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Obsidian Entertainment's designer J.E. Sawyer, who's currently working as the project director and lead designer for their Kickstarter project Pillars of Eternity, has penned a guest editorial on Kotaku on RPG balance. He covers both what he thinks should be the ultimate goals of balancing in a single-player RPG, and the process his company uses to (hopefully) reach those goals. Of course, Obsidian doesn't have a great track record in that area, but it's still an interesting read:
What Sort of Decisions Do We Want the Player to Make?
By this I mean not only the choices players must make at an obvious level Strength vs. Charisma, fighter vs. rogue, sword vs. axe but also, the criteria that drive those decisions. These criteria could be as broad as deciding between a character class that does a lot of damage in combat vs. a class that is great at navigating conversations. Or, they could be as narrow as emphasizing attack speed over damage done on a Critical Hit.
There are two levels at which players generally make these sorts of decisions. The first is aesthetic and conceptual: "Wizards are cool." "Clubs are boring." "Being strong owns."
The second is mechanical/rational: "High damage is important." "Gotta have a healer." "Debuff effects can make a huge difference in fights."
Different players balance these desires differently, but ideally an aesthetic choice will always map to a viable build, and a viable build will map to something players will find cool for their character. When this doesn't happen, it can result in a lot of annoyance from players. They are either forced to play something they conceptually like that is mechanically bad or they have to veer away from their character concept to be mechanically viable. In an RPG, this is undesirable so say I, at least. That's why this initial stage should only end after you've soberly asked yourself important questions about why players would want to pick any given option you're presenting them.
Take Out The Trash
"Trash" or "trap" options are a time-honored tradition in RPGs, both tabletop and computer. Trash options are choices that are intentionally designed to be bad, or that don't get enough attention during development and testing to actually be viable in the game.
It is now 2014 and, friends, I am here to tell you that trash options are bullshit.
In a computer RPG, any trash option that goes from designer's brain to the shipped product has probably gone through a few dozen cycles of implementation, testing, and revision. In the end, the trash option is the proverbial polished turd. Any seasoned RPG veteran that looks at it in detail realizes it's terrible and avoids it. Those who don't look closely or who aren't system masters may wind up picking it for their character under the mistaken impression that it's a viable choice. In any case, it's a bad option that the team spent a bunch of time implementing either for misguided schadenfreude or simple lack of attention.
While big RPGs always let a few of these trash options slip through unintentionally, the best way to avoid the problem on a large scale is simply to ask why well-informed players, acting with eyes wide open, would want to pick any given option over a different option in the first place. There should be a good conceptual/aesthetic reason as well as a good mechanical reason. If one of those falls short, keep hammering away until you feel you've justified their existence. Sometimes, it's not possible. In those cases, at least you've had the good fortune to realize you're stuck with trash early in development whether it doesn't fit aesthetically or doesn't work mechanically and can justly dump it before more effort goes into it.