This causes many disagreements and misunderstandings.
Here’s a list of some of the things that balance can mean in games. Lots of the examples are 5e, mostly because its a good lingua franca.
I’ve written each explanation from the point of view of somebody who agrees with that concept of balance.
Balance in Character Creation and Character advancement
Balanced means there are no ‘trap’ or ‘God’ options
If the game designer has written a list of options, you should be able to pick any that fit your character without there being a correct or best answer (a God option). Example: D&D 5e has a Sharpshooter feat that is widely considered to be extremely good for a ranged attackers against low AC targets, so the feats are not balanced.
There should also never be a situation where an option looks like it will be a good way of achieving something but turns out to be bad at that thing (a trap option). Example: 5e has a feat called Savage Attacker that looks like a good way to increase your damage per turn, but is mathematically outshined by almost every other fighting feature. It’s a trap for inexperienced or maths-averse players.
Obviously nobody expects absolute mathematical equivalence between options, but there needs to be some level of parity, or they are not balanced
Balanced means that there should be good niche protection
Niche Protection is the idea that a character should be good at the thing they are meant to be good at, and that others should not outshine them in that area. Example: If I made a rogue to be the super sneaky dark-and-edgy character, but then the Monk chooses the Way of the Shadows subclass, then they will be stepping on my niche. It’s not their fault, but the games fault for giving them the option. When I chose to make a rogue, I thought I would be the sneaky one. A game that is unbalanced will have poor niche protection or unequal niche protection, leading to over-versatile character options.
Balanced means that characters may be created unequally, but the game systems or expectations render that inequality moot
Troika! has a high level of entropy. At character generation, players roll dice to determine skill, stamina (HP) and Luck. They also roll on a table of 36 backgrounds. Some backgrounds are stronger than others and some are stranger too. If a player happens to roll low for their skill, stamina and luck, then their character is weaker than others, but that is fine. Characters die when they go below 0HP, and initiative in combat is randomly determined every round in combat. Some rounds you might not get to go, and sometimes you get to go twice before anybody else! Weak characters are fine because the game embraces the randomness wholeheartedly. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. It is balanced due to the game expectations.
In Mausritter you roll 1d6 for your HP and 1d6 for your starting money. This can leave some characters with 1HP and 1 Money, whilst others have 6 HP and 6 Money. This is balanced by the game systems, as you look up your HP and Money on a table, and read off your starting equipment. A 1HP, 1 Money mouse starts with Magic Missile and heavy armour. A 6HP, 6 Money mouse starts with a felt hat and perfume.
Balanced means there are no ‘feels bad’ options
Feels bad means that something happens which makes the player feel bad. I know that’s a tautology, but its the best definition I can think of. I once ran a 5e game (last time I’ll bash 5e, I promise) where a player picked the Ranger class, because they wanted to do all this cool woodlands survival and travel stuff, and the name suggested the class would support that. However, the Ranger’s class abilities and spells minimsed this element of the game and the player felt bad, to the extent that they retired that character to play another class. WotC has acknowledged the ‘feels bad’ of the Ranger design with their Ranger, Revised. It is not balanced because it makes people feel bad. This is almost a ‘trap option’ problem, but the main problem was that the player saw the cool stuff other players could do and felt bad that they couldn’t do their own cool stuff. Here balance was not inherent to the mathematics of the class, but how people feel about it.
…high levels of player dissatisfaction and its ranking as D&D’s weakest class by a significant margin.Wizards of the Coast on the reasons for the Ranger, Revised
Balance in Encounters
Many disagreements here come from one core clash.
My rpg isn’t the same as your rpg.
Heck, my rpg isn’t even the same as my rpg.
My current game is a gritty OSR sandbox realpolitik dungeon fest. My previous game was a TNG-era Star Trek slice-of-life thing.
The Retired Adventurer wrote about Six Cultures of Play, a taxonomy for comparing games and their contrasting expectations. This is highly related to the classic discussion of Combat as Sport or Combat as War. Depending on the game in question, several different expectations for balance exist. They are all valid, but they are not all valid for all cultures of play.
Are your protagonists Heroes or Adventurers?
Are they even protagonists?
LIGHTNING ROUND *thunder noises*
Balanced means that protagonists should survive except in narratively-appropriate situations, such as bossfights and moments that speak to the inner nature or journey of a character
So you can die whilst fighting Darth Maul but it shouldn’t happen whilst fighting battle droids. Unless the character was disrespecting the threat of the droids in a fit of hubris, or the character was fighting off many droids to allow their allies to escape to safety.
Balanced means that protagonists should survive unless genre expectations make survival unreasonable
The distinction with the prior concept is that we are more concerned with playing the world than playing the story of the characters.
Balanced means that protagonists have a reasonable chance at guessing the danger level of an encounter
You shouldn’t be blindsided by a sudden un-telegraphed spell, boss fight or tough enemy. In Skyrim if you go to High Hrothgar early, it is a challenge to deal with the troll in the mountain pass. Its not a balanced encounter because there is no fore-warning, it’s significantly harder than previous enemies and its on the main path you are supposed to be taking. [I do think it is a fun and memorable encounter, but not a balanced one.]
Balanced means that protagonists should survive unless they really mess up
This is a very ‘combat as sport’ view of balance. When I ran Humblewood there was one PC death when the Barbarian didn’t rage, the healer had kited out of healing distance and the party split focus on different targets.
Balanced means that careful and thoughtful protagonists have a decent chance at survival
My current game, Old School Essentials, which has been running once a week for about 10 months, has had 6 character deaths. This is low for OSE because I am using injury rules for PCs that go below 0hp, not instant death. About half of the protagonist deaths have been due to carelessness and about half have been from fights that went south. Every fight that went south was an avoidable (or postponable) fight.
Balanced means that there are no ‘feels bad’ encounters, and that all deaths feel earned directly from player error or character decision
Expectations are really important. My OSE players know that going into a creepy forest runs the risk of lethal encounters, and so they won’t feel bad dying to them. If I was running some sort of Hogwarts game then they would expect to be able to sneak off into dangerous Forbidden Forest, just like in the books. If the were then eaten by giant spiders, they would feel bad. The genre expectations (boarding school mystery) and the world (Hogwarts) told the players that they would face mild peril at worst. The game would not have been balanced because the death would not have felt earned.
Balance is an awkward concept to employ. Are we talking about encounter design or character options? Are we concerned with following the story of our characters, or the world, or emulating a genre? Is combat meant to be war, or sport, or a puzzle?
Balanced is a relative term.
Something cannot be inherently balanced, it must be balanced relative to out expectations.
So often we talk about balance without stating what we consider those expectations to be.