Equitable Gaming

I’ve seen the notion of “game balance” come up more than once recently. There was John Wick’s “Illusion of Game Balance” where he said a bunch of stuff, including:

In a roleplaying game, game balance does not matter.

What matters is spotlight. Making sure each player feels their character had a significant role in the story. They had their moment in the spotlight. Or, they helped someone else have their significant moment in the spotlight.

Then there was Josh T Jordan’s G+ post where he said:

Note for later: Character balance is a lie. What you want is player investment balance. Character power level and turn frequency are just one dial to adjust.
What about requiring one player to keep his character’s plans secret but his character’s emotions obvious?
What about a character who can be in every scene but who can only act once per session?
What about making the right to give another player help or advice the strongest currency in the game?
Balance isn’t where you think it is.

Coincidence? Who knows. They’re not really far apart; however it’s worth noting that Jordan is coming from the POV of player investment, whereas Wick’s message is for our typical, stuck-in-the-nineties autocratic GM who by divine grace permits their players to bask in the spotlight.

I have a proposal. Let’s stop talking about balance, and use better terms. Let’s consider equity, and equity theory. Taking this approach we can consider both inputs and outcomes provided by and applied to all players at the table (including the GM!).


These are some sample Inputs for the games we like to play:

  • agreeing to play
  • turning up to the session
  • bringing snacks
  • providing props
  • acting (“getting yer thesp on”)
  • developing a strategy (personal or team)
  • involving other players when talking in character
  • involving other players when making tactical plans
  • not hogging the limelight / giving the limelight to other players
  • giving power (fate points, magic items) to other PCs
  • defeating monsters
  • learning the system
  • teaching the system
  • providing rulebooks
  • writing an adventure
  • contribute to story

And these are some Outputs:

  • recognition from GM and other players
  • in-game rewards (experience, magic items)
  • overcoming milestones
  • involvement in story (shaping it, being a part of it)
  • development of character (self-perception and as perceived by other players)
  • in-game markers of reputation, praise and thanks (“you saved us! You’re the greatest!”)
  • responsibility and kudos for the game (traditionally a GM output)

Two remarks about this list:

  1. The examples Jordan gives are very much about defining (and perhaps limiting) the inputs available. Defining how players contribute to games is indie game design thinking.
  2. In many cases we assume the outputs are the same for all, because (on an holistic level) the output is “the game”. We rarely dissect the outputs further, or at least not explicity. But again, the modern indie design school tends to take care with defining some of the outcomes, giving us a better idea about what we can expect from a game.

Are we having a good time?

The big problem is measuring input and output; this is certainly why our perception of “game balance” is skewed towards statistics and time-phased activities (i.e. “actions”).

At least we have the four propositions of Equity Theory (shamelessly nicked from Wikipedia):

  1. Individuals seek to maximize their outcomes (where outcomes are defined as rewards minus costs).
  2. Groups can maximize collective rewards by developing accepted systems for equitably apportioning rewards and costs among members. Systems of equity will evolve within groups, and members will attempt to induce other members to accept and adhere to these systems.
  3. When individuals find themselves participating in inequitable relationships, they become distressed.
  4. Individuals who perceive that they are in an inequitable relationship attempt to eliminate their distress by restoring equity.

Of that lot I found the second point very interesting: roleplaying groups will form their own norms, and can be self-selecting, and these norms must logically be around their perception of fair and equitable treatment. But when these groups get large (say 30 people in a turn-based freeform LARP) they will subdivide into groups with different notions of equity.

The freeform LARPs we played in the 90s (e.g. Vampire) had a huge potential for feelings of inequity on account of the GMs being overwhelmed and unable to assess or address inequity in players; and at the same time those games often empowered players to address the inequitable relationship themselves. In one game I ran the players restored equity by effectively cutting the GM out of the game (by keeping secrets from them). An interesting outcome!

I’m not sure how useful this line of thinking is, but I guess it’s worth remembering just how complex and individual our perception of “fair treatment” is.

2 thoughts on “Equitable Gaming

  1. I wish to complain about an imbalance in your article. In game inputs you list providing snacks, but in game outputs you do not mention eating snacks.

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