In this series of articles, I will be exploring in relatively short form the design behind each of the seven classes in Balance. The goal is to provide a peek behind the curtain into what sort of thought process went into choosing the directions I’ve decided to take for each of them and, more importantly, the lessons I learned along the way.

But before we get into all that, some amount of context needs to be established. You can look at the W.I.P. version on Google Docs here, but either way before everything else, I will provide an overview of how the game is setup.

Like any other (well made) game, Balance aims to deliver a particular type of experience*, which it does by connecting strong flavour with very focused mechanics:

Brief narrative and flavour overview of the game’s premise:
BalanceRPG puts you in the shoes of an Agent of Balance, a sworn servant of “The Eternal Twilight”, a force of nature that acts as the barrier between worlds and as the great equaliser of the universal scales, not allowing them to tip too much either way toward light or darkness. The twilight cannot act this on its own, which is why the Order of Balance exists. Those that are able to connect to the Twilight are granted visions of what would happen should the scales tip too much, and urged to act upon it. They train Agents and task them with the divine purpose of enforcing the Twilight’s will.

Brief mechanic overview and setup:
The game is designed exclusively for one-shot adventures called Missions, each with a clearly defined objective and intended to be completed over the course of one to two gameplay sessions of medium length (3-4 hours). Since it doesn’t assume long-term play or needs to account for anything outside of the adventure’s setup, it has relatively simple mechanics and not too many of them.

The game offers seven (7) very distinct classes (with more to come in the future, post-release), which are essentially small bundles of skills, forcing you to solve problems using a very focused and somewhat limited tool set. Each class gains abilities from three paths – light, twilight, and dark – which explore the core class identity in different ways. It’s important to note that light and dark aren’t parallels for “good” and “evil”, since that is something I actively avoid as a designer (sometimes so much so that the concepts are outright flipped on their head). Rather, the different paths ask the question “How does this class concept look from these two different philosophies?” We’ll delve into all of that a bit later on in the article.

With this out of the way, we can discuss the design of these classes. Each one’s own article will delve a lot deeper into choices and considerations made for that class, but there is the case of the overall setup of the class structure that’s worth talking about as well.

Despite trying to be as focused as possible, Balance is still a game that wants to cater to every type of player**. This is where the class system comes in – by delegating the different approaches to problem-solving, I can make sure there is something for everyone, while at the same time making these things more linear and focused at what they do. However it’s still important to be flexible and provide wiggle room, so that’s why the different Paths offer classes distinct ways to be built. In many ways, the class is the type of fantasy the player wants, while the paths are the different ways they have to explore that via gameplay. Oh, and yes, you can mix and match paths, which leads to some interesting decision making.

Now that I had a clear idea how I’m going to do the classes, it was time to make some decisions for what I want each of them to do, which areas of the game to gear their abilities toward, and what will be the exact fantasy of every class. Despite having a relatively clear vision for each class concept, they were fairly broad and nothing was set in stone yet, so for the time being I left each class identity purely mechanically described – “Warrior light path”, “Warrior dark path”, “Knight light path”, etc. Only the light and dark path matter here, because the “middle” twilight path doesn’t offer any interpretation of the class, it just reinforces their core identity. Also, the monk class is a special case, so I left it out of this entirely. Which leaves me with twelve class identities – light and dark paths for each class except the monk.

At about the same time, I was identifying the pillars of gameplay that I wanted to have. After having figured out how many (4) and which ones (combat, tactics, stealth, social) I wanted, I had to go and distribute the class identities between these gameplay elements***. I had 12 class identities to map onto 4 pillars. Luckily, somewhere around this time is when I made the decision to cut down on the amount of stats I was using from 4 to 3 (Strength, Agility, Intelligence). The mathematically minded will realise at this point that if I distribute the six classes so that each has a preference toward one primarily (and another secondarily, but that was for a different reason), this now maps perfectly well – 12 classes onto 3 stats and 4 pillars.

So I went and distributed the class identities between these gameplay elements (pillars), giving each of them a Strength-based, Agility-based, and Intelligence-based class, so that no matter what, every player has an option available to their play style. Perhaps it’s better illustrated with a picture:

Warrior (L)
Hunter (D)
Mage (D)
Knight (L)
Hunter (L)
Witch (D)
Warrior (D)
Rogue (D)
Witch (L)
Knight (D)
Rogue (L)
Mage (L)

This table has a few notable properties that are worth mentioning. For instance, every row is a unique combination of classes (i.e. Warrior, Hunter, Mage) and paths configurations (i.e. L, D, D). Every column also features unique class spreads (Warrior, Knight, Warrior, Knight) and path configurations (L, L, D, D). This was done to ensure the utmost diversity and widest spread of play patterns across archetypes, ensuring there is something for literally everyone, regardless of what type of gameplay they wanted or where they were approaching the game from:

  • Want to play a STR-based character? Great, there is an option for you in every type of gameplay – combat, tactics, stealth and social.
  • Want to play a combat class? Wonderful, you are not limited to the type of character you want, and if you want to compliment your dark path-heavy party, there is always an alternative path in that area (in this case it’s Warrior’s).
  • Want to play Warrior? No problem, there are two distinct gameplay patterns for you, and you’re not limited to only one kind of path.

