Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Striking the Balance: Simplicity, Complexity, and Customization

I admit it, I'm a tinker.  No, not the makes-tin-cups-and-sells-them-from-wagons kind.  The messes-with-things-until-they-work-the-way-I-want-or-ooops-I-broke-it kind.

Cases in point:

  • I love B/X/BECMI D&D and LL.  It's a simple system that plays fast and leaves a lot of open room for storytelling without being a "story game."  But, like most DMs, there are things I would have done differently if I'd been the one to devise the rules.  In the Evenoria games, for example, I'm using Base Attack Bonus and Positive Armor Class.  Why?  Because it just makes more sense intuitively and involves quick, in-the-head calculations rather than referring to charts and tables.  Initially, though, it required MORE work.  I had to look at to-hit-progressions for all of the classes and figure the BAB based on that, figure up the armor bonuses, and then assemble everything into tables that I must now remember to find and refer to at the game table.
  • JB's 100 Reasons table rocks for figuring out cool ways to make a party "gel."  And it saves on brainpower.  But I almost forgot to use it because, again, it's just another piece of paper to have to keep on hand.
  • Same thing for all of Zak's cool charts and tables from his blog and Vornheim, as well as Jeff's carousing rules.
Sometimes in mid-tinker, though, I wonder if I'm not making things harder or at least more involved than they ought to be.  Ostensibly, one of the main reasons I gave up on Type III D&D was that I didn't like complexity.  There were just too many systems, too many rules.  So for a long time, I either didn't play at all or ran games like Risus, FUDGE, or even the old West End Ghostbusters game.

But sooner or later, we all revisit our roots.  And in doing so, I finally figured out that "Basic" D&D had about the right level of complexity to keep both me and my players interested.  (Perhaps still a bit too much for the former and a bit too little for the latter--but that's what compromise is all about, no?)  Plus, you know, nostalgia.  I mean it comes IN A BOX! With DICE! In THE BOX!

And now what am I doing?  I'm adding more systems and tools.  Complexity.  Of course we're still about 20-30% as complex as Types I, II, or III*, but I wonder at times where customization ends and the slippery slope to byzantine rules lawyering begins.

How do YOU decide when or how something--even if it seems cool at the outset--is more trouble than it's worth?

* I haven't played Type IV.  Don't even know anyone, personally, who plays it, so I can't really comment on it.  But, from the few glances I've had at the character sheets, it looks to be roughly as "involved" as Type III.


  1. I think we all have our comfort zones. My first experiences with roleplaying were with AD&D 2nd Edition, followed by years and years of Palladium games. So the transition to D&D 3.x was pretty easy, and even a welcome simplification in some regards (although I readily admit that the d20 system, depending upon its implementation, has problems of its own). Before our first Evenoria game, I'd played maybe one or two sessions of "original" D&D in my entire life. I do like the simplicity, and I think it makes the game move at a bit faster pace (a smaller group helps with this as well). But there are some things I miss (e.g. skills) from D&D's slightly-more-complex descendents and cousins.

    I've not played D&D 4e yet myself (and they're already talking about what they want to do in 5th Edition), but having taken a pretty good look at the material I kind of decided that it wasn't for me. In some ways it seemed like they were trying to streamline and simplify it again, but in the wrong way. The move seemed calculated to appeal to MMORPG and CCG players (according to Ben, they've even released card packs as supplements!), which isn't really my bag.

    That's one reason why I've taken such a liking to Pathfinder (and I think the same is true for a lot of others). They took D&D 3.5 and "fixed" what needed fixing, but kept the majority of the system. d20 is good, but the way it was implemented in 3.5, it had room for improvement. Rather than scrapping things like Wizards of the Coast, Paizo massaged things into a workable, pleasant system. And, as Ben has pointed out, they do a great job of providing a steady stream of quality material at very reasonable prices (and much of the core material is free if you don't want to use their "fluff").

    I am enjoying the old-school D&D throwback game though, and I look forward to additional sessions. What it lacks in detail it makes up for in imagination. Plus I'm awful at math, so anything that requires fewer calculations from my brain can only be seen as a good thing ;)

  2. There were times in the last session where having at least a few basic skills ("search/notice", par example) would have made things run a bit more smoothly. Using WIS checks certainly works, though it felt a little... hmmm... "broad" at times.

    That said, I'm not sure if the sense of broadness comes from an actual vacuum in the system or just because I/we have gotten used to games like Pathfinder, 3.x, or even Cthulhu and Buffy. Also, I guess I tend to run more "find-the-clue" type sessions, where search and research skills might be relied upon more than in your typical dungeon crawl.

    Food for thought...


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