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.

Bravo Gherkin!

The Yin-Yang is symmetrical yet interesting. It contains dark within the light; and light within the dark. Balance is boring, where proportion is elegant. Ancient builders would warp their columns so that they "appear" straight, using an understanding of physics and art to achieve the result.

I've just finished digesting 13 sourcebooks of D&D 3.5 to migrate my existing 1-2nd Edition campaign and I'm pretty sick of EL's and balanced encounters already. I like how the rules prevent over-stacking of bonus, but I've never had that problem. I'm curious as to what EL will typically be a challenge for them because they aren't built around 'optimized builds' don't have more than four magic items between them and they all have multi-class levels (another sub-optimal build). In fairness to the rules as written is that they do spell out that some campaigns will ignore EL and leave it to the players to run from the big beasts and search out the baddies who are in their "snack bracket."

I think a game should be visceral. It should shake your beliefs and challenge your prejudice. Sometimes the game can break you down and oftentimes lift you up. None of these in balance, but always in proportion.

Either escapism is overrated, or the definition of it has been horribly mangled by the defenders of "balanced" games.

Escapism - n. A diversion of the mind from those realities of life which are unpleasant or monotonous, esp. by entertainment, daydreaming, etc.

It seems it's been horribly mangled, because escapism is usually used in connotation with roleplaying as something like, "Getting away from everything that's bad in the world - another words, we never die, we always get what we want, it can be challenging every now and then when we allow it, etc." with "we" being the players of course. I'm very tired of this use and have never bought into it. Easy victories and whatever we want makes the story impotent and stupid. Even the great escapism films, like the Indiana Jones trilogy (not the fourth one - that's the kind of stuff we're trying to escape from), were never about easy victories and the characters always getting what they wanted whenever they wanted it. Indiana Jones was great because it was difficult, because he took a lot of punches and it really looked like it hurt.

But even beyond that, escapism is itself overrated. The highest form of art is not escapism but (I invented this one here) reflectionism. Art is used to reflect the real world and bring certain elements of it into sharp relief. This is the source of real storytelling, of the good stuff. That means reflecting everything - from the beautiful good things like a tender, prolonged kiss between lovers and the harsh, bad things like the slaughter of innocents. Good art, good storytelling, incorporates all of these elements and culls something important, powerful, or true from it.

You don't get to do that with escapism.

This is an interesting premise, and I look forward to seeing how it will be realized.

And to follow up on the escapism bit, there is Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories." The essay does draw an interesting sketch of escapism, critiques of it, and responses to those critiques.

As long as we're listing good essays that mention these topics...I always refer to Epic Pooh (and Starship Stormtroopers) by my main man Michael Moorcock.

I like the article LG. I'm a firm believer in less balance and more asymmetry. One thing that I hate about current console games is that they are all scaled, just like D&D. I go to the swamp and it's full of goblins. A few levels later it's full of trolls. Next time I go back in my new armor it's full of farking black dragons. It destroys suspension of disbelief entirely. that makes it far more a "game" than a "story".

I think everyones noticed that I'm done with the 'game", and want full on storytelling of the highest order these days.

"These days," Scott? I offer it in good nature, of course, but I think that the desire for story in the RPG is at the heart of a great many players. Sure, a whole lot of folks want to play games; the sales of MMORPGs (which are mislabeled) and D&D4E speak to that. But role-playing is, to paraphrase Mackay, collaborative extemporaneous rules-assisted storytelling.

Yes, I recommend Mackay's book, _The Fantasy Role-Playing Game_.

Balance among PCs is helpful; while literature is replete with main and subordinate characters, the fact that the players should be doing each as much of the storytelling as any of the others prompts a levelling-out of their importance. That's one of the key things for GMs, remember: ensuring that each player has roughly equal/proportional time in the spotlight.

However, the asymmetry between the party and the rest of the world is what creates the dramatic tension on which story depends. And it need not always be the party which is on the lower end; I think it would be an interesting side-story to have the Western gunslinger problem pop up for the party, actually.

