Balance of Character Power

Jon A. Lambert jlsysinc at
Sun Sep 28 15:06:25 New Zealand Daylight Time 1997

On 25 Sep 97 at 11:42, Nathan Yospe wrote:
> On Wed, 24 Sep 1997, Caliban Tiresias Darklock wrote:
> :There are vastly different power levels in the game. I may be walking 
> :around with some decent armor and a hefty weapon, but some other guy will 
> :have no armor or weaponry at all, and someone else may be wearing all but 
> :impregnable armor and some vastly damaging weapon that ignores all physical 
> :armor worn by the opponent. If I can take twelve sword hits on average, and 
> :that weapon does as much damage as *twenty* sword hits on the average, it's 
> :a one shot. Even without any weaponry, if he's significantly stronger and 
> :faster and more skilled than I am, he's going to win. Period.
> Sounds like a game balance/design problem. Would it be such a problem if 
> these LP/Dikuisms were not present? (And they ARE LP/Dikuisms, make no
> mistake. 

Presenting a balanced(?) system:

Characters, NPCs and Critters have a species/race maximum of hit 
points.  Bear with me on the abstract notion of total hit points for 
a moment.  They might be split locationally (limb-based) or 
subdivided into damage categories (concussion/blood points).
A human character starts the game with the average racial hit points 
of 60.  The maximum that can be attained is around 120.  This is 
"maxing out" is achieved through premier body conditioning and 
highest stats (constitution/stamina perhaps).  Your average adult 
bear would be around 110 hit points while your average adult elephant 
would be around 400 hit points.  Hit points are a function of size, 
species, maturity, stamina and conditioning and is not keyed to 
"level".  Size and species are relatively fixed for player characters 
since they are implicitly chosen at create time.  Stamina and 
constitution flunctuates primarily via maturity (time and age).  This 
leaves body conditioning as the primary means of character control 
over development and is a skill that is trained and perhaps related 
to other skills in a category. Gymnastics, swimming, etc.  Players
may develop in these areas thus indirectly increasing their hit 
points or may develop them directly via a body development skill.  
Players have fixed amount of development points with which they can 
spend on training.  So in order to specialize or max out hit points 
they must do so at the expense of weapons/defensive skills, spell 
skills, other general skills, etc.  Still they can never exceed the
max racial values.  But hit points alone still cannot save you. :)

Now on to armor and equipment.  There are 20 fixed armor types, in a 
modern or SF game these may be extended due to different levels of 
technology.  I won't address these yet, since I'm currently only 
concerned with ancient/medieval types of armor.  These armor 
types range from unarmed to fully plate armored head to toe.  Each 
weapon, attack spell, natural attack form, etc. is cross indexed to 
these 20 armor types giving a variable range of possible damages.  
Eg. A broadsword will do from 0-30 points of damage on an unarmored 
foe, while on a fully plate armored foe it does from 0-8.  Higher 
ranges of damage are achieved through higher weapon skills and 
mitigated by foe's natural quickness and higher defensive skills.
The damage is still a random range yet influence probabilistically 
by differeing skill levels.  Into this mix of "likely" outcomes a 
system of critical hits and fumbles is overlaid also keyed to armor
types and weapon/attack types.

This allows Bubba the incredible talented and experience warrior 
(read 100th level if you like) using the above broadsword a 3% 
chance of fumble with embarassing results and an odd chance of weapon 
breakages, etc.  Joe newbie (read 1st level) with little skills has 
about a .025% chance or (1 in 4000) of decapitating Bubba outright 
(if I calculate right) and higher chances of less severe but damaging 
results.  Bubba's chances of decapitating Joe newbie outright are 
about .1% or (1 in 1000).  

These are of course the system extremes, yet they show BALANCE even 
at the extremes of min/maxing development.  This is I think a key  
point in combat balance.  Give David a chance against Goliath no 
matter what the odds.  I don't see David EVER defeating Goliath in a 
vanilla DIKU mud nor do I see it happening in basic D&D rpg.  I 
remember calculating the odds for a 1st level vs. 20th level warriors 
and it was around 1 in 15000 for the 1st level to win.  D&D and 
Diku being battles of hit point attrition rather than amazing one 
time lucky shots.  Throw firearms into the mix above and the power
differences become even less pronounced.  For instance in the system
I use, while not within my current mud's theme, an AK47 can inflict 
140 points a damage per shot on an unarmored opponent not counting 
the chance and severity of critical hits.  So any character could be 
downed outright around 5% of the time regardless of skill level.  
Firearms, grenades, etc. are far greater equalizers of power than 
fists and swords.  

This balance extends to the magic system.  Magical ehancements to
weapons/armor/equipment typically range from 1% to 25% offensive and
defensive bonuses.  25% percent enhancement to a given use would be 
considered an incredibly powerful and expensive item, most likely a 
unique one.  As such, this percentage modifier is not so overpowering 
that it cannot be mitigated by a skilled player character.  Thus the 
role of equipment is less one of POWER but more of situational 
utility. This is another topic which I could delve into great detail 
as well as magical power.  What I really want to show is the native 
or raw balance of power between characters irregardless of magical 
equipment and magic systems.

Now do players want a balanced or realistic combat system?
Methinks many really don't. :) 
As combat results approach "realistic" outcomes the power difference
between experienced and in-experienced players is lessened.
Therefore the combat game becomes less attractive as a risk-free 

My theory in a nutshell:
Balance and realism are anathema to a Solo/HacknSlash style game.  
Solo/HacknSlash games will eventually approach Monty Haul (imbalance) 
as players "win" the game and implementors must implement new 
challenges to hold "winning" players interest.  The designer has two
choices, make the power curve 'slow and long' or 'fast and short'.  
Or better yet implement a totally different type of game.  One that
can't be "won".

Jon A. Lambert

If I'd known it was harmless, I would have killed it myself.

More information about the MUD-Dev mailing list