Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Point Buy Systems Aren't About Balance

Back in 2000 on a now-defunct message board, I wrote a post about point buy systems. Essentially, the idea being put out was that point buy systems were about balance. That is, 40 points of X was the same as 40 points of Y or Z, and if it wasn't, why use points at all? After all, equal costs should mean equal benefits and equal utility.

My argument was, well, no, that's not why you use point buy systems. It's not about balance, it's about choices.

This morning I found that text, which I'd cut and saved before the ether swallowed it. Here it is.

"> Then why use points at all? Champions works just as well for designing
> powers without points - even better, because you don't have to figure out any
> point costs on anything. What possible purpose could a character's point
> total serve _besides_ checking to see if two characters are comparable?

To me, there are two simple, related reasons (and a couple of long examples):

1) It gives a person making a set of parameters designating outside limits for
what they can do.

Example: You can't start with 4 dots in each of two Spheres of magic in M:tA,
because you don't have enough points. You can't take more than 250 points
worth of Energy Blast in Champions to start, because you only have 250 points.

2) You set a spending limit* so a person making a character has to juggle
their wants. This makes choosing something a zero-sum proposition, so you have
to decide within the parameters set by the game or the GM what you want to do
with a character.

Example: Putting all 250 points in Energy Blast on your Champions character
means that you can't buy anything else. Putting 200 means you can only buy 50
points worth of something else.

* Which *does* allow for comparison between characters. I still think that was
more of an afterthought to "I hate that the dice decide what my character is,
let's just make everything 'cost' something and give you a budget", but I
never said I didn't think it was possible.

#2 combined with #1 to allow a GM to know what a characters range of possible
power is (from how low to how high) so they can set challenges, spotlight
time, etc. appropriately. What it does *not necessarily* do is say that
character A and character B are balanced with regards to each other and will
be able to equally deal with any given level of challenge, seize their own
spotline time equally, etc. They do say they had the same chance and choices
as the other, which is important.

I think that it is the construction aspect of point-based systems rather
than the "Are my 100 points worth the same as your 100 points" is the point.
To give an example, take Mage: the Ascension. You have 6 dots for Spheres of
Magic, and 9 Spheres to choose from. 3 dots in one sphere costs 3 points; but
is more than 3x as powerful as 1 dot. 6 dots in a sphere is the "utterly
violate reality" level, but costs 6 points (not that you can start with more
than 3 dots in something). So, if you chose to spend your dots as 1 in each of
6 spheres, you are very flexible but very limited. If you put 3 each in two
spheres, you have much more power but less flexibility. Is A (6 spheres, 1
dot) balanced relative to B (2 spheres, 3 dots each)? Well, in that A and B
had the same amount to spend, yes. In that they could have made the same
choices, yes. Otherwise, only caps by the system - "no more than 3 dots to
start in any Sphere" - are balancing them. The characters are roughly
comparable, but so are two 1st level fighters in 1st edition AD&D - one could
have a much greater to hit and damage because of ST. The difference is that
the points system allows you to choose what you get. Sure, you try to make X
points or X dots as equal as possible - there is no reason not to - but
balance isn't the prime reason.

As a stranger example, take Rolemaster. You randomly roll up stats, and
then use points to buy skills. Prices for those skills are based on your class
(modified slightly by person choice). Amount of points you get is scaled on
your random stats - high rolls give more points. Two 1st level fighters can
not only choose different skills, but they can also range in points given to
spend on skills from around 20 points to upwards of 50.
For balance, the system balances classes and costs against each other so
no one class is more beneficial (more or less) than another. It also sets
limits on the amount of points you can put in some skills per level (usually
either 2 or unlimited), and gives skill bonuses to make sure that in the long
run, even a fighter with low stats will catch up to a fighter with awesome
stats in weapon skill. A warrior with all average stats at 1st level is far
behind one at very high stats at 1st level - but thanks to level bonuses
around level 10 they begin to close and by level 30 the effect of stat and
skill differences will almost disappear under the effect of per level class
My point? The point system in Rolemaster allows you to build what you want
- but it makes no bones about means that every starting character is balanced
with one another. The balance is imposed outside the point-based character
creation system. Of course, optional rules allow you to change those level
bonuses and skill level limits, so you could undo those controls or make them
irrelevent if you wish. But the act of spending points didn't give any balance
and I doubt it was put in the system for it.

