GM Field Guide #11: Game Balance in Rifts (Baseline)
Updated: Apr 26
The idea of balancing a game is not something limited to a TTRPG. We try to apply this concept to professional sports (e.g. salary caps, draft procedures) and most other games we play (board games like Monopoly or chess, card games like MtG or poker). These checks and balances are more relevant and recognizable in the higher-level games, where the rules also become part of the strategy. Even in casual games, game balance is not an easy or obvious task, yet still not something often taken for granted. Much more applicable to games/sports bound by discrete rules and start/finish states (winner/loser, time limits), how does this apply to RPGs? Is it necessary?
The following is based on a series of posts drawn from a summary of the college-level course in game balance by game designer and educator, Ian Schreiber. I originally discovered this on the Game Developers Conference YouTube channel. Targeted for computer game developers, there is a great deal here that would apply to the Palladium Books for revising/modernizing their Core Rules Set. For beginner GMs, I’ve summarized some of the more esoteric theory-crafting portions for better application to balance adventures. Essentially though, three principles need to be considered:
Is the difficulty level appropriate for the Player Group?
As Player Characters advance, it is expected the adventure difficulty increases. Are you increasing this at pace with the Players’ expectations? Too fast, or too slow?
Are Player Character benefits and bonuses gained through level advancement compensating for the increase in difficulty?
Terminology. A few issues to bring up, just as background. Most GMs and Players are certainly not considering the specific details herein.
Determinism. Relationship between game state, Player decisions, and resulting changes to the game state.
o Deterministic. No “random” or unexpected game state influencers. Each piece only moves specific ways (e.g. Chess, Go). Theoretically you could brute force analyze best moves / starting sequences, which is what you see when chess grand masters begin playing.
o Non-Deterministic. Basically, randomized chance comes into play. Rifts in non-deterministic.
Solvability. Knowable “best” moves that leads to victory/avoid defeat (e.g. Tic-Tac-Toe).
o Complete Information. All Players know everything about the game state in order to support game balance (e.g. chess).
o Privileged Information. Some players have specific information others don’t (e.g. poker). This does not necessarily impugn any possibility of game balance.
Symmetry. Players all start with the same starting position and rules. Symmetry does not inherently create balance.
Metagame. Actions or information that influences chance and outcomes within the game. Championship sports leverage whole industries of statistical and player behavioral analyses. In Rifts, this would reflect in Player Characters “knowing” or reacting to something they have no reason to be aware of.
The Character of Numbers. Numbers and the dice rolls to determine them are in and of themselves meaningless (e.g. d20 or d100, damage rolls, attribute rolls, costs of items in credits, or experience points earned). More importantly for defining game balance is the dynamic they are used and tested against. Two examples:
A 4D6 MD roll may be inconsequential facing a healthy adult dragon. For a human PC without any MDC armour, this dice roll becomes meaningless; the Strike and Dodge rolls become extremely relevant.
Levelling up means much more if the GM strictly follows the RUE Experience Points chart. It means even more if the GM is handing out XPs in discrete, individually earned packets based on game-play decisions and results, vice group advancements at a uniformed pace based on plot advancement.
Numeric Relationships. Numeric theory likes to throw linear, triangular, or exponential relationships into the game design analysis. Skip it – we don’t need a doctorate in statistics. Certain aspects can be readily agreed upon. A PC’s capability to survive in Rifts is often expressed as dependent on damage output (in MD) and capacity to absorb damage (in MDC), and their equipment is based on the acquisition of credits, because this is how it was presented. Oddly enough though, the PC’s level isn’t often factored. This leads to four key issues:
Player Characters Must be MDC. This is the critical relationship most Player examine during character development, which has an influence on the GM. I guarantee this is not what Palladium is basing their balance theory on, nor would I recommend it. If all PCs are hardened MDC races or sporting heavy power armour because they feel they need this protection to survive a single game session, the GM needs to provide a suitably difficult challenge. Ironically, this forms a feedback loop of ever-increasing power requirements that then justifies the Player’s initial supposition. I would suggest this is one of the core issues to be addressed, and a holdover from how D&D 5E considers balance.
