[Runequest] Game balance in different editions
dave at difference.com.au
Tue Sep 4 13:15:41 EST 2012
A long rambling rant about game balance changes between RQ3, MRQ2, RQ6
TL;DR summary - RQ3 game balance had some bits that were crazy, and lack of revision meant they were never fixed. Lately, RQ6 is effectively the third revision of the rules, and there is evidence of a careful concerted effort to prune back certain kinds of magical effect in Folk, Divine, Sorcery spells to remove some kinds of game balance issue - but Mysticism and Animism go the opposite direction, and may unbalance the game thereby (as admitted in game text), which is an odd choice.
Game balance is an interesting question when you have complex rules systems like RuneQuest. What is 'balanced' depends so much not just on how you define balance, but play style. And rules interact in complex ways. There are definitely issues that you will only find in playtest, and not necessarily then. And once a 'problem' is found, how do you fix it?
I've been looking at some old RQ3 material. RQ3 never tried to 'patch' the rules after creation, even though it was clear that some parts of it were not really playtested, and other things that could have been perceived as play problems were just embraced in a gung ho gamist spirit - if the rules allowed you to do it, assume characters (PC and NPC) would. Some RQ3 material (notably Dorastor) is just nuts, full of a sort of deranged exploration of the corners of the system —or, for a less crazy example, Strangers in Prax really pushed the sorcery rules into odd places, and well as making it clear just how powerful RQ3 Lunar Magic was. In some ways this was interesting, and kind of fun, and pushed the simulationist agenda of the game pretty well - it was cool that sorcery was a toolset that you could do weird and original things with, and it was assumed that the inquiring minds of Gloranthan sorcerers would use these innovations. In other ways it was problematic - sorcery in RQ3 was limited, boring and often ineffectual for anyone who wasn't a specialist magician, but quickly took game balance weird places for those who were. Another problem was that high-powered combat was pretty boring if you relied on weapons, so the characters who had been the glorious front line fighters of the mid-period of the game suddenly became pretty dull bulwarks at the high end. It was kind of annoying that these problems were not resolved until later editions - they were identified well at the time, but faced with the only useful option being to rewrite the system more or less, nothing official was done and a lot of us had house rules to cope.
RQ3 worked pretty well if you played at relatively 'normal' levels, and didn't use sorcery, which gave you a pretty good idea of what parts had been play tested and which hadn't.
MRQ2 benefited from the change to redesign the problematic parts of the system. as it pretty carefully attempted to redesign some problematic parts of MRQ, and RQ6 benefits again, as most parts are a clear evolution of MRQ2.
But I find RQ6 very odd. In most of the game systems that are carried over from MRQ2, RQ6 makes very conservative choices. Sometimes I find this detrimental - the way Folk Magic is deliberately designed so that, in contrast to every previous edition of the game, there is no such thing as powerful Folk Magic is something I can see is useful for maintaining game balance, but it also changes the feel of Glorantha in a very significant way (not an issue for non-Gloranthan players, of course). Another conservative choice is that the RQ6 authors obviously realised that the 'subtract skill over 100% from opponents skill' rule meant that very high effective skills levels had a major effect on play - and every spell or effect from previous editions that significantly changed skill levels was removed or rewritten to remove that aspect (such as Fanaticism, Berserk, Bladesharp).
There is also a consistent effort through RQ6 to make magic not 'stackable' with anything, to pin effects down so that don't result in very high values for either damage or armour. Magic from multiple sources is explicitly non-stackable, spells like Bladesharp and Truesword and Damage Enhancement skew damage results to the high end but don't stack on top of weapon damage as they did in RQ3, same with Protection and Shield not stacking with armour. There is a whole of game move to pull the high end of damage and armour down, and anchor the game in the mundane a bit more. An interesting choice, and a stark contrast with RQ3 (especially when combined with the general disempowerment of Folk Magic).
On the one hand this makes characters far less 'brittle'. In RQ3, it was common for both damage and armour values to be quite high compared to hit points in a location. As a result, there were very few 'minor' wounds in high-powered play - you usually took either no damage, or lost a location. Avoiding this effect is a win. On the other hand, in RQ3 players eventually got to the point of being able to take on large creatures with high HP/Damage/Armour values in hand to hand, and it looks as if in RQ6 that simply doesn't happen in the same way. Also, the general toning down of damage applies only to weapon damage, not magical - so I fear that in play, spells like Lightning might come to be disproportionately powerful and important in play.
It all mostly makes sense, but I am having an odd sense of having to adjust my vision of Glorantha somewhat. My vision was definitely that clashes of heroes were generally between hand to hand combatants cranked up with a lot of magic, that might not work that well in practice. On the other hand, the polish and detail of the RQ6 combat rules really shows, so it is fine to really focus the game on that.
But oddly, the bit that is really confounding me about RQ6 is that there seems to be a general feel of cranking things back, asserting careful game balance changes that focus the game on interesting play in areas it does well and carefully move the power levels down a bit compared to prior editions in most of the revisions - and then the new parts of the game go in the opposite direction. The Mysticism rules break most of the new game balance rules I've described - they include magic that explicitly allows you to increase your skill levels, and adding to Damage Bonus that directly stacks with weapon damage. While it took me a lot of looking to find out, the same is true of Animism in RQ6 - Nature Spirits allow direct enhancement of Armour Points, Damage Bonus, and skill grade. So Mysticism and Animism both have had added to them the abilities that have been carefully systematically removed from Folk and Divine Magic and Sorcery! And the designers were not unaware of the effect this might have on the game - Mysticism carries an explanatory note that pretty much explicitly says 'this stuff isn't balanced and you probably shouldn't let your players use the good bits.'
So we are left in an odd position. The game has been carefully designed to depower the effects of magic on hand to hand combat somewhat, but this has been inconsistently applied - Mysticism and Animism appear to be have reasonable access to precisely the powers carefully removed from the other systems, and this is recognised as unbalancing by the game designers.
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