Friday, February 21, 2014

Response to a new Palladium Books podcast

Hello, one and all. Happy Friday.

Just a quick post today to discuss a great new podcast centering on everything Palladium Books. Take a quick break and head over to Radio Free Palladium, produced by the great Zachary Houghton. Zack, as you may remember, formerly had a blog known as RPG Blog 2 (was just RPG Blog before some cyber-squatter snatched up his domain during a sabbatical), and founded the Megaversal Ambassadors program for Palladium.

Zack's format is different than other podcasts we've seen, in that it's less than 30 minutes (perfect for your commute), and he is looking to tackle some very specific things about Palladium's games, and gaming in general.

For his first episode, Zack discusses the perceived lack of game balance in Palladium's various RPGs, particularly Rifts. He then goes on to discuss some of the overlooked utility of the Rogue Scholar O.C.C. I wanted to touch briefly on that first issue, regarding game balance.

Jason's Response

Game balance is for suckers.

Allow me to clarify, in case that seems like hyperbole: GAME BALANCE IS FOR SUCKERS!

A lack of inherent balance in a game can be problematic for Game Masters and players, for sure. However, balance is boring and unnecessarily stifles creative aspects of the game. The real world is not in balance, and your fantasy world should not be, either. There are strong and weak, fast and slow, gifted and cursed, and that's something that adds texture to a gaming experience.

When gamers talk about balance, what they usually mean is that among the available list of playable characters, no one class or race or template should inherently have great advantage over another. Stated another way, every race's aggregate advantages and disadvantages should work out to be equivalent. This is often achieved with "point buy" character creation systems, or a merits and flaws system, meaning that being really good at one thing comes at the cost of something else. Mages can't wear heavy armor. Dwarfs can't learn magic. Cybernetics destroy psychic potential. This super-weapon is usable only by one specific class.

I wholeheartedly disagree with this approach. I think it's totally okay for classes to be distinct and different, with vast inequality in the scale of their power, especially mechanically. I think a setting where some templates are inherently "better" than others, with more skills and/or toys and/or powers adds variety to the world and creates a more realistic setting in which to play. I think it also encourages good role-playing and better Game Mastering.

I don't think that Zack disagrees with me on this point. He highlights in his podcast that differences can be strengths. A Glitter Boy, Juicer, or Borg in Rifts (all pointed at as being out-of-balance) character classes have all sorts of statistical advantages over, say, a Vagabond or a City Rat. They get more skills, more combat abilities, more money, more Hit Points, and anything else you can imagine. Situationally, however, a low-powered character can still outshine the big boys. A Game Master should look for those opportunities, and so should his players.

Also, I should definitely add that game style preference comes into play in this discussion. Zack points out that communication between players and GM is key, and he's right. If a group wants to play a pack of Psi-Hounds on the run, letting a player roll up a Demigod probably isn't right for the game. Likewise, anyone playing a Cyber-Doc in a party of Dragon Hatchlings should probably do so with fair warning.

As a closing example, let me give you a quick peek at a few of the Player Races from my upcoming Breachworld RPG, just in terms of their available pools of attribute and skill dice:

Humans. The classic "interdimensional average."
Attribute Dice: 12D
Skill Dice: 7D
Racial Perks: None

Reptillian Raiders. A common adversary for many play styles, or a great character for others.
Attribute Dice: 12D
Skill Dice: 6D
Racial Perks: 1

Elder. A very ancient and advanced race.
Attribute Dice: 14D
Skill Dice: 8D
Racial Perks: 2

Morlocks. A more primitive race.
Attribute Dice: 10D+2
Skill Dice: 4D
Racial Perks: 2

As you can see, there is a lot of variance. If you're a fan of game balance, don't sweat it. You'll find that these Player Races mix together with ease. If it's still an issue, it's no big deal to just scale the game as you see fit and change the starting dice pools. No problem.

Maybe Player Race design would be a good topic for a future blog series. Or a topic for Zack's new podcast, Radio Free Palladium. Check it out.


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