Friday, September 01, 2006

On World vs. Game Balance

It occurs to me that there's two different aspects of game design that need balancing when creating your RPG. There is World balance where you think in terms of the World itself, and then Game balance where you think about the Players and their interests. These two things do not always coincide and often clash. The way it works out is that if you take the game rules and extrapolate on them you find that the World would crash under those rules. That can't be a good thing, can it?

Let's take for example Wizards in Tolkien's Middle Earth. There were few. Very, very few. There was the White Council, who are described as follows in Wikipedia:

"In the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, the Wizards of Middle-earth are a small group of beings outwardly resembling Men but possessing much greater physical and mental power."

- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wizard_(Middle-earth)

So there you have it. A small group. Very small. Five in fact. And why? Because in Tolkien's mind Wizards were very powerful beings and wielding magic was not for children but for the mighty and the awesome alone. Magic as we think of it, in Middle Earth, was nothing but a dim shadow of Real Magic as wielded by the White Council. That was magic. All else was a distant reflection. Thus the Powers that Gandalf possessed were those of an order of Demi-God (The Maiar), not men. Thus he could do things of great magical prowess. Yet, let us look at some of those things, because when we do we find that they were nothing much like what typical "magic" is in RPGs. What magic did Gandalf perform? Well, lets take a look at what magic Gandalf actually performed in "The Lord of the Rings".

Spellcasting

Essentially only the Maiar (i.e. Gandalf and Saruman) are known to cast spells. However, there are some questionable cases otherwise. Higher being may imbue another with power -- such as The Mouth of Sauron. There are also "black arts" mentioned which Men practiced -- though it is not clear whether there were also "white arts" or what precisely the black arts were. For the Maiar, there are some definite effects known:

Illusion: Both Gandalf and Saruman could make themselves appear as someone else or to make one object appear as another. Or, as Gandalf does, he can keep people from recognizing him for who he really is, until he wants.

Create Light: Gandalf could start fires or make things glow with little effort, though it required an appropriate object (like pine cones).

Enhance/Weaken Nature: Spells to enhance or weaken the natural or intended purpose of objects are often done. Thus, there are spells to bind doors shut or open them. Spells may make wood rot or put people to sleep.

Mind Control: Saruman primarily, but also Gandalf could command people and even work long-lasting changes to them.

- Principals of Tolkien's Magic

What is of interest to the discussion is that Tolkien's most powerful magicians used a very subtle form of magic. It helped them greatly against their foes, but it was not extraordinary. There is no hint of Fire Balls, or Lightning Bolts, or Polymorph, or Prismatic Wall, or anything of the kind. No, rather it was all very subtle, and yet, most powerful for all that. One could sense in Tolkien's work that magic was a power not to be trifled with, not for it's own power's sake, but for the sake of those who wielded it. One did not trifle with Gandalf. And that's a fact. One also gets the sense that magic was mysterious and subtle for a reason. It balanced the world of Middle Earth. Extraordinary displays of power were not to be seen because they represented a grotesque overuse which Tolkien abhorred. No, rather he was interested in the subtlety of the power which magic presented. Even the most powerful of all beings could not make a wingless creature fly. There was no Flying Spell that could launch a man at 60 mph through the sky. It simply could not happen in Middle Earth. And so the subtlety of the magic is evident throughout the work. And this we should account as wisely done by a great literary master. Lord of the Rings, for all its darkness and light, did not present us with a World in which Wizards contested each other’s wills with flashes of light and huge explosions. Nay, friends, nay. It was not like that.

Yet, if we take the rules of a standard RPG like D&D we find that almost anyone can roll a Wizard. Extrapolation would indicate from this that there are many wizards in such worlds. Lets also consider their spells. My goodness. Hundreds of spells at each level. Sleep Spell, Magic Missile, Polymorph, Wizard’s Eye, Lightning Bolt, Fire Ball, Teleport, Time Stop, Haste, Freeze, Finger of Death, etc, etc, etc. The list goes on and on. And the spells at higher levels are such that had any wizard from the D&D World entered Middle Earth one would think he’d have taken Mordor in an hour and put Sauron over his knee and spanked him right good. Such is the power of the modern D&D Wizard. And so one must ask, where is the balance in that? Where?

I propose that there simply is none. And that no world which incorporates that free range of super-colossal spells and miraculous invocations can possibly achieve for one nano-second the grandeur and gravity of Middle Earth. Tolkien’s World relies on subtly of power, not in the flash-bang-boom of RPG rules systems. And so, based on this thought, my conjecture is that to obtain Literary Worlds we MUST curtail the magic, and return much of it to the void from whence it came. We must discard the vast majority of it, and the more we do so the more possible it is for us to achieve the Tolkien effect. That mysterious awe beneath which the mind and the heart race toward the ineffable and the unknown ancient and incredible power of that all but lost art of World Weaving.

Yet at the same time we can not lose magic altogether or the World becomes mechanized, materialistic and empty of that subtle mystery which magic affords. It is a subtle act to create a World that is balanced. It is a more subtle act by far to create one that is also Game Balanced. One wonders, can it be done at all?

My own feeling is that it can, but it is far from obvious how, nor is it easy to do. But it requires a certain deep understanding of the nature of magic and what it means historically and psychologically to our race. We have had magic for thousands and thousands of years. It was ever the same – a thing of subtle beauty and power – sometimes a thing of dread. As World Weavers we must immerse ourselves in its concepts in all their subtly – and then, and only then, can we employ the concepts to our Worlds without causing them to lollygag and gyrate wildly out of control. We must, in a word, be ourselves, Subtle.
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