The Challenge: Over the past nine articles, you've seen many challenges in creating a balanced, versatile, and entertaining role playing game. Balancing character design and die rolls, offering opportunities to strategic, descriptive, and casual players alike. All of these challenges relate, in one way or another, to game balance. Keeping an RPG balanced, making sure that no character has an overwhelming advantage, is so important and integral to all of these challenges that it a single article cannot encompass the entirety of its effects on the game.
But balance is not the final word. This is a role playing game, an interactive story. Challenges and combat are important factors. But challenges are there for characters to overcome, and battles there to win. The characters should face risk, but if they fight smart, help each other out, and have a modicum of good luck, players should generally expect that they could carry the day--sometimes, even against a superior opposition.
Thus the tenth and final challenge of designing a versatile and balanced role playing game. Thus the aspect of the game perhaps more important than any--even balance--in the minds of those who will be running their characters through the game world: the challenge of maintaining heroism.
When people play an RPG, they expect their characters to face serious, even epic dangers. They expect that the challenges they face will be difficult, that sometimes they will fail, that the dice won't always smile. They expect that the game master will pit them against foes that do not fall to single sword swings or fireballs, and those who threaten their characters' lives in a very direct manner. And they expect that despite this, they will have a better-than-average chance of winning.
However, the level of heroism is not something the game designer can truly control. Certainly, the designer must make sure that players have a good chance of succeeding at actions, that they have a shot at beating foes of reasonably higher levels of power, that weaker foes can be threatening, but are not entirely likely (barring incredible luck or foolish tactics on the players' parts) of taking down these superior warriors. However, this article is directed less at those who design the role playing game than those who design the game. This is for the game masters, the referees, the quest lords, and any other title or acronym that goes into naming the player who runs the story, controls the secondary characters, and presents the challenges for the characters to overcome.
The Risk: The risk you take lies in the design of your game and the opposition you place your characters up against. You have control of the game world. It is technically possible for you to go and throw a thirtieth level dragon up against a group of fifth-level adventurers. Thereafter, your fellow players will generally choose a new game master, but it can be done.
This sort of encounter, however, is no fun. Likewise, it is not worth much when a party of 30th-level characters take on 5th-level soldiers. Sure, it might be fun every so often, giving the players the chance to show off their skills and reinforcing their level of power before you throw them back into the balanced world of even-level opponents, but it doesn't make for a good long-term game.
In addition to enemy levels, you should consider the risk of enemy tactics and design. Massive damage dealers may be scary, and throwing them in every now and then can certainly rattle players, but such opponents are much more likely to take the entire party down--and do so fatally, rather than just dropping them. You want to maintain risk, of course, every bit as much as the game designer. However, if every fight carries a large-scale chance of character death, the game is probably going to be rather short. Most game masters put a lot of thought into developing an entertaining story line--it would be a shame for the game to end during the introduction!
You may also want to consider things from a realistic standpoint. Generally speaking, in a fight, people care first about staying alive, second about winning. Perhaps when everyone is wounded the enemy mage does have a good chance of wiping out half the party--but is it worth the mage's own life to do so? Most wise warriors would rather live to fight another day than sell their own lives to score kills. Not all, of course, but many. So too, many fighters would rather focus on their defenses than go for attack after attack, waiting for an opening to strike rather than offering such to their opponents.
The Solution: The trick is, when you design a battle, make it tough without being excessively deadly. This isn't to say to never go for strong attacks--if the players just aren't getting it together, the opposition is not going to hold back forever!--but don't make them the focus of every battle. It is possible--sometimes even easy--to show players a hard fight without threatening them with immediate death.
Defense-oriented opponents are usually very annoying to players, and sometimes even scarier than attack-oriented foes, in their own ways. An attacker might cause massive harm, but if you take it out quick, it's not that powerful. Defenders, however, evade and accept attacks with ease. Well-used, and a defense-oriented opponent, especially a major villain, can make players feel nearly impotent, increasing the perceived threat of the battle even though the villain isn't scoring any hits either.
Fodder opponents can also benefit from defense-oriented stats, especially those that allow them to take more hits. These foes aren't expected to actually win, but the longer they last, the more opportunity they have to wear the characters down.
A defender with solid--but not excessive--offensive power is a stressful opponent to face. Not only do the players have trouble dealing solid damage, but this sort of opponent is actually having an effect. This is a good template for an elite but not primary foe. The main villain's personal guards, for example.
If you do use attackers, consider strikes that weaken and inhibit rather than those that damage and slay outright. This escalates the danger of the battle without necessarily pushing the characters over the edge. Putting one of these types in with other opponents, such as some tanks to absorb punishment, can do much to make a fight seem harder than it might actually be.
Stealthy foes, if used properly, can hassle players. Stealth/speed type opponents can really get players nervous, as such foes can conceal themselves and attack quickly enough that players might think they are facing a much larger group than they really are.
A balanced game makes a game master's job easier, but the game designer's hard work goes to waste if you don't allow characters their chance to shine--while keeping them from getting overconfident. Don't coddle the players, but don't feel as if every battle must be a grueling test of their resilience. Wise enemy design can make players feel as if the battle is much riskier than it actually is, keeping the game fun and challenging without threatening to end the entire story in a single encounter.
Copyright © 2006 Dustin Schwerman.
Dustin Schwerman has been playing RPGs for over a decade, using an analytical approach to critically evaluate the game systems (and so to create the most powerful characters he could get away with). He used the extensive experience gained doing so to create his own game, Quests of the Realm. QoTR focuses on unlimited character customization, relying on its author's understanding to detect and counter game-breaking power plays. Though balanced, QoTR still allows players to create highly effective characters and run them through heroic story lines. To contact Dustin, read more of his writings, or learn more about Quests of the Realm, visit his web site, Quellian-dyrae [http://www.quelliandyrae.com].