Recently I stumbled into a conversation where my friend and colleague Matthew McFarland was lamenting the point of “white room balance” in RPGs. For those that don’t know, “white room balance” is the idea that if you make two characters in a RPG using similar points or levels or dots or whatever and put them into a blank room, they should beat each other to death on a relatively even basis. His point is that RPGs rarely present situations such as a white room because these are characters, not blocks of numbers, and therefore the whole point of “white room balance” is meaningless.
I would go even further and submit that objective balance in games, particularly in games in which humans are involved, is largely an illusion. It is, however, an important one.
To illustrate, let’s switch to card games for a moment. There is an entrenched idea that the first player in a card game is at such an advantage that it is hard to find a game where that advantage isn’t somehow neutralized. The method of determining the first player is randomized, the status of first player rotates, or the first player plays at some kind of disadvantage (such as drawing one less card to start). I expect some designers are so used to trying to address this point of common concern that they end up giving an advantage to the second and subsequent players, but you don’t often hear about how the second player is always winning. The reason is that going first feels like an advantage, whether it actually is one mathematically. In fact, there are a number of cases where “common sense” seems to fly in the face of actual math and tactics, such as the infamous Monty Hall problem.
So we go back to white room balance. Even if your RPG character is unlikely to be in a situation where she has to kill someone else in a blank room with no other factors, there is a feeling that this is important. If a game doesn’t address this, one of two things needs to fill the void: either the game needs to address this perception of balance in another way (such as pointing out other systems that address this perception in different ways, like Fate Points do in Fate Core), or it needs to address why the perception doesn’t matter (such as intentionally designing a game where the protagonists are destined to lose, as in Call of Cthulhu). The issue isn’t addressing the numbers, but rather addressing how the players feel about the numbers. If they have confidence that the designers have addressed their concerns, then they are more likely to be invested in the perception of balance or fairness.