Yes, this essay purposefully matches that line from Jurassic Park, "Life finds a way." And there's a reason for that.
The following idea came out of a discussion about racial balance in RPGs like D&D. My thesis is this: Balancing elements of the game (not to be confused with game balance) is extremely important; however, one shouldn't rely on game mechanics in order to balance things out.
It's as simple as every cloud has a silver lining and every silver lining has a cloud. Precious little is always best, always the right way, always superior to its competition. And when that does happen, it becomes the rule, the way things are. Now, let me stray from the point a bit...
There are rules (later, I'm going to refer to this as the Rule of Life), exceptions to rules, and arguments. Here's are examples of each.
- You don't kill people without a good reason, and on a sunny day the sky is blue. Those are rules.
- Thieves are not honorable, and it's more advantageous to be a citizen of the Roman Empire than a poverty-stricken villager somewhere in Africa. By and large, those generally true. However, there are notable exceptions to these rules.
- Green is one of the best colors. You shouldn't kill an enemy when he's unarmed. Those are arguments waiting to happen.
When it comes to things like balance between fantasy races, even when it's clearly a better choice due to bonuses and whatnot, there are surely non-mechanical downsides to playing an elf. If elves have certain advantages that aren't offset by disadvantages, there's going to be something in the game world that we can put in the "con" side.
Maybe elves are naturally arrogant? Arrogance can lead to laziness or overconfidence and it can also make other races dislike you. Perhaps elf culture has developed a disdain for heavy armor or anything other than "light" weapons? Maybe, because they're adept with magic, they always radiate magic and can easily be detected by wizards and tracked by certain aberrations?
Now, just because negatives exist that doesn't mean they affect the PCs. A potential downside might not be apparent, it might not trip them up right away, or it might not be a problem at all for them (water-breathing races can't stay on dry land for more than an hour at a time, but Galiant has a mysterious aquatic ring that erases that drawback).
Life creates its own balance sheet with debits and credits. They don't have to arise from pluses and minuses to Strength or Dexterity. They don't have to be artificially restricted to a certain level in order to make things fair. I'm not saying everything eventually evens out - one side will usually be greater than the other, but some kind of balance eventually works its way in.
Going back to the Rule of Life, if a choice is clearly and objectively better than other choices, for instance playing a humanoid is superior to playing a squirrel, then it's not a matter of finding an opposing argument for squirrel PCs. Just play a humanoid and focus on the millions of possible exceptions to rules and arguments in more contested areas!
Actually, playing a squirrel might be cool - which is in itself an upside. That just goes to show the Rule of Life gets assaulted by arguments all the time and occasionally it breaks with time, pressure, and creativity.
In conclusion, there are always reasons to do something or not do something. Virtually, everything in existence has good and bad, positive and negative qualities. Potentially, at least. That's a universal law worth contemplating. All you have to do in your game world is figure out where the balancing factors are hiding.
Henceforth, hidden balance factors will be called shadow balance. Because it sounds cool.
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