Most game designers are very concerned with the notion of “balance” in the games they make. Systems that use a point-based creation mechanic for character creation often have levels of generation points that allow a player to customize their character, yet are all bought for the same “level” — being it novice or beginner, experienced/whatever, or expert/master, etc. In Dungeons & Dragons, characters used to start at 1st level and work their way up, but later iterations allowed for starting at higher levels…but you still had the same approximate range of abilities.

Until you hit the min/maxers and rules lawyers that can manipulate the system to build a character more effectively than other players. (I have a mathematician in the group right now who is an expert at this…)

The point to this notion of “balance” is “fairness”. Young players, players that use gaming to vicariously experience success or greatness, often don’t like the notion of having a player be weaker or stronger than others in a campaign. Everyone wants to be the hero, and balance is supposed to push the players toward a more ensemble model, where everyone is equally important to the game. It’s a nice ideal — and one that I subscribed to for a long time — but it’s not really achievable.

Problem, the first: All players are not created equal. Maybe your characters were all created for X number of points, but you have a rules lawyer that has made a character perfectly tailored to the sorts of adventures you will encounter, making them the “go to guy” all the time. It’s great for that player; they’re almost always now the center of attention. Even if, somehow, you managed to have characters that were all highly specialized and had their particular spotlight moments in a game session, some players are more passive, and others more active — one guy may spend all his time in his room inventing things, and only becomes a factor in play when the fight is on. Maybe a player is particularly clever at using a “weak” character to achieve greatness. Maybe one of them is just too funny to reign in and makes the game enjoyable. These players are going to capture most of the airtime.

Problem, the second: It’s not the way good storytelling works. In books, movies, and television — even with ensemble casts — there’s normally a lead or two that the stories focus on. For example, let’s take any of the Star Trek series from The Next Generation on…there’s an ensemble that sees the whole cast get some screen time, but normally, the focus is on one or two of the characters per episode, and often over the course of the series. Let’s look at The Lord of the Rings (books and movies) — Frodo is the main protagonist on the quest to destroy the Ring, with Sam as his sidekick, but arguably just as important. But Aragorn is the lead for the portions involving the return of the king and opposing the forces of Mordor. Frodo is in no way Aragorn’s equal (and arguably not up to that of Sam, either…) But he is the lead and the lead not need be the biggest bad ass of the bunch. Even Merri and Pippin are stuffed into the middle of great conflicts, and probably couldn’t resist a late-night mugging in any modern city. It’s not about being bad ass; the interesting part of characters is their weaknesses and how they overcome obstacles. Simply hacking your way through a problem like Schwarzenegger might have a certain appeal, but it’s not especially memorable after the first hundred kobolds, is it?

Problem, the third: Not everyone wants to be the bas ass. I have a player whose real interest is in the politics and social machinations in nearly every game we play. He often winds up being the politician, ship captain, leader because that’s the sort of thing he likes. Even when he had action star-type characters, he would often use other characters as proxies in fights. Some guys thrive on being the ass-kicker and trying to suss their way through a mystery is either boring or taxing…they like to sit and wait until it’s time to break the “in case of emergency” glass on their barbarian and let the carnage begin.

So what’s the point of attempting game balance, other than an attempt to preserve some sense of Harrison Bergeron-esque enforced equality? I’d submit none.

Here’s an idea — when in the planning stages of a campaign, there are a few things the GM and players can do to create engaging characters that are appropriate to the sorts of adventures in store for them. On the players’ side is arguably the harder job — letting go of the ego long enough to create characters that have a reason to be together, more than focusing solely on your cool concept.

Example 1: I had a player that had his high concept character — a Starfleet engineer who was super-talented, so that he didn’t have to play by the rules and regulations. Great idea, save for a few points: 1) everyone in friggin’ Starfleet is smart, educated, and competent, 2) the character’s purpose is to spotlight hog and create artificial conflict (specifically with the GM and the adventure itself, I suspect), 3) he’s got no logical reason to be there, other than to annoy everyone else at the table.

Example 2: In a short-lived Supernatural game, one of the players decided to play the overweight, stereotypical hacker/geek that ran a supernatural conspiracy website. He was the outsider of the group, but was useful (and played very amusingly) enough that he was essential in the investigation portions of the adventures, but was completely out of his element once they found the creature of the week. The spotlight then shifted to the other characters. They meshed, even with the built in conflict between the characters because they needed each other, and — after a few encounters — wanted to work together.

The first example was built to the same number of creation points as the other characters, but was specialized in away that, while it could have been highly useful, was mitigated by the assholish persona of the character. No one went to him for help. The players and characters hated the character in question.

The second example created highly memorable moments in the game that were fun enough that the other players gladly gave up their moment just to watch the hacker have his long-winded, hysterically-funny meltdowns. The characters might have hated the guys (and there was one in particular) but the players loved him. He fit. He was built for less points than the bad-ass exorcist priests that were the “leads” of the game.

A last example might bring this home: Most of the players in my last pulp game were built by the GM (me), based on character concepts the players had and I fleshed out to make work better. (This was more a function of my knowledge of the period and the manner of game I was planning.) They were all customized to play to the concept. The brick was a combat monster and utterly useless in other venues…yet was played with such joyful idiocy that he rapidly became our “Jack Burton” of the game — in the center of things, but clueless. The archeologist lead was built for more points and was talented in almost everything, but tended to use the first character to get the action bits done because a) it gave the other players stuff to do, and b) the player is risk aversive and uses the others as meat shields in almost every game.

It was the character of an 11 year old street urchin, however, that was the surprise. Built to be much less experienced, talented, and having a lot of the social and physical downsides to being a small Chinese girl in 1936 Shanghai, she was nevertheless highly effective outside of her niche of thief because of out-of-the-box thinking by the player as well as an obvious delight at playing a unique character. Everyone had their niche, got their airtime, but also frequently worked together in ways that were memorable and unexpected.

So…what’s your point?

Build to a character concept and their role in the game and to hell with stat and/or skill advancement (except where applicable to the story), and focus on how these characters interact.

For instance, our current Battlestar Galactica game saw characters generally built at “veteran” level — the median for stats and skills, then given assets and complications that made them unique. But the commander was built to a slightly higher level — somewhere between the veteran and seasoned veteran. It made sense for the commander to be more experienced and talented…his role of leader might put him in a position of power over the other characters, but also limits his ability to participate in some of the action. Unlike the captains of Star Trek, BSG captains (andreal military leaders) tend to have to stand powerlessly in their CIC while they listen to their subordinates succeed or fail based on their mission plan. One of the lead characters in the ensemble is a viper pilot. She’s great at flying and fighting in the cockpit. She’s also a gullible prat who acts before engaging brain. It’s appropriate to the character. She was built with less points than the commander, but her role is such she sees much more of the action. She’s just not in on the big decision-making…that’s not her role.

By building characters and playing them to the role and concept envisioned, you can craft a group that all work together and enjoy the story, even if one of the characters is more of a lead that others. I frequently see one of the players’ characters as the “lead”, with the others as the main supporting cast, and try to rotate that central role between the players per campaign. But if you play one game (looking at you Pathfinder folks!) for thirty years, rotate who is the lead in a particular adventure — maybe Bumbo the Barbarian was the lead in the last couple of sessions, seeking revenge on the man that killed his family and burned his childhood village, but for the next few, he’s helping his thief friend Sticky Fingers snatch a valuable McGuffin. He’s the sidekick for this one.

For players, this means giving up the spotlight and being the sidekick from time to time. For the GM, it means making sure everyone gets to be the hero every once in a while.