Looking for a way to balance skills in your game?

Character options may be reduced to:

-Attack (roughly rounding up anything that makes direct damage or imposes a condition that will make direct damage greater or easier to do, including straight killing another character)

-Defense (including anything that either reduces, transfers or nullifies direct damage, like armor, healing, regeneration, etc)

-Movement (as in everything the character can do to get a positional advantage, get out of a positional disadvantage, or go through an obstacle)

-Perception (all sources of somewhat immediate external information the character has at their dispossal like common senses, darkvision, supernatural senses, machine-like sensors, etc)

-Knowledgement (all sources of information the character may reach, like memory, books, gathering information rolls, investigation, etc)

-Subterfuge (anything the character can do to avoid direct confrontation like stealth related skills, invisibility, disguise

-Social (all the ways the character can convince others to do their bidding as diplomacy, leadership, persuassion, lying, performance, etc)

-Creation (whatever the character can do to make up tools or resources)

There are more rare options like the skills to teach skills to other characters and more, but basically whenever a GM makes a player roll the dice or a mechanic is called up to solve things, it's about one of this options.

I made this categorization a while ago and thought it could be used RAW as character stats but after a few tests I had to recognice they didn't work that way. However this still seems to be somewhat useful when it comes to balancing character skills/powers/items/special abilities.


  • First step: Decide how tight you want the balance to be. Different systems, genres and intended atmospheres will need a different balance. You may want a skill to do a single thing at a time or more than one. You may want to have the feeling that PCs are overpowered and menial tasks are way under them, or the opposite. You will know better than anyone when you've got too many skills and options and when it's too little to represent a setting.

    A tight balance would be having each skill do only one of the options above and make sure later to add all necessary constraints and requirements to match an intended feeling.
    The idea of having a tight balance requires your careful evaluation of which skills/items will see more use. You can make a skill cover two or more player choices, as long as you clearly identify which ones and how much use they will see.

    A loose balance will just require giving the player these options in a way that doesn't ruin the effect of other game parts like the resource economy. If a skill gives the player more actions each round and these matter for the game, it will be unbalanced. If it makes resource management inconsequent by continuously creating or transferring resources (as in a regeneration ability that only requires a dice roll) it's unbalanced. If a skill fills two player options at once requiring a single roll or too uninportant requirements (like a vampiric range attack that heals the PC for as much damage as he inflicts) that's something to be noted. (Specially if the PC finds an easy way to protect itself from sun exposure)
  • Second step: Decide if the genre will play better with genre archetypes with defined skillsets or if more variable customization is available. Both choices will require careful evaluation of how much use will each skill/item/etc will see in the actual game, and if using those choices is actually fun. Like, the healer role is needed, but the character can't be just about that unless the healing mechanic requires something fun to do besides resource management. Not that this isn't fun as it creates tension when scarcity of the resource kicks in, but there are other ways of making it fun as the interaction needed. How about healing magic working by having the healer wrestle with the sickness of with death itself in any form?

    But let's go back to skillsets. Balance on the skillsets should mean that while all characters should have access to simple tools that cover most of the options, the more interesting character abilities/items/etc should make a few of those options easier, more interesting and even add constrains to other options, like the mage not having enough defense options to resist melee attacks, or the fighter being unable to stealth unless they drop most of their armour. But as you see, that doesn't mean that the mage can't survive a melee skirmish at all (he must be able to resist at least one rat bite) or that the fighter can't stay quiet and hope the monster doesn't smell him.
  • Third step: Fine-tunning. Now comes the part where you actually balance the skills the usual way. You can make a skill burn up a resource, have items break of have a limited amount of charges. You can define precise scales of player ingerence as the PC levels up a skill. You can impose an in-fiction mechanic where the character needs to match certain requirements or an in-system mechanic where the requirements are met by gaming the system. You can assign different costs to different items and/or make the costs go higher as levels and difficulty of the game goes up. You can make skills and items less available or even unique, have players earn them through a quest or add particular requirements.

    In this part I'd recommend balance focus on genre emulation, on how the fiction should feel, on atmosphere and flavor, as if you have done the previous steps right you probably don't need to worry about one character choice being broken or boring.

    Hope this is helpful to anyone. How do you usually face balance issues on your designs?
  • edited October 2018
    Clear rules and fresh air make players see the problem early, when a slight nudge is not even considered a ruling.
  • I think what you have described are the generic moves/subsystems for any party (fantasy) adventure RPG.
  • edited October 2018
    Interpretation is not determined mainly by definition ("I take a sip of zorg and raise you by a funkel.") If you have found an interpretation for this two words (a -toxic ?- beverage, a monetary unit), you understand than in themselves, tradition, rules or prior agreement don't determine efficiently interpretation. They merely just points at D&D or the rulebook, or the contract and say "This is our same-page-tool regarding skills and skill balance".

