It was really awesome too... lol
It was really awesome too... lol
I have to disagree with the notion that only combat can be balanced. For me, there are two types of balance: mechanical and subjective.Anyway, I thought about a more benevolent perspective on how talents are designed RAW and why they are designed that way, and I think that some of them (especially the specializations) make more sense if you don't view them as enablers for certain concepts, but as boosts for concepts you can already realize without them. You can certainly play a Bard without the Bard specialization, and I would say that the Bard special talent actually doesn't add that much.
So maybe many talents just don't matter that much by design; the big and combat-relevant stuff is mostly in the class abilities, probably to make sure that no one misses out on it; balancing, after all, is mainly a combat thing, since combat is the only mini-game within most RPGs where you can actually implement something like game balance.
Witch mechanical balance, you're correct. You can quantify and compare +AR vs + Defense, and whatnot. A common trap is that it's not balance that is the goal, but equality. To me, this fails because first off, some things are just better. More importantly, if everything is equal, then choice does not matter. If an axe is the same as a sword, then your selection is just fluff. However, balance is asymmetrical: think of a teeter totter, you have ups and downs. An axe should be better than a sword in some cases, and worse in others. Your selection is still fluff, but it's fluff that matters and has an impact.
Subjective balance is fluid, and impossible to quantify. How does the ability to fly stack against charming against an extra attack? But I look at it broadly as everyone is given a chance to shine. If you have a relative equal amount of social, exploration, and combat encounters, then I would consider a combat monster to be balanced with a social face. AGE has some strengths here with the increasing in varied roles. However, it's weakness (not counting the Companion because I haven't read it) is that the social and exploration rules are very undeveloped.
Subjective balance is further complicated by the table, because not all campaigns have the same modalities. It is quite possible to have a dungeon crawl campaign, and then your hard will be severely underpowered, no matter how many bells and whistles they have. Furthermore, imo, any subjective balancing needs to include some combat functionality because even if encounter types are comparable in number, the proportionality is vastly in favor of combat.
The proportionality rears its head again in AGE (DAGE and FAGE pre-Companion), because the noncombat spells and abilities are restricted and highly situational, and thus they are of questionable overall utility. Case in point: Dream Sending (or something like that) from DAGE. It's a neat spell, has a good amount of potential usage, but in actual play it's only come up twice in a 1-13(ish) campaign. Our utility mage has gotten very little usage from any one particular utility spells until she took the Shapeshifter specialization.... and that's because we house ruled it to be utility spell line, and not the combat line as written. Luckily, she's ok with her choice because she wanted to be a utility mage.
Tl; dr: while you can't directly balance combat and noncombat, you can allow noncombat characters a chance to shine, while not completely making them irrelevant in combat. It is easily accomplished by just adding more talents... or at least it moves that way.
Also, as I was writing I realized I was meandering off topic, but by golly I was gonna post it lol!
Addendum: Of course, I forgot something. My point about spell selection is that in FAGE/DAGE, you have maybe 20 spells. And the utility spells are typically so tightly situational that you never really get a chance to use them equally the proportion they take in the grimoire. Our utility mage has most of them, and that's with receiving many spells as rewards. And very few of them have seen much use. On the one hand, it was her choice, and she realized that going in to the campaign.
On the other hand, imo, it's really a punishing choice to have to make. And I see many players just accepting the pigeon holing. Admittedly, BRAGE may have fixed the issue.
So if you have a system that strives for mechanical balance in combat situations, but that also mixes combat talent and other talents and gives you a choice to take either one or the other, you might run into problem. Taking the "Performance" talent from the Companion might provide great spotlight, but it you have to decide between that and the dual weapons talent, taking Performance makes you objectively weaker in combat and skews the balance. I think this is actually one reason for the dominance of combat spells: to make sure that in combat, things stay balanced.
I personally don't have a problem with making the choice to take something that will not enhance combat abilities but will give me some spotlight in other circumstances. However, if you play in a group that is only about combat encounters (which is okay, if you like it), it would make little sense to pick such a talent, and it would hurt the game balance. If, on the other hand, combat is something that might or might not happen in any given session, and that might just as well be avoided by clever use of non-combat abilities or simply by the choices the characters make, it's perfectly okay to pick any talent that seems fitting without worrying how it will hurt your character's chances in the specific arena of combat.
So, to make it short: I'd differentiate between balance, which is the number-crunchable thing that is usually only applicable to combat, and spotlight, which is about giving every character a chance to shine with whatever abilities she or he has to offer, no matter how mechanically useful they seem.