So, that little tanget done, back to the thread...

Guys, while some of the point here are salient, I think there is a huge mix up of terms an assumptions.

1) Balance does not equate symmetry. A symmetry is always balanced (a scale holding an orange on each side), but balance is not always symmetrical (a scale holding an orange on one side and a whole lot of raisins on the other). A game example: The three playable races in Starcraft (Terrans, Zerg and Protoss) are very finely balanced. They are also very diffrent.

2) To extend Folgha's point, I do think balance between player characters in imoprtant. In this I use "balance" to mean "having roughly the same chance and ability to affect the game world". For me (at least), it doesn't seem fun to play the Hero's (another PC) lame, stupid, maladjusted, useless boot-licker. It might be fun to be his lame, smart, funny, weakling advisor, though, as long as my character's strenghs come into play.

3) A lot of things are designed as balanced in the long run. In the D&D4 DMG, the DM is encouraged pepper the party's encounters with some higher- or lower-level ones. Easy-kill thrills and narrow escapes are not discouraged, as far as I recall (I read the book a few months ago), although they do tend to lean heavily on the "difficulty-fitted" encounter. A bad example would be Oblivion, where the monsters leveled up with your character.

4) A technicality: Gil, while your groups' lack of magical items wil definitely hinders them if you use ELs and CRs as-is, saying that having multiclassed is sub-optimal a-priori is simply not true. In fact, if you look around the optimization boards at you won't find nearly any single-class builds there.

5) LG, I think you have your symmetries mixed - the search for a symmetry of forces is a mathematical construct born of the equations describing the known forces. The lack of symmetry you refer to when talking about the existance of stars and such is the unevenness of matter/energy distribution in the early universe. These two are not connected, a far as I know.

6) Tzuriel, maybe it's the fact we're from different part of the globe, but I haven't seen anyone mangling Escapism, or, more aptly, confusing it with fairness/balance/getting everything you want, all the time (part of what we want, methinks, is having dificulties to overcome). I also don't think anybody said that escapism is the highest form of art.

6.5) Regarding Indiana Jones, I wasn't impressed with the last movie, but I didn't find it much different to the earlier ones. In fact, I re-watched the trilogy a few weeks before watching the fourth movie, and was not impressed by the earlier works either.

7) Scott, I don't see the relevance. Having a story (whether well crafted or not) has nothing to do with balance in and of itself. It is true, though, that one should be careful if keeping the balance is impacting heavily on the setting/story. In addition (and I may just be lacking in my GMing or experience with groups) I think that "storytelling of the highest order" is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to manage in an RPG campaign. If you want the perfect story, write a book, no?


"saying that having multiclassed is sub-optimal a-priori is simply not true"

Point taken. What I should have said the the multi-class combinations (Cleric/Ranger, MU/Ranger, Cleric/Monk, Fighter/Thief and Cleric/MU) that they have are sub-optimal [I think]. It is my opinion (with the little that I've used the system) that the lack of top-end caster level (no casters above 16) reduces the party's overall effectiveness below the CR 23 that is suggested. However, the extra NPC (fighter/Thief) takes the party to 5 members. I'm not sure, but I think the big winner is the NPC with the way that the fighter and rogue combine.

Back to the topic though.


I used the terms 'balance' and 'symmetry' in a fairly loose, hand-waving way because I'm not trying to mathematically prove anything to be true here. Sorry if my imprecision irks you. But there is enough of a similarity between the concepts of symmetry and balance for my analogy to be intuitively useful I feel. If it isn't useful for you, then it isn't. But I think you know what I'm getting at in my article, no?

