The fallacy of the balanced character

Continuing the discussion from Is "GURPS" evitative?:

It seems to me that this thread has wandered off topic a little, so that it deals with general issues of point-buy character generation and with Werewolf: the Apocalypse at least as much as anything that has been discussed in The Path of Cunning

I’m pretty close to saying that one of these was the correct way to adapt Werewolf and the other was the GURPS way.

Yes, that’s part of the fallacy of the balanced character. Most point-buy systems let you seize a big slab of spotlight time with a conspicuous disad, and compensate you with enough character points to seize more attention with an expensive power or advantage.

Another part of the fallacy of the balanced character is that, even if the disadvantages of the character were never advantages to the player, trade-offs of strengths in some areas for weaknesses in others does not produce balance in any useful way. A character that is so strong in one way that it spoils one sort of scene, but so weak in a different way that it spoils another sort of scene is not balanced against any scenario, and neither a party that complements it nor one that reinforces it will save that.

I didn’t find that to be a problem when I played Werewolf, though Heaven knows I did find more than enough problems with that system. The thing is that GURPS, especially when it is in one of its “it costs what it costs” moods, is dedicated to a “generic” situation in which certain abilities, particularly combat abilities, are effective at grabbing a lot of attention and others are not. But Werewolf is designed for a very particular setting in which that isn’t the case. There’s a lot of matter to deal with for which the over-the-top combat monstrosity of a Silver Fang Ahroun is simply of no use. Contrariwise, I have found that a low-ranked Silent Strider Philodox is already more than enough gun to deal with a vampire elder. In the Werewolf that I played, except for the climactic combats with Wyrm-constructed boss monsters, the situation was always that we could reliable kill anything anyway, and the problem was always getting to kill the right things while avoiding killing the wrong things. @frank.hampshire’s Silver Fang Ahroun could kill a vampire five times over in the first round of combat. But my Silent Strider Philodox (or whatever he was) could kill one twice over in the first round of combat, which was practically the same.

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The way GURPS, at least, tries to deal with the “narrative grabbing” problem is the disadvantage limit. In GURPS 3e terms, you can have your 145 points of positive stuff plus your -45 points of disads, but no more.

I get the feeling that GURPS 4e tried to make disads more severe, and certainly I don’t automatically fill a 4e character up to the disad limit any more the way I used to with 3e, but that brings back narrative-grabbing as a hazard.

I do think that the really big-ticket disadvantages - your Blind or Paraplegic or things of that sort - should be applied only with very great care.

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Is this a fallacy that goes back to the war-gaming roots of the hobby?

When dealing with Champions (Hero System) it seemed like “balanced” really meant “combat balanced” not “narrative balanced.” GURPS feels similar but not quite to the degree that Champions does. I suspect this is because I have used GURPS more for modern conspiracy gaming and combat boiled down to 4 seconds of hectic spells and gunplay at most and investigation and skills pulled a lot more of the narrative.

Playing WOD as much as I did back in the day the mis-balance was labeled “go first, do agg, win.” With the only caveat being “Auspex is candy, get some.”

All that to say, concerns of balance were principally around who could blow through combat encounters (or PVP) as quickly as possible and that feels close to saying the narrative is the combats. Observing LARPs as long strings of threatening each other in PVP wore me out too. Controlling narrative by blowing through investigative scenes or focusing on a disadvantage were not regular causes of balance discussions.

It is possible I haven’t dealt with enough social combat systems to engage with all the angles being discussed here.

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I believe it is.

I agree about Champions, though there were some disadvantages (such as “Hunted”) that only one character got points for but that tended to burden the whole party, and some (such as “Dependent NPC”) that seemed to be based on the non-combat parts of the comics.

GURPS, it seems to me, ran into a few extra problems with the idea of the balanced character because it was much more ambitious than HERO System.


My impression of a typical combat in GURPS-as-I-run-it is probably close to @WolfeRJ’s, a strike from ambush that lasts 2-3 seconds. That’s certainly not the slogfest of classic dungeoneering, which is a thing that the designers clearly want to support.

Thinking of social combat systems, though, something I noticed quite early on in GURPS is that building a reaction-modifier social-manipulator monster can be quite cheap and very effective. Every party should have one.

Ah but for me, the concept of a balanced character was originally explained as: Balanced in comparison to other games.

The balanced characters of GURPS are perhaps not perfectly balanced in comparison to each other. But the party is way more balanced than a random roll system like 1st ed AD&D, where Tom got lucky on his dice rolls and has two stats at 17, Dick has a completely average character and Harry has stats so bad he’s busy inventing childhood polio as a backstory to explain them.

Within any given points-buy game there will be broken bits which destroy internal game balance.

Enemy disadvantage being a case in point. The whole party has to deal with the fallout from the enemy turning up, but only one character got points for it.

