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Elements of Complexity

by Brian Gleichman
Sep 20,2002



Hi, everyone. Welcome to an experiment.

Seems it was column search time at RPGNet again, and of all things I was asked to contribute. Let's take a few moments for the cries of rage to calm down a little...

Now then, first thing up is "what should the column be about?" In my case there is a rather obvious choice- the examination of game design with a focus on complex and detailed rulesets. After all, that's what I do. What are their characteristics? How does one highlight specific concepts? How have others' games attempted various things, and where have they succeeded and failed?

At this point, one wonders if RPGNet has any need for such a column at all. That's the experiment part. Let the guys in charge know if this is a good idea or a waste of space; it's up to you. Isn't it wonderful to be in charge?

First up is a reprint of an article I did for Unclebear's. I've expanded it a little (I was working under some space limits originally) and present it here to kick things off by defining a few important terms.

Elements of Complexity

Go onto any gaming forum and you'll quickly run into someone making the comment that a certain RPG is "complex." It's not unusual for such a statement to draw replies of disagreement, and it quickly becomes obvious that we have yet another case of people using the same word for very different purposes.

Given how common it is to see the question "How complex is this?", I think it would be useful to explore the term some. Not only might it reduce some misunderstandings, it could even have a direct influence on game design.

It seems obvious to me that complexity in game design is the result of various elements- for that is the heart of exchanges like "Rolemaster is too complex!" "No it isn't, it's just a d100 roll with some charts!" Both people are telling the truth from their POV, and what we're seeing is a simple case of different people looking at different specific sub-meanings of a single word.

For my use, the complexity of a game's design can be broken down into three elements: Implementation, Mass, and Concept. Each of which has its own characteristics and appeal, the highlights of which I'll detail below.

Complexity of Implementation

This is how difficult the actual mechanical steps are. Let's look at a couple of examples pulled out of the middle of damage resolution:

  • Example 1: Roll 1d8 and add 1 for every point over 12 in the character's strength. Subtract these points from the target's hit points.
  • Example 2: Determine which body location on the target was struck, take the weapon's penetration factor and subtract the armor rating for that location, multiple the result by the weapon's impact factor which results in the final Damage Potential, divide the Damage Potential by the target's location Structure Points to get the damage ratio, cross reference the damage ratio on the Ballistic impact chart to determine the wound level and final effects.

In implementation terms, Example 2 is far more complex than Example 1. It has more steps, and those steps include more types of operations (multiplication and division as well as subtraction plus a table lookup). And of course we're talking about more than single digit whole numbers in the second example as well.

Games like Phoenix Command are representative of designs with high Implementation complexity, as are elements of other systems- such as GURPS Vehicles or Hero System Character design, systems that call for many to reach for a spreadsheet instead of pen and paper.

Some people love games with high Implementation Complexity. There are entire websites devoted to characters worked up in HERO while others spend days designing vehicles for their GURPS campaigns- much of this seems to be simply inspired by the joy of creating something and in the mastery of the method.

Yet another common draw for this type of complexity is found in the desire of some people to model in detail specific elements of a game. Not content with the typical high level of abstraction used in many games, they wish to see more detailed influences and a more detailed breakdown of events. Combat in Phoenix Command is a prime example of this type of thought. Here the desire for detailed objective simulation drives the need for complex mechanics.

Complexity of Mass

Rules may be simple to Implement in every case; however, there may be a large number of very specific cases, each with their own simple rules.

  • Example 1: The system defines all one-handed weapons as doing 1d8 points damage with a +1 strike and +1 initiative bonus.
  • Example 2: This system defines 50 different one-handed weapons each with their own specific damage (a 1d3 to 1d20 range) with strike and initiative bonuses independently ranging from +0 to +3.

Any game that defines large numbers of simple modifiers (say combat modifiers for position and environment and/or attack options) has increased its Complexity of Mass. Having large numbers of specific powers or spells has the same result- individually each are easy, but in total one is looking at a large number of rules, and for many that is overwhelming in itself.

Complexity of Mass is the easiest and quickest to judge; one can almost weigh the rulebook (however, be sure to leave out the setting information and other fluff). D&D is a good example of this type of complexity, as is Rolemaster with its dozens of charts, each of which uses a simple d100 + bonus mechanic.

Why would anyone want to deal with pages upon pages of rules? Two reasons come immediately to mind.

First, some people love options and different ways to approach things. How often does one hear something like "My last character was a Paladin, I think I'll run a Wizard this time..."? The best way to highlight options is to include them in the rules and this produces a simple relationship- more options mean more pages of rules. The very rules themselves become a reason to expand play. For example, include an extensive set of castle building mechanics and someone is going to play with them just to do something different.

A second reason is pride of mastery. It's difficult to master a lot of rules and even more difficult to keep them all at your fingertips. To some, knowing the rules and using them to achieve a desire outcome is a major source of satisfaction in gaming. The more rules to master and use, the greater the satisfaction.

These two reasons drive the design concepts of entire game lines like D20 and WoD, a fact easily determined by a passing examination of their splat books and other expansions. Indeed, this one element is so connected to D&D that the first reaction I typically see in reviews of high Mass games is to call them a D&D copy, even if mechanically they have little in common.

Complexity of Concept

There are games with few rules, those rules very simple, that are still viewed as complex in the extreme, with uncounted possibilities that take even the greatest of players years to master.

Think Chess.

Mechanically, it's simple to move a pawn. The entire rules for the game can be contained on a few sheets of paper. But which pawn to move? What will the effect be? Those are questions that are far from easy to answer, and the choice can be far from obvious. I refer to these games as Complex in Concept to represent the fact that the difficulty isn't in the "how does one do it," but rather in "what does one do and how much will it affect."

In one sense, all RPGs rate high in this area due to their open-ended nature. Even so, I tend to limit this to those games where the player is presented with a wide number of options under conditions that require a great deal of thought in order to find an optimal choice. Games with complex tactical environments like Heavy Gear top the list here.

Complexity of this type tends to draw players who value the importance of individual decisions in a challenging environment.

Just Plain Complex

Games can be complex in more than one way, and there is a tendency to rate high in others if you rate high in one.

Perhaps the ultimate example was SPI's game Air War, which pegged very high levels in all three measures. Over two hundred pages of rules concerned solely with jet era air combat, intricate mechanics to represent the fine details of aerial maneuver, dozens and dozens of aircraft with very specific stats and individual rules, and a very complex tactical environment where each choice could alter the entire course of the game.

While any RPG pales in comparison to that Wargame, some examples include Hero System and Age of Heroes. A common combination is Mass and Concept, with the prime example being D&D with its volumes of rules and spell lists (Mass) combined with its detailed resource management (Concept).

Eye of the Beholder

Like everything, how complex a game is depends upon who is judging it. Every person has different levels of tolerance for each of the above elements. Below that tolerance, the game is easy - go above it and it becomes complex.

Additionally different people desire different mixes of complexity. One person may like a fairly high level of Mass and Concept and as low a level of Implementation as possible. Another may want a game that is the complete reverse. Games suitable for each are going to look vastly different from each other.

And of course, there are people who desire low levels of Complexity in all three elements. At their most extreme, games for such people become completely free form.

Knowing the complexity desires of your target players (and attempting to fulfill them) will greatly impact the choice of what games to play, or how to design your own. And hopefully knowing the core elements of what makes games complex will also make it easier to talk about them to others.

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What do you think?

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