Economy Equals Credits. How many credits are the characters being rewarded in comparison to the listed costs? If the GM provides 10-million credit bounties each week, who cares how much a suit of power armour costs, let alone energy-clip recharging or a simple meal costs? In several places it is explained that much of the rural local economy is not credit based, most likely barter based. How PCs get rewarded is a factor for balance.
Attributes. Three Attributes are the clear winners: P.P. is obvious, followed by I.Q. for skill increases and M.E. for psionic classes or those bucking for bonuses in saves versus psionics/insanity. The remainder are niche or inconsequential, and Spd requires a weird calculus to convert.
OCC Leveling Incentives. There is a clear requirement to address a relatively benign bonus to gaining a level. For “technological” classes gain skill increases, benefiting skill jockies greatly. For Practitioners of Magic or Psionic classes, the increase in abilities is even more questionable. Given the reliance on bloated Attributes for bonuses, the incentive per level is rather anemic.
Interactions Between Relationships. There are a number of relationships to consider (e.g. XPs to increased Class Abilities), but I would argue that this is where TTRPGs, including Rifts and PB as a whole, faces its greatest challenge. In computer games, they *must* get these interactions sorted out to code it properly. This doesn’t necessarily occur in TTRPGs, which is both a blessing and curse. D&D tries to provide a Challenge Rating (CR) for its monsters, but does this system work?
OCC Advancement. Relatively quick initial advancement, with slower progression typically hitting most OCCs around the Level 6-8 range. There is no discernable pattern to the level thresholds dependent on each class. The relationship between a PC levelling up and increase in difficulty by selecting a monster is very elusive.
OCC Ability Interaction. Advancement of OCC special abilities are not readily apparent, certainly not when comparing Men-at-Arms with Practitioners of Magic. With hundreds of OCCs, beasts/monsters/antagonists, things are currently too unwieldly to balance. There are over 200 Men-at-Arms OCCs in Rifts alone, most with very little variance. I’m not suggesting a full reset, but there is an argument to be made to rework OCCs.
Transitive Versus Intransitive
Intransitive. Everything is better than something else and there is no “best move.” Basically your Rock-Paper-Scissors scenario.
Transitive. There is a currency cost to upgrading/levelling-up improves innate abilities, higher level abilities are generally better than lower leveled ones, more powerful items cost more credits. Cost-benefit in Rifts, however, is non-linear (e.g. a tenth level spell is not necessarily more useful than a fifth level one).
Cost Curve. Without boring you with math, this is a central tent of game balance. With no central guidelines to balancing Rifts, we intrinsically have imbalanced elements (e.g. technology is inherently more powerful that magic/psionics). Magic: The Gathering sets go through significant analyses to establish transitive values and develop a cost curve; players do their own, which leads to certain deck builds dominating. D&D 5E tries to demonstrate a cost curve with the CR values. Rifts has no real way to develop a cost curve.
Dice Rolls. I’m not getting into statistics and probability theory; this is more an element that needs be considered when balancing Core Rules. For the GM, there are several elements to consider, starting right away in character generation and the Attributes and all the way through to game play. Many (if not most) gaming groups have a dependent relationship to the encounters they face, based on the impression that only characters with supernaturally embellished Attributes, likely combined with a baseline MDC, are playable. These Attributes bonuses then skew the averages. This makes the game-play relationship of dice rolling incredibly difficult to balance, and with a plethora of species and OCCs available. The challenge of developing an in-game system to balance monsters to PCs is nigh impossible. So what’s a GM to do?
