Saturday, April 26, 2008

Embracing Unfairness

Mr. Maliszewski has recently waxed eloquent over at his Gorgnardia blog on the joys of dice. We’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing recently, including Dr. Rotwang bouncing with glee over the cool things conjured by dice and tables for his one-on-one games with his wife and not-quite-roleplaying games like “How to Host a Dungeon”. They won’t get any argument from me on the joys of dice, tables, and random fun.

(The ultimate expression of this is probably the Mythic RPG, a great little game that can be used to build rules, a setting, and adventures, without even a GM, out of dice rolls and questions. Definitely worth checking out if you enjoy casting your fate to the dice.)

But hand-in-hand with the joys of random dice come some perils. Once you embrace the chaos, you have to toss most notions of fairness right out the window. Random stats, save-or-die, wandering monsters that are far above the combat abilities of the PCs, dungeons in which your character’s special schtick is never allowed to take center stage. All of these things are possible, and many are probable. Heck, even the improbable can be an issue. I remember sitting there and watching my younger brother roll five 18s in a row with straight 3d6 for stats. The final roll was a 12. You think that character shined a bit more than others?

And that doesn’t take into account that he played an elf.

A lot of ink was spilled back in the day, including by Gygax himself, about the importance of “balance” in the game, but honestly, most of it was a crock of poop. Yeah, I know, that sounds kinda harsh, but seriously, there were reasons why most parties before 3rd edition were a bunch of elves and maybe a token human. Elves in 1st edition AD&D had infravision, +1 to hit and damage with longbows and long swords (arguably two of the best weapons in the game), 90% resistance to charm spells, immunity to ghoul paralyzation, and the ability to multi-class. Thousand-year lifespans meant they could enjoy the benefits of nearly countless Haste spells without fear of premature aging. And all of this at 1st level.

And the cost for all these wonderful benefits? They were limited in what classes they could take, and the highest level they could advance in those classes. Which, when you got down to it, really were not limitations at all. First, if you didn’t want to play a class that wasn’t allowed to your preferred race, it really wasn’t any sort of restriction at all. Second, the lowest level-limit from race was, I think, 9th. Since very few campaigns lasted past 10th level, that wasn’t much of a threat either. The “sweet spot” of 1st edition AD&D was generally considered to be between 4th and 9th level. So maybe your elf or dwarf of halfling missed out on going up a level or two, but little more than that, which hardly balanced out all the bonus goodies they got. Even worse, in tournament play, where you’d expect issues of balance to be the most important, all of these drawbacks vanished. You were unlikely to go up more than a level or two, and you played with pre-generated characters. There was no reason not to snatch up that elf character if you had the chance, and the dwarf or gnome was still likely to be more useful (and give you more opportunities for points) than the poor human schlub.

D&D, especially as it grew to include thieves and rangers and stat bonuses and more races, left any semblance of “fairness” in the dust. There were “optimal builds” even back in the Moldvay/Cook days, though it was far less important than with D&D 3.5. In truth, the randomness of the game worked to smooth out those rough spots a bit, throwing an awful lot of the game to chance.

Now I’m not saying the games sucked. Far from it. I had a hell of a lot of fun running my brother’s elf through dungeons and later claiming a bit of wilderness for elven civilization. As Mr. Maliszewski made clear in the above-linked post, a lot of the fun depended heavily on the DM and players. We played around the unfairness, and some players took it as a challenge to work with sub-optimal characters, inspired by characters like Elric and Raistlin who clearly had a few low stats among their rolls. But whether we admitted it or not, we know that D&D in all of its incarnations was nothing like a finely tuned and perfectly balanced engine-o’-fun. You had to bring a lot of the fun yourself, and houserule the game to handle the issues you and your group thought were important. Maybe that explains the strong do-it-yourself ethos of those who started playing back then?


Anonymous said...

Amen, brother.

I've come to the conclusion that balance is the antithesis of fun. Games where the players defeat a balanced encounter (like, say, current edition D&D) are just an exercise in futile probability. People don't talk about how their party-of-four 5th level characters (all with the default array) defeated a CR 5 challenge and lived to tell the tale. That's not the stuff of legends.

I love me the old school Classic D&D with wildly unbalanced characters - the CON 6 Maguc User and the DEX 22 Thief, who together defeated the Old Red Dragon using Cunning and Guile. That's pure Grey Mouser territory, and all the better for it.

Putting your faith in the Dice Gods is a large part of that fun. Making the one roll which is make-or-break for the party is a wondrous thing - and it's something Sanitized D&D has filed the edges off. When failure is a risk, the rewards are higher.

In Classic D&D a dead character meant an excuse to roll up his brother, intent on revenge. And his brother. And his - until the Dice Gods smiled once more and vengeance was served. Stuff of legends, again.

Now it's all balance, and legends be damned.

Ah well.

trollsmyth said...

Or, the flip-side, you move the challenge away from the characters and to the players. This has always been my preferred method of play, since playing Moldvay/Cook D&D, where death was easy to find, and survival meant playing the game in ways that some, I think, wouldn't recognize as D&D today.

Anonymous said...

Game balance and fairness does not mean PvP. D&D is not (though it can melt down into in amusing fashion) a PvP game. Classes are not supposed to have equal power from 1st-20th level, and there is nothing unbalanced about that. Unless from the perspective of the player only, in a sibling rivalry sort of way.
Game balance, and fairness, should be in the hands of the DM.
And there were plenty of human characters played in 1e.

trollsmyth said...


Game balance and fairness does not mean PvP.

I'd certainly agree with that. Balance in an RPG like D&D generally crops up in two areas. The first is what some refer to as "spotlight time." If you're playing a thief, for instance, and the dungeon doesn't include any traps or chances to be sneaky, you're basically playing a fighter with low hit points, a poor chance to hit, and substandard armour. Likewise, the magic-user who's cast all their spells is basically just helpless baggage in terms of on-the-character-sheet resources, at best a sub-standard shield-bearer and torch-holder.

(Of course, that assumes the only things players can do is invoke things on their character sheets, which we both know to be a false assumption.)

The other problem is best exemplified by the Iron Gnome. Basically, you have a character whose stats and resources are so uber compared to the rest of the party that anything that would challenge them would slaughter everyone else.

This one is a bigger problem than the other, but again, not insurmountable, and was a pretty regular feature of old school play, where character levels would range pretty dramatically.

Which is very much the point of this post. Balance is a mirage, the Great White Whale of modern game design, an obsession that's warped the mechanics and play of many games into bizarre shapes. As you say, balance and fairness should be in the hands of the DM. Because, ultimately, they are; it's not like WotC can come to your house and steal your dice if you put together a challenge beyond the rating of the PCs. ;p

Out of curiosity, what brought you to this post today?