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The Impossible Dream

Balance of Power

by Hunter Logan
Jan 20,2003

 

Balance of Power and Player Goals
The Impossible Dream Installment #2
by Hunter Logan

Intro

Let me begin by saying thank you to all the people who read and responded to Installment #1. I appreciate your input and I hope you are all satisfied with the work I'm doing here. I want to take a minute here to say a few words about what I'm doing and where I'm going with the column.

  • I'm not saying, "This is what you must do and this is the way you must do it to design your game." Instead, I'm supplying suggestions in the pattern, "This is what I've thought, this is what I've tried, and this is what has worked for me." I want to share that in the hope that I can help readers who have faced some of the same game design dilemmas that I've faced. It's all about making better games.
  • I regard game design as an art. It's not exactly like painting, drawing, or singing; but it's an art all the same. To me, that means there are many ways to reach the desired result. Take painting, for example. Some painters paint from dark to light. Others paint from light to dark. Still others paint midtone first and then build darks and lights. The process is different, but the challenges and tools are the same. No matter how the painter paints, he must deal with color, value, composition, form, and materials. So it is with the game designer. Whether you choose to think of play flow, mechanics, characters, setting, and so on first or last is up to you. The problems are the same, the method of solving them differs from person to person.
  • I'm not presenting The Definitive Tool for Game Design. I doubt such a thing actually exists. Instead, I'm presenting thoughts and processes that work for me. How you choose to use this information is up to you. I hope you find something useful.
  • I'm not telling you, "This is what I like. You should like it, too." I'm saying, these are the many and varied possiblilities I have found. They barely scratch the surface of what's possible. You should pick the ones you like or find your own and use them to suit yourself. I may eventually talk about what I like, but I will only present my preference as one more possibility for your consideration.
  • Some topics may generate some heat. You don't have to agree with me. I'm not trying to convert you and I'm not going to attack you for holding a different viewpoint. Please extend me the same courtesy.
Next, a correction. In my discussion of mechanics in installment#1, I really should have specified resolution mechanics. I wanted to make the term more general, but that was a mistake because the structure of resolution mechanics is different from, say, death mechanics or alignments or any of the other rules and guidelines that naturally fit under the mechanical umbrella. So much for my aura of flawlessness and my apologies for any confusion.

Balance of Power

Last time, I pushed play flow as a primary consideration for game designers. This time, I'm going to explore that a bit further by looking at some differences in play flow that can happen depending on your intended Balance of Power.

Balance of Power is a term I use to express the relationship between rules, GM, and players. As I originally envisioned it, BoP was a linear scale. At one end, the GM had all the power. In the middle, the GM shared power with the players. At the far end, the players had all the power. That was fine as far as it went, but John Morrow pointed out that games and players give power to the rules. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I'd even seen examples of it in actual play, so BoP is now a triad. Whether you think about it or not, any game you design will have a BoP. Here is a more formal definition.

Balance of Power is an expression of the relationship between the GM, the players, and the game's rules. As a game designer, you can write play flows and rules that define BoP. When you give the GM or players express powers, those usually have an impact on how people play your game. Otherwise, three factors determine BoP: The degree of trust between GM and player, the GM's approach to running a game, and the players' approach to playing a game.

Visualization

I visualize BoP as a triangle, a polygon with three edges and three vertices. Your BoP can lie on a vertex, along an edge, or anywhere on the surface of the triangle. In the BoP diagram, the rules occupy the top apex of the triangle. This is deliberate, because in most games, the rules have at least a little bit of power over how events are set up and resolved in the game. The GM and players form the bottom edge of the triangle.


Rules
/ \
/ \
/_____\
GM Players

BoP and Play Flow

I think BoP affects play flow. If BoP favors the GM, the play flow will be a lot different than if BoP favors the players or the rules. Sometimes the differences are subtle. Other times they're blatant. I think the best way to look at this is to examine some permutations of BoP and show examples of associated play flows. These play flows are but one possibility for a given BoP. I present them as points of reference, not definitive or limiting statements. These are mostly based on play flows that I've used, heard about, or seen used in other games. All this is intended to help you think about the Balance of Power you might want in your own game. Let's look at some examples.

