On Complexity

Games are complex systems, and as such gamers have incredibly eclectic relationships with complexity. This is true across the ecosystem; tabletop RPGs might have Honey Heist and GURPS while digital gamers have Candy Crush and Dwarf Fortress. Gaming has always had room for one-pagers to sit alongside clockwork behemoths and all coexist. Unfortunately, as is wont to occur, someone mistakes a preference for a judgment, and then we just have Twitter, where GURPS is the butt of a joke but somehow all indie games are just make-believe story circles.

The problem with trying to have a real discussion about preferences for complexity in games as well as rules density in games is twofold. First, complexity and rules density aren’t related. Second, and perhaps equally important, is that a game’s tendency towards having either physical rules or narrative rules is also not related to either complexity or rules density. Because the world likes making things difficult, though, there are confounding factors that do make these elements correlate. This muddies the waters because many associate a complex game with a game that has a lot of rules, and many also associate indie, narrative games with low complexity. These assumptions are both wrong, or at least flawed.

In order to have a conversation about complexity we need to disentangle it from crunch, which relates to the volume and detail of rules that a game has. The easiest way to establish how these things are different is to hold one constant and see how the other can change. This is important because as the tabletop RPG evolves, game design is getting better and that usually means that a game of a given level of complexity can be written with fewer rules. And rules aside, there’s a different question about how complex a game players actually want, and then yet another one about how much design complexity is needed to support a given idea.

Why Crunch is Changing

GURPS was originally released in 1985, and although the Fourth Edition was released 20 years later it’s still couched in the same basic design principles that the first edition and its ancestor The Fantasy Trip were built around. GURPS is, for the volume of its rules, not an incredibly complex game. The core in-character mechanics are built around building a chain of modifiers to a 3d6 roll, where the target is equal to the relevant skill level of the character attempting it. Additional complexity comes from the combat mechanics, the character creation and design mechanics, and then (at least for Fourth Edition) a couple of bolt-on modifications to the standard skill system in the form of magic and psionics. The Basic Set is about as complex as its contemporary edition of D&D (3.5e) and significantly more flexible, one reason GURPS was successful well into its Fourth Edition. While there are some supplements that do increase the complexity of the game (Martial Arts comes to mind), what gives GURPS its reputation of being a ponderous, difficult game are two things: the crunch in the form of long lists of traits, modifiers, and situations to adjudicate (and the supplement library to an extent), and severe underdesign in the character and game creation mechanics. GURPS has underdesigned game creation mechanics because, for the most part, it doesn’t have any. There are things like Tech Level to give you a very basic starting point, but when you compare a 1-12 scale that corresponds to epochs of history to the need to mechanically establish your game among the possible design space of everything, well, it does appear that the game is underdesigned in that respect. It takes a serious lack of mechanics to necessitate writing a book about how to get around the lack of mechanics for setting up the game.

The notion of game creation is a perfect example of how rules are changing. I first saw the phrase ‘game creation’ used in Fate Core, which came out in 2013, and I know Apocalypse World, from 2010, uses strong establishment procedures as part of its play. In 1985, no one was thinking about rules to set up the game for the GM; in most cases games came with their own premise, whether or not the players used them. And that’s not the only thing that’s been added to game design since the 80s. The vast majority of role-playing games made for quite a long time had a task resolution system, a combat system, and maybe 1-3 bolt-on systems like magic, or spaceflight, or cybernetics. When you look at a contemporary game like Blades in the Dark, where each character type is a playbook that is partially unique mechanically, the game has distinct phases for the Score and for Downtime, and there’s a separate minigame going on around the group’s hideout, well, one could easily argue that Blades in the Dark is much more complex than most popular RPGs from the 1980s. It’s just not as crunchy.

There is an elephant in the room in the form of early D&D. When you count the henchmen rules and the domain rules and the ascending to godhood, not to mention the original, more procedural, dungeoneering and travelling rules, D&D in its original form appears to be much more complex than it is now, and much more complex than my complex example of the hour, Blades in the Dark. The problem of course was how it was written. Regardless of what’s said in the OSR or by more run-of-the-mill grognards, the reason all of those rules were gone by Third Edition was because people weren’t using them and in many cases didn’t like them. It’s not because we don’t want rules for hirelings or castles or godhood, though, it’s because for the most part those rules were not good. Way back when I looked at older editions of D&D and their retroclones, and even in the much-improved forms of Labyrinth Lord and Dark Dungeons, these rules subsystems creaked and groaned with the number of charts and, well, numbers they required. Even if these systems could be tightened up (and they can, they’ve made a big comeback in the OSR), not everyone wants to use them in the context of a D&D campaign. While we have been able to write better rules, there’s still the question of how much complexity people actually want.

How Much Complexity Do We Want?

