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I was browsing the Exalted wiki*, and I came across this little piece,
It is generally going to be hard to understand anything I write if you assume that I balance things with CAN and CAN’T. I balance things with EASY and DIFFICULT.—Rebecca Borgstrom
She’s talking about Sidereal and Solar Charms, and how certain abstract restrictions on Sidereals are actually represented, subtly, in the Charm definitions in a way that makes some people go, “omgbroken.” (If you don’t understand any of that, don’t worry about it, it’s not really necessary to understand the point).
She’s taking an in-world perspective. Some things are hard for certain characters, some things are easy for certain characters. From this perspective, balance is making sure there are enough things that are easy for each character that no player feels like theirs is useless.
But let’s switch stances for a second and look at it from the outside: now, we’re not looking at characters, we’re looking at people playing a game. And standing in this frame, those things which are “difficult” are things that produce conflict. They produce spotlight time. Those things which are “easy” aren’t worthless—they dictate premise. If it’s explicitly easy for a character to tear the heads off a ten-thousand soldier army, well, you’ll probably develop stories which take that fact for granted and build from there. If it isn’t, you’ll develop stories which take something else for granted, and build from it. From this stance, balance is about making sure that everyone’s character has enough meat that they feel engaged with the stories.
But you want characters to be good at the things they’re doing, right? Well, ah… no.
This is the superpower dilemma—if a character is good at a thing, the story will not be about that. House isn’t about medical diagnostics, and Buffy isn’t about killing vampires. Where this gets tricky is that players (and, let’s be fair, some writers) don’t always realize this. So they make characters who are good at the thing they want the story to be about, rather than the thing that will lead to their characters having trouble with the thing that the story is meant to be about, neatly short-circuiting the story.
It’s possible to do work to avoid this, mind. Shock: averts this by starting with the concept you want to address (Issues), and works backwards to world effects (Shocks), and then character traits (Praxis Scales and Features). This guarantees that there exists a vector between the protagonists’ qualities and kinds of issues you actually want to form the story. (Dogs does this a bit differently, with town creation and the hierarchy of sins. This definitely gives the GM [and Vincent Baker] a lot more power to define what issues get addressed.)
There’s a bit more subtlety here, too. I’m not exactly advocating that characters should be bad at the things they do—rather, the things characters do should have complications for them. If those complications stem from, “you’re an idiot,” then you have a particular brand of comedy. If they stem from the generally malicious nature of the universe, you have Hitchhiker’s Guide. If they stem from the confluence of particular institutional forces, you have a story about that (you can say that Serenity’s crew is just getting screwed over by the universe, but that ignores the bit where every obstacle they face is an artifact of the Alliance-imposed class system. The film makes this very explicit, directly addressing the Alliance as an adversary.)
* I wanted to see the second ed Sidereal charms, okay? DON’T JUDGE ME.