  • BoP favors the rules (weak GM, weak players). The rules determine what players can do and what happens in the game. The game designer provides rules for many contingencies. The players may know the rules as well as the GM. Everyone is expected to use and follow the rules without any sort of fudging or cheating.
    • Description. As play begins, the GM describes the locale for the players. The rules may require the GM to randomly generate some aspects of the scene.
    • Clarification. The players ask questions about specific details. The GM answers as appropriate. The GM may randomly generate some of this information.
    • Decision Point. The players discuss what they want to do and decide on a course of action for their characters. Rules concerning character behavior may require a specific course of action for some characters. The players have their characters do this as appropriate. This decision may spawn an event. If the players have difficulty making a decision, the GM may add an event to the game. This might involve rolling dice to find out what happens next.
    • Event. Something happens. The GM describes the event and the players ask questions to clarify the situation.
      • Decision Point. The players evaluate the event and decide what, if anything they want their characters to do about it. Rules concerning character behavior may require a specific course of action for some characters. The players have their characters do this as appropriate.
      • Resolution Point. The players' decision produces a resolution point. Using the mechanical tools designed for this purpose, the GM and players resolve the event. No matter what happens, all results are accepted at face value.
    • Repeat. This flow of play is repeated until the characters work their way through the adventure.

  • BoP is shared between rules and GM (weak players). The GM knows the rules and uses them to help determine what happens. The player has very little power or resources for affecting the game except through the action of his character. The GM is expected to follow the rules in order to keep the game fair and balanced.
    • Description. The GM describes the locale and situation for the players.
    • Clarification. The players ask questions about specific details of the description. The GM answers as appropriate.
    • Decision Point. The players discuss what they want to do and decide on a course of action for their characters. This decision may spawn an event. If the players have difficulty making a decision, the GM may add an event to the game.
    • Event. Finally, something happens. The GM describes the event and the players ask questions to clarify the situation.
      • Decision Point. The players decide what their characters will do about the event. In this case, indecision is a decision as the GM may push things along as he sees fit.
      • Resolution Point. The players' decision leads to a resolution point. Using the appropriate mechanics, the GM and players resolve the event.
    • Repeat. This flow of play is repeated until the players work their way through the adventure.

  • BoP favors the GM (weak rules, weak players). The GM has considerable power and resources for affecting the game including the setting, the course of the story, the setup of events, and what happens, The GM may use the rules to determine the outcome of events, but the GM may also take liberties with the rules in order to make the game go the way he wants it to go. The players accept that the GM basically controls the game. The GM will have power to fudge results. The GM may allow some player initiative, but it's still the GM's show. Here is a possible flow of play:
    • Description. The GM describes the situation to the players. The GM supplies the players with two or three possible courses of action.
    • Decision Point. The players ask questions about specific details and select from the presented options. If the players want to do something else, the GM may require a die roll or use some other device to make this possible.
    • Event. The players' decision results in a new event. The GM provides the players with options for handling the event.
      • Decision Point. The GM offers options for resolving the event. The players decide what they want their characters to do. The players select an option for handling the event. If the players don't like the GM's choices, they may suggest an alternative course of action, but it's really the GM's call.
      • Resolution Point. The players' decisions produce a resolution point. Using the appropriate mechanics, the GM resolves the event with input from the players.
    • Repeat. This flow of play is repeated until the characters work their way through the adventure.

