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Combat Balance as the be all and end all of Game Balance?

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By now you have probably seen (or at least heard mentioned) Mike Mearls blog post on combat balance as game balance: The Issue of Game Balance. It has generated a lot of discussion on RPGNet and theRPGSite. Here is a slightly edited post I made on the subject at theRPGSite.

Personally, I think combat balance as the be all and end all of game balance only becomes required when combats become long in real time. In early editions of D&D (up until the skills and powers books for 2e, basically), the average combat was fast. When a single combat encounter only takes 10-15 muinutes, even players who have characters who aren't strong in combat don't really have a chance to get very bored.

However, when combats start to average 20-30 minutes, such players are more likely to get bored. When combats take 45-90 minutes as 3.x combats are often reported to have regularly taken, just about any player who does not find combat the most interesting part of the game and whose character is not a combat machine is going to get bored.

To Mearls and other 4e designers, the solution was obvious: make sure all characters are equally effective in combat no matter what that does to the rest of the game. And this certainly works. No player who enjoys combat will be bored in a 4e combat no matter what character class they are playing. But the operative part here is "who enjoys combat." Combat still takes a long time and because 4e combat almost requires all players to be expert in the combat system or the group may fail, the game is much less interesting for those who do not consider combat to be the most fun thing in the game.

I would have made a different decision to solve the "getting bored during long combats" problem: make each combat much less real time-consuming than in 3.x. This would allow more combats in a session for groups who want their game to center on combat encounters (and more time for non-combat activity in a session for groups who don't want their game centered on combat), reduce the chance that the players of less combat-centered characters would become bored during combat while leaving the option open for players who just don't find combat the most exciting part of the game to play characters whose main strength is outside of combat.

Personally, I think shorter combats are one of the main things that attract people to return to or try older versions of D&D. Long detailed combats are great for those who are really into combat, but they are boring for those who find combat less fun. Making sure their characters more combat effective does not make combat more fun if combat isn't the player's thing. In fact, it can make them less interested in playing if that combat effectiveness means other players suddenly expect them to be sure their characters now pull their weight in combat and/or it if comes at the expense of the non-combat abilities that the non-combat-focused players enjoyed.

Anonymous said...
January 19, 2010 at 6:51 PM  

If a character isn't balanced in diplomacy or crafting or riding a horse, the result is a minor setback or period of boredom.

If a character isn't balanced in combat, he's dead.

Randall said...
January 19, 2010 at 7:09 PM  

Rogercarbol said: "If a character isn't balanced in combat, he's dead."

Players of less combat effective D&D character classes managed to keep their characters alive long enough to enjoy playing them for over 30 years before the appearance of the "everyone is equally effective in combat" fourth edition -- even in combat-heavy campaigns. I think this is strong evidence that your claim isn't always true.

greywulf said...
January 19, 2010 at 8:39 PM  

Balance is a myth that is destroyed the minute the first dice is rolled. It exists in rule systems so that people new to the game have a set of benchmarks so they know what should be an easy, average or difficult encounter for a statistically average group of players and PCs - but I can guarantee that every single gaming group is far from statistically average :D

So an "average" encounter in 4e worth 500XP at first level might be a minor speed bump to some highly charged groups whereas it's 90 minutes spent scratching their heads for another group. The key is to find a point that suits how YOU play (whatever the system) and use what works for you, and knowing how far you can go either way.

For example, my own group is happiest when there's just one or two encounters in a game session surrounded by lots of sugary role-playing action. They're no slouches when it comes to combat either meaning those two encounters usually take much less than an hour in total (more often closer to 30 minutes) to run through. We play pretty loose so I'll pick the monsters that fit the scenario with only half an eye on the XP total. Sometimes, they've learned it's best to run away :D

With another group I sometimes play with they're happiest when there's as many back-to-back hackfest encounters as possible in a single night, but play is slower so 4-5 encounters is the norm, and we try to keep within Encounter construction and XP guidelines all the way.

Diff'rent groups, but it's all fun. "Game balance" is just a starting point. Find your own ground.

Randall said...
January 19, 2010 at 10:41 PM  

100% agreement on game balance lasting only until the first die is rolled. I've always said that RPGs can't be meaningfully balanced at the rules level. Only an individual campaign can be balanced -- and only if the GM and players so desire it.

A Paladin In Citadel said...
January 19, 2010 at 10:45 PM  

Game balance as put forth by 3.5 and 4e adherants is of little interest to me.

But if it makes the games they play more fun for them, i'm all for them instituting it.

I just think game balance is really only applicable to competitive games.

Anonymous said...
January 20, 2010 at 2:59 PM  

Randall, I missed this earlier, so let me be clear:

OD&D is the most combat-balanced edition in existance, at least from levels 1 to about 5 or so.

Everyone starts off with a base attack of +0. They might get a -1 or +1 from stats, but likely won't. Everyone has more-or-less the same number of hitpoints, but that's likely not to matter when you get stung by a 1st-level Giant Bee and need to Save vs Poison or die. All weapons do 1d6.

OD&D characters in that level range are virtually identical in combat stats and hence almost perfectly balanced.

I guess I should have clarified my opinion to begin with; sorry about that.

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