    Ab absurdum : is it possible for a PC skill to be "well balanced" in the rule book, or as you propose, at setting, or character creation, or even at the beginning of a session, and yet never be used in a game session ? That's where, for me, the skill was worth 0. So what does this "balance" mean if the skill is not used ? Not much. And how do you propose to ensure the skill be used in the actual game with your step 2 ? By oral contract. And what happens if the contract is broken ? Say "hard luck" and keep going, but don't forget to bring your own trust for the next session, because you'll be needing some spare one.

    Players in a game session are working on the narrative, they are "gaming the narrative", they are working the definitions, negotiating meaning. Or at least I think they should, playing their heads off. Steps 1 and 2 address the problem from within a very specific culture, with a truckload of assumptions that maybe correct, or not. Stating it would be the first step of the process toward same-page-ness, which is the only way you can work on the interpretation, the narrative-side. That's why I'd rather ensure open dialog, transparency and equality in the negotiation as my first tool for steps 1 and 2.
  • edited October 2018
    Open dialog would be step 4 actually.

    I mean, it's something happening at the table stage, not at the design stage. It's necessary at the table, but it's out of the hands of the designer. The aids here are meant to be used by the designer. Maaaaybe the GM can try to apply them as a guide but I don't think they can be intuitive enough to be used at the table. I tried to use this as a part of a game mechanic and ended up -like most people do- falling back to my own tested and tried personal GMing toolset, so no, I really don't think it should be used as a way to balance the skills once the game is being played.
  • edited October 2018
    Cool with that. So the Skills / Abilities are like a thread to go through part of the design process. Then the number of skills that the players have to select could be taken into account in step 2. But that's one and the same with the whole character creation process : if skills are the only choices made, you can refine more. If there are 20 other choices, you can't add one more.

    I like step 3 because it hints at "narrative resources" (quest, geas, consumables), mixed with stats (consumables, XP) and pure randomness. Why make it the last step and call it "usual" ? If I decide on Mana points and dragon heads as a magic requirement for my dragon slayer game, it will inform the circulation of Gold pieces, Mana Points, Healing Points and Hit Points that I need for step 2. The holistic approach is simpler.

  • It doesn't make a great deal of sense, in my opinion, to talk about "balance" without a very clear sense of what the game is about, what the players do, what the characters do, and what the choice of skills is supposed to represent.

    Consider, for a simple example, the difference between two games. The first is a game where you spend a budget of points to create a character, and the characters then fight each other. You'll want to design the game so that equal-points characters are equally competent in combat. The second is a game where you face various challenges, but a big part is getting better at them as a player, so it's entirely good to design some character design choices as "better" than others, and part of the goal of play is to learn about those choices and to pick the "best" ones (like building a deck for a competitive collectible card game) - now you'll actually want to build in some choices as better than others, to give the players interesting choices to learn about.
  • If a choice is suboptimal, good design is not letting it be. More often there is a loss (achievement) for a gain (aesthetics) even in CCG. The hard part is making hidden values (and costs) somehow visible in the economy.
  • Knowing what the game is about is step zero. I wouldn't go into skills without knowing that as a designer.

    I meant that step 3 is "usual" as in "usually this is what everyone does as a designer when they try to balance skills", the steps 1 and 2 are meant to be there to say "this should be taken in consideration before recurring to other ways of balancing stuff"

    That said, let's check a bit into suboptimal choices. Step 2 makes things a bit clearer. If you check each skill, item and mechanic in your game with the list of player choices I put above (Attack, Defense, Movement, Perception, Knowledge, Subterfuge, Social and Creation) you will see more easily which choices are redundant (which should be okay as stated, as everyone should have most of those options), too constricted (which may happen if it suits the genre) or straight OP (like those that come at no significant cost or do more than one thing at a time)

    Let's say you've got a cyberpunk setting (just to stay away from the medieval-fantasy stuff for a moment) and you put "security" as a skill dealing with security systems, how to set them up or deactivate them from outside. As stated this skill can be rolled as an evasion option (avoiding confrontation) or as Knowledge to assess if an intrusion is possible. It's possible to apply to Creation if a PC creates a security system for someone and even use it as an attack or defense option if the PC is in control of said system at the time an intrusion happens, depending on how much of the enviroment the security system controls.

    That's 5 possible options for the player at the price of one skill, but it doesn't look unbalanced, right? The reason is that each option will require a separate roll in different circumstances, 4 of which will happen rarely.

    Let's compare it to a similar option in the same setting, like a customizable drone. Depending on the customization it can fill the same options and even more. Like, if it can be equipped with optical camo, signal scramblers, weapons or just a shield and fast motors... you get the idea. A player with enough creativity can make this item broken if it's cheap and available in the setting, stealing spotlight from other PCs with specialized skills.

    What about an app that replaces the "security" skill, which can be downloaded to your cortex? Again, it may make the other options useless if it's cheaper and presents less limitations. However it's great material to introduce more lore and other limitations to your setting, like the fact that whoever downloads such app get's marked by the police and becomes an usual suspect whenever intrusions happen in the area. Lots of balance can be engrained in the setting facts, but you ned to be aware of potential exploitations in the game. This is where checking what options each skill/item/ability gives to the players becomes important.
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