  • BoP is shared between GM and players (weak rules). The rules are minimal, but they determine the flow of play. In this flow, the GM is still the GM, but the players can change the flow of events or rearrange the whole situation to their own liking within the limits of a few simple rules.
    • Description. The GM describes the situation for the players.
    • Clarification. The players ask questions about specific details. The GM answers as appropriate.
    • Decision Point. The players declare what they want their characters to do. Their declarations may change the situation.
    • Event. Player declarations lead to an event. If the players don't really say anything that leads to an event, the GM may add an event to the game.
      • Decision Point. The players decide how to handle the event. They declare courses of action for their characters.
      • Resolution Point. The GM uses his best judgment and declares the effect of the characters' actions. The players may make other declarations to modify the outcome.
    • Repeat. This flow of play is repeated until the players work their way through the adventure.

  • BoP favors the players (weak rules, no GM). This is interactive storytelling or roleplaying without a system. The game has no real GM and no hard, fast rules for determining what happens in the game.
    • Determine Speaker. The players roll dice to determine the speaker, a sort of temporary GM. The player with the highest die roll is speaker.
    • Description. The speaker declares the current situation.
    • Clarification. The other players ask questions about specific details. The current speaker answers as appropriate.
    • Declaration. The players make declarations for their characters. These declarations may change the situation. The speaker may rebut each player's declaration. This rebuttal may again alter the situation. This process continues until an event occurs.
    • Event. Sooner or later, the players will cause an event to occur in the game.
      • Decision Point. The players declare what their characters will do about the event.
      • Determine Speaker. The players roll dice to determine a new speaker.
      • Resolve Event. The new speaker declares the result of the characters' actions in the event.
    • Repeat. This flow of play is repeated until the players reach a logical end point, a time limit, or the end of the game session.

  • BoP is shared between players and rules (Distributed GM). The players know and apply the rules for themselves. They determine the course of play as a group. They use a distributed GM arrangement. That is, the power normally given to the GM is distributed among the players. The players either take turns being the GM, or each player is a sort of mini-GM with some control over what happens at any point in the game.
    • Description. Each player sets his character in a scene. If one player wants other characters in the same scene, each player decides whether or not to do this. Two or more characters in the same scene may interact.
    • Event. After each player has set his character in a scene, each player declares some sort of action that affects his character, his scene, or someone else's character or scene. This sets one or more events in motion.
      • Decision Point. The players decide whether or not to accept the events now in motion.
      • Resolution Point. The rules provide each player with limited means to challenge the outcome of events. Unchallenged actions automatically succeed. Challenged actions are resolved. If the challenge is successful, the action fails. Otherwise, the action succeeds. If something special happens, like a character is injured or killed, players apply whatever rules exist to handle those events.
    • Repeat. Once actions are resolved, each player assesses his character's situation and the flow of play starts over. In this way, play progresses until the session ends or until something happens to bring play to an end.

  • BoP is shared between GM, players, and rules (weak GM). This is center mass of the triangle. The GM and the players both have a say in what happens and how it happens, but rules moderate the sharing of power. The GM might make a statement, but the players have resources at their disposal to override the GM. Then a player may make a statement, but the rules help determine whether or not the statement proves true and the GM has some input on the outcome.
    • Description. The GM describes the situation for the players. The GM may set an event in motion.
    • Clarification. The players ask questions about specific details. The GM answers as appropriate.
    • Decision Point: The players have the option to accept or reject the information provided by the GM. If the players don't like what they hear, they may alter the GM's description or set some other event in motion. This often requires an expenditure of resources or some sort of die roll. As long as the players go about their business as prescribed by the rules, the GM is obliged to support the players in their intended endeavor and facilitate the changes.
    • Event. The interactions up to this point should set events in motion. If an event is not in motion, a player or the GM may add an event to the game.
      • Decision Point. The players now decide how they will deal with the event. They may either decide what their characters will do or they may use means at their disposal to change the event.
      • Resolution Point. Once the decisions are made, the GM and players work to resolve the event. The GM determines what happens, but the players may decide to modify the results within the rules of the game.
    • Repeat. Once the event is resolved, the process starts over. In this way, the GM helps the players find their own adventures.
That wraps up Balance of Power. Next time, I will discuss player goals.
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