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Balancing in tabletop RPGs is a complex term to say the least. There seem to be several different takes on it. Like:

  • Alrik’s blow gun does so much more damage than my jojo. Completely unbalanced.
  • Vaarsuvius scanned the whole fortress with their crystal ball. Why am I super sneaky?

There are also groups that do not seem to have any problems with balancing, which complicates the assessment.

Niches

To tackle the latter problem first, it is important to understand how written rules work in RPGs. That is, they are only ever suggestions. Even if we supposedly play rules as written, interpretations will vary and every group will have their own dynamics too. That doesn’t mean agreed upon rules don’t matter. Because they can help to structure our communication.

To show this let’s look at the problem of scouting out the castle, where crystal ball bet thievery. This complex is often referred to as niche protection. A niche then is a type of problem, like scouting enemy strongholds. And the idea is that we call on some specific character when a certain niche arises. Character classes then can help structuring that particioning by prepackaging certain niches.

Note that “magic” is not a niche for these purposes. That is because of how the method works: A certain problem comes up in the fiction and then we look to Alrik to solve it. Alrik might solve the problem with magic. The problem is the niche, while magic is a possible solution for the problem. Handling enemy curses could be a niche, though. Again the solution might be counterspells or being immune to curses. A niche needn’t say how to solve it.

We must also recognize that we cannot rely on the written rules alone. For a very stupid example, let’s assume that the Navigator class is very good at getting our starship to its destination. And now five players choose Navigator. That likely won’t happen because the rules structure our communication thus. But we have to recognize that communicating niches cannot stop at class choice, if classes are more complex than a single ability. Also niches must be relevant to the campaign. Navigating the starship doesn’t help in a planet-bound campaign.

On the other hand, rather small things can become a fulfilling niche in the right campaign. For example this happened, when we were playing D&D3.5 back then, we decided to do a campaign heavy with undead.

Cleric Player: *thinkin aloud* I should probably prepare something against negative energy.
Me: Do not bother dear friend, I will have these matters well in hand.
Cleric Player: *confused* Aren’t you a sorcerer or something?
Me: Or something, yes.
Cleric Player: Cool.

Thus a niche of dealing with negative energy was established. And our Cleric Player went on preparing those self-buffs 3.5 were infamous for. And everyone died in a TPK three sessions later.

Combat systems

So, with that understanding of how to negotiate proper niches, let’s look at combat. With an extensive combat system we have slightly different situation. Usually all players want to do something then. We can wait for the navigator to plot the course, but if the combat starts and will last for several minutes real time, people get bored, if they have nothing to do. So if there is a very detailed combat system, combat is not a niche where one person does the thing. Sorry Fighter.

There are a few things we can do. We might have different types of opponents and have different characters shine against them, while the others play supporting roles. We might have different jobs like attack, defense. These jobs are sometimes called combat roles.