BW, Game Balance and You!

An Introduction

Game balance. What does it mean? And why does BW seem to ignore it?

Well, from the perspective of D&D and many CRPGs, it seems balance means the threat of the conflict rises to meet the power level of the PCs. There’s a very strict mathematical formula that’s recommended in order to keep the characters challenged and advancing at a steady rate no matter where they are on the scale. There’s balance between characters, too. One race or class is usually balanced against all others in an effort to keep the game fair.

But in BW, where a heavy crossbow bolt or axe strike has the same chance to kill a healthy 3 LP farmer as it does an epic PC, that balance in power is absent. And a 5LP Elf or Dwarf will always have greater stats than a 5LP human simply because they ought to according to our favorite source materials (e.g. LOTR).

So we come back to what does game balance mean? I think in BW it means that the game mechanics as a whole are balanced. You do find balance, but not in the usual places. For instance, characters with fewer LPs tend to be weaker than characters with more. Characters with many traits tend to be more powerful than those with less. But even here are exceptions, as traits in BW can also have a negative effect. For instance, a diseased cripple with many diseased and crippled traits will be nothing compared to a priest with the Faithful trait alone.

So again, where’s the balance? I believe it all comes down to how successful the character is at generating Artha. Here is where all characters great and small are equalized. Here is where a young human guard can be rewarded at the same rate as a Elven Lord-Protector. Here is where a cripple can find greater reward than an epic hero.

One idea of balance is that the game should facilitate the GM’s job of sharing the spotlight more or less equally between the players.

Another one is the fairness between the players and the GM, given that the latter has usually more control over the game. It can both be applied in more competitive games like D&D, but also in more cooperative ones like BW (LiR, etc.)

In a game, like DnD, where the players’ job is to move as a group through an environment overcoming challenges, balance is very important. Who wants to be overshadowed by other players in the single most important measuring stick of competency? Thats unfair. and who wants to face a challenge that is impossible in a game that is about overcoming those challenges? That’s also unfair.

But, BW is about Beliefs. Why does it matter if your Elf Swordsinger is three times the badass my Dwarf criminal is with a sword if I have the Belief “I will secure my bloodright, my brother must not rule the dwarf hold?” Why do I care about the Elf’s sword skill? Life’s not fair. I’m following my Beliefs. I’m not a party member moving through well balanced encounters. That kind if play can be great fun, but its not what BW is after.

BW is also less concerned with balancing encounters than other games. It’s not completely irrelevant, but its a lot less important because the game is concerned about what the character is made of rather than how the character prevails. The game has a ton of subtle protections that help prevent unexpected TPKs. First, most of the game uses the versus test, in which the conditions of failure are stated before the roll. If the character is about to get hosed, at least they know what kind of hosing they’re signing up for. And the GM has complete control of that failure stake. So what if the roll is nearly impossible if the GM sets a failure condition that the player is willing to accept? Even in the subsystems Fight and DoW, there are protections. In Fight, you’re much more likely to take a wound than to be outright killed. Armor is also highly protective. Lastly, if you take a mortal wound you can spend a Persona point and cling to life. In DoW you’re agreeing to stakes before the argument. You best make sure you can live with losing before you agree. Of course, you can always stab the bastard right?

Appropriate Opposition

OK, so how does a new BW GM determine what to throw against his players if there’s no formula to follow? Well, that’s sort of a false claim, as there’s definitely some numbers to go by. It’s explicitly listed in the book on page 15. 1 is basically trivial and 10 is miraculous. For example, climbing a low fence might be Ob2 while scaling a sheer cliff in the rain while wearing plate armor might be Ob 9. So there’s definitely a balance to all Obstacles for they remain equal for all players. The Obstacle doesn’t change just because the PC is awesome.

Knowing this, we can then begin applying it to other circumstances, for instance, enemies in Duel of Wits, Range and Cover, and Fight! The Burning Rogues section that starts on page 562 offers us a quick glimpse of what’s reasonable. But let’s break it down further here and now.

Mooks rarely, if ever, deserve character burning and should have B3s for their Stats, Attributes and Skills. Usually, these include students, street thugs, conscripts, farmers, lowly goblins and most 2 Lifepath (LP) characters. They will never score a Superb hit with their weapons, and so they will never be a mortal threat to most PCs. They will mostly fail a Steel test with the first wound taken. They will never outright win a Duel of Wits with a single Dismiss.

That said, if the player has only 2-3LPs a Mook will be a significant threat! At such levels, any Fight or Duel of Wits in a one-on-one situation will most likely end in a draw.

