Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Complex and Encompassing Mechanics

On Monday we talked about some of the good and the bad sides of having a simple yet highly flexible mechanic for your game. The example used was a narrative control system, which is about as universal as a single die roll mechanic can be (for those of you balking, most games use several die rolling mechanics even if it is only in how the difficulty for a roll is determined). Today, I want to turn the microscope towards the opposite end of the spectrum, namely more complex and all encompassing mechanics.

An Example
Much like yesterday, I want to start off with a system as an example. Now, normally this is where I would go straight to D&D. After all, it is a good complex system, and as close as any RPG gets to being universally known. The problem is, the variants I know of D&D are not likely the ones everyone else is aware of. Instead, I'm going to go more niche but still popular and use a system I know very intimately; namely, Legend of the Five Rings.

L5R has been around for 15 years or so now, and is one of my favorite systems of all time. It has several mechanics that I simply feel naked with out, and yearn for whenever they aren't in a game. The chief culprit of this is the raise mechanic. See, one of L5R's original design goals was this: players call their own criticals. Namely, you don't wait around for a nat 20 to come up, you make your roll harder in order to get that critical now. It does a great job of showing the differences between people of different skill levels, as - simply put - the higher your skill, the more you can consistently do against the same difficulty.

L5R's core mechanic is a dice pool and tally system. You roll X dice, and out of those X dice you tally the results of Y dice. If those Y dice add up to more than the difficulty, than you have succeeded. Obviously, with it being a complex system you know there is more to it than that, but for the purposes of this that is all you really need to know.

The Good
Once again, I want to start off with the good. Complex mechanics have a lot going for them. For one, there is the help the system gives in handling specifics. These systems are designed with a goal in mind, to give across a certain feel or style of play, and the mechanics help with that. Nuances and tactical or strategic applications of character abilities becomes possible, opening the game up to a wider variety of things.

The complexity of the mechanics also frees up the players and the GMs a little when it comes to playing the game. The system has a way of doing things, and that will determine success or failure on the part of the PCs. This leaves the PCs free to focus just on their character and what their character does. The GM, on the other hand, doesn't have to worry about feeling like a massive tool or dick if things go bad for the PC, because the system helps to decide those things, not just him or her.

Where complex mechanics really shine though is in the variety of play you can get out of them. The systems have more mechanics wise, and so players can grab on to different aspects. It is possible, and enjoyable, for some people to spend hours poring over the book and looking for high power combinations of abilities, skills, and advantages. Others can do similar searching, but looking for the way to best represent a theme or type of character they want to portray. The war gamers get to have their tactical and strategic fun with the combat mechanics, and the more role play oriented people have nothing standing in the way of being able to try that - aside from the other PCs and GMs. These types of games are also much easier to find.

The Bad
It isn't all sugar and gravy for complex mechanics sadly. The biggest problem it has comes with the term "complex" and is the opposite of one of the chief strengths of the Simple mechanics. Namely, they're harder to understand and so take a lot longer to teach to new players. It's all well and good for me to say you "make a dice pool, roll it, and keep some of the dice" to teach a new player L5R, but there also comes in the facts of what determines what dice he rolls? What determines what dice are kept? How do raises work? Why is my roll of 350 against a difficulty of 20 no better than a roll of 21?

Even experienced players will get confused with these complex systems. Mostly when it comes to keeping track of bonuses to their roll. Why? Well, because they're involved in the situation, and then they get a +3k0 bonus from this advantage, a +1k0 bonus from their ancestor, a +0k1 bonus from their technique, a +5 bonus from a kata they're using, and a +2 bonus from their sword. Not to mention the bonus they get from all the raises on the earlier roll they made, and their basic dice as well. Frankly, in complex systems the bonuses have a tendency of creeping in from all over, and keeping track of that can be hard - especially in the heat of the moment - for even the most seasoned of players.

Finally, at least for what I'm going over here, complex systems have a tendency of slowing the game way the heck down. I'm willing to bet that most people who read this blog have been in a big game of some sort or another. In that game, how long did a single combat round take to execute? An hour? Two hours? Were people doing their action, and then going into the other room to play videogames while waiting for the slower people to figure out how to make their rolls again? Yeah, I thought so. Then, after that two hours, guess what? It's only been six seconds in the game world. This can be even worse when you're the least combat capable person, or otherwise are hindered in a fight. "Yeah, I roll my D20..does a 17 hit? No, that's my turn..." three hours later "Does a 18 hit? No? ok, I'm done." Meanwhile the fighter is taking seven minutes for each of his three attacks, plus the two his dancing longsword has. Not fun. (fun anecdote: I once used "Summon Nature's Ally" to summon ~22 birds just for something to do in a fight. 22 attacks where only a nat 20 could hit, and even then would only do 2 damage. It got the point across that it was god damned boring at least :D)

So, Which Is Best?
I'm willing to bet there are more pros and cons for each type of system, but that doesn't answer which is best? The answer, like with all game design issues, is that it depends. What kind of game are you trying to make? How in depth do you want it to be? How long do you want a play session to last? How long do you want the average game of it to last? For most of us, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. For some of us, the answer lies a lot closer to "Simple But Flexible" (i.e. a lot of John Wick Games). For others, a lot closer to complex (FATAL, GURPS, Champions, etc).

For me, well, in the game I'm working on I tried to go with both. I have a "simple yet flexible" mechanic that can be invoked by the players at will to do whatever they want, but the game also has a more complex system at its heart that is more than capable of handling pretty much everything that players and GMs could ever need (I hope) it to.

For your game, you'll have to find your own answer. Or just follow along in some of the blazed paths of those who have gone before. They're blazed for a reason.


  1. For a complex system I like to impose a time limit for you declaring your actions, a trick I learned from Space Hulk where they encouraged using a stop watch to make all your moves.

    My thought is, keep each player's action declarations under 30 seconds (or so, maybe 45 seconds). If they want to plan their actions, then they better hang around for everyone else's turn and plan while they're declaring. This gives a slight disadvantage to the player that goes first (wins initiative usually) but then they're charging in first and realistically don't know what the other guy is doing because of that. Being first isn't always the best.

    More to the point, this really ups the tension and keeps everyone on their toes. I'm lenient on new players because they don't know how to do what they want. After a session or two I expect them to pick up the pace. It reduces the chance of combat turning into a slog.

  2. I've seen that done as well, and it does speed things up. You still have time though with system issues (especially if someone is new) and die tallying. But it definitely does help.

    I know that when I was last in a D&D game, I (as a player) balked every time the mage started counting out squares for their fireball. Why? he was wasting time, and I didn't see how the 3' mage could pin point place a fireball when surrounded by 5-6' fighters and 6-8' ogres.

  3. So, Which Is Best?

    For me it depends on my players. One of my groups really liked the complex systems. They enjoy Shadowrun with its min/max system where everything is layers and layers and layers of additional material.

    For another group they prefer the simpler versions of things. Even if they have alternate and more options they tend to stick to the simpler version.

    I think in the end it all comes down to what your personal group likes the best.

    As for me, the GM, I prefer complex and lots of options. However, I will only offer said options to my players and not force it upon them. Therefore I can handle the complex systems but can still run a simpler game. Its easier to go from complex to simple than from simple to complex as a GM.

  4. Good point, Callin. Group make out is the key factor here. Some groups LOVE the tactical aspect of D&D and dungeon crawling. Others just want to flip a coin to resolve actions, or even just go off highest stat like in Amber.

    It all comes down to group preference.