I want more stuff

 Posted by on April 25, 2014  Filed as: Editorial  Add comments  Topic(s):
Apr 252014

Picard FacepalmOn the road to see a flick in Nashville, my non-gamer friend, Trey, was asking about how RPGs worked. Having never played an RPG before and probably having never had much interest in the hobby in the first place, this was all new territory for him. I gave the usual pitch—you create or choose a character and then make decisions for that character, blah, blah, blah. You know what an RPG is, so I’ll move on.

In the thick of the discussion, my sobriety-afflicted little attic wiggled and seized on an idea, one that crystallized why and how the experience one has playing the game has evolved to the point that the way we play “mainstream” RPGs would be unrecognizable to our older selves. I think it all comes down to the problem of increasing complexity.

The big coup that made 3rd Edition such an innovative game was that it took all the little independent systems lurking in D&D’s dark and scary corners, brought them into the light, and pounded on them until they all used the core task resolution mechanic. Old D&D felt like it was cobbled together from a variety of resolution systems made ad hoc to resolve situations that cropped in play. Attacks with melee weapons and ranged weapons both rolled a d20, but they took place at different points in the round and each had special rules. Dodging a fireball, resisting a spell, or withstanding poison all used saving throws, but the numbers varied by class and level. And don’t get me started on psionics or unarmed combat.

Distilling everything down to a common mechanic obviously made the game easier to learn. After all, once you figure out how to add a number to a random number, you can play D&D. Sort of. Initiative, attack rolls, saving throws, and everything else you would do that had an uncertain outcome relied on the common mechanical procedure for determining success and failure. Slick, sexy, and fun to play, and which is why the game is still being played in one version or another almost 15 years after it first appeared on the shelves.

As awesome and as powerful as the 3rd Edition rules were for D&D, I think it came with a deeper and far more insidious transformation. And that transformation finds its roots in character customization outside of class and race. Introducing rules exceptions by methods outside of the big choices made the game fuzzier and, in my opinion, harder to master. Non-weapon proficiencies may have been the initial culprit, but I would argue that it was the line of complete books in 2nd Edition that gave the final push that would drag the game down the rabbit hole into the murky and strange world in which we now live.

The difference between now and then is that though game-complexity started higher (the learning curve for AD&D was pretty damned steep), it stayed relatively flat once you figured out how it worked. You could create a dozen fighters, with different races, alignments, personalities, weapon assortments, but they all played more or less the same. The more you played a fighter, the more second nature it became until you could always play your fighter effectively. Your big contribution to game-play was high accuracy and consistent damage output most of the time. That might not seem like much fun, but given the necessary abstractions to make combat simulation manageable, the mechanics did the job.

Obviously, spellcasters were complicated. Keeping track of all the spells is tough and so players who chose to play magic-using characters had their work cut out for them. But, again, once you get over the hump, does complexity really ramp up? I’d say no. Even if you’re preparing 35 spells each day, you eventually settle into a pattern after you figure out what spells work well and what spells don’t. There’s not a lot of mystery to magic missile after the first time you cast it.

At the time, 2nd Edition felt like a radical change from 1st Edition and, in hindsight, the nerd rage I felt then is kind of amusing when I look at the rulebooks today. The guts of that system are basically the same and, I would even say, better. We lost a lot of the really arcane mechanics and the system made great strides toward normalizing how you did things in the game. And, best of all, you could still enjoy the same experience of system mastery you had with 1E in that a fighter was pretty much a fighter every time you played. But the Complete books changed that. Not only did they help push the non-weapon proficiency system away from being an optional set of rules, they made class functionality and definition fuzzy. You might play a myrmidon in one campaign and a gladiator in the next. Both are fighters, yes, but the fighter identity—what I do in the game—changed by allowing players to select a kit. More options are good, yes? Maybe? Maybe not.

Kits just kicked open the door for more customization. Since there aren’t moving parts in classes aside from spells, the game needed other elements for players to choose, elements that would become skills and feats. Kits from 2nd Edition didn’t really have mechanical weight. They just added flavor. Since people gravitate toward those things that make their characters more powerful, skills and feats needed and got mechanical weight, which, in turn, raised their importance for making an effective character. And, since the game needs to reflect growth, the system had to parcel them out over time. The net result is great texture and mechanical weight attached to things that used to just be how you described or roleplayed your character. But it had a huge price tag.

