Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Complexity Fatigue

 Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”

Alan Perlis

I first immersed myself in the roleplaying game hobby through Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced D&D, games whose multifaceted intricacies helped occupy my free time in my youth. But as I graduated from high school, immersed myself in collegiate studies, and later endured the real-world job market, I discovered I had little time and hence a waning appetite for games with such intricate complexities. I tried in those early college years to maintain my involvement in roleplaying games with friends back home. It took a streamlined, cinematic rules system with a media property I loved – Star Wars – to rekindle my interest in and love for roleplaying games. Since that transition I’ve leaned more toward “simpler” games for two reasons: my own play style preferences for “easier” rules and my urge to introduce games to newcomers who might immerse themselves int the adventure gaming hobby.

I put “simple” and “easier” in quotes because I find the “complex/simple” dichotomy is much more than these basic words, yet they very plainly sum up some vague sense of my meaning. Perusing various related entries at Merriam-Webster’s website I could substitute a number of words approaching how I intent “complex” to mean: “difficult,” “sophisticated,” “elaborate,” and “convoluted.” I also find variations on “simple” that might apply: “easy,” “straightforward,” “effortless,” and “fluid.” In my attempt to clarify my own definitions in this context (which may not succeed...), I’d say “complex” games require more thought, time, and effort to prepare in terms of learning rules, creating characters, and ultimately running procedures at the table itself. “Simple” games lean toward more intuitive and accessible mechanics (and fewer rules), less prep time, and fewer distractions at the game table seeking clarification from rulebooks; they’re easier for gaming newcomers (and even longtime gamers) to learn with less time and effort spent trying to understand the game and more time spent reveling in play at the table. From a wargaming perspective complexity and simplicity range across different levels of abstraction for real-world situations: the simpler rules represent greater abstraction and aggregation of elements, while more sophisticated rules try more faithfully (and hence more complexly) to replicate how everything works in reality (i.e., having a detailed mechanic for every possibility in the game). Ultimately, for the purpose of this missive, I’m going to stick with “complex” and “simple” or “basic,” now that I’ve at least attempted to make my meaning clear.

I first discovered roleplaying games in 1982, when I was 12 years old, and no game seemed too complex. Basic Dungeons & Dragons puzzled me as my very first roleplaying game – I spent an entire weekend doing little more than reading the rules and trying to wrap my head around all the various concepts inside – but I quickly embraced all the quirky terminology, the tables of numbers, stat formats, spell lists, and character abilities all as part of the game’s vast imaginative potential. Our neighborhood play group merged B/X D&D with Advanced D&D, grabbing elements we liked, incorporating them with whatever rules we preferred, creating dungeons, new monsters, spells, locations, and characters. I expanded my games primarily with what I found at the local hobby shop: TSR releases like Top Secret, Gamma World, and Star Frontiers born out of similar design aesthetics as D&D. I had a few Avalon Hill games and immersed myself in their complexities, though we only managed to really play a few (notably Kingmaker and B-17: Queen of the Skies). Sure, I dabbled in a few others, Pendragon and Traveller having a similar complexity level, though Tunnels & Trolls did not. In some ways I viewed the time and effort spent comprehending and remembering rules and procedures as part of the hobby – as indeed it is – but I slowly realized all this “work” was a prerequisite for and detraction from actual play at the table.

My idyllic, privileged youth offered plenty of time after school, on weekends, and during vacations for immersing myself in the complexities of roleplaying games of the early/mid 1980s (despite a packed and competitive extracurricular schedule).
But my transition to college proved difficult, not least because I found no fellow gamers or opportunities for gaming. Gaming occurred over break when I had time and energy left over from my summertime job. The few games I explored at this time still indulged in elaborate character creation rules, pages of charts, tables, and lists, and new mechanics simulating different kinds of adventurous actions, all based on different rules rationales than D&D. I was willing to indulge in complexity for the sake of trying a new game in a setting I already found appealing, notably Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, and James Bond 007: Role-Playing In Her Majesty's Secret Service. These games occupied a period in gaming’s development where designers and companies were exploring new genres, especially licensed media settings, along with different rules diverging from established games. They served to keep me involved in the game hobby when collegiate studies remained my primary focus.

