Here we are again, one day away from Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day. Today's topic: Balance.
Balance: a state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight, amount, etc.
So let's delve in, shall we? We’ll start with one definition of game balance.
One of the things to keep in mind in old-school games, particularly D&D and its clones, is the balance, and lack thereof. There are many times when characters can get in over their heads. A modern convention (often seen in PC and console games) is having the world ‘level’ up around you. Take for instance, the Elder Scrolls IV, Oblivion. Thank goodness you weren’t running into Daedra at level one! The games are built this way to keep the players from feeling a sense of loss or frustration when they encounter obviously overpowered encounters.
On the other hand, if a player tells you he wants to go to the Tomb of Horrors, or delve into the Depths of the Earth, or use a new-found portal to teleport directly to the deepest levels of Rappan Athuk, shouldn’t they be able to? Of course they should. And if they do, does the Referee change the encounters to suit the player’s level? Well, I certainly hope not. If a party of 4th level characters walks through G2, I would have strong words with that particular Referee! My point in this is simple. As a Referee, there should be areas that aren’t ‘player friendly’. Let’s face it, if the players are scared for their characters every once in a while, they’d get rather hard to deal with…
Another form of game balance is in the mechanics of leveling and experience.
I often wonder why those old modules gave a level range instead of an experience range. The game is balanced by experience points, not by level. A ninth level fighter, magic-user, thief and cleric are all at various levels of power. However, a fighter, magic-user, thief and cleric with 250,000 experience are going to be much more evenly matched.
When looking at some of those old modules and preparing to run them, I recommend looking more at the experience point values and where they fit in the called out level range than just using the levels as-is.