From 3rd Edition on, your character, regardless of whether you chose a fighter or a wizard, always becomes harder to play as you gain levels. A character is a veritable catalog of permissions (I can attack with this weapon, I know this thing) and exceptions to the rules (I can sacrifice accuracy to boost damage, I can maximize my spell damage). By the time you reach the top of the ladder, you have so many things to track and remember, so many widgets, what should be simple—I attack with my sword, is a veritable labyrinth of yes and nos. The result is a slower, clunky game that more often than not comes screeching to a halt as everyone gathers around to sort out just what widget Q from sourcebook 76 actually does.

I know, I sound like a cantankerous old man and I’m really just whining about bygone days. But seriously, the prevailing opinion that greater complexity over time terrifies me. When did it become good to make a game harder to play the longer you play it? And I’m not talking about harder challenges; I’m talking about making basic decisions and resolving them as you take on those harder challenges. Why would we ever build-in a disincentive to play the game more if the goal, as producers of product, is to encourage customers to use our form of entertainment instead of something else?

The genie is undoubtedly out of the bottle. The existing audience demands cool and interesting rewards to act as carrots for continuous play. However, the methods we use to deliver these rewards and to determine what awards ought to be is critical for controlling complexity bloat.

One of the things I liked a lot about 4E was the attempt to control complexity by having higher-level powers replace lower level powers. Of course, the game shot itself in the junk by piling on extra powers that were additions rather than replacements, but the core idea is sound. Widgets that retain their core functionality and just improve at later points would be an easier way to deliver these extras. Maybe instead of getting 7 feats, you gain 3. And at the points when you would normally gain a feat, you upgrade the effects of the feat(s) you already have. Power Attack, in this model, might be a flat penalty to the attack roll to get a flat boost to damage. Let’s say –2 for +4 damage. At level 6, the penalty might stay at –2 and the damage would jump to +6 or +8. Just a vague idea, but I think something like this would demonstrate improvement, preserve character customization, and control the excess of complexity by piling more stuff on top of the stuff you already have.

So, what do you think? How often does increasing play complexity end your campaigns compared to finishing the campaign’s story? Is complexity a problem in your games or is it something you work around?

More awesomeness...

Robert J. Schwalb

Robert J. Schwalb is a freelance game designer and developer with a slew of works to his name, and you can find more of his work in the next incarnation of D&D. When not making fun, Rob spends far too much time listening to music and holding up the bar at his favorite watering hole. You can follow Rob on Twitter, become his new best friend on Facebook, or check out his website.

  16 Responses to “I want more stuff”

  1. Increasing complexity is like aging. Eventually, it will kill you, or in this case your fun game.

  2. Hm. Yeses and nos at various points in this post. I see what you mean about 4e piling on too much extra stuff. I would tend to agree that power/feat replacements are probably better than just adding new things.

    I’ve played a few campaigns now where our group powered through multiple tiers, and I have to say one of the big disappointments about power replacements is that MANY replacements seem poorly designed — they aren’t as nuanced or interesting as lower-level powers!

    This seemed fairly consistent across classes — I’ve played 4e Wizards, Clerics, Rogues, and Fighters — and all of them have lackluster power replacement options On Beyond Heroic. I would almost always take a power-up of an existing Heroic tier power over a bland Exty[W] Paragon or Epic replacement — which is something I think Essentials got right.

    Overall, I think I desire that my characters become at least a LITTLE more complex through the levels — that they take on new (rather than merely upgraded) facets, and I think Paragon Paths and/or Epic Destinies would have been enough for that. They change the game JUST enough that they feel like “everything has changed” without piling on unnecessary complexity.

    Just a couple new features and powers spread out over ten levels — as opposed to the rush of power you get chugging through the Heroic tier is like.

    Some thoughts.


    • I get you on soft high level replacements for powers. The focus on 4E was very much heroic tier. Oh well. If “replacement” powers were just built in upgrades with paragon skin followed by epic skin, I think that would have been pretty slick. I’d probably blow up feats completely from that edition.

    • A lot of the “course correction” that seemed to be going on with 4e really looked like it was going to work — Essentials was an answer to the “too many choices” presented at new-/replacement-power levels.

