[Mage: the Awakening] The Tricky Part About Balance

Posted: November 29, 2012 by pointyman2000 in Advice, Articles, Mage: the Awakening, Roleplaying Games, World of Darkness
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A friend of mine and fellow WoD GM asked me this morning, “How do you go about balancing encounters?” It’s a good question, and one that I’ve not really had that many chances to address in my blog, despite the fact that I’ve several actual play reports on Mage campaigns logged already.

The issue of “Balancing” an encounter comes from several “truths”:

  • I want the game to be fun and challenging
  • Killing off player characters without a fight is not a good way to promote fun;
  • Having my villains get wiped in the first round isn’t fun either

Therefore GMs try to find ways to present encounters with monsters and villains that are constructed in a fashion where the players have a fighting chance but won’t immediately be overwhelmed by the enemy.

My approach towards balance is slightly different in the World of Darkness. Mainly, I try to steer away from the idea of balance entirely. In games like Mage: the Awakening game balance is almost impossible to achieve. Each Mage has their own specialties and style, and in their dominant field, they are absolute terrors to their victims. When taken out of their chosen battlefields though, they might as well be helpless kittens.

Because of this, the “combat” in my Mage games takes place much, much earlier. The moment either side catches a whiff of magical tampering from the other, villains and PCs alike start going into Cold War mode. Information, more than firepower plays a crucial part as both sides start trying to put together a more complete profile on the other. Once they’ve found the other side’s weaknesses, resources and capabilities, then they work on isolating the target and moving in for the kill.

Direct combat is often the target looking for a way to escape and shake off the aggressor, and the aggressor trying to make the kill as quickly and cleanly as possible. Ambushes are the norm in my games, as there’s no point in declaring your presence to the other Mage. All mages are dangerous, and it’s best for everyone’s sense of self-preservation to behave as if you only get one shot at a kill. In these situations, I don’t hesitate to tell the Players when fleeing might be a good idea to regroup, and mount a counter-assault aside from fighting a losing battle.

That said, the numbers game is still important. Mages are ridiculously capable, so try not to pit your players against greater numbers of Awakened combatants. Having them outnumbered in terms of willworkers is probably a sure-fire way to end things if they ever get into a real fight. If such a situation does happen in my games, it’s often because the opposing cabal has other objectives as opposed to just killing. Capture or intimidation are both good things to go for in such situations. A show of force, when performed well, will cow even the cockiest Cabal into taking care of who they piss off.

It’s always helpful to remember that the players are the heroes of the story. In any situation, even the worst tragedy should be done in a manner that plays up that role. The GM’s job is to make sure that it’s always a good experience for everyone. If you pull that off then you’ve got all the balance your players can ask for.

  1. Janothar says:

    One thing to keep in mind is that balance isn’t always about combat capacity. I’m currently running a story where a pair of PCs are going up against a decently large group of Banishers. This would be suicide in a straight up fight, and they know it, so they’re treating it as a stealth mission. You’ve brought up information a few times, and that’s the essential thing. If you enemy doesn’t know to LOOK for you coming, it doesn’t matter if they’re a Master of just a dude with a gun, if you can get close enough to accomplish what you want.

    A close analogy would be something like the Arkham Asylum/City Batman games. The game is balanced, in the sense that if you’re competent you can get through everything, but combat in the open is often a rather short trip.

    • Absolutely, information is always power in Mage, so players should be careful to manage that. GMs too ought to play their villains in a fashion that reflects this kind of thinking. If the players are careless, the villains should find ways to take advantage of it.

  2. Hikkikomori says:

    As an Armchair GM, my advice is: advise is: Let the Players Win.
    That’s why the GM has a screen.
    And because they are the Heroes.

    Its not really about ‘balance,’ but more of making things interesting but not impossible.

    You are not ATLUS. (Demon’s Souls & Dark Souls)

    You still have to maintain social etiquette when GM’ng since you are still dealing with other people.
    The people you play with will not play with you again since there is no impersonal relationship between Player and GM, unlike with Players and Consoles.

  3. Nick Pilon says:

    I’m fond of saying that nWoD doesn’t have a combat system; it has a murder system. Even for mortals or Vampires, the blue book combat rules encourage quick, dirty, lethal fights, where one side will generally bring disproportionate force to bear, seize an advantage in the first round or two and proceed to dominate for the rest of the scene.

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