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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cogs & Complexity

(An idea borne from an off-the-cuff discussion with Barking Alien earlier this evening.)

The problem with revised editions of games is that they frequently revise too much. Most RPG engines -- the crunchy bits of core mechanics which make the game run, hence the term -- start off with a very simple idea:
  • "Roll a d20 and beat a number."
  • "Add up your stat + skill and roll that many dice."
  • "Pick a card."

Of course, an engine by itself is useless. You need wheels to make the car move. You need axles to attach the wheels. You need a transmission to get power to the wheels. You need a frame to hold everything together.

What inevitably happens, though, is that what is needed to make an RPG work is often inundated with optional rules and fiddly bits. Now don't get me wrong, I like fiddly bits in my games, because they usually give me a finer degree of control over my character, either in generation or in play. But they aren't necessary. The fact that Holmes-level D&D is thriving in the OSR while the far more complex Pathfinder and 4e D&D are on shelves is a testament to that fact.

As this complex game grows, it accumulates levels of complexity, much like Katamari Damacy. Whether this is good or bad depends on your philosophy, but it's a fact of life (and marketing) that games which are actively being sold and played experience regular growth of rules. Eventually, the system reaches a point where the core game is lost under the sheer weight of all the expansion and supplements. I call this "splat bloat," but there are other names associated with it.

Once a system reaches splat bloat, the clock starts ticking for a new edition of the game. Sometimes this is because the customer base decides that enough is enough and stops buying the books; sometimes this is because the system is so massive that the writers and editors can't keep track of everything and either put out products which contradict each other, or else spend so much time referring to old material to make sure contradictions don't happen that most of their energy is spent in research instead of writing.

The problem with revisions is that they often revise too much. Sometimes, in the name of simplicity and accessibility for new readers, they revise the soul right out of the game. (Insert snark about your edition wars in your system of choice here. My personal selection is Mutants & Masterminds 2e. )

But instead of endless revisionism, why don't we attack the root of the problem instead of sawing at its branches? To whit: The game is only as complex as you allow it to be.

As BA so succinctly put it, "The first time you read a RPG rulebook, you assume it's full of rules." It is holy writ for you, and you follow it to the letter. It is only much, much later, after years of experience, that you allow yourself the heretical notion that you can "simply look at all the text and sections and subsections and decide right then and there how crunchy you think the game should be."

My proposal is that we help novice GMs and players realize this by using a form of symbolic notation to let them know which parts of the game engine are crucial and which parts are not. Continuing with the car analogy, it would be a bit like having the following notations in the rulebook:
  • "This is the carburetor. It won't work without it."
  • "This is the automatic transmission. It's nice but not strictly necessary."
  • "This is nitrous oxide. Use this only if you know what you're doing."

I envision a simple system, like a symbol of a gear in the margins. The more complex the rule or idea, the more cogs are in the gear. The heart of the engine ("Roll a d20") would have one cog. Character generation bits, such as skills or classes, would have two cogs. Tactical combat options would probably have many cogs.

This would, ideally, result in players and Game Masters realizing that not everything in a game book needs to be used all at once, and that the vast majority of RPG rules are optional.


  1. An interesting notion. The closest I've seen are the books that have a set of core rules and then optional rules or advanced rules. Most gamers I know go straight for "advanced." The tricky thing with RPGs which are multilayer is the consensus for what rules to use. DMs rule the roost but they are still influenced by players and the tend is for folks to all pick what they like to bring to the table casting a wide net.

    As a GM, I haven't the time or interest to read every supplement, I'm focused on my story and possibly my monsters. I just let the players find the rules and they are responsible for knowing how they work. If its too good I force an adjustment but that is really rare. (but I play with fairly low to mid level power curve players)

    I like a system that has a core set of mechanics, and any new rules have to "interface" with that core system. 4E actually does that pretty well though it can lead to a kind of chunky simulation. 4E is too specific and abstract at the same time and you end up with gamism trampling on story over much.

    I struggle because I both love game and story and as much as I want the worlds perfect blend... there isn't really one. Like art, we can keep stabbing at the best mix, and we'll both succeed and fail at the same time. And like art, we should expect fashions will change and there will ever be a mix of old and new cycling around.

  2. I quite concur.  Splat bloat is only a problem in a group that hasn't established how much crunch is acceptable and sensible, and run with that much.  Alas, that's almost all the groups I've ever been involved with.  I was surprised at how few of the people I currently game with have considered things like this before signing up, to be honest.

  3. But... but... but they're called RULEbooks, woman!  That means they're the RULES!

    I feel tainted even typing that.  In all earnest, I like the idea of indicating layers of complexity and ensuring that there's a 'one-cog' version of the game that's playable with the minimum level of complexity (stats, saves, racial modifiers to the above, and classes with extraneous skills and all feats peeled out of them, in D&D terms).  Ripping the guts out of a system once you've learned it well enough to run it often feels faintly... I almost want to say 'sacreligious', but that's not quite the right word.  Better to start with the bare bones and build up than try to find the bare bones after years of grappling with the whole body.

  4. Hero system used to do something vaguely similar to this with cautns and stop signs next to certain sections of the rules to indicate potential dangers if they were included in a game without thinking about them first. It's not a bad idea.

    The traditional approach has been to put them out in separate books - basic/advanced/optional/whatever which would seem to be at least as clear of a labeling as your icon approach, but the problem there is that the players tend to see them as "The Rules" - regardless of notation-  rather than discrete parts of a larger universe. I'm not sure how you stop that other than "the DM says no".

  5. A good idea.  I experimented for a while with a game system I called "the third degree" because built into it was the concept that you had three layers of complexity of everything you could choose from. Just want three stats like Tri-Stat and not to screw with it more?  Want a fistful of stats?  Want a bunch?  I tried to make it compatible up and down the scale so you could actually have different complexities interact without much trouble...  "Add in nonsense if you want it!"


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