Human Psychology. Bluntly, people are horrendous at intuiting their odds at dice rolls. Balance is no longer just a question of mathematical precision, but also appearance of balance. Poker players compute odds based on a certain amount of open (e.g. own cards, face-up community cards, bet amounts, player reactions), but must discern privileged information (opponent’s hand) to influence tactics, which we can develop as a skill. In Blackjack, after mastering Basic Strategy it comes down card counting to truly beat the house. In TTRPGs though, we are trying to craft a positive Player experience. Some principles to consider:
Selection Bias: We selectively remember dramatic successes over failures; we also (very often) wrongly perceive the odds based on preference of the outcomes.
Self-Serving Bias. An unlikely loss is interpreted at a “near impossible loss” when odds are in Players favour. Conversely an unlikely win is interpreted as “unlikely but possible win.”
Attribution Bias. Positive random results are viewed as “earned” through skill (e.g. I earned that Natural 20). Negative random results are viewed as bad luck (e.g. roll that Natural 1 ‘too often’ and we toss our cursed dice).
Anchoring. Players overvalue the first or largest number they see.
Gambler’s Fallacy. Assume a string of identical results reduces the chance the string will continue.
Hot-Hand Fallacy. Assume a string of identical results increases the chance the string will continue.
Cost of Realism. At one point, realism simply detracts from the game. Imagine a first-person shooter influencing your ability to move based on number of weapons carried or forcing you to spend 10 seconds to switch weapons. Additionally, if the GM were to play the monsters and antagonists as they might play a character themselves, the Players may accuse the GM of trying for a Total Party Kill (TPK); and they may be right. I mean, it *is* a game of dimensional travel, magic, and monsters in a post-apocalyptic setting, so at some point something must give, and it likely starts with the GM. That said, don’t be afraid to reign in a Player who thinks any normal person has a chance leaping across a 100 ft wide chasm (see Self-Serving Bias above). Situational balance is a thing, so try and keep the flow of the scenario “live” and moving.
Flow Theory. This is the more delicate aspect of game balance. If the game is too hard, you will frustrate your Players. Not all Players come to the game with the same skill sets, so some will find things incredibly easy, other simple. You must also balance for Player Character capabilities, which is really what we are aiming for. As Players collect more game time, they typically get better, ergo no change to the challenge and things *should* get easier. Some Flow Theory principles to consider:
Adventure Duration. Have set durations for your adventures (e.g. hours, game sessions) in order to keep things tight and controlled, or at least a target to strive for.
Adventure to Campaign. At an adventure’s conclusion, ensure Players have a chance to wrap-up their PC’s loose ends or story arcs. Some of these are not possible, providing a cohesive plotline to transcend one adventure to another. This can be a group or singular character arc.
The End Game. When PCs get to a certain level, Players may wish to “retire” them. Do they simply disappear? Killed off in glory? Do they return as NPCs?
Rewards for Game Play. You want your Players to feel rewarded for good game play. Too little becomes demoralizing, too much diminishes the impact. It’s been proven that several smaller and random rewards is a much better incentive than a single large or pre-planned reward not based on Player Character choices. Some examples:
o Experience Points. No surprise here, as this leads to level advancement. Small incremental batches of XPs earned for skill use and game play may be better than a single lump sum at the end of the adventure or an arbitrary “everyone advances a level.”
o Power Items. Any items that increase PC options. Suits of power armour, magical weapons, or trinkets of value for resale with direct credit values, perhaps additional XPs based on how they dispose/use them.
o “Level” Transitions. Taken from computer gaming, open/reveal another segment of the “adventure map” that was previously concealed or behind a barrier.
o Story Progression. Something often forgotten, there may be significant benefits to advancing a PC’s story arc as it relates to the adventure.
d20 Systems. The most readily apparent example of “balance” are the copious d20 systems.
Challenge Rating. Based on an aggregate of the costs associated with offensive/defensive challenge and abilities/Hit Dice, it theoretically provides a scale to balance against the party of PCs. Works decently well at lower levels (1-6), where the variations of PC classes and abilities are easier to account for; at higher levels CR ratings are much less not reliable. A single tough monster or groups of lesser beasts played with an intent to win, will almost certainly breach any appearance of balance. The CR is a start point that promises the perception of fair play, despite its flaws, particularly at higher levels.
