"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."
I take these words to heart and try to apply them wherever I can. Einstein was one of the most brilliant minds in history, talking about the systems we use to describe the universe (and the above quote is, in itself, a simplification of his actual words) and I'm just a guy who makes games and stuff, but I think those words are important for game designers to keep in mind.
So what the hell does the quote actually mean? He was talking about making theories as simple as possible without losing their meaning. He wanted the fewest number of variables, the fewest number of assumptions and the simplest mathematical formulas that he could get away with while still accurately describing the universe. It's that last part which is hard to do. He wanted simplicity, but not so much that the theories didn't work or became too generalist to be useful. He achieved his ideal several times with elegant theories, including special and general relativity, but he also failed. His attempt to build a unified field theory to describe the whole universe fell flat, and no one has ever succeeded in his wake. Instead, we're stuck with the complicated, messy, incomplete "standard model" of physics. It works, sort of, but it's a far cry from the simplicity of E=mc^2.
Back to gaming and design. I had an interesting conversation with a game store owner a few weeks back. I like the guy. While we disagree on pretty much everything, we manage to have respectful conversations about our disagreements. This particular conversation was about his love and my deep dislike for second edition D&D. The sticking point was the complexity problem mentioned above. Second edition D&D is a game of moderate-to-high rules complexity -- some would argue this point, but bear with me -- it has a weird armour class system that counts down, even into negative numbers, that is compared against THACO tables. It has tables for saving throws against a fun array of things, more tables for reaction times and weapon speeds and multiple attacks that occur every other round, or sometimes not -- and that's all without the optional books that add more tables, options, variations, and customization.
I dislike second edition because of this level of complexity. It acts as a barrier to play, it breaks my one mechanic rule and it takes too bloody long.
The game store owner loved the complexity. He enjoyed the idea that playing the game took mastery. It made the game exclusive, allowing him and his small gaming group to be the elite few with access to the fantastical world hidden behind the numbers, and that mastering those numbers made you a better player. That's the heart of the issue right there: System mastery.
To Master a System
I cannot deny that there is a large subset of gamers who love looking at systems, pulling apart every nuance, optimizing their choices and building bespoke characters. I do this to some degree, but I will not sacrifice a theme to make a mechanically better character. For example, my fifth edition Unearthed Arcana ranger is a variant human with the sharpshooter feat and maxed dexterity. This is a very optimized build, but he uses a longbow even though I could pump out more damage with a dual hand crossbow setup. I just can't imagine a ranger using dual crossbows. It seems wrong. Maybe a rogue or bard would? Regardless, I optimize, but I try to stick to my theme.
Despite my tendency towards optimization and system mastery, I believe one of the great strengths of D&D fifth edition is the lack of the requirement to master the system to make a good, useful, enjoyable character. A player who grabs one of the default builds in the player's handbook will have a good time without spending hours pouring over probabilities and hunting through expansion books for the perfect race/class/feat combinations that squeeze every possible advantage out of the rules.
On the other hand, the rules have just enough depth that my engineer buddy can build a paladin with a halberd that, while it doesn't deal a lot of damage, can be used with a cool combination of feats and abilities to lock down every enemy nearby with near impunity. It's a build I never even considered, but damn does it work.
That's a lot of rambling to get to my point. I think a game doesn't need a deep, complex system to be good. Simple systems are great and fun. For the most part, I prefer them. But if the game is more action-oriented and has a more complex system driving it, then its design should follow the fifth edition template: Easy to learn and easy to play, with extra complexity being an option to dive into if the players so desire.
Perhaps the game that best exemplifies this design philosophy is Burning Wheel and its descendants, Mouseguard, Burning Empires and Torchbearer. The core mechanic of Burning Wheel is dead simple: Roll a few d6, count the number of dice that come up 4+ and compare to a difficulty. Done. It’s simple and easy, and I approve. But digging into the game reveals a series of optional interlocking sub-systems that take time to understand and master. I will be honest in saying I'm not a fan of some of these sub-systems, but I appreciate their intent and inclusion within the game and all of the clever ways they interact.
A Small Conundrum
Where does this leave me? As I very slowly work on the next iteration of the Rapidfire rules set, I have been thinking more and more about the problem of simplicity. Rapidfire has always favoured speed and simplicity over complexity, but I find it still gets bogged down in one place: Combat.
We have a fast combat system, but it is still slow compared to the pace of the rest of the game. I want combat to be simpler and faster, but I don't want to sacrifice its tactical options and completely eliminate system mastery.
A Compromising Solution
After much thought and tinkering, I have settled on a compromise I think I can live with. Combat within the game will scale complexity with importance.
At the lowest level -- for bar fights, brawls, and messy skirmishes -- players will use the Quick Battle Rules. These rules function like other rules in Rapidfire: The player states their intent, the GM sets a difficulty, the player rolls and the GM adjudicates success or failure. However, in the Quick Battle Rules, only one player rolls the dice while other players act as helpers and that one roll determines the outcome of the conflict. We even have a variant for jousts and other single-strike duels.
For the next level of combat, players will use the Dramatic Battle Rules for important battles versus dangerous enemies. Players familiar with Rapidfire will recognize this as the current standard combat rules. We want that round by round granularity for high risk actions like taking on the big bad at the end of a session or campaign. If the GM says, "Roll for initiative," the players know their characters face a serious threat and they should be ready to pull out all the stops.
Finally, we have the Mass Battle Rules. These are an upgrade of the mass battle options from previous versions of Rapidfire. They are more varied than before and are easier to run. Many of the arduous combats which took a long time to resolve can now be resolved expeditiously with a Quick Battle roll.
Options, Options, Options
I have carefully developed this complexity slider for the game and I hope players like it, but I would be remiss if I didn't include a way for players to ignore it. For those who loathe long combats, every enemy and NPC in the game will have a listed quick battle difficulty and accompanying notes. For the tactical fans out there, all of those NPCs will have full stat blocks for dramatic battles and extra notes for mass battles.
Will all of this make more work for me? Oh, yes. Will it achieve my objective? I think so. Will players use all of this stuff? Maybe. It's up to them.
Time to Write
I have been away from the keyboard for a while. I have been dealing with a complicated job and a new child. I managed to get back to it over the summer, and we hope to start playtesting all the ideas I have written about in this post. With a little luck and a lot of effort, this will be the first in a series of posts about my latest work.