Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In Which The Warlock Blathers on Balance...

As you can imagine from my prior entry, I'm pretty high on Sentinels of the Multiverse right now.  Our Friday Night group has played it for two weekends straight, with FridayNightWill picking up the base game and both expansions!

So enthused, I decided to register on the Greater Than Games forums, where discussion between playtesters and the community at large has really sprung up.  One of the most vociferous and heated arguments thusfar has centered around three heroes:  the mechanic-themed martial artist Mister Fixer, the gunslinging vigilante Expatriette, and the icebound avenger Absolute Zero.  This argument centers on balance:  simply put, Fixer and Expatriette are viewed by many as underpowered, while opinion on Absolute Zero swings drastically between over- and underpowered, depending on who you ask.

Six of one, one of another?
Somehow, a designer has to make it all balance!
Now, there's an interesting conundrum running in the background here.  What, actually, does balance mean? Are two characters balanced if one person can sit down to play each and still have fun?  Each person's definition of fun varies drastically.  I tend to shy away from playing "cleric-type" characters in RPGs, while favoring charismatic, arcanely-powered blasters.  That doesn't mean that a cleric-type is imbalanced while in my hands, though my personal investment in the character may equate to a difference in gameplay.

Does balance imply mechanical equity?  When different mechanics are in play, the very nature of mechanical equity becomes a qualitative assessment.  Is a universal "+2 to damage for one round" buff equal to a power that deals 6 damage?  Thinking mechanically, one might figure that if at least 3 attacks are made using that buff, it would be as good as, if not better than, the single damage power.  But when chance enters the picture--perhaps through SotM's Villain and Environment decks, or through the machinations of a Wicked GameMaster--that simple equation goes out the window.

Absolute Zero, with two of his key pieces of equipment.
Does his reliance on them make him underpowered?
Or do his maxed-out combos make him king of the hill?
What about opportunity cost?  Decision-making certainly comes into play in terms of balance.  Using the aforementioned heroes, Absolute Zero hinges on having several key pieces of equipment out on the board in order to function on a basic level.  Zero's base power does not affect others--it actually damages himself though additional pieces of equipment allow this damage to be magnified and redirected to foes or even used to heal himself.  However, putting these pieces of equipment into play requires several turns of dedicated actions; actions which aren't spent dealing damage, conquering villains, or removing hazards.  This becomes particularly dangerous when many of the villains in SotM have cards that eliminate equipment or remove heroes' cards from play.  However, when fully equipped with his arsenal, Zero can throw down absurd amounts of damage, wiping the field free of minions and laying the hurt on a would-be supervillain.

Mister Fixer, on the other end of the spectrum, has little set-up time and is much less reliant on equipment and cards in play.  Fixer's base power deals damage to a foe:  very straightforward, though at slightly-lower damage than other heroes with similar powers.  Almost every card that Fixer can play adds to his base damage, though many criticize Fixer's deck for being repetitive--a large proportion of his deck consists of martial arts styles or "tools", each of which Fixer may only have one in play at a time.  In turn, this repetition limits his overall maximum damage, resulting in a lower maximum than other damage-dealing heroes, even as his damage requires less set-up and is more "consistent".

Is simplicity power or weakness?
This is getting a little Zen...
Does Fixer's lack of complexity imply that he's less powerful than Absolute Zero?  Does Fixer's speed of play mean he's more powerful than Zero?  What about his limited options?  Does Fixer's limited damage mean he's less powerful?  Does Zero's complexity and length of set up make him underpowered, or does his optimal upper-range combo push him into overpowered?

Answers to questions like these don't come easily in game development.  Savage Worlds attempted to quantify its racial abilities, putting them on a +/-2 point scale.  However, even when quantified in this way, imbalances still arrive.  Is the ability to breathe underwater equal to a free d8 in Vigor?  Is a free choice of Edge equal to a +2 bonus to get out of Shaken?  Who knows?  

This sort of question has recently arisen with a vengeance, as we've been moving ahead with Cold Steel Wardens revisions.  While metahuman powers seem to be in a good place and the base skills are solid, CSW's Masteries have been somewhat on the weak side.  Masteries are intended to allow additional uses of skills--using the Scientific skill for the purposes of computer hacking or using Athletics as an active defense, tumbling away from enemies.  However, in many cases, they fell into the ongoing issue of providing additional skill dice, given a particular situation.  That's not 'fun'.  That's not 'interesting'.  As such, we're going back to the board with them.

And that's not a bad thing!  We're still locked and loaded to hit our deadlines, with layout samples and art pieces coming in throughout the month.  I'm devoted to putting forward a great game, and I don't intend on being complacent in ensuring that the best possible Iron Age comics game hits the shelves.  We forge on, friends and neighbors!

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