Character Balance Part 1, Niches

in Design

The one thing that will inevitably happen, for any RPG that gets any popularity, is that someone, somewhere is going to create a tier list to tell you who is the best, and worst characters to use in your party.

Even if you have a fixed party, like a game like Dragon Quest VIII, people will discuss which is the most powerful, which is the most useful, and sometimes, which one is just the coolest.

The answer is Angelo. Angelo is the coolest.

The answer is Angelo. Angelo is the coolest.

And I think your goal, as a game designer, is to make creating a definitive tier list as hard as humanly possible by making all the characters useful in some way. If a character isn’t worth using in your party, they aren’t worth being in the game.

“But how do I do this?” I’m sure you are asking.

The best way to do this, I think, is to focus on what is the character’s niche. What do they DO in combat? And I’m sure that everyone here instinctively builds around this concept. But sometimes, we need to be paying MORE attention to what we are doing, rather than just doing it instinctively.

So let’s do a little investigating.

The iconic RPG niche’s come from D&D: Fighter, Mage, Cleric, Rogue

But what do those even MEAN in actual gameplay. So instead, I’m going to draw from some terminology from the fourth edition of D&D. Now, while I don’t think the concepts in design in 4e were necessarily good for a tabletop RPG, which has much more focus on out of combat abilities to help balance the characters, they have a lot of application for video game RPGs. And well they should, considering they drew heavily from games like WoW.

D&D 4e, interesting system, not ideal for a tabletop RPG

D&D 4e, interesting system, not ideal for a tabletop RPG

The four roles described in 4e were Defender, Striker, Leader, and Controller.

Defenders existed to do consistent damage, and absorb blows, protecting the other party members.

Strikers existed to do huge spikes of damage, taking out large targets

Leaders existed to keep everyone in the fight, through healing and boosts

Controllers existed to do area of affect damage and to control the battlefield, to prevent anyone else from being overwhelmed.

Everyone had their role, and while two people might double up on one, it was generally best if you had a balanced party of each. And that is probably how your game should go, too. The other thing they did was make sure that if there were two “defenders” in the group, they could both do it in slightly different, but roughly equal ways.

You don’t have to follow this same structure, but you should have SOME structure involved. How does each individual character in your game carry their load? What is it that they DO? If someone else also does the same thing, how do they do it differently? Join us in the comments or the discussion thread in our forums to discuss this topic.

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  • Christina Freeman

    It might be useful to point out that there’s not any actual set number of niches for characters to take. Instead, there can be a varied number, based largely on how the cosmology and gameplay of the world is given.

    Having four niches is common because D&D, the world’s iconic roleplaying game, had four classes originally. Plus, four relates to the classical four elements – air, earth, fire, and water. In addition, the four main alignments of D&D are Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos. These are split into two overlapping axes, thus allowing for other alignments.

    Four isn’t the only number that is common in various cosmologies. The simplest is often 2, which basically gives two points on any conflicting axis. This is the easiest definition to give, and some examples are Might vs. Magic, Life vs. Death, Intelligence vs. Emotion, Science vs. Religion, Capitalism vs. Communism, and Red vs. Blue.

    The number three is also common – with franchises such as the Legend of Zelda (Power, Courage, Wisdom), the Elder Scrolls series (Combat, Magic, Stealth), and the classic Rock, Paper, Scissors game. Three is often used when the idea of neutrality in any 2-sided conflict becomes and active force which pulls away from the axis itself.

    Chinese mythology is based around the number 5, as is the original D&D (BECMI edition) – there were five spheres of immortals. The most common form is the classical 4 elements representing the natural world, and a 5 element that is opposed or distinct from these four elements – such as spirit, technology, or void.

    Cosmologies based on 6, 7, and 8 are also popular.

    You can have any number of roles, but as you state in their articles, there should be a system involved. This is a good way to think about and define the cosmology and other major story features in your game. You can use this as inspiration for determining the niche of your characters.

    For examples, rogues are often related to stealth, deception, assassination, and “striking” – but if you have two rival rogue guilds, you can differentiate between them by determining how they are different. One might focus on assassination and critical striking, while another may focus on confusion and feinting tactics. Likewise, two warriors, often classed as “defenders” or “tanks”, might have different fighting styles, with one focusing on deflecting attacks, while others might focus on absorbing damage with armour and steel.

    Ultimately, as long as you can make each division different, you can create as many niches as you feel is appropriate for your game. Difference is important when creating a niche.

    The next step from creating niches is creating combinations – essentially combining multiple niches in different ways. For example, a Ranger is essentially a Fighter/Druid, and a Paladin is essentially a Fighter/Cleric. Such combinations of niches helps round out the party, and fill in any gaps, but often at the expense of specialising in a single aspect. This is useful in games where players are often set in their roles and classes. Just bear in mind that if there isn’t some advantage in specialization, a Fighter will always be inferior to a Fighter/Cleric for example.

    This leads us to the issue of the Jack of All Trades, a character that is often able to do everything. With a character able to do everything, there is little or no need for additional characters, except maybe to add bodies to a combat. What they add in flexibility, they detract from the idea of establishing niches.

    In addition, by trying to focus on everything, they may find that the individual areas of their abilities may be hampered to the point of being virtually useless. Ultimately, you may end up with a character whose only niche is to serve as a backup for when other characters are rendered out of action. Depending upon the tone of your game, you may find that your Jack of all trades character is only viable in failure – a point when players might consider reloading the game…

    Whatever you decide, these decisions will ultimately impact the background and theme of your game, both narratively and mechanically.

  • Xein

    Interesting, it makes me wonder how those character designers did their work. Especially for the game like Suikoden.

    • Joshua Warhurst

      Suikoden has a few methods helping it.
      1) Big party size. 6 members allow for some stronger guys to help the weaker ones out.
      2) Not too difficult. Even the hardest challenges don’t usually force certain characters out of the party.
      3) Combo attacks allow weaker characters to get together and be formidable.
      4) The characters don’t have super unique skillsets. The runes are what really change a character, but they’re generally similar across most characters. Some character might have 1-2 unique attacks, but that’s it.

      I think Suikoden’s biggest achievement was allowing you to make a party of people you like, rather than people that are definitely the most effective. But then, yeah, certain characters were slightly more powerful and you knew it. Like that one mage from 5.

      You’re right though. It would be fun to pick their brains. :p