Ten Years Ago: Santa Vaca & Game Balance

I wrote the following essay ten years ago (2008). I reprint it here without edit or revision. The first time I ever mentioned the phrase “santa vaca” in conjunction with D&D.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition was on the verge of release and after hearing so many people talk about “game balance” as the primary design consideration, I thought I’d talk about how little I consider “game balance” when I design roleplaying games. Chiefly because it doesn’t matter.

Anyway, on with the essay…


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Listening to people talk about the fourthcoming (intentional) edition of D&D, I hear a lot of the same thing: balancing out the classes.

I hear the fighter will deal out the most amount of damage up close while the thief (I will not say “rogue”) deals the most amount of damage from behind while the magic-user deals out the most amount of damage from a distance and yadda yadda yadda.

I console myself with the knowledge that the new D&D design team is finally giving up the ghost. D&D isn’t a roleplaying game; it’s a very sophisticated board game. This is a bit of a paradox because D&D is the first roleplaying game. Yet, it isn’t a roleplaying game. Like being your own grandfather, this takes some explaining.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “What is a roleplaying game?” question. Thinking in the same way Scott McCloud thought about “What is Comics?” in his absolutely brilliant Understanding Comics graphic novel. I’ve been thinking about it because something about the new D&D struck me sideways strange.

I think it’s important to note that any game can be turned into a roleplaying game. You can turn chess into a roleplaying game by naming your King and giving him an internal dialogue. You can turn Life into a roleplaying game the same way. In fact, you can turn any board game into a roleplaying game that way. But you have to add something to do it. You have add the character and his motivations.

I’d also argue you have to add another element. The “character” must make choices based on personal motivations rather than strategic or tactical advantage. This is the “My Character Wouldn’t Do That” factor. The correct move in chess may be Queen’s Pawn to Pawn 4, but if the King decides, “I want to protect my Queen more than I want to protect my Bishop, even though the smart move is to protect my Bishop,” then we have a roleplaying game.

It isn’t that you play dumb. You could make every smart move put before you. But if you actively consider your character’s desires and motivations first, then I think you’ve got what we’re talking about.

But a game like chess doesn’t reward you for making choices that don’t directly or indirectly lead to victory. In fact, no board game does. That’s what differentiates a board game from a roleplaying game, I think. A board game rewards players for making choices that lead to victory. A roleplaying game rewards the player for making choices that are consistent with his character.

Likewise, most board games don’t have a sense of narrative: a building story. Now, please note that I said “most.” Some board games certainly do. And I don’t mean a story in an abstract way that’s up to interpretation. I mean a real story complete with everything we expect from stories. Plot, narrative, exposition, the third act betrayal. The whole kit and caboodle.

Now, some board games have a sense of narrative, but players are not rewarded for moving the narrative forward. On the other hand, the whole point of a roleplaying game is to do just that: move the narrative forward. It has mechanics that assist the players in doing just that.

Therefore… “A roleplaying game is a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.”

(At this point, I predict Faithful Readers to point out that this is not the definition most people understand as a roleplaying game. I will pre-empt this retort by asking them how the majority of Americans misuse “I could(n’t) care less,” misunderstand evolution, and mispronounce the word “nuclear.” Including the man sitting in the White House who fucks up all three.)

This is a working definition. It is far from complete and I’m not entirely happy with it, but it’s a good starting point. Notice the distinct lack of miniatures or dice as necessary to playing a roleplaying game. Some roleplaying games use miniatures and some roleplaying games use dice. Not all. The chief question is: “Can you play a roleplaying game without dice and/or miniatures?” My answer is, “Yes. I have. And I’ve been doing it for at least twenty years.”

(It is at this point I reminded how a certain individual very important to the origin of the RPG told me–to my face–that I wasn’t playing a roleplaying game at all, but I was just a “wanna be community theater actor.” But we shall not speak ill of the dead.)

Dice and maps and miniatures are not neccessary to play roleplaying games. (Yes, Matt. I’m using the word in that sense.) Some players prefer them, but others do not. It is also not neccessary to play a game without them. Do they add to the experience? Yes, they can. They can also detract from the experience, inhibit the experience or limit the experience. But they are not necessary.

What I feel is essential for a roleplaying game–what defines a roleplaying game–is that players take the roles of characters in a game that has mechanics that enable and reward story and character choices. That is a roleplaying game.

