Let's talk about party balance. Party balance in a table top RPG is vastly different than in fiction. In television, you have theoretical party balance, with the main hero overshadowing the rest of the party. No one really thinks the Ronin Warriors are a balanced party. In single player games, the hero can overshadow his friends. But, as you add players, particularly MMOs, the entire content system begins to revolve around the idea of a balanced party taking on level appropriate challenges (or, raw, overpowered cheese slicing through, uh, butter... look, this got away from me). D&D has been doing this for years, with crippling over specialization common in party dynamics.
Which is fine, for fiction. But in a game, if one person is T.G. Cid and the other is Lavian, the game will come to a grinding halt for Lavian in combat. Because, honestly, that's where party balance is most visible. And that, my friendly GMs, is where there is a second layer of party balance. What your team does out of combat requires party balance too, which Call of Cthulhu and some other games try to accomplish through a complex skill system. But, your barbarian probably feels kind of useless at a dinner party. I mean, what is Gau going to say to Emperor Gestahl, after all? The answer: Gau!
Balancing combat encounters is one thing; create varied threats so that the healer and the mezzer feel useful. Give rows of mooks for your Sorc to blast while the fighter locks down the ogre in melee. That's basic combat balance. Guild Wars 2 is doing combat balance by letting people bring a limited suite of abilities with discrete effects that combine well. As my guardian, I dropped a nifty aura on the ground to aid my team while smacking things, letting me participate as opposed to being a purely reactive support. Compare a World of Warcraft Priest's healing with the active role a Protection Monk has in Guild Wars 1. The more active a player feels, the more powerful they feel, even if their abilities are not, statistically, powerful.
Outside of combat is where things get harder. For example, in 3.5 and 4E, any non-combat encounter is pretty much dominated by the party face, every knowledge roll goes to the team scholar. If the face is a bard, then he probably monopolizes both of those roles in your group. Well designed more modern settings should have enough varied skills and things to do that you can have a computer expert, a scientist, a, uh, "locksmith," etc., who can contribute to your non-combat problems. But, how do you get the bruiser to talk?
Reputation systems provide characters an evolving background through the campaign. Let NPCs call out specific PCs to bring them into the non-combat action. I've also kicked around the concept of background tokens. Background tokens let the PC interject themselves into the situation by revealing a new tidbit of their background made up on the spot with an immediate relation to the plot. For example, maybe the barbarian is well respected in this area because he was a champion wrestler here in his youth. Let people cash in their tokens to flesh out their character and become more involved in your game world.
This gives your players some control over who they are, connects them to your world and, most importantly, engages in communal story telling. You may have to negotiate a bit when they cash them in to something that meshes with your world, but that's part of the fun. There are probably other ways to get people involved in the world, but this is one that I really want to try sometime. Not only that, but in a one-shot with pre-genned characters, giving people a few background tokens lets them make the character more their own.
Some board games have tried to adapt the idea of party roles, like Super Dungeon Explore and, it looks, Mice and Mystics.I think that's an entirely different post though; in RPGs, players have much more control over their abilities and background than in a predesigned board game. Maybe we'll talk about that tomorrow.
Here is my actual, for real 100th post. Thanks for reading! If you're a new reader, then you've joined at a really convenient time, because one thing I've always wanted to do is keep a better archive than the one pasted at the side by Blogger, so every milestone (100 posts), I'm going to find some of the better blog arcs and put pointers to the front of them. Here are the starting posts for some of the bigger blog arcs for your viewing pleasure.