What makes an rpg balanced? And is it something to strive for in game design? I say it depends on what you mean by “balanced” but, for the most part, yes.
Let’s take old school D&D. Wizards were complete chumps at early levels–you often could cast 1 or 2 spells per day and you were easier to knock down than a drunk on St. Patrick’s Day. Yet by the upper levels, wizards were bad-asses who could bring down dozens of foes with a single waggle of a finger. That’s balanced, isn’t it? Weak, then strong?
No. It’s unbalanced and stupid, and here’s why.
First of all, how many of us actually play one game enough to reach high levels? In my experience, that happens occasionally but much more likely is abandoning the game for any number of reasons: GM needs a break, players move away, someone gets a second job, oooh look at this shiny new game I bought let’s give this a try, and so on. The idea that balance eventually comes from long-term play is wrong because long-term play is hard.
Second, who gives a rat’s ass about balance when your character can’t do anything at early levels? “In a real-time year, my character will be able to cast spells all day long! In the meantime … I cast my magic missile. Wake me in an hour when I can do something again.” Balance should be about the emergent gameplay experience that rules bring to the table.
What is a balanced rpg then? It’s a game where each player has an experience that comparable in terms of doing stuff but distinct in what that stuff is. Also, everyone’s experiences need to be compatible. Remember those early cyberpunk games when everyone waits while the hacker navigates past black ice? That character does lots of crap while everyone waits–then he waits while everyone else does stuff.
If you’re designing a game, examine each role players take and make sure they all have similar amounts of activity. The activities should be different–otherwise everyone has the same role–but think about the experience players receive from playing by your rules. Do they all have similar amounts of opportunities to play the game?