I have been gaming since the mid-to-late 80s and have held a number of different positions on game balance over that time. Since I started designing my own games, my attitude has shifted over time as well. This is a tricky subject, one that people get surprisingly emotional about, so my aim here isn't to prescribe one way. The purpose of this blog post is to explain my current preferences and to describe how we handled balance in Sertorius.
I used to be a very big fan of game balance. About 10 years ago or so, during the d20 boom, I was concerned as a GM about balance in my own campaigns. Since then, as I paid greater attention to the issue, I have become less concerned, though I still think balance does matter (I just don't view it as the only goal that matters). Now I see more room for rough edges in games, and find that too much balance disrupts my enjoyment (particularly when the emphasis is on parity).
I realized over time that balance meant genuinely different things to different people. When I thought of game balance, I never had in mind the idea of strictly thinking about combat. For me balance was more about balancing a game in its entirety (so there is room for characters who might be bad in combat but great in other areas).
I also noticed, particularly with spells and magic, some efforts to balance have a limiting effect on my wonder and awe as a player. Spells are interesting tools that beg for creative use. When designers clamp down on creative use of spells, to me that reduces my pleasure in the game. That doesn't mean I want a book of completely broken spells, but it does mean I am okay with some things being legitimately powerful and useful in a setting. However, I realize not everyone shares this opinion.
Another thing that I observed, was some groups had balance issues that I simply never encountered. This isn't to say their problems were not legitimate, or real, just that I didn't experience them. The difficulty that creates is when designers provide solutions to issues encountered by some and not by others, and if those solutions take away or restrict something potentially fun in a game, then you have a whole segment of players who are not going to like or see the point in the remedy. Now, this isn't a concern if 90% of your players experience the problem in question. In fact, if 90% of your customers have an issue, you certainly ought to fix it. But if it is a problem only a small segment of the fan base experiences in actual play (or if it is a theoretical problem that can occur but does so very rarely), the fix could be worse than the problem itself.
So for me, it is important that any effort to balance a game doesn't just focus on combat alone, it should look at other aspects of play. On top of that I want balance that considers the needs of actual play and leaves room for interesting and creative use of magic.
When we designed Sertorius, the big area we had to focus on in terms of balance, was magic (monsters was the next category of concern). The core mechanics we've been testing for years with our other Network games, but even then, enough changes were introduced we also had to keep an eye there as well.
Keep in mind, this was designed by three people, not just myself. So while I had my balance preferences, they each also brought their's to the table as well (luckily we were largely on the same page here).
When a problem emerged in the game, one thing we did before deciding on a solution, was to discuss how much of a problem it actually was (i.e. was it limited to edge cases or was it on a grand enough scale to ripple through the whole game). We also discussed whether there were elements in the setting itself, rather than mechanics, that might be a balancing factor to consider. Above all, we checked with everyone playing the game and made a point of observing it in during actual play. We also crunched numbers, a lot.
We found that sometimes, the more we polished and rounded a spell to balance it, at a certain point it would lose the things that make it fun and interesting. So we strove to weigh the needs of balance with the needs of fun.
We also found with the number of spells we were creating, there were going to be combos that were exceptionally good, but rigging the game against these combos didn't produce something we really wanted to play. First, it removed the fun and excitement of discovering and harnessing unusual uses for magic. Second, it took away something that most of our players seemed to be enjoying.
While we couldn't foresee every combo, we did find many of them. In a few cases, we removed them. But in others we left them, because we felt they added to the game.
But we also wanted to respect group preferences. That is why some of the spells leave room for interpretation by the GM, who can then adjudicate partly based on the preferences of his or her group. In fact, as Bill and I ran two separate Sertorius games, it quickly became apparent that some things one of us would allow, the other wouldn't...and we both decided that was okay, in both cases it worked to satisfy the players we had and our own preferences as Gamemasters.
I am curious though what others think. Feel free to comment or send me a message. When I write Balance in Game Design Part II, your responses may help expand my opinion.