even in encounters that aren’t very important or interesting so the combat-oriented characters get a bunch of spot-light time simply because there is a combat. This leads to people feeling that everybody needs to be balanced in the sense of having a substantial role in combat when really what needs to be balanced is the amount of table time devoted to combat vs. other activities.
As for player skill vs. character skill in social tasks, I’m pretty firmly against the model where accomplishing a task is defined as entertaining/persuading the GM. The problem isn’t just that naturally some people are better at reading the GM and describing or acting out what they do in such a way to please the GM and get rewarded with a success, or that games of charming the GM into getting your way often narrows the scope of characters you can successfully play, it’s that games like that are almost always too predictable and cliched. Once you’ve grasped the GM’s sense of plot and pacing, everybody knows what’s going to happen most of the time. Games are much more exciting for everybody involved, IMO, when the outcome isn’t known before the die stops rolling. You may make the most brilliant rallying speech since St. Crispin’s say… but do the troops buy it? That moment when everybody at the table, GM included, are hanging on whether the universe is going to pop up a Yea or Nay result, is *the* moment in an RPG where it goes from being a form of clumsy collaborative fiction to an “it’s almost like you’re there” experience. That may actually be the crux of it: fiction you create, games you experience. Substituting the former for the latter every time there’s an important social interaction robs RPGs of their most compelling feature: the ability to experience fictive worlds.