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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.

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.

That wraps up Balance of Power. Next time, I will discuss player goals.
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What do you think?

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