No, I don't have my symmetries mixed. Stars and indeed all large-scale material structures as we know them, and chemical reactions for that matter, wouldn't exist if not for the broken symmetry between forces - there would effectively be only a single force as is believed to have existed in the very very early post-bang universe. There'd be no differentiation between gravity, strong, weak or electromagnetic forces. The hierarchy of scales that exist in the world as we observe it - large-scales dominated by gravity (stars and planets), short-scales dominated by electromagnetic (atoms and molecules), very small scales dominated by the strong force (nucleons and mesons) - wouldn't exist. The lack of homogeneity in the universe is another issue. There are a multitude of theories about that, which involve symmetry breaking, quantum fluctuations or even brane interactions to varying degrees. But that wasn't what I was talking about.

I appreciate that you may find balance between player characters to be important. I do too - or to be precise, balance between my players rather than their specific characters (they tend to have several), but this balance I see as being an average state of affairs that needs to be maintained over a stretch of time - it's my view that short-term imbalances make for a more colourful game. If everything is kept in perfect balance all the time, well, to me at least it seems a little tedious. But that's just my view, and the way I like to play. I'm not saying it's right, I'm just suggesting that it's something people might want to try if they haven't done so already.

If a referee is unlucky enough to be saddled with a bunch of players who whine within two seconds of any perceived momentary unfairness occurring, then he has my heartfelt sympathy. Maybe he should encourage them to grow up a little, and develop a little patience. However, consistent unfairness towards a particular player that persists over a long stretch of time is another matter altogether. At best that's poor refereeing, at worst bullying.

-"7) Scott, I don't see the relevance. Having a story (whether well crafted or not) has nothing to do with balance in and of itself. It is true, though, that one should be careful if keeping the balance is impacting heavily on the setting/story. In addition (and I may just be lacking in my GMing or experience with groups) I think that "storytelling of the highest order" is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to manage in an RPG campaign. If you want the perfect story, write a book, no?"

I find that story does indeed have to do with balance. In the best stories, it is the intrinsic *lack* of balance that leads to bulk of story and character growth. At least, in what *I* consider to be the best stories. As soon as everything is perfectly balanced on some kind of esoteric bell curve made up of CRs and PC levels etc I find that it truly feels more like a game than interactive storytelling.

I don't think storytelling of the highest order is impossible in roleplaying. I can cite too many examples in my own campaigns to list here. It's not about *my* story; it's about *the* story. If the game gets in the way, throw it out. So, writing a book wouldn't help me because that's not my preferred medium.

Well, zip, I led you wrongly. Rereading my post, I can see that my wording leads one to conclude that escapism has been said to be the highest form or art. There might be some people who believe this, but all in all most don't. I was ranting, and should've been clearer. What I really meant was that escapism has been elevated largely in *roleplaying* specifically. In other mediums, it is mostly sideshow, good movies or books, but not the classics (and I loved the other 3 Indiana Jones! the fourth sucked because aliens and Indy makes no sense and then the vine swinging monkey attack...I about died right there). However, in roleplaying escapism has almost a divine connotation. In a given thread or argument, many times someone on the losing end just invokes escapism and suddenly they have the upper hand. "Well, that doesn't apply cause we're trying to *escape* from the real world, not replicate it." Gamegrene is, as always, an exception here, but largely gamers believe they are out to escape from the real world, to leave a world where they are simply cogs in a machine (or feel like such) and enter a world where they daily save beautiful maidens (what other kind is there?), get laid whenever they feel the call, and can vanquish the bad guy (with maybe a little struggle).