Up to a point. Looking at it the other way round, only one character paid points for being supernaturally persuasive or a master axeman, but the entire party can benefit from the power.

I think that’s right historically. But I think that the analysis in terms of the problem being that Tom’s character was more powerful than Dick’s, leading to the concept of character equality, was not as apt or fruitful as the analysis in terms of Harry’s character being dominated (in the linear algebra sense), i.e. Tom’s character or Dick’s character being at least equal in every way and better in at least some. That analysis leads to niche protection, which is the more fruitful way of looking at it, in my opinion.

Roger, I think that you might have muddled benefit to the characters with benefit to the players. My character benefits from being rescued by your superior one with his silver axe of ogre-slaying. I have a dull time being useless while you command the spotlight. These are the same event.

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Which ends up depending more on play group size than anything else, I think. Too many players, and the niches start to blur together; too few, and the PCs start to look over-competent or there are big gaps in what the party can do.

I’m not sure what you mean by “social combat.” When I was writing GURPS Social Engineering, I was asked about doing a system akin, somewhat, to technical grappling, with points of resistance that could be worn down by repeated attempts at persuasion, each involving a skill roll or Quick Contest. I chose not to do that for three reasons:

  • It wasn’t the primary mechanic used by GURPS for social interaction. I thought i needed to build on that mechanic.
  • It doesn’t seem to me that persuasion always or even often works that way. If you’re attacted to someone, and let them know, they may return the attraction, or not. You can spoil the situation by taking a clumsy approach. But the idea of “wearing down their resistance” seems to me to be largely delusional. If they aren’t interested at the outset they aren’t going to become so.
  • Behavior that’s predicted on the “wearing down resistance” model is creepy. The high pressure salesman, or the practiced seducer, is not a sympathetic figure; nor are the people who believe here are magic psychological tricks that will get any woman into bed. When T. S. Eliot wrote

The time is now propitious, as he guesses;
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired;
Endeavors to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired

his intent was to give the reader a sense of nastiness.


One might even argue that, once one realises that seeing social situations in terms of problems to be overcome by persuasion/etc. is troublesome, one might also start to feel that seeing many other situations in terms of problems to be overcome by violence is also troublesome.

The stereotyped salesman would disagree.

But… a thing I’ve said in other places, but I think it bears repeating. When I’m demonstrating boardgames at a show, I am in effect a salesman for that company. But I would always prefer the punter to go away thinking “yeah, now I know what this game’s like, but it’s not for me” than that they buy the game thanks to my description and regret it later.


All this is very salient.

The concept of balance I had in mind was that in combat balance seems to be guided by the statement: “All characters should be equally capable of emerging victorious from a combat they choose to enter. One character should not clearly overwhelm the GMC opposition regularly while another character is overwhelmed unless the player deliberately chose to have their character underperform through disadvantages or a personal design choice.”

Similarly: “No player character should be certain of their ability to remove all other player characters from play through PVP.”

Social combat would be similar. “No character should be able to overwhelmingly choose the reactions of GMCs or other player characters through the use of reaction modifiers or persuasion type rolls.”

Social combat as a component of balance struck me as important both because the combat metaphor is problematic, as you correctly identify, and because my observations are that players become more frustrated when their choice of reaction is constrained by another player than when their character is removed from play through PVP combat.

My experiences with WOD and LARPs are at the top of my mind here because werewolf is in the dock. Balance between players and GM seems to be regularly manageable if the GM takes the time to know the group and read the table. Balance among players is the more sensitive issue and I think WOD is a particularly pernicious example because of the faction rivalry component. I’ve wondered at times if that unbalance in WOD design serves a purpose of frustrating players with each other to exacerbate the factionality. I don’t like that and struggled with it in play because I don’t mind if characters are opposed and frustrated but when players are opposed and frustrated fun evaporated at an alarming rate.

I see a side problem to this as games expand out of pure combat, similar to what @Agemegos was saying earlier. Let’s say we have niche protection such that we have a fighty character and a talky character. In any given scene of fighting or talking, one of them will be narratively dominant and one of them will be along for the ride. (One of the things that’s made D&D last (and while I’m not a fan of 3e it did a lot to make this work) is that most of the encounters are of a single type, the fight, and everyone has something useful to do in a fight.)

How to fix this? Short scenes so that nobody is along for the ride for too long? More deductive play where traits don’t come into it as much?

Where I’ve felt the best results with this in play it has been making combat about more tests than attacks and defenses.

Incorporating goals like saving civilians, interacting with the physical environment, and interacting with mechanical equipment challenges.

I’ve tried tossing out twice as many goals as characters and then let them choose their priorities. Then I escalate one they ignore and let the others fade to the background. I also try not to guess how the players will address the challenges. Like in champions I screwed up a number of times assuming that the speedster would jump to save civilians and that cut out other characters from that and pigeonholed that character.