And with that definition in mind, I look at what D&D 4 is going to look like and I’ve come to a conclusion: it will not be a roleplaying game.

You can make it a roleplaying game, but in order to do so, you’ll have to add elements that do not exist in the rules. If you play the game by the rules, it is not a roleplaying game.

D&D has mechanics for rewarding you for making the best strategic and tactical choices, but it does not have mechanics that help the players move the plot forward. It has mechanics for movement and damage and healing and everything else Talisman does, but it does not reward a character for making decisions that aren’t focused on winning the game.

At the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy gives up “treasure and glory” to heal the village. He surrenders the magic stone to the old man, completing that transformation from greedy, selfish bastard into the hero we knew from the first film.

In D&D4, there is no advantage in the choice to give up that treasure. Hell, in D&D3 there’s no mechanical reason for him to do it, either. No strategic or tactical reason. He should take the magic stone, add it to his current stash of magical treasures, and go on to the next adventure. Likewise, he shouldn’t have turned over the Arc of the Covenant to the US Government and he shouldn’t have stopped to heal his dad. He should have run out of that temple as fast as his little feet could carry him and cash in on finding the cup of Christ. That’s the only way to get experience points. That’s the only way to “win.”

That’s how you win D&D. More treasure to kill bigger monsters to get bigger treasure.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post in the first place. Game balance.

D&D3 was obsessed with obtaining game balance. The fact that stats are randomly generated demonstrates what a Great and Massive Failure this is. (If we add up our stats and you have even one point more than me, our characters are unbalanced.) What kind of damage can a fighter do before he falls down, what kind of damage can a wizard do before he falls down, what kind of damage can a thief do before he falls down… all of these questions are missing the point. Especially in a roleplaying game. Addressing the symptoms, but not the disease. Hacking at the limbs rather than the roots.

“Game balance” in a roleplaying game doesn’t come down to hit points or armor class or damage or levels or feats or skills or any of that. Game balance in a roleplaying game comes down to a simple question: “Is each character fulfilling his role in the story?”

D&D addresses this issue in a small tactics mindset. The fighter fights, the theif steals, the cleric heals and the wizard is the artillery. Make sure each character’s role–as D&D sees it–is filled.

But what about motivation? What about personal stakes? Let me show you what I mean.

One of my adventures in the RPGA involved a first level thief. He was the son of a tavern keeper who had gambled himself into deep debt. My character learned how to be a theif because he was the bruiser at the tavern. He knew how to pick pockets because he had to look out for it. He knew how to hide in shadows to keep himself out of sight. And he knew how to backstab because he needed to move quietly up to a troublemaker and hit him hard enough to knock him out without starting a fight. That’s my thief.

(I should note that the game itself demands I do none of this. There is no rule or mechanic that requires it and there is no rule nor mechanic that rewards me for it.)

I went on the adventure with my little thief. As we walked, I chatted with the other characters. I was chatty. They chastised me for slowing down the adventure. Not my character, but me. They chastised me for roleplaying. Obviously, I was playing the wrong game.

We killed some kobold bandits, gathered some treasure. The other players were not playing as a group well (despite my suggestions) and argued and bickered the whole time.

Meanwhile, I stole as much of it as I could. When I found something in private, I kept it. I was going to save my father’s tavern and it didn’t matter who stood in my way. Again, acting in character but against the group goal of sharing the treasure. As far as Tav saw it (his name was Tav), these people hired him to do a job. They were rude to him and did not go out of their way to protect him.

At the end of the adventure, I had a large chunk of silver, gold and treasure. I even got a +1 short sword. The fighter didn’t want it. And when the adventure was done, I said, “I retire!”

They all looked at me with disbelief. I reminded them that the only reason I did this was to save my father’s tavern. I got a bunch of gold and a magic sword worth thousands of gold pieces. I was set for life. A peasant sees 1 gold piece per year and I got a few thousand. I was done. I filled my role.

Now, my story about Tav helps me illustrate a lot of things. Almost every choice I made with him was based on his backstory–right up to his retirement. All the choices were based on things that weren’t on my character sheet. The things that, as far as I can tell, are the most important things about a character.

Game balance isn’t about hit points or armor class or spells per day or any of that. Game balance is about helping the player tell his character’s story in such a way that he doesn’t eclipse the other characters. Mechanics that reward and assist players in doing just that.

At least, that’s how I see it.

And I’m still not entirely happy with the definition.