I enjoy a whole lot of different role-playing games. Indie games, trad games, OSR games, solo games, you name it. As I’ve said before, there’s a wide world of games out there. Despite that, there is one design method for RPGs that profoundly irritates me. And, as luck would have it, it is incredibly common.
The basis of pretty much any RPG is that you, the player, have a character, and you guide that character through the setting, using the rules to determine what happens. The ways that RPGs can structure those rules are basically endless; you can have the entire game determined by a single die, or you can map out six phases of play in as much detail as any strategic board game. Where many games seem to fall, though, is that characters and all they can do are defined by long lists of incremental abilities, all assigned or selected one by one. This is a form of maximalist game design, where the quality and capability of a game is defined by the number of incremental elements you can cram in there. And yeah, it kind of cheeses me off.
Maximalism as a concept comes from design circles as the opposite of minimalism. As opposed to ‘less is more’, maximalism posits that ‘more is more’, and doesn’t like holding back. A notable maximalist film would be The Blues Brothers. A noted maximalist novel would be David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. A noted maximalist RPG would be Exalted.
Exalted is an RPG originally from White Wolf, built around an original setting called Creation, which is heavily steeped in wuxia and anime tropes. Characters in Exalted are typically one of the Exalted, clades of demigod-adjacent beings who have specific roles to play in the world’s cosmology. All of the Exalted have powers defined by Charms, specific abilities which are somewhere between spells and martial arts maneuvers. Exalted has a lot of fans, mostly due to the setting, but it also has a lot of problems. One of the big ones is that there is just too much going on. Exalted Third Edition has 784 charms, and that’s just for Solars, one of the types of Exalted. To be fair, each type of Exalted is basically presenting a different game and, much like other White Wolf lines, even though they all exist in the same world there’s no practical way to have them coexist at the table. That further emphasizes the point, though, that Exalted is a maximalist game.
Exalted is the emblematic maximalist RPG in a lot of ways, but the concept is present in a lot of games and their feature sets. While not nearly as extensive as Exalted, Legend of the Five Rings is built on the same sort of architecture, with the vast majority of what characters can do being defined by long lists of maneuvers and abilities. Burning Wheel has a florid ‘more is more’ approach in a lot of its rules, but this is most apparent at the multiple hundreds of traits and skills listed out. Even D&D gets in on the maximalist fun, with list-based magic systems in all editions and long counts of different classes and class templates in 3e and Pathfinder. It really is common. The next reasonable question, then, is if it’s so common, why does it irritate me so much? There are some obvious, cynical reasons, like how lists of abilities make for very easy supplements (which themselves contain extensions to the lists). My real issue, though, comes down to two things: characters built from long lists aren’t fun to create or play, and building rules out of listed abilities shuts down anything in the play space that isn’t on the list.
The Tyranny of Lists
Let’s get the simple reality out of the way: I don’t want to read a list of 784 anything. Not in a game, not in a novel, not for work. That core issue is one reason that Burning Wheel handles its hundreds of skills and traits better than Exalted handles hundreds of charms; you spend a lot less time reading through the lists in Burning Wheel. The lifepath character creation system in Burning Wheel is admittedly also maximalist in execution, with dozens of different options, but it is constrained; most of the skills your character starts with are defined through the lifepaths, not picked freely. In Exalted, not only do you have to wade through the entire list of Charms, but you have to read each one, then probably consult a wiki or forum in order to identify ‘trap options’ which exist within the dozens of dozens of possibilities. This is where some of this is subjective; clearly some people have a lot of fun doing that. Not only do I not, but I find that it puts up a significant barrier to getting into and playing the game.
Speaking of playing the game. Given that there are 7-800 named abilities with specific numerical values which engage with the rules, one would think there needs to be some degree of mechanical balancing done to make sure that all of these can make for an accessible and playable character. Considering I’ve already used the term ‘trap option’ it won’t be surprising to anyone when I state this is untrue. Even if all of the options were theoretically balanced perfectly against their point costs and circumstantial utility, when they interact with the underlying mechanics of the game system they cause what’s called ‘superiority collapse’. In any given circumstance there is usually one optimal option, and given how RPG combats work the optimal course of action is to hit that one option again and again until either you can’t or the conflict is over. In the second edition of Exalted, the existence of perfect attacks and perfect defenses exacerbated this particular issue, rendering almost every ability that wasn’t one of these moot.
To make things just a bit worse, picking abilities off of a list will, within the bounds of trad game design, almost always make the game more combat-oriented than it already was. No matter how many non-combat abilities are in that list and no matter how interesting they are, every non-combat ability you pick has an additional opportunity cost in that you didn’t pick a combat ability. As combat provides the largest (and sometimes only) circumstance in which your character could die, this renders the non-combat abilities unchosen and redundant in most circumstances. This is not a function of the length of lists, per se, but rather a natural consequence of breaking down trad game mechanics into more and more granular quanta.
RPG mechanics try to bound what a character is able to do, but many stay fairly unconstrained. A ruleset that doesn’t have specific mechanics for grappling isn’t necessarily one where characters cannot grab each other, just one where a more general rule is all that’s necessary. The trouble with many long, long lists is that they’re often used to model capabilities that aren’t generalizable. If the ability isn’t on the list, you can’t do it. The clearest example of this is a spell list. You can’t just make up a spell, that’s not how the rules work (if you can, it’s often a costly process). This means that if you have a magic-using character, you’re confined to the bounds of whatever’s listed in the book. This brings up a lot of confounding questions, including silly ones like why wizards played by people who buy more supplements are more powerful. Seriously, though, what does the spell list in D&D mean? Why are those spells the only ones that exist? Why, really, are wizards and sorcerers picking off essentially the same list? Why are wild magic sorcerers picking off a list at all? This gets at my core gripe with long ability lists; long lists are used to model the most interesting parts of the mechanics in the least interesting way possible. Dungeons and Dragons, especially Fifth Edition, starts to get at a very interesting implied magical ecology starting with the split between arcane and divine, then drilling down into wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks on the arcane side and clerics and druids on the divine side. I want to know more about how all of these characters have access to their powers, and what interesting consequences exist! We get a little of this. We get wild magic sorcerers and druid class abilities…but the core of all of those characters, especially on the arcane side, are just different lists of spells. It’s not just one missed opportunity, it’s five.