In my experience, role-playing games are best when they feel like a game. This sounds tautological, but let me explain. A game, any game, involves making a choice and then seeing the consequences of that choice play out. This is true ranging from mathematically defined ‘games’ used to explore classical economics all the way up to a multiplayer shooter where those decisions and their consequences are playing out in mere seconds. A role-playing game only really works as a game and feels compelling as a game when the mechanics mediate the actions of all the players to create something new. This doesn’t mean the mechanics need be complex; ending every scene in Fiasco with the question “does this go well or does this go poorly” is an incredible mechanic, and it’s also incredibly simple. When you want a game to tell a range of stories and also challenge its players, though, often it’s better (or at least easier) to make something bigger and more complicated.

When you look at top-selling games, they’re typically neither that simple nor that complex, instead hewing to a middle ground. While there are exceptions (Fate has cracked the top 5 sellers according to ICv2, as has GURPS), pretty much every top-selling game of the last 20 years has been that midrange, 5ish mechanic (task resolution, character creation, combat, 1-3 subsystems) type traditional RPG. Some of them have been painfully crunchy (Exalted, Shadowrun), while others have been more pared down (World of Darkness, The One Ring), but they all mostly fit a similar profile. Neither significantly more complex games, like Torchbearer or Blades in the Dark, nor significantly less complex games, like Fiasco or Dread, are really lighting sales charts on fire, though all four of those games are successful in their own right. And that’s what gets at the real answer of how much complexity we want: some. Enough to sink our teeth into, but not enough to get really overwhelmed. While D&D is number one for a bunch of exogenous reasons, it like every other chart-topping game strikes that middle ground of having enough complexity to make decisions, both in-game and in character advancement, meaningful, while not having so much that the game requires much mastery (these games tend to allow and reward some degree of system mastery, but those which require system mastery never stay chart-topping). This makes top-charting games look a lot like top-charting movies; good execution, overall, and enough storyline to be interesting, but broad-based appeal and pretty conservative plot and casting choices.

The complexity of popular games has stayed fairly constant over the last few decades, even as the talent base of the RPG design community keeps improving and our ability to write tighter but yet more interesting games keeps moving the needle forward. We’ve seen innovations in both high and low complexity games, and enthusiastic audiences for both. One interesting phenomena to come out of this is the significant revision of older games, to fascinating results.

Low Crunch, High Complexity: The Case of Twilight:2000

The Fourth Edition of Twilight:2000 came out last year, and it serves as a fascinating case study in what it looks like when a game maintains (or even increases) its complexity while reducing the amount of crunch. As I noted in my earlier review, Free League’s take on the Cold War Military RPG dramatically reduced the page count and trimmed the stat and skill lists from earlier editions. Within that slimmer book, though, is a fairly intense combat system, using a three action per round system, tracking ammo by the bullet, giving armor, weapons, vehicles and other items their own reliability ratings (to be tracked like hit points), and using hit locations, in this year of 2022. The game also comes with overland travel rules, tracking day-by-day and hex-by-hex how the party moves, giving differing movement rates for several different terrain types. Of course, you also have to eat food and drink water each day, make sure you don’t get typhus (my gaming group is still working on that one), and then maybe, if you’re lucky, start a home base.

Now, Twilight:2000 is a lot, and it was in the First Edition too. What the Fourth Edition has, more than earlier editions and more than a lot of contemporary games, is focus. Much of what makes Fourth Edition better than earlier editions of Twilight:2000 has to do with editing and clever dice mechanics. Ammo dice is a much slicker mechanic for bullet tracking than the dice rolls that were used in 1e, and it also integrates well with the core mechanic, reducing mental load. And while hit locations still kind of sticks out as a mechanic, including a hit location die in the boxed set was a nice touch.

Compared to other modern games, though, Twilight:2000 really keeps it slimmed down. There are no wacky subsystems like magic, psionics, or cybernetics, the game turns entirely on normal people. The skill list is a mere 12, which along with the specializations system (which is thankfully binary) covers anything you could want to do in a campaign, a few corner cases, and little else. While even the new, tighter Twilight:2000 is going to grate against anyone who groans audibly when they hear the word ‘encumbrance’, it’s still a solid example of a newer game which does more with less and gives many opportunities for mechanically-driven storytelling that tend to be absent in more narrative games.

If anything, complexity is increasing in contemporary game design. As we get better at writing rules, at understanding what level of detail is needed for play and what sort of mechanics advance our high concepts, games get to do more and more interesting stuff, and sometimes more interesting stuff at the same time. We haven’t banished rules crunch, not that all crunch is bad. But in writing games with more focus, there’s a lot more cool stuff to fit within a reasonable number of pages. Arguably, many top-selling games are the same formula that they’ve always been, mostly because they’re old at heart. That said, I think there are still significant opportunities for those of us who like mechanics-driven RPGs and like making the dice tell the story. It’ll be interesting to see where the next generation of more complex games looks like, and where they’ll take us.

Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can follow me @LevelOneWonk on Twitter for RPG commentary, relevant retweets, and maybe some rambling. You can also find our Discord channel and drop in to chat with our authors and get every new post as it comes out. You can travel to DriveThruRPG through one of our fine and elegantly-crafted links, which generates credit that lets us get more games to work with! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “On Complexity”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.