Category Archives: Opinions

Game Balance? Yes, No, and It Depends

I wanted to talk today about “Balance” in games. There is much debate on the need for balance in games and where and how to accomplish this. I will admit what follows is my own opinion on this but it comes with over 25 years of playing and designing games.

When I was young, I thought Balance was necessary to a game simply from a pure mechanics basis. If list A didn’t balance list B then neither list mattered and needed to be redone. I spent hours making sure that armor balanced weapons which in turn allowed for Magic to balance with martial abilities. It was an all consuming thing to find that pinnacle of game balance.

It was hard work; difficult and unyielding work to balance every piece in how a game works. Then I read something, I cant remember who wrote it originally but I know somewhere it was through Mick Bradley, of Harping Monkey Fame, that I came to this quote. (I paraphrase) “Don’t sacrifice awesome for fear of Game balance.” I was blown away as I deconstructed this thought.

This is when I started to shift focus. Game balance is important don’t get me wrong and mechanical balance can not get to far out of whack, but where your balance point, that’s what’s important. Now every type of game has different points of balance and for each GM and gaming group you have to find your own, that’s the simple truth, but I digress. We will get back to this in a moment.

Where was I, ah yes. The focus of balance. As I grew into understanding “Don’t sacrifice awesome for Game Balance.” I came to realize it was never about Balance but about mechanics. I started looking outward and realized that the game we play and the hobby we define ourselves by is one where the artists are the participants and the critiques at the same time. The art of Role Playing happens at one time in one place and with only the people participating with it and can never be duplicated again. We can argue later on podcasts and vidcasts and art later.

With this in mind I started to see how the group I was with determined Game balance on such a different level then pure mechanics. Mechanical game balance needs to happen but only in as much as playing the game needs some kind of rules. Outside those rules the group is the ultimate determination. As GM I found that balancing the game had more to do with Spotlight then pure Mechanical balance. We had a social contract, most often unspoken about sharing the cool and the awesome at our table.

This is where Design and balance start to fall apart. You have to be careful and not rely to heavily on one or the other, mechanical balance and social balance. Both of these are needed in some way. The game you are playing must have some internal consistency or the whole thing falls apart, and the group must agree on a balance of play that everyone has fun with. Otherwise the purpose of gaming falls apart.

When asked about game balance in games my answer has become, Yes, No and it depends. It is important but don’t let it kill the awesome, which you and your gaming group determine.

What is a RPG

Thanks to a certain RPG designers post I’ve caught on to a lot of angst once again in the community about what is an RPG. While I don’t agree with Mr. Wick on most of his points there is one I agree with. I wanted to put my thoughts out there simply because I can. Role Playing games by the strict definition of the words is a Game where you take on the Role by playing.

I know that seem like a cheap way to define it but I wanted to deconstruct that a bit. The one place I agree with John is that when playing an RPG the end result is some kind of story. The purpose of playing a role is to build some kind of before and after narrative even if that narrative is very game centric. This is why WoW can claim to be a RPG. There is a narrative, albeit, very linear and without any variation.

To claim someone has to play a role only they can play in real life or to truly act out is not the purpose of a RPG. There are really in my estimation 3 types of games. Two if you want to get technical. The first is a Game to tell a story. This would be your gun porn, charisma roll toting games that allow someone to play any role whether they have the skills or training to act out that role in real life. The “Game” portions allow us in our “make believe” to further the story without penalty of our own knowledge, or technical training background. Since by definition you the player are taking on a role this classifies as a Role Playing Game.

The second type of game we see is a Story to play a game. Many games that we consider Indie fall within this category, but also games like FATE can fill this niche. The purpose here is more focused on telling the story and give better benefits from the rules when a narrative is being met then actual statistics or rolls. The abilities of the Player to Role Play personal knowledge or ability tend to overshadow pure mechanical adjustments. Again you are taking on a role and telling a narrative. Thus it classifies as a Role Playing Game.

I did say there was a 3rd type and this type of game is more a hybrid of the two forms. There is a game portion that has mechanical influence but the Roles are allowed narrative control and an individuals personal knowledge, ability and creativity can in places overshadow a need for rolls or even can cancel the need for roles completely but allows for rolls in certain circumstances.

One last thought to assume someone has to personaly be charsmatic enough to play a high charisma character is flawed inherently. Simply by the fact that I as GM going into teh conversation knows there is an end goal of the Player trying to Convince me clouds the final decision.

In my humble conclusion by my definition of Role Playing Games any game that allows someone to play a role to tell a narrative whether by rolls or role playing can be and is the definition of a Role Playing Game. This is strictly speaking my opinion and while I feel I am right as in most things your miles may very but don’t judge me and I wont judge you.

In which I begin my GM Odyssey

I recently posted that I felt there were six key areas that a person could apply everyday skills to GMing and improve their ability and become a more effective GM. I want to take some time and address each area briefly from a high level and begin discussing them in depth in future posts.

For a refresher the list is as follows.

