Systems Thinking Chapter 3: Cthulu Ate my Game
The balancing loop is usually experienced as an oscillation around some target that never quite seems to get where you want it to go. As a graph, the balancing loop looks like this:
In the balancing loop, play either tends towards a goal, or oscillates violently around a goal. Damage output in D&D is a good example. There's an upward trend in how much damage a D&D character can dish out each round, but not all characters follow the trend in the same way. For example, a mage may suddenly leap upwards in relative damage capacity when they get a new level of spell, then dip over the next few levels.
You might also get a similar behavior in campaigns where characters need to pay out treasure to get something that helps them get treasure. In extreme cases you have characters alternately too wealthy or completely broke.
Here's a template for the balancing loop:
I'm going to follow standard procedure and put a B inside the balancing loop and an R inside the reinforcing loop to differentiate them.
Performance is some game element that has a desired target.
Gap is the gap between the desired target and actual performance.
Corrective action is how the gap is addressed.
Limiting factor is an optional component that represents the finite limit on performance.
Note that in the reinforcing limit there may be a delay in time between the corrective action and the result, making it harder to figure out what's actually going on.
Actual Play Examples
I ran a Cthulu campaign that was a huge success. I had two groups of two players each. I was getting great play out of my players and having a blast running it. Several other people also wanted to get involved. So I ran a big game with all four players and three visitors. It bombed massively, and my players left. It turned out that they were enjoying all the close person GM attention. When the number of players rose above the threshold where I could attend to each one individually, then nobody was having fun any more. My mistake was the unspoken assumption that more players is better.
Here's this play example as a system diagram:
I can also recall at least one GM who over a course of years had alternately 2-3 groups on the go or was bemoaning his lack of players. I suspect something similar was the cause. Players would often stick around for a while before leaving, making it harder to see the actual cause of dissatisfaction.
I think that good balancing loops can be invaluable for game design. I expect that in almost any case where "balance" is an issue, a balancing loop is involved (or else should be). The conflict system in Universalis might be an example where the loser in a conflict reaps a reward of coins, giving them more narrative control later on.
Labels: systems thinking