Another old post from another board I figured homebrewers around here might appreciate.
Okay, now, balance is a common subject of discussion on RPG boards and such. But for all that it's discussed, people often have greatly diverse and ofttimes crappy conceptions of what balance really means, and some question what it's even for. Let's establish some things.
-When you can feel the indecision between two different choices (for purely mechanical reasons), that's balance, right there. There should be some sort of tradeoff of benefits that makes both options attractive for different reasons. The definition isn't any more complicated than that.
-Getting rid of an option is not "fixing" it. It's not "fixing" Save or Dies when Pathfinder decides to turn them all into Xd6 damage attacks. All that you're ACTUALLY doing is DELETING the option, and making a few new versions of abilities that are already there (blast spells). That doesn't fix save or dies, it simply eliminates them and the whole sort of flavor and function they encompass from the game. A fix actually changes the ability in some way to make it more balanced, while still having that general sort of niche in the game. You don't "fix" spells by eliminating all supernatural elements from the game, etc etc. A deletion is not a fix. It's just less material in the game. In this respect, 4e has fixed almost nothing, just deleted a lot of features from the game.
-Balance is critical to support creative freedom and building power. If a choice isn't good enough, people will never use it. If it's too good, people will use it over all others. This leads to less diverse concepts, and people feeling like they're being "punished" for a certain concept. While it has more effect on some than others, it does affect all players to some extent, and it does cause headaches in many games. Balance problems shoehorn you into playing a role. Creative freedom and building power is about you being able to realize any concept you can come up with as well as possible through the mechanics of the game. If something is not attractive enough as an option, it's almost as if that option *didn't even exist in the game.* It just wastes text space.
-I see a lot of conversations about "breaking 4e" and the like, and arguments about Cascade of Blades and the like, looking for the next Pun Pun. The reality is, Pun Pun doesn't break a GAME SYSTEM, he breaks a few isolated ability combinations. In fact, Pun Pun is one of the least broken problems in 3rd edition! Indeed, he is such a tiny gap in the system that he *never affected any real games.* That's right, *Pun Pun never ruined someone's game.* The things that ACTUALLY break a game as a SYSTEM are the broader, wider design issues. Things like 4th edition's "padded sumo" where you run out of interesting abilities by round 3 and fall into an endless at-will slugfest on giant hp bags past low levels is the sort of thing that hurts the SYSTEM. Things like unbalanced itemization that make everyone wear the same armor and weapons and examples of things that hurt the SYSTEM's balance. Things like 3rd ed diplomacy work towards breaking the system. Thing like individual super-abuses rarely devalue a system, unless they are difficult to avoid or simply houserule away with a minor tweak or change of interpretation of a rule. The reality is that subtler balance issues tend to actually be a far more common problem in real games. And underpowered things that lead to shoehorning are just as problematic as overpowered things.
-Balance is extremely important because: 1) If a choice is not attractive enough, it's about as good as if it *didn't exist,* and thus your system has less options, and options are obviously important. If no one ever takes it, it more or less doesn't exist. If people are taking it anyways for their concept, that rule is seriously punishing them for liking a concept that just doesn't happen to be a decent choice, and that sucks too. 2) If a choice is too attractive, other options become not attractive enough and thus your system has less options, as per 1. 3) Balance is essential to fun gameplay. If a challenge is too easy or unfairly hard (or just plain simply doesn't seem fair), it's not as fun. If one guy totally outshines another, it's not as fun. If someone feels like they can't pick the choices they want because they're not good enough, it's not as fun. Etc etc. Also, poor balance can upset the "flow" and functionality of the gameplay design that you set up to be fun, but that's a bit more complex concept that I'm not really going to get into here.
-Poor designers often run into these pitfall trains of thought when thinking about balance and balancing things: 1) Deletion != fixing. It is the same as saying "I don't have this option in my game, because I haven't figured out a working mechanic for it." A balanced ability provides an attractive option which is not so attractive as to make other attractive options seem unattractive. If you are not providing an attractive unique option, you just have less balanced things in your game. A fix maintains that option in your game, while setting it to a more appropriate level of attractiveness. That said, not having an option is better than having an option that screws up the rest of the game. 2) The biggest problems are not the uber theoretical op builds. They are the smaller balance problems that influence normal play and are not easily eradicated, especially ones that are entrenched into the basic workings of the system. Problems like 3e's armor imbalances will cause more damage than the Sarrukh or the Planar Shepherd ever did, because the Sarrukh or Planar Shepherd just means that one more narrow option isn't viable and might as well not exist in the game.