  1. Acting
  2. Public Speaking
  3. Organization Skills
  4. Managerial
  5. Sales
  6. Stress Management

This is by no means an exaustive list but it really is the major areas and most things fall under one of these areas as a subset of them if we are being honest. So lets take a look at each one and why it is an important skill.


I have heard this a lot in my GMing career. “I wish I was more improvisational” or “I wish my NPCs were memorable” This is where acting and improvisational skills can help. The GM while not primary Storyteller does have the influence of every character not listed as PC. his is a huge opportunity to make memorable characters and situations. The ability to become different characters in different moments is a key element to being not just successful but memorable. Plus side maybe you can bring your talents to a local play or make a youtube movie and get noticed. Acting can also help you read other people and understand motives behind situations.

Public Speaking

The number one enemy behind GMs and players opening up is fear. Fear of being laughed at, fear of getting it wrong, fear of it all blowing up and going wrong. Having the skills, and mind you they are skills that can be learned, to be a public speaker. Showing confidence and the ability to prepare talking to an open forum (albeit usually small) is still challenging and when there is constant feedback it can feel daunting. Sometimes even stifling, but being prepared to mentally be in front of an audience will help in your ability to think quickly and react with confidence.

Organization Skills

Being able to keep records, keep track of your game world and your story is very important. This most people would agree is a no brainer, but not everyone is very good at it. It takes skills and the ability to follow a plan to keep things organized by developing a process to do that. No jus throw it all in a folder but making sure things are easily found and easily gotten to are key elements to make sure things don’t get forgotten or fall through the cracks. You have to be your own administrative assistant.


Lets be honest, the biggest part of GMing isnt managing the game its Managing the people. You’ve got the Rules Lawyer, the want to be Larper, the Power Gamer, the “It’s what my character would do” guy. That collection of egos and opinions can be enormous and you are looked to  lead the group through a collective story, a shared experience of cool awesome. Well the key is learning how to communicate and prod people in a way to get their best without upsetting is a difficult set of skills that Managers, coaches and leaders of all kinds have had to learn and learn well. These are not innate inaccessible skills but ones learned in business classes, and political work.


This one is a bit tricky. I am not talking about trying to convince you to buy something sales. I am talking about the ability to understand what people need or want out of the game, really understand the type of person that person is find the gap between where they are as a player and help them bridge to where they want to be in the game by providing the idea, system, time in the spotlight, etc. The ability to ask questions and dig deep into a players wants and needs for the game really plays a key role in helping them and yourself have fun. This is a definite sales technique and the better you are at uncovering needs it will translate well in Sales jobs, telemarketing jobs; even retail jobs.

Stress Management

The last area a GM needs to be good in is Stress Management skills. After Being an Entertainer, giving speech after speech, being your own administrative assistant, Manager of the group and even spending some time selling you are exhausted (and we haven’t even been a storyteller yet). The stress of wearing multiple hats can really get a person down. One bad night or one off hand comment can tear a person down when they aren’t ready for it. The ability to understand where stress comes from and redirect it is a set of skills that can be invaluable to you in life let alone your GMing career.


GM more then Storytellers…

Alex Mayo brought this up today on Google+, about the GM as Storyteller and how the more of a Narrator/Storyteller the less effective he believes the GM is. I agree with this and have found that a GM has a role to play just like PCs but his role is not just narrator, the role of Narrator or Storyteller belongs to each player, PC and GM, at the table. Some are better at it then others and typically the GM has some idea of plot direction as the story unfolds and this is the were most people make their mistakes.

“Since the GM has the most Plot control , therefore his primary role is that of narrator.”

This is where the real issues come up. The GM has more Plot direction then most PCs but the PCs can do whay they want with the plot from dealing with it or ignoring it.  The basic fact is that everyone works together to tell the story with the GM really directing focus from each plot point being thrown at him by his players or that he is throwing back.

 A brief background on me.

I have been GMing for more then 25 years, started way back with Marvel Super Hero’s and 2nd Edition. I’ve run Storyteller system, BRP, 3rd, 3.5, 4th, Star Wars (d6, d20, saga) Paranoia, SotC, PrimeTime Adventures, Bare Bones Fantasy, the list goes on. I’m not the end all be all of GM knowledge but I’ve seen a thing or two in my career. I’ve put a lot of thought into what makes a good GM, and I learned a lot from my failures as a GM. I’ve learned from both good and great GMs that I’ve had the pleasure to sit at their table. Also I’ve learned much from my life and “real” world experience. I hate calling it that, because GMing is Real World experience for many careers.

Where am I going with this?

There are  6 Primary areas of Individual and dare I say it Corporate career paths, and frankly many more areas, that GMing prepares you for and GMs can learn a lot from. Today I am going to List those 6 areas and touch briefly on them, I will delve deeper later but this is getting long winded as it is.

 The list goes like this

  1.  Acting
  2. Public Speaking
  3. Organization
  4. Managerial
  5. Sales
  6. Stress Management

Some of these you are probably saying, “well duh!” and I am sure a couple are flat out confusing as to why I would include them. I will break these down over the next few posts to explain my thoughts and reasons.

Until then, thoughts and wild speculation may abound. Please feel free and comment.