      I’m playing an Essentials Binder in a campaign now, and while I’m a little miffed that the online builder won’t allow me to retrain the granted powers (I’m getting up to some pretty unconventional shenanigans with my build) the ones it stuck me with work well enough.

      Then, Character Themes seemed like an answer to cries for multiclassing. Sometimes all a player wants is that proficiency with heavy armor, and Themes can add a touch of additional flavor for the 1st-level character (which was generally missing from Races).

      If Theme, Path, and Destiny all functioned as skins — with Race/Class serving as the meat and drink of a character — then feats would still be in an ideal position to serve character “development” throughout an adventurer’s career.

      Compared to 3e feats which were often all over the map (from a +3 to skill checks to heightening spell power by burning uses of Turn Undead), 4e feats don’t *usually* act as game-changers. They’re better for the incremental boosts that are hard to predict in class design.

      It’s really a shame that 5e looks nothing at all like 4e. I might just have to hop on the bus with whomever is running away with the 4e rules like Paizo did with 3e.


    • Hang in there man. I’m sure the game you want is just around the corner 🙂

  3. The mechanic of widget replacement sounds absolutely awesome to me. It results in really fun choices, too. Do you take X in place of Y? Or do you hold onto Y? There is an elegance to it as well.

    That said, I’m not convinced that increasing complexity hurt the game that much. Everyone knows campaigns or games that broke down because the rules got too complex, the fights got too long, and the rules-lawyering got too vicious. But was that really the thing that made people walk away from the game entirely, never to return?

    The number one thing that I have seen that makes people quit gaming forever is essentially bad storytelling and group dynamics. The GM wants his bad guys to be all-powerful, or there’s that one player who is a diva, etc. When games complexity makes the campaign break down, people quit and then next month the group picks up a new game to play. When personal dynamics is the cause of the break down, the band breaks up and people end gaming careers. I honestly believe an RPG text can actually help mitigate some of this as well.

    As far as complexity goes, edition seems to have, within its lifespan, reached a sweet spot where the rules and additions got complex enough to give people rich and meaningful choices – but then came a tipping point in which the rules additions burned everyone out. If you can stretch that sweet spot out, I think that would solve a great many complexity issues.

    • So please let me clarify. I think the complexity wall does prevents continuous play and acts as a dis-incentive to start again. If a game becomes unplayable after level 10, then levels 11 to 20 are a false promise I think, nothing more than gamer pornography. I think many groups are willing to smash into the wall a couple of times, but then give up.

      Personally, I’d like the entire game to be a sweet spot, to be engaging at the start and the end.

  4. That you for articulating this so well!

    I’ve been playing and running 3E (3.0 and later 3.5) since it first came out. I love the system, but even with all my experience, I’m leery of high-level play because of the kind of complexity bloat you describe. I recall getting the 3E Deities & Demigods book and my eyes rapidly glazing over while trying to read through a god’s stat block. It’s one of the very few books I’ve ever considered culling from my 3E collection, because I’d never use 90%+ of its contents.

    I was disappointed by 4E in large part because, while it simplified and streamlined many of the core mechanics (perhaps too much in some places?), the whole powers system was overly complex. It felt like every class had a learn curving like that of previous editions’ spellcasters. 4E was the first time that I didn’t like a new edition better than the previous one.

    • You’re welcome. I’m very sympathetic to your views about 4E. I think character complexity should vary from class to class. Part of the classic fighter’s great appeal was that you could throw it together quickly if you jumped into a game and it had virtually no exceptions from the way the game system played. By injecting power acquisition into the fighter (in the manner of the Book of Nine Swords) it removed the easy to play option in favor of making the class more appealing to established gamers. Anyway. Yeah.

  5. As a Pathfinder player, I just stick with the core book as much as possible, there is pretty much enough there to handle most options I want for my characters. I am far more interested in roleplaying a fun character that building the perfect whatever via game mechanics.

    As a GM, I let players build what they want from the official books as long as I have access to it. I can deal with it and I want them to be able to play the character that they want to play.

    In other words, options are good as long as you make sure they stay within your own comfort level as a player or GM.

  6. Having a streamlined game that is fast to play is something to strive for. Most of my gaming career has seen combats last at least an hour, if not longer. So when I have had fights that only last half an hour, or even less, it’s surprising, and pretty nice.