...and you all thought I'd use GURPS as my example, didn't you. :)

Anyway, that's why I play point based games. I don't hold too many illusions
about "balance" - I've seen both well designed and poorly designed characters
come out of the same point totals using the same rule set. I've seen
characters on wildly different ends of the power scale come out of the same
design session, even. Back when I played AD&D, I saw one player roll nothing
higher than an 11 and another roll 3 18s, 2 17s, and a 16 using 3d6. The
difference? When we played AD&D, the dice decided. When we play GURPS, it's up
to the player - *that* is the point. The real balance is the result of me, the
GM, doing my job.

Pretty much, that's my argument for point-buy. I still feel the same way. I want to choose what I can have and not have, and I like the tradeoff of options and inherent limits that comes with it. Ideally the utility and effect of 10 points of X and Y should be about the same, overall, but it's not really the point. I thought people might enjoy reading this, and I wanted to make sure it was up somewhere.

Oh, and that guy with the 18s and 17s and one 16 during AD&D? My cousin.


  1. First, thanks for sharing this. I haven't ever sat down to collate my thoughts on the issue, and this is generally helpful in making sense of why I like point-based systems.

    I think that Champions tends to get hit hardest for this because earlier rules systems hinted at least that equal points meant equal power - but that was when it was a combat-focused super-hero role playing game, not the powerhouse generic system it is today.

    Today it's just as susceptible to the "100 point Accountant" syndrome as GURPS is.

    I think it boils down to a simple truth - even in point-based systems, balance comes down to the GM, working to ensure that every character, however they player spent their points, gets some time to shine.

  2. A "perfect" points system would rate each ability in terms of its utility in the game. Which would not only mean that it was restricted to a single genre, it would probably be restricted to a single GM and campaign. That, I think, is where the 100 point accountant problem comes from - a TL3 combat-optimised barbarian is great in Dungeon Fantasy, but won't be much use in Transhuman Space.

    1. Even in that situation a perfect system would need to balance all possible combinations of utility, too. It's game not worth the chase. :)

    2. Agreed. I try to make all skills equally useful to reward people who really feel great about accounting. In my campaign, History and area knowledge are heavily used and can get the PC around really bad situations.

      I agree with Peter: point systems are great. But it isn't a balancing mechanic. It sure helps in creating decision points and handling advancement.

    3. I don't try to make all skills equally useful. I just try to make sure none of them are useless. So even an obscure skill you rarely use that's on your character sheet will matter in some way at some time, even if that's not often. You will get much more out of Broadsword than Stealth in my DF, game and Stealth than Disguise (Animals), and Disguise (Animals) than Swimming, but all of them will come up. And when you need to make that roll, it might be critical to succeed.

      I just don't promise how often that will happen, or try to force the issue. Players are welcome to, though - if you have Mimicry (Bird Calls) and you want to make bird calls every session as a signalling method, good on you. Way to leverage your character's abilities.

    4. "Equally" was an enthusiastic term for me to use. Agreed.

  3. In addition, much of conflict preparation and resolution, especially in combat, is a matter of "can we arrange things such that our combat abilities are maximized, and the foes' combat abilities are minimized." The entire point of strategy and tactics is to fight an uneven fight, and this gets into Peter's previous post on the infinite featureless plain. If you're fighting there, then maybe balance works out (then again, it's such an unrealistic terrain that it may not!), but if you've just wandered into a play field that neutralizes your goodies, well, Doom on You.

    Personal and recent example: in my current DF Jade Regent writeup, Cadmus invoked Righteous Fury. Nate lets me freely choose how the dice are assigned, and I always put the highest roll into DX, second into ST, third into HT.

    My die rolls were 6, 5, 2. Notionally, that should have added 190 points to my character total, for Striking ST 20, DX 19, IQ/Will 12/14, HT 14. Pretty awesome. Might've had Axe-26 or so. But we wandered into an Unholy zone, and did not spend any time to prep the field (maybe stand back and desanctify it, let the baddies come out to us?), so that was reduced to 3,2,1 (+90pts) which ain't chopped liver, but given what we face, is quite serious. My powers are limited by my choices even beyond character creation.

    1. Don't worry, you'll find a way to win anyway. I have faith in your luck and ability to pull yourself out of your bad decision. ;)

    2. Monumentally bad, meaning "the freakin' statues are animating and coming to kill us" bad. :-)

      If we die, we deserve it. At least two of us saw it coming.

    3. Point based or random roll, bad decisions are bad decisions. :)

    4. Don't fret overmuch, Doug. As I said in the other thread, Common Sense isn't encouraged in DF.


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