I’ve purposefully excluded the Twilight path from these, because it’s “neutral” and simply reinforces the class’ core identity without actually exploring how a different philosophy within that class would handle problem-solving. The Monk is also missing, because they are a bit of a special class. More on that in their own article.

But the story doesn’t end here. Two things happened, which ended up augmenting the above class matrix. First, now that I had a combination of three gameplay elements, I could more easily design the flavour of the class identity. Instead of asking “What does a ‘light’ warrior look like?” I was now able to ask “What is an interpretation of Warrior that’s light-themed, strength-based, and focuses on combat?” Without being tied to prior lore, since I was making it to support the game, the class identities almost wrote themselves when I had so much to work with. And then…

Disaster number one. I changed my mind about one of them. The rogue’s own article will explore this issue more in-depth, but to put it simply – I wanted to move the rogue’s dark path and give it to the hunter (but not give the hunter’s dark path to the rogue). Now, I could have simply looked at the empty slot and designed a new flavour for the rogue’s dark path. But, alas. The reason I wanted to move the rogue’s dark path was not to give it to the hunter (that was more because the hunter had a bad dark path and the rogue’s just fit in perfectly) but because I came up with a much cooler concept for the class a whole. Luckily, its old light path fit, but the new one I wanted didn’t fit the slot for “rogue dark path, agility-based, focuses on stealth”.

This lead to a huge disturbance in the force class matrix, with my shuffling around class identities for days on end. That lead nowhere, so I designed another tool to help me in that regard – class flavour words. Using the core fantasy of the class, I came up with a key word (not a keyword!) for them as their primary method for approaching situations, and applied it to the two pillars they operate on in order to get an even more solid idea for the class identity. But it works both ways, because it allowed me to find where I can slot a certain (problematic) “locked in” class identity.

The class key words (not keywords!):

  • The warrior dominates combat/stealth through strength.
  • The knight dictates social/tactics through strength.
  • The hunter adapts to combat/tactics through agility.
  • The rogue subverts stealth/social through agility.
  • The mage thrives in combat/social through intelligence.
  • The witch enables stealth/tactics through intelligence.

With the help of this, and a lot of finagling, I arrived at a new class matrix:

Colour coded for light/dark paths. This too I will remake into a proper table.

It has all of the important characteristics of the original matrix, which is good, and I maintain it was worth the effort because the game is ultimately better for having this more interesting take on rogues.

But wait! Then struck disaster number two! After a major re-structure of the game, I ended up cutting an entire pillar of gameplay. Well, sort of. Ironically, such a major change actually doesn’t really affect the class matrix… I decided. It could have, and probably should have, but it would be too much work to re-structure the entire class system. Now, I’m not one to shy away from work, but in this case I was lucky to realise I didn’t need to do that. Even though tactics, later re-configured to exploration, was removed from the same mode of play as combat, stealth, and social, it still exists in the game, and the classes all still need skills that operate on that axis. In this case I got lucky with being able to move around pieces behind the scenes and still have everything work out the same way, class-distribution-wise.

Lastly, I conclude this article on a humorous note. Is there anything funny about all this. Well, here’s the thing. The class matrix is not an explicit feature of the game. Everything discussed above pertains to the design of the game, yes, but is completely invisible to anyone playing the game. As is usually the case with the hardest design decisions.

So, with this out of the way, seven more articles are to follow, one for each of the classes, going in-depth about the choices that were made in order to fill this table the way it turned out to be, and the type of gameplay I want to provide with them.

Final note:
This article will be cut down in the near future. The whole story about the class matrix will be cut and become part of a companion article about general game design, which tells the story in more detail and with more examples. I have included it here for the time being in order to explain the updated matrix in the absence of the other article.

*In this case, it also serves another special purpose – the game is a systematic exploration of balancing mechanics in TTRPGs as a supplement to a work in progress thesis on the subject. But… that’s not really the focus of this series of articles, so let that be an aside for the time being.

**For one thing, being as simple as is, I realised this is an excellent opportunity to orient it more toward people who are relatively new to TTRPGs**, maybe even as their first one. When you’re aiming at this kind of target audience, the last thing you want is for somebody to feel like the game isn’t for them, because as an entry point to the whole genre, a poor experience can turn them away from the entire hobby. There’s a whole plethora of other reasons, but I feel like exploring that subject is worthy of an article on its own.
By its very nature as a thesis on game design, it will naturally be of interest to veteran players and other designers. Plus, it won’t be completely without appeal to them gameplay-wise. With a lot of emergent depth and some light mechanics dedicated to adding replayability, there will be enough for experienced gamers to have fun with.

***Which of course are not explicitly codified in the game itself, so as not to break the player’s immersion and create “I’m a tactics class” metagaming.

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