Thursday, March 27, 2014

Goldilocks and the Overly Complex RPG Game Mechanics

At the table in the kitchen, there were three RPGs. Goldilocks was excited to play.  She tried the RPG from the first box.
"This RPG is too complicated!" she exclaimed.
So, she tried the RPG from the second box.
"This RPG is too simple," she said.
So, she tried the last RPG.
"Ahhh, this RPG is just right."

I'm not sure why I thought of Goldilocks when I was kicking this idea around. It just came to me and I thought the joke illustrated the personal taste aspect of what it means to play different types of RPGs.

First of all, everyone comes to the gaming table as an individual with their own ideas about what a good RPG should be. As someone who had a Grand Canyon-like gulf of time between childhood gaming and adult gaming, I know for sure that mechanics-heavy game systems tend to irk me. There is a paradox here with me though, as I do find myself compelled to understand certain games, even complex ones. I want to wrap my head around game mechanics, absorb them, ingest them, and know them fairly well so when I do finally discard them it's with knowledge and understanding, not ignorance.

Fourth edition D&D was the first game mechanic to have the honor of me stubbing my adult toe on. I was frustrated that I found it so maddeningly complex to learn, and exactly when I was trying to get my then 11 year-old son into the game in general. How could I foster my son's interest in a game when the complex mechanics seemed to be the overriding force of the game, not the role playing? I knew deep down I never played D&D even remotely correctly as a kid, and so to just wing it as an adult and play in some half-assed way, never truly knowing how to actually play, seemed wrong. As a dad I wanted to be able to answer my son's questions. And if we were going to break the rules I wanted to know them first before doing so. I remember one of my great teachers back in my freshmen year at art school. He gave great advice and I've tried to keep it with me ever since.

I'm paraphrasing what I remember him saying.

"You will all be given a tremendous amount of information this year. It will certainly be overwhelming. Much of it you may not even fully understand at this time. Much of what you will be learning now will seem odd and out of place, especially as it relates to the creation of art in a larger context. My suggestion is to soak up everything like a sponge.  Absorb, absorb, absorb. Take it all in and then every so often purge and wring out the sponge, discarding only what you don't want or need. In a few months, or a few years, you will know what information you need and you can discard or carefully store the rest. Just remember to not let all this information overwhelm you and bog you down. Don't let it get in the way of your creation of art. Let it serve your creation of art."

It was some of the best advice I ever got. I was learning color theory, 2D design, composition, drawing, etc. It was a lot to learn. Lots of mechanical and technical processes seemed very far away from the sheer bliss of creating art. Often these technical instructions and concepts got in the way. When they did, just as my teacher suggested we do, I'd discard, ignore, or otherwise break the "rules" for the good of the art.

Art, great or otherwise, need not be entirely beholden to rules of composition, perspective, color theory,  or realistic rendering. In the same way, an RPG game should not suffer as game mechanics take over and swallow games whole.

So as frustrated as I was with 4e D&D and some of the people we encountered at Encounters who were playing it, I muddled through the books, learned (well enough) the maddening concepts, the daily powers, cards, all the crazy races and classes, slow combat, and even powers that were useless. It was a game that had all the ingredients for greatness but it seemed hopelessly mired under 50 feet of crappy IRS-style rules. I pressed on, played D&D Encounters weekly with my son, and we both learned a lot. At home we tossed so much of what we were learning right out the window. Complex game mechanics had no place at our game table. We drew maps, told stories, killed large monsters, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We did so by understanding 4th edition D&D and what we disliked about it and then playing with what we did like.

The very basic D20 mechanic is king here at home for running games. It's elegantly simple. It works and we are not bogged down with endless rules. The games we play are mostly done on the fly. "Let's play D&D!" someone says and, BOOM! We're off and running. If a monster needs HP and AC the DM will use a d4, d6, d8, d12, or d20 to generate fast stats. Usually most games are just a DM and a player. If we waited around for a well-balanced party of 4, 6, or 8 we'd never play at home. Ever.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
Over a year ago I stumbled on the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game at my local Barnes & Noble. $100! Yikes! That's a lot for a starter set. It looked so damn cool. The world looked cool. It seemed different than D&D. Darker, dirtier, more wretched and vile. I so badly wanted to be in the world so I gave it a shot and bought the game.

Traditional Warhammer, from what little I know, is basically a tactical war game. It's all mechanics and no RPG story—please forgive me right here and now if I'm wrong about that. There are many games out there today like this. Heroclix comes to mind. Mechanical or tactical games where there is no roleplaying beyond the fact that you might be controlling tanks, a group of heroes, or some rules spelled out on a card. The player is not playing a role and directing story with their choices and participation. But Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was different then traditional tactical Warhammer. It was Warhammer for people who did want to role play in that gritty dark world. As with 4th edition D&D I was late to the party. This is the third edition of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game. And as I looked online about the game I could see already there were many conflicting opinions. Older editions were considered better. Some people thought the current edition was amazing. Whatever. I now owned the core set for the 3rd edition and that was the one I was going to learn absorb, and hopefully play.

Once I opened the box I realized I was in way over my head. Inside were funky dice, a zillion cards, sliders, and more bits than I had ever seen in a game, ever. I carefully organized everything neatly into little plastic cases, separated all the cards, and rubber-banded them up. Then I set out to reading the books. That's when I became lost. The mechanics were such that I could not quickly and conveniently grasp them and just start playing. With my kids too, I knew the game was way too bits-heavy, card heavy, and mechanics heavy for any fun to truly be had. Setup would likely take a while. Character creation would be complex. Everyone would need to carefully keep track of their characters cards, bits, etc. No. It was just not happening.

