Asymmetry In Roleplay - Part 1
When we design something with the goal of perfect symmetry in mind, we invariably sacrifice one form of aesthetics in favour of another. A sphere is the same regardless of which direction you view it from, and is the most perfectly symmetrical three-dimensional shape you can achieve. Is a sphere elegant? Or merely uninteresting?
If you're the kind of person who likes to keep abreast of developments in science, you might have run across descriptions of the search for symmetry between fundamental forces and particles in the study of theoretical physics. In this context, the search for symmetry is equated with a search for underlying 'elegance' in nature. What's most important to note, however, is that whilst scientists seek symmetry between physical forces in order to express these forces as different manifestations of a single, elegant 'superforce', it's the fact that this symmetry is 'broken' in the universe as we experience it that gives us a universe filled with interesting and exciting structures like stars, planets, and lifeforms that populate them (or at least one of them).
Artists have long known the trick of asymmetry as a means of making their works more interesting. Very few works of art are strongly symmetrical - except for occasional instances where the artist is consciously using the symmetry of the piece as an artistic statement.
Asymmetries create dynamics and add spice to life.
Asymmetries create dynamics and add spice to life. Yet frequently in the world of RPGs we are told that symmetry - usually referred to as 'balance' in this context - is the ideal. Character classes should be balanced against each other. Parties should contain a balanced mix of characters. Encounters should be balanced to match the party. The justification for this is that it is in the interest of 'fairness'.
I understand this viewpoint. Playing RPGs is a form of escapist entertainment, and one aspect of real life that people want to escape from is the unfairness of it all. In real life, bad things happen to good people. In real life, hardworking, principled, intelligent, creative individuals just 'get by' as they watch talentless media icons or cynical stock market manipulators amass huge fortunes. In real life, combat troops sometimes blunder into ambushes where they are outnumbered and outgunned, and they don't always heroically win against the odds.
And yet, despite people's desire to escape from all that, it's my belief that in an RPG, when things get too fair, balanced, symmetrical, they become a little dull, and furthermore this unrealistic balance interferes with the players' suspension of disbelief. In other words, the player comes to the game table to spend a few hours escaping into a different world, but when that different world is too carefully balanced so as to never upset them, it becomes less believable and 'real' to them.
So as referees I think we need to walk a fine line between balanced egalitarian fairness for all and having too much of it. I'm not claiming to be able to walk this tightrope with ease myself - it's tricky and we can sometimes get it wrong. And we definitely can't please all of the players all of the time. But that isn't the aim.
I'll explore this theme further in this series of articles with some specific examples in the context of D&D.