Maybe it’s a matter of in war-gaming the goal was “lead off the board” and in role play it’s a matter of changing that mindset. Which means some other mindset needs to be more satisfying at the table. Champions suffered from this a number of times when I was a player. If the party didn’t focus on taking down opponents as quickly as possible combat drug our and got boring. “Lead off the board” wasn’t just the best plan, choosing another plan made play less fun.


This touches on what I think of as “root metaphor”: a game’s basic model of what a character is and does.

Champions: You are a tactical unit with capabilities that exceed human limits. (These are called “superheroes,” but I don’t feel that Champions is actually very good at emulating superhero narratives.)
FUDGE: You are a character in a narrative with traits that make narrativistic sense.
Big Eyes Small Mouth: You are a character with a visual image whose abilities can be defined in visual terms; if something could be drawn or animated there’s a rule that lets you do it.
and GURPS: You are a physical entity in a physical world with measurable properties and governed by cause and effect.

Each of those metaphors is well suited to running certain types of games and not others. For example, if you want physically realistic battlecraft, GURPS is a good choice; but if you want pretty pictures of battlecraft, BESM probably will do you better.

I don’t actually subscribe to the idea that all characters should be equally combat capable. In a campaign that involves combat missions, yes, something like this is a good idea. But a lot of my campaigns don’t emphasize combat. In fact, typically, I’ve run one campaign for the action-focused players, one for the characterization-focused players, and something one for a third group with a less standard focus. In the non-action-focused campaigns, combat is relatively rare and not likely to affect a character’s history or fate.

Your concern about social power is one that came up while I was working on SE. I went with what seems to be the latent premise of GURPS: social influence IS NOT mind control. If you succeed in influencing someone or getting a favorable reaction, you may hinder their opposition by distracting them or making them hesitate, but you can’t say, “I got an Excellent reaction. Proclaim me Emperor!” If you want to do that stuff you need to have superpowers and you need to be in a campaign that allows superpowers.

(In Mage I would draw the line differently: getting people to cooperate for a seemingly good reason is Coincidental; being proclaimed Emperor is Vulgar.)

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I take the reaction-table range as the range of plausible reactions. Still sometimes the dice make it clear what they want to happen; as when the occult-WWII party went to investigate a sudden extra British princess, the handsome fighter pilot rolled a critical success on his Sex Appeal and the princess rolled a best-possible reaction to him.

Using Vampire rather than Werewolf as an example - some of the factions seem to be unbalanced because the writers love those factions all to bits and thus keep giving them them special snowflake shiny abilities. The Tremere being a case in point, with all their spells and rituals and paths of this and paths of that which other clans are not allowed to buy. AND the other clans get no equivalent list of goodies which the Tremere are blocked from having.

Even in the new edition the Tremere (and the Banu Haqim to be honest) get a free Ritual at character gen. That Ritual is worth 3 points, so all Tremere and Banu Haqim characters start with 3 points more than other PCs…

Yes indeed. I loathe players who treat social skills as mind control. The most distasteful version of the mind control is when a player uses Seduction to mind control every woman NPC he meets into sleeping with him. (And yes, every iteration of this I’ve witnessed has been male player, male character, female NPC).

The game designers are, of course, largely to blame for this by including skills called Seduction in their games. If you succeed in Speak Japanese you’ve said something in Japanese. If you succeed in Climbing you’ve climbed something. So naturally people think if you succeed in Seduction, you’ve got someone into bed and are bonking like bunnies.

I heartily endorse Ashen Stars and other Gumshoe games, where Seduction has been re-named Flirting.

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Even in the 1990s I felt that Cyberpunk 2020’s “+2 to Seduction” from the Mr Studd™ Sexual Implant was, perhaps, not quite the right use of the term.

Of course, pre-reboot filmic James Bond pretty much does mind-control every vaguely attractive female NPC into sleeping with him. I think I’d argue that that’s a genre convention, and my word parts of those films are hard to watch these days. (The James Bond 007 RPG appears to make actually getting someone into bed a five-stage process, whereas merely getting information out of them needs just one.)

GURPS’ Sex Appeal skill is one that’s had to be carefully defined; in 3e “the ability to impress the opposite sex” and “if you are not willing to ‘vamp’ someone to get what you want, you won’t have this talent or want it”, and that latter phrase is still in 4e. Now, thanks I believe in part to @whswhs, it’s regarded as one of the cluster of interpersonal skills, broadly “get someone more favourably disposed towards you by hinting at sexual availability” as distinct from say “by threatening them” [Intimidation] or “by baffling them” [Fast Talk]. There’s no suggestion that actually hopping into bed is a part of this.