You do see examples of games which take the list approach and then attempt to fill all the gaps implied by their lists. The best example of this is GURPS. GURPS is maximalist to the hilt because within the core rulebooks the designers attempt to put in everything they think would be applicable to any game run in any number of time periods, genres, or fictional conceits. GURPS is one of a few maximalist games which successfully resists the issue of rules voids, but it does so by introducing the equally frustrating issue of rules redundancies. There are very few things you can’t model in GURPS in some way, but there are equally few things you can’t model in at least two ways. While you can see this as sort of a benefit, it starts revealing weaknesses of how the system is balanced. For everything you want to model in GURPS, there are three ways to do it and all three of them cost different numbers of points. Once again, for some people this is part of the game. For the other 95% of the hobby, it’s a frustration and a barrier to entry.
List-driven design can work in board games, where the play space is meant to be constrained to the rules and procedures as presented. Board games even have clever ways to mechanize continually expanding lists of abilities, that’s basically what a deck builder is. List-driven design can work in RPGs too, just when it’s not intended to be maximalist. Powered by the Apocalypse games are at their core lists of Moves, but Moves are intended to constrain the character actions which demand resolution by the dice. Lists can work fine in RPGs when they’re either bounded (as above) or deliberately incomplete (like many great random tables). When your intent is to model an entire subsystem with lists of incremental abilities, though, I’d venture you need to figure out a better way to model.
We have done things like magic better than spell lists. Genesys contains a verb-driven magic system which I think is very well done; each verb contains enough structure to allow for clear rules but enough flexibility to allow for player creativity. Similarly, I like magic systems based on summoning. Summoning spirits, demons, or the fae allow for a constrained set of activities (the summoning) which can open up into a wide variety of potential game consequences, and still have mechanics to ground it to a relatively complex game.
Skill mechanics are a great example of an element where the temptation to go maximalist is strong; constraining the skill palette runs directly at odds with covering every possible situation. There are plenty of examples of games with strong 10-20 skill lists, but one compromise I particularly like comes from the most recent edition of Unknown Armies. Unknown Armies has ten core skills, and their ratings move depending on what’s happening in the game. In order to both add flexibility and let players hedge against some of their skills moving (either up or down), Unknown Armies has identities. Identities can be careers, traits, anything strongly tied to the character’s identity, and in addition to acting as a skill an identity can also modify certain stats and permission magical abilities. For skills, though, an identity allows you to do anything that could be explained through the sentence “of course I can [x], I’m [y]”. Examples include “Of course I can identify those animal tracks, I’m a zookeeper” and “of course I can use a tourniquet, I’m a doctor”. Identities serve to offer the same amount of breadth as something like Aspects in Fate, but they’re more firmly grounded to the rules and, as identity is a narrower paradigm, a bit easier to come up with.
If you’re going to build out character options with lists, do it at a level where it’s easier for players to understand. While I’d never call Rifts ‘balanced’, having the vast majority of its options in the form of character classes (or OCCs in Rifts parlance) made for a significantly more interesting book with much more and better embedded worldbuilding. And while a Glitter Boy and a Rogue Scholar aren’t going to balance on a combat level, the GM is given much clearer signals as to what each player wants to do than may be the case with selecting Exalted charms.
We’re never getting rid of ability lists in RPGs, and I accept that. If your list is several hundred items long, though, it’s not good design! There are many, many ways to make something more interesting besides listing out incremental abilities, and it’s not surprising that games like Exalted and even D&D are missed opportunities. D&D implies a very interesting magical world, and then refuses to put any stakes in the ground. Exalted’s reams of detail help hide the fact that there’s little if any logical basis for how charms are structured; while the Essence that powers charms has diegetic effects the Charms themselves are not, they’re merely a way to help players understand what their characters are doing. Unfortunately, they don’t do that very well.
Long lists intend to give players flexibility and constrain the play space, but they end up doing neither. If we want a complex game that offers players something interesting to engage with, that means we have to build out something more robust than lists. And no, hierarchical flowcharts like ‘charm trees’ don’t count as building. How do these powers work? How do they fit into the setting? What do they imply about energy flows, and what supernatural forces can do? Any fictional energies can be modeled and gamified, and done so in a way that is more comprehensive and less dull than long lists. And for those things meant to be mysterious, unexplainable? That’s what we have dice for. There is life beyond the spell list, if only we design for it.
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 “The Maximalist Fallacy”
Another issue with lists of skills (which maybe you don’t cover here because it’s well covered elsewhere) is that it encourages players to pattern match to their skillsets, rather than just imagine/declare what they want to do and let the GM apply creativity to resolving the action.
Your post also makes me think of a completely different angle – how come all clerics get access to all clerical spells? Surely different deities would give out different spells…
LikeLiked by 2 people
Why do only cleric get turn undead? For that matter, why do ALL clerics get turn undead, and why isn’t it a spell? As with spells, the answer is probably just because ‘it’s the way we’ve always done it’. Or ‘just because’.
LikeLiked by 1 person