Competent NPCs
A competent NPC also rarely deserves character burning - although writing a Belief or noting a Trait might be required. These are your merchants, soldiers, orcs, town officials, healers and most 3-4 LP characters. They should be given 4s in all appropriate Stats, Attributes and Skills - otherwise, they should have 3s. In a Fight!, if in Aggressive stance, such a foe might start landing Superb shots, aka Mortal Wounds, to similarly powered PCs. They’ll pass Steel tests more regularly and might take a wound or two before breaking. In a Duel, they’ll be much harder to convince and if one is not careful, you’ll end up doing what they want! An Observant Guard will most likely catch your unskilled Stealthy thief.

In short, a 3-4 LP PC in a one-one-one conflict with a Competent NPC will have a tough time coming out on top. A 2-3 LP character going against a Competent PC will most likely be the loser.

Threatening NPCs
At this level, the NPC probably deserves a burn. This character regularly effects the plot and has Beliefs that are in conflict with the PCs. The number of LPs range from 4-6, possibly higher. For instance, a single, opposing 4-LP wizard is NO JOKE and can easily wipe out an entire party - even seasoned adventurers. A 6LP courtesan can shut down ANY political intrigue the PCs might me plotting. Their Stats and Skills will reach Exponents of 5 or 6 in their areas of expertise, with lots of FoRKs, Circles and traits to support their tests.

Going against such an NPC will require superior tactics and/or overwhelming force.

Upping the Odds
Speaking of overwhelming force, the list above assumes a one-on-one encounter. But with the average party consisting of 3-4 PCs, even the most powerful foes will go down quickly. With the Helping rules, a small group of farmers can overcome a fearsome troll. BW has no multi-strike actions in Fight!, so each enemy has to be taken out one-at-a-time. And while the troll beats on one unlucky lad, the others are sticking it and tackling it down.

And so, as a GM, you might find your 5LP villain alone and cornered by a few 4LP PCs. In this instance, expect easy victory for the PCs. If this bothers you, I recommend keeping competent bodyguards around at all times. For if the odds are balanced, so will the results. But be warned, if the numbers shift to your villain’s favor - even by a couple - expect the PCs to suffer losses and fail at their goal.

Let’s try some Fight! scenarios:

Equal Results
3 3LP PCs vs a Giant Wolf
4 4LP PCs vs 6 Goblins
4 5LP PCs vs 4 Named Orcs

PC Victory Likely
4 4LP PCs vs 3 Orcs
3:1 Odds in the PCs favor vs most opponents
1 Wizard PC with Rain of Fire/White Lightning vs anyone. Seriously.*
1 Priest PC with ability to summon Major Miracles vs anyone. Seriously.†

PC Loss Likely
3 3LP PCs vs 5 street thugs
4 4LP PCs vs 6 Orcs
3 4LP PCs vs a Giant Spider

  • Wizards are in a class all by themselves, especially at the low- to mid-range level. Invisibility plus Rain of Fire will destroy any opposition in a straight up fight.
    † Such powerful Priests crop up in end-stages of campaigns, but once they do, there’s little to stand against them. One prayer and cities turn to dust. One prayer and the dead come back to life. One prayer and anything can happen.

The above scenario results are born from my personal experience with the system, but there are number patterns that become apparent. Outnumbering the opponent will often yield victory. Being outnumbered will often yield defeat. Equal forces will often result in draws. Huh, I guess that’s pretty obvious!

But, what does change with different power levels are the stakes. 3 farmers vs a single Giant Wolf will probably not result in any straight up deaths. A few light wounds here, maybe a Serious wound there. But 3 epic-level heroes fighting a dragon has MUCH different results, I’ve found. At this level, it’s kill or be killed - usually within the first Volley or even Action! All blows become fatal. But hopefully, by that time, you and your players are as well experienced as I.

When it comes to the Fight! scenarios, isn’t it quite likely that the Wizard will get stabbed if he’s already in a fight and has to throw one of those spells? While the book perhaps points towards the opposite in the Fight! chapter I’d also feel that it’s hard to manage to get an actual prayer off in the time it takes for someone to swing at you. Even when those things can get off, doesn’t it seem like a pretty high risk for the fight to end in a gruesome draw (well, the priest can of course do more than pray during his action)?

Here’s a note: game balance means different things depending on the game. The scope of D&D, from Level 1 to Level 30, is very different than the scope of Burning Wheel, from 3 LP to 7-8 LP. Wish, a spell in D&D that eventually becomes relatively simple to get (even if it costs XP), is a sort of capstone for Faith characters.

Evil Peter, I can state that from years of witnessing the power of wizards from both ends of the spell, it is not hard for them to get off spells in Fight!. Especially if they go in with their Turn Aside the Blade and Chameleon spells at full power and a few buddies running cover for them. As for Priests, they get off Prayers like clockwork even at the earliest levels.