This attitude is, to me, what has lead to Scotts feelings about roleplaying being far too focused on the game and not on the story, and I agree with those feelings. The game ensures that it's fair, when the real world isn't fair. This isn't because of the system. Like you said, most games encourage throwing in difficult and easy encounters, with maybe a few missteps in the form of saying no encounters above or below 2 levels from the party. That really comes from the attitude. When people get together to make a work of art, like, say, a movie, they don't have the attitude that this is an escape from the real world, speaking generally. The best movies, works of significance and power like Crash, Munic, Schindler's List, Raging Bull, Lord of the Rings, Dark Knight, and scores of other great films, these are not escapism. Crash is a harsh, troubling look at racism in modern American society and the cost that it brings. Munic is about the personal toll of war, particularly the war on terror. Schindler's List is about the redemption and courage of one man who, in the face of what is probably the single greatest act of evil in the history of the world, saved hundreds. Raging Bull is the real life story of a boxer whose violence, which lead to his brilliance in the ring, destroyed his life outside of it, forcing you to sympathize and care for an abusive, paranoid, violent man. You all know Lord of the Rings. And I include Dark Knight here because it doesn't look away. It creates a character so evil and so wrong, but, who, in the end is right. I mean, how could that be escapism? In an escapist film, you would deny his point and the hero would get the girl and save the day. These stories are not fair, they are not balanced. These characters lose everything because of what they've done, good or bad. There has to be a cost. That's good storytelling. That's real, so real you can see it happening and believe it, even when it involves creatures that never die and a ring that makes you invisible. When these things are made, people wanna make a statement. They wanna change lives. They wanna say something in the best, most significant, most powerful way possible.

I think roleplaying could very easily be like this. As long as we toss out this notion of constant escapism. Of course, we can't only play or watch reflective storytelling. So there should be some escapism. But, like candy, it should be the exception, not the rule.

First, thanks for the interesting arguments. As ever, you guys are worth discussing with. I'm afraid certain firewalls recently installed at my workplace minimize the time I can spend on these forums :)

Back to topic:

LG, I get what you're saying, both in regard to the forces of nature and with regards to player balance. It might be that no system has yet tried to balance things over time and so they tend to focus on balancing the potential of the players at any particular moment, leading to sameness.

Scott, I envy you your storytelling.

Tzuriel, your point on escapism is taken - I may have simply not been on the right forums to notice these expressions regarding escapism.
Regading balance, while I totally agree that good storytelling does not require it and may, in fact, be hampered by it, I believe that RPGs are not the same as movies or book and must satisfy other requirements. It might simply be a fault of mine, but I suspect I would not enjoy an RPG where where I played Alfred to another player's Batman.

I dunno if you could call it a fault, zip, more like personal preference. However, I'd love to be Alfred! Alfred rocks! You get to make witty comments and say things that wrap up what the stories about tidily. I mean, you're a walking plot device, but still an interesting character! How could you not wanna be Alfred?

lol, joking aside, RPGs are a very different medium from books and movies, that is true. You wouldn't want to go into a movie theater and stare at the screen for several hours as text slowly scrolls up the screen. That's what books are for. But it is still a viable storytelling medium. Balance has its place in roleplaying - I just think it's grossly overrated. I mean, in a movie or book, when the great goodie and the big baddie meet for the final battle, you want it to be tough. You know that, most likely, the goodie will win, but you still want it to be a struggle, you still want to wonder at key moments "is he gonna make it out of there?" But when that struggle, that balance, becomes stock and becomes more important than the story, it's out of place.

For example, Raging Bull. As stated above, you follow the true story of a highly talented boxer whose personality, an asset in the ring, destroys his life outside of it. One of the greatest sequences ever filmed is in this movie, wherein Jake (the boxer) defends his champion title against another boxer (name escaped me...) who has been his rival for most of his career. This fight, however, is not brilliant because it's tense and you don't know who's gonna win. It's brilliant because Jake has gone over the edge, letting his paranoia destroy his life. It's brilliant because Jake punishes himself by letting himself lose the title he's been fighting for all his life to his rival, and getting seriously beaten in the process. It's profound because he lost. That's not balance. If it had been balanced, you would've lost a key moment in the story. However, earlier fights against the same boxer are tense - they're balanced and you don't know who's gonna win. Here, balance is good. In general roleplay speak, especially in D&D speak, every fight should be balanced. Yet, if it was balanced, that would ruin the drama, and the moment would not be profound, even if he lost. It wouldn't work.

I'll know that my roleplaying has elevated into something great when a character does something similar to what Jake did in that championship fight. I'll know then that it's no longer a game, at least not for that player. It's a story, and a great one.