Experience Points. A plethora of resources recommend using XP values to balance encounters against the party, with qualifiers such as Medium or Hard. This of course is possible because each monster comes with an XP value and modifiers, all tied to its CR. A lot of these guidelines are purposefully vague, likely to allow DM variance and for group composition.
Character Classes. There is some argument that the Classes in D&D (Pathfinder, et al) are balanced between each other; certainly more so than in Rifts. I'll grant the Rifts comparison, to a certain point. But to claim that d20 systems have a monopoly on balance is false.
Legend of the Five Rings. Specifically, the Alderac d10 version, this game forced players to really cope with something other than hack-and-slash, because at any point a sword was drawn, exploding d10s made it possible to really skew results. The mass combat chart was instant death for anything short of a medium-high level character, and PCs advanced through investment in skills and characteristics that directly impacted skill rolls, not levels. It also placed a *huge* premium on role-playing within the samurai Code of Bushido, which was complex and presented a clear way to skew any Player attempt at meta-gaming to a power curve or mathematical solution.
I for one don’t believe that a system like Rifts currently can/should be “balanced,” if such a thing even exists. In Rifts, you won’t find any entry resembling XP Value or CR, you have the HP/SDC dynamic and then the MDC level, and classes are not developed with balance in mind. The system requires more finesse from a GM, meaning greater risk. This skill set can be built over time. For the Players, just like life though, sometimes you’re simply dealt a losing hand. I feel it makes for a better story, better game, and incentivizes opportunities for Players that don’t include charging in and slugging out a win before deciding on a “Short” or “Long” rest.
If Rifts is not balanced, these questions remain:
Are other games balanced?
Are "balanced" games better for it?
I would argue this is not the case. The power curve and math for in-turn mechanics are baked into the d20 Core Rules and make it more a combat simulation game, with some role-playing added in for flavour. Players then end up leveraging this math, and homogenizing party composition around “classic” builds to tilt the odds in their favour. Perhaps a poor analogy, I find this approach supports the Blackjack example – memorize Basis Strategy, leverage some meta-gaming, and then maximize the tech tree (e.g. counting cards) for the win. But remember, this is a collaborative play experience, not play versus the GM.
What does this all mean then? First off, there is a lot more to “game balance” that you probably thought. Happily, most of this doesn’t apply to you, the GM. Your most crucial metric is Players’ satisfaction with the game overall. Leverage elements from the Flow Theory section, as well as their interactions with the game space. A few recommendations:
Don’t Agonize Over Balance. Life isn’t balanced and applying overt math to attain that perfect balance starts deflecting from the story. For several reasons, a GM should craft adventures and combat engagements/required skill checks that fit the story you are presenting and the PCs in it. Allow the Players to interact with it as they see fit.
Session Zero. Clearly set out expectations for the adventure and what you are and not willing to accept. More on this forthcoming.
PC-Oriented Adventure Opportunities. Don’t agonize over balancing opportunities for each PC to have “equal screen time” in every single aspect. There are three key elements the GM must try and manage:
o Players’ Expectations. Ensure the Players’ skill level and expectations match the game (e.g. don’t force a political thriller on murder hobos).
o Player Characters. Ensure your adventures compensate for the needs of your Players by allowing their Player Characters the chance to contribute. This doesn’t mean pander to your Players, but consider them.
o Player Character Challenges. In Rifts this comes in two dynamics, Skills and Combat. Make sure you provide your Skill jockeys something to do as much as you concentrate on getting your combat sequencing down.
Hopefully this wasn’t too deep a dive into the functions behind game balance, but it sets the stage for a series of further posts. By getting some of the theory out of the way, we establish a baseline for future discussions aimed for new and returning GMs, hopefully providing some option space to maneuver around the more common hazards.
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