Well, it’s a little tougher these days with the new Fight system. You want to maintain advantage while you cast, so it pays to go with a nice long-range spell. But it’s really bad if you lose advantage–your obstacle will go through the roof. Or you can go with a really fast, close spell and hope that you get it off in time.

Personally, I recommend sorcerers either get a war horse and the riding skill so their horse can position for them while they cast, or be smart about disengaging…stay in the Eye of the Storm to cast, then coup d’majie. Get back in the conflict, gain advantage and let the spell rip.

You balance a game to the PCs you have and the genre you want. Acrobatic heroics in a pulpy action game of BW might be Ob 2; in a grim and gritty war campaign they might be Ob 5. If you want the PCs to be larger than life heroes you make the acceptable intents and the possible consequences of failure match. Pulpy or heroic might be, “Succeed and you kill all ten of them while the Baron stares slackjawed. Fail and you still cut them all down, but the Baron makes his escape in the commotion.” You’re awesome either way. In a grimmer game, there may be no intent that allows victory against ten to one odds. Maybe success is managing to escape yourself and failure is getting disarmed and captured.

Balance is how you set expectations and genre. It’s not a thing in itself. You match it to your game.

Turn Aside the Blade can of course help a lot, at least if you have advantage or the attacker isn’t greatly skilled. Wouldn’t a Chameleon in effect make it so there isn’t a Fight! though? I’m thinking that the sorcerer is effectively undetected in that case (you can’t engage someone you aren’t aware of), and if he’s been detected it doesn’t matter if he has extra dice to stealth anymore.

The sorcerer having backup didn’t occur to me here as I wouldn’t run that scenario in a Fight!, although that’s of course just due to my own limitations. Using spells like Rain of Fire or White Fire doesn’t seem very considerate to the buddies though. :slight_smile: In any case that’s the way I prefer a sorcerer to be in combat, behind other people. Of course I often prefer my sorcerers to focus on the deeper issues and leave killing to the simple-minded, steel-swinging brutes, but that’s a completely different issue.

In economics there’s a concept called Comparative Advantage that I think is relevant. Stated briefly, The Law of Comparative Advantage says that even if you’re just better than someone at something (you have absolute advantage, in econ-speak), it still might behoove you to let them handle that thing, if it allows you to focus on somethine else that you are even better at. To borrow an example from David Ricardo, let’s say Country A is better than Country B at making both wine and textiles, but only a little better at making wine and a lot better at making textiles; in this situation, it would behoove County A to put their resources into making textiles, and then trade with Country B to get wine. Similarly, if I’m making a Noble Born/Page/Squire/Knight character, I could totally dump all my general points into social skills and get a character whose better at both fighting and talking than the Peasant Born character that my friend is making; however, doing so means I would have to expend resources that I would otherwise have available to spend on improving the thing that my character is best at: fighting.

One of the great things about Burning Wheel is that it’s very broad, compared to other games, which are often quite narrow (The skills section of BWG lists over 400 skills, whereas D&D 4e has 17, and they tend to take a backseat to combat). In such narrow, focused games, there isn’t a lot of room for comparative advantage to kick in, and so absolute advantages tend to dominate – when there’s only a handful of things that the game cares about, it’s much easier to get to “a lot better” at all of them. But in Burning Wheel, there’s plenty of room to make a character who’ll be usefull and fun to play, even if he is weaker than some of the other characters at the table in an absolute sense.

I’ve always thought that burning wheel was quite well balanced - you can generate encounters that will challenge parties quite easily. And if you truly have an epic level PC, the equivalent of that is players with grey-shade shifted stats from all that artha they’ve been spending, magic weapons and very high stats and skills from all those tests.

They can easily end up very brutal indeed, especially if the trait voting at the end of the session gives players some of the stronger traits.

Usually when game balance is criticized in BW, the issue is more things like my friend’s elf is so overpowered compared to my human, or the Sorcerer PC can just melt my dude with one spell.

Well, the PC with the sword can pretty much skewer someone with one shot as well. We’ve had that happen. So. :wink:


Everyone hates that Elf belting out puissant spell songs while skewering you with his sword. Everybody.

That’s why you tie him up while he’s drunk and sell him to the Dwarves.

We had one character who had 6 power and a sweet axe - he did some 15 power hits on some npcs who were meant to be pretty tough.

It was all a bit traumatising.

Yeah, tough dont mean shit with axes. What you want is some really good armor. :wink:

Oh, and a crossbow.

Funnily enough, projectiles have been highly lethal in our fights. We had one case where a witch got skewered by a sword…as she almost killed the fighter with Shards, another where a warlock got nailed to the wall (lethally) with a crossbow bolt, and a third where a suspected sorceress got her head impaled on a greatbow shaft.