Still I pressed on. I owned the game. I continued to read and enjoy, somewhat, the idea that I might play some day. If we found an experienced group, maybe. This was a niche game in an already niche game world. There were no Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay groups for me and my two sons. Sigh. I read some more. I eventually stopped reading and I continued to play D&D with my kids and the game stayed abandoned on my shelf. I kept looking at it from time to time. It was like the One Ring. It wanted to be played. Hehe.

Fast forward to a few days ago in this lingering cold weather. I decided to once again grab the basic rules off the shelf and begin anew with attributes. I started reading again, right from the start. With another year or more or RPG under my belt it did not seem as complex anymore. It was still busting at the seams with bits, but I decided I was not reading to play, I was reading to comprehend. I'll read the rules, gain a decent grasp of the concepts, and then decide if I want to discard the entire mechanic, keep some, or do whatever if and when we get down to actually playing.

Then I started to think about game mechanics in general. What is the deal with RPG game mechanics? Why do some games feel the need to have such maddeningly complex mechanics for the game to run? I kept reading and I kept thinking.

Why are the game mechanics important? I asked myself.

The game mechanics, I decided, were there as a substitute for "chance" in real life. The news was on. A huge building was burning insanely out of control. A man was trapped up on the top floor. Too high to jump without death or serious injury. A fire truck with an outstretched ladder was approaching, but not fast enough. What would the man do? He climbed to the ledge and carefully lowered himself down and swung, miraculously, to the ledge on the floor below. Then the fire truck with the outstretched ladder arrived. The man climbed on. A huge section of the upper floor of the building collapsed. The man made it to safety. I went back to my WFRP reading. Then it hit me. That man was not a Fighter, Rogue, or Wizard. He was not trained to do what he had just done. He was a construction worker. He just decided what he needed to do and he did it. That was real life. His personal skills, life experience, fear, other men with a fire truck, and a lot of luck all combined to save him.

In RPGs we are not in reality so when we tell the DM what we are doing we use our character sheet to determine the outcome. Are you tall? Are you fast? Are you smart? We use numbers to determine these real world attributes we rarely give a 2nd thought to. That man on the building did not consider his strength, wisdom, dexterity, and charisma as he escaped the burning building. He just acted. In RPGs too, a player acts by telling the DM what they do. The DM is the universe, fate, and non player character/monsters all rolled up into one. The DM uses dice too to determine outcomes. He is bound by the same laws as the player but unlike the players who must accept the dice rolls, the DM does not. He can fudge a little. That is why there is a screen in front of him. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! Hehe.

I thought more about game mechanics. All RPGs need some sort of game mechanics, otherwise it's just make-believe playing with minis or communal storytelling. But some game mechanics become so complex that the game being played gets lost in the process. Or in the case of the WFRP game, not played at all.

Why are some games so complex? I suspect some game creators get off on the mechanics. They work for these companies and they are trying to distinguish themselves away from D&D. But 4e even was a reaction to become different than previous editions of D&D. If you work somewhere and you are tasked with making a new game you can't just say everyone rolls a d20 to determine outcome and let the players and DM tell the story. Now pay me. Haha. That would be a great job. There needs to be a balance. Too simple and it might not feel like you bought a game. Too complex and filled with bits and cards and you will have created a game that might sell, but sometimes, like in my case, just sit on a shelf unused, unplayed. A useless system? I'm not sure WFRP is a useless system yet. I'm still reading. If I ever do play it I doubt I'll be doing so as instructed. Like D&D 4e I want to wrap my head around it somewhat and then take out an adventure and do some storytelling and, hopefully, play with my kids.

Any RPG needs a mechanic as a substitute for reality. That is why the mechanic is there. The mechanic alone is not all that's necessary. If it were, we'd not need a DM. Playing an RPG without a DM is not the worst idea either. I've often considered that concept and I do know that games exist that do just that.

Ultimately it all boils down to personal taste. Are you someone who gets excited by crazy complex game mechanics, or do you more enjoy a good story with a mechanic that does not get in the way? I am most definitely in the latter camp. Still, I do like to understand game mechanics, even complex ones, before wringing out that sponge and using only what I want.  I'm pressing on with my reading of the WFRP game rules. Whittling them down, already, does not seem like it's going to be too hard. It's just a mechanic and not the game. The game is role playing. No one goes out to buy a new mechanic.

Wizards of the Coast recognizes that the mechanic is only there to serve the game, not the other way around. 4e might have stumbled but I believe any D&D adventure from any edition can and should be played as long as you don't let the mechanics take over your game. D&D Next Encounters games now have more story and they move faster. The mechanic is not in the way as it was in 4e. Now I want to stress that I do not dislike 4e. I enjoyed many 4e games. I just think some of the game mechanics were extraneous and unnecessary. They are there to be used or not used. This is how I'm approaching WFRP. I will either use something I like or disregard mechanics I don't.

If you are the DM, open the adventure. Any adventure, from any game system. Start reading. Get your players engaged in the story and use whatever mechanic best suits you all to help determine outcomes.

Remember the mechanic is just a stand in for fate and real-world attributes. Remember the guy jumping from the burning building. The mechanics of the universe and his real-life attributes did not get in his way. He acted and there was a fast outcome. Sure he could have slipped, but that would have had a quick outcome too. Had his mind been bogged down overthinking the mechanics of the situation he would not have acted at all. He might have died due to inaction or, to put it another way—slow game play. He could have wound up like my WFRP game—still sitting unplayed because of the complex mechanic and zillions of bits.

Escape from the burning building! Play the game. Enjoy the game!

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