Today I'm going to try and explain a gaming concept that closely mirrors a writing concept. I can't say they're synonymous, but they're pretty close. Game designers and players, this one's mostly for you.
There's a sense, I think due in part to more recent editions of products as well as a great deal of MMO-play, that an adventure/episode/campaign/game should be forever balanced or scaled to the party, that is to say a 4th level party should almost always encounter things within the range of 3rd to 5th level (3rd level presenting no obstacle, 5th level to challenge them), because that's what a party can "handle".
I completely disagree and find this a cowardly way to create play opportunities. I say this quite strongly because I'm a player in a group that is currently at odds with the idea that a party of more-or-less 4th level characters is having trouble with essentially an apex predator in its natural habitat. Because we're not able to kill it quickly and celebrate gloriously then boo-hoo the game must be broken, or our GM must be an idiot.
This all smacks of selfish, spoiled play. And to go further and lob accusations that a GM is engaged in a game of "anything you can do, I can always do one better" is entirely the wrong attitude to take when your character struggled in a fight moments previously.
My opinion: It is the role of the GM and the players to work together to tell a story. The GM presents the plot, and the players offer characters and actions (hopefully) in line with the plot. The game, whether a single session or a campaign is a result of BOTH these things coming together. When one side believes they're carrying all the weight (a GM who has to pull teeth to get things moving, or players who just roll dice and deal damage, giving no interest in story), then play stops. And when play stops, it's a good chance to evaluate why and what can be done to make the process better.
Note: I didn't say 'empower' the players, because no one side of the table is subordinate or superior to the other. The whole table is in this together.
'Balance' is a tricky concept to handle in a game. Mechanically, you have to appropriately seed the possibilities of actions and reactions so that things work with almost a Newtonian elementary precision. Narratively, the story has to offer challenge and incentive for future challenge so that rewards may be had.
But, if you're looking to create either a realistic or immersive world, you have to chuck balance out several windows. The world is not balanced. Balance is not the focus of worlds that present great danger or texture. There will be times when players are out of their element. A game should seldom be locked into zones where low-level creatures cluster, then they may head down a road to where there are tougher creatures, and the further still live the stronger beasts. This is the legacy of MMOs, creating pockets of gameplay that emphasize a need for mechanics over story. It is unlikely that a low-level character will ever have a reason to wander to the dragon's lair, because they'll know they'll not survive - so they just won't do it. Although still an option, the game restricts the likelihood of it occurring by incentivizing alternatives - closer zones offer more immediate rewards without the problems of character death.
However, looking at fiction, the opposite is true. The "low-level" character embarks upon a huge quest where failure exists and seems likely, but through the application of skills and equipment, succeeds in the face of great danger: The peasant kills the giant, the squire eliminates the dragon, the farm boy blows up the planet-exploding superweapon.
At the heart of fiction lies something called "narrative weight", which is the idea that some portion of the character-pool (a single protagonist, a group of heroes, etc) is doing whatever is necessary to move the story forward from plot-point to plot-point, while the rest of the world keeps turning or while other characters go about their day/lives. The 'weight' refers to the decisions/reactions/consequences made at Point A that drive the character(s) to Point B. Often this can be traced down to a single character's action or decision (the one party member who needs rescuing, the one who commits the rest of the party, the one who charges into battle, etc), and it can be said that this one character carries the bulk of the weight.
What's funny is that when a single character carries more weight than others in fiction is that no one ever stops to question the balance. It's only in gaming, where egos bubble up, that people worry about balance, because there exists the chance that they're not getting heard or rewarded.
Example: You can argue that Lord of the Rings is as much Frodo and Sam's story as it is Aragorn's.The other characters serve a function, but it's usually to assist one of those two branches in the narrative. Were this a game, this would be unbalanced, since the the mechanically disadvantaged characters (the hobbits with no combat skills) are 'superior' to the wizard, the ranger and the fighters (the combat-capable characters).
This is the danger of 'balance' - it requires that the game be about who has mechanical rather than narrative advantage, because the party only moves forward when the mechanics make it reasonable, rather than possible.
And gameplay should exist more in the possible rather than the reasonable (since it's a subjective assessment), because that's ROLEplay rather than ROLLplay.
If the goal of playing is to create a collaborative story, then there needs to be a synthesis of mechanical potential and narrative merit. Sure, the party can stroll through the fields until they reach the dragon's lair on day 1. They have that option. If it makes for a good story, let them do it. If however the point of playing is to roll dice, feel superior to imagined scenario and gain stuff, then they should probably be dissuaded from moving forward and instead roam the fields and kill a billion mice until they gain the strength and prowess needed to make the dragon less of a foe, right? Which one sounds more fun?
I play a lot of level-less games, because without the emphasis on accruing improvements, it's a chance to focus on story and let that build and reflexively shape the character. My characters are not a pile of numbers that translate into which-die-do-I-roll-to-beat-the-imaginary-beast, there are feelings and ideas I'm trying to express beyond hitting things with sticks.
So what's a designer/GM/ST/DM to do? Take another note from writers. Just tell the story. If the party keeps hitting first and asking questions later, then perhaps its time there are consequences for those actions. A group of adventurers roaming the land killing creatures / endangering the peasantry is just a different flavor of danger to a nobleman's land, right? Will the players balk? Possibly. But if you're trying to reduce rollplay and insert even a smidge of roleplay, there aren't many easy balk-less solutions.
I appreciate you reading this long rant. We'll go back to more proper writing theory next post.