And perhaps my game hobby would have faded in the face of college and work had the Star Wars Roleplaying Game and its intuitive and accessible D6 System not come along to reinvigorate my interest in games with a greater emphasis on setting and narrative elements instead of rules and mechanics. Certainly settings like Cthulhu, James Bond, and Paranoia provided great storytelling appeal, but the transitional mechanics still played a dominant role in those games. Aside from drawing on a popular movie franchise (okay, still popular with me in that time where the films seemed to fade from public consciousness), the Star Wars game inspired a play style in which many rules remained grounded in the cinematic storytelling style of the original films; rules and game mechanics seemed secondary to playing out an amazing story.

Star Wars proved an solid entry point game, designed to use commonly available six-sided dice in a time when buying polyhedral gaming dice still proved challenging. It provided a familiar and exciting setting platform players didn’t have to worry about learning, so they could focus on the game mechanics (which flowed naturally from setting concepts). I still find it among the best approaches for introducing newcomers to roleplaying games, a comfortable mix of narrative/setting and rules, heavily leaning more toward the storytelling aspects than the game mechanics.

Over the years I’ve continued to drift away from more complex games – even those whose settings and themes appeal to me – and prefer games with accessible, intuitive rules, mechanics that become second nature or invisible, in a sense, during play (even with wargames and board games). Beyond the D6 System only two immediately come to mind: S. John Ross’ Risus: The Anything RPG and Greg Stafford’s Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game. Risus proves readily adaptable to any genre, while Prince Valiant and D6 require a bit of legwork on the part of a gamemaster to retool to different settings. I’m sure other games that meet my criteria exist – I have a few waiting on the shelves to explore – but even 50 years after D&D’s emergence roleplaying games remain dominated by abstracted “game” complexities with the narrative “roleplaying” part often playing second fiddle.

(I’ll also propose that much of the balance between narrative elements and game rules depends on how an individual gamemaster presents and runs a game at the table, no matter how complex the mechanics seem.)

I still have a mostly nostalgic urge to dabble with or returned to games with more complexity, notably investigating various Old School Renaissance (OSR) titles and returning to Traveller, Tunnels & Trolls, or some heavily modified version of B/X D&D. These remain solitaire endeavors; in my long and storied time in the adventure gaming hobby I’ve learned to avoid foisting my own interests and enthusiasms on reluctant audiences. On the rare occasions I try introducing roleplaying games to new people, I default to D6 Star Wars and Risus, allowing players to explore their character’s potential and adventures than mire themselves spending an inordinate amount of time decyphering rules, learning procedures, and figuring out mechanics. Your mileage may vary; in my later years I prefer to focus more on the “roleplaying” aspects of the play experience than the “game” parts.

Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

Frederic Chopin


  1. I can relate and empathize with much of this article (though I never did have the career in the RPG industry that you did). And yet, for me, I've ended up in a far different head space with regard to my gaming: rather than work towards simpler systems that facilitate "role-playing" and the creation of story, I've gone back to the well of 1st edition AD&D, focusing on the underlying game and the immersive experience its system and procedures supply.

    Why? Because I've found is that "role-playing," in the way it's commonly thought of today, isn't much fun. Because I've found that trying to "tell stories" with games feels like so much mental masturbation (why not just WRITE stories...for your own pleasure if not publication?).

    Why 1E? Because it is simple enough that I can teach it to just about anyone (I mostly run for kids these days, and have had players as young as eight), but it's robust enough that it has long-term play potential and is extremely difficult to break (unlike some of the Basic systems). It is right at the limit of the amount of complexity I want in a game...and, of course, I'm familiar with it, having more than 40 years of experience with the system.

    Of course, I generally act as the Dungeon Master (a role that I prefer anyway), but what I've found with most participants (young and old) they're not terribly interested in learning all the nuts-and-bolts of an RPG. The info in the original PHB is, more-or-less, the only things players are interested in learning (if that!)...in general, they simply want to PLAY and are happy to play the game, so long as YOU are happy to run it.

    Unfortunately, there's no space opera version of 1E (Traveller is its own thing and has very different gameplay procedures)...yet. That's a pet project I've just started working on.
    ; )

    1. You discuss some good points. Complexity is certainly different for everyone...and it's also tempered by our setting, rules, and playstyle differences. Familiarity also helps. Taking on the role of referee/host puts the rules burden on you and helps lift that weight from players so they can focus on enjoying the game.

  2. “Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”

    – Alan Perlis

    Perfect quote! Thanks for posting! :-)

    1. I try finding suitable quotes to bookend most of my pieces; glad you enjoyed this particular one. Thanks for reading.


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