    That being said, is having different abilities within a class a bad thing? I know, personally, I love having the ability to make one fighter different than another. Having played so many games, I am bored of the typical “dwarven drunkard with an axe” or “elven wizard with a superiority complex”. One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid that problem is to avoid the stereotypes of typical class abilities. Say I want to play a stealthy character. Typically, the go-to class is a rogue. However, people tend to assume a rogue is a ragamuffin who likes to pick pockets and count gold. Say I want to play something more of a secret agent with a code of honor. If a system only provides me with “A rogue uses underhanded tactics, and likes to steal things” as what a rogue does, it makes it all the more difficult to realize the character concept I am trying to achieve.

    Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been playing for so long, though. For newer players, it’s probably nice to have those tropes easily at hand.

    Perhaps I am creating issues where there aren’t any, but if a system is too simple, it runs the risk of being restrictive. If there is a simple way to introduce alternate interpretations of classes, great. But more options doesn’t need to mean a more difficult game, does it?

    • It depends on the options, I’d say. I’m all for blowing up stereotypes, but I don’t feel that crunchy mechanics are the way to get there. Sure, a stealthy fighter type is cool and interesting and both of those are action-oriented things. A fighter who is a tailor doesn’t really need a mechanical widget that reflects his skill at tailoring unless the game is about exploring the perils of tailoring.

      The stuff I’m pointing at in this rant is that a warrior type really needs mechanics to do one thing: kill stuff. To demonstrate growth in function, the warrior needs to kill stuff better. The simple way, the way 1E went, was to boost accuracy and damage output via multiple attacks, and this was enough, at least at the time. A player who has one mechanic to worry about may be content with the one option or might find creative ways to overcome challenges. Shoving a table into an ogre for example to distract it long enough for the thief to backstab. This is perfectly reasonable in a 1E or even 2E game. The scene happens, the DM adjudicates, everyone feels good and gains a pleasant memory about how cool that was.

      When system demands hard and fast rules for most activities, this kind of thinking and storytelling tends to fall into the background as players devote more time and attention to the various moving parts on their sheets. Not only can this create decision paralysis, it also drains away much of what made classic RPGs so much fun. These widgets inform us that all the fast and loose stuff are allowed only if the player made the proper investment in the widget.

      Honestly, I like a few cool and complex moving parts in my character. Rules that let you do things no one else can normally do are fun, but I find quality always trumps quantity. For my fighter, I don’t need 6 different things to do beyond swinging a sword because the thing I’m supposed to be doing is swing a sword. Now if the options plugged into my primary task, Power Attack for example, then I still know what to do with my character when it comes time to take my turn. If, however, I can attack with one of the four weapons I’m carrying, do 2-3 stunt-like things per weapon, plus do 4 to 5 other things, there’s no way that I can focus on anything other than navigating the labyrinth of mechanics on my sheet.

      Make sense?

    • Yeah, that definitely makes sense. I love outside the box thinking, and that is definitely something I’ve noticed. As system mastery increases, spur-of-the-moment ideas and plans seem to go down. Which is a shame, because I love that sort of thing.

      What do you think of giving the fighter other things to do besides swing a sword, though? Say, giving them some out-of-combat abilities. Maybe they can bash through walls to help with dungeon crawling, or help plan battles with their knowledge of tactics. As long as it fits the class and doesn’t step on others’ toes, of course. Is that sort of thing introducing too much complexity, or just introducing versatility?

    • Not at all opposed to other abilities provided they don’t compete for space in the same task basket. Bashing through walls could be something covered by the core rules and the fighter is simply better by dint of having a huge Strength. Battle tactics and stuff are interesting because I find it difficult in RPs to separate player knowledge from character knowledge. Often, I think it’s just better to not bother to try and let those things be the same.

      But overall, having features that plug into different aspects of the game are great and expected. A fighter might have a mechanic that makes him better at intimidating folks for example. This said, if the game system permits this without piling on exceptions/options, I say let the system shoulder the burden.

    • Yeah, social/RP abilities are a tough thing to handle. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I’ve never come up with a good solution.

      Glad to hear it. It’s always a shame for a player to be left out of half the game because their class simply doesn’t have any tools for it.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>