Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Complexity and Option Fatigue

Part of this week's discussion about D&D revisions, "Complexity and Option Fatigue," is over at Kobold Quarterly.

For the first half of D&D's life (back in the AD&D days), the game's complexity arose mainly from its open-endedness and its presentation. Players and DMs had to be skillful at navigating the game's labyrinth of rulebooks, which were laced with exclusive and often contradictory rules. 

That shifted with the release of 3rd Edition. For the last fifteen years or so, most of D&D's complexity has come from what system analysts call option fatigue but is more commonly known as information overload.

(more ...)


  1. 1e AD&D was, for me, a game of imagination. While there was a nice structure or rules to give the players a firm footing in the game, most of the game was a matter of the DM's skill. A good DM could create a good game session even with unruly or 'bad' players. A bad DM simply ruined the game session regardless of what kind of players were sitting at the table.

    DM'ing was both a skill and an art. A very difficult situation when trying to market a game to the widest possible audience rather than accept that the game will not be successful beyond a certain niche of DM's and players. Luckily when 1e AD&D was introduced the world was a much less distracting place in terms of gaming and so it grew by leaps and bounds.

    Every edition of D&D since that time has been a step toward replacing the imagination of the DM with a set of rules as well as prefabricated campaigns and adventures. An imaginative DM can still rise above any game system, but the latest game design seems set on quashing the role of the DM as creator/narrator/opponent to more of a simple opponent in a tactical fantasy boardgame.

    I love wargames and would enjoy seeing Hasbro/WotC produce a steady line of fantasy boardgames but I feel they've done a piss-poor job in the stewardship of D&D in actually producing or supporting an actually roleplaying game and I have little faith that they will do any better with the next edition.

    1. I'm not sure if 2e would fall under that category, precisely, but I definitely agree with that analysis of 3.x and 4e. They are ways to codify things so the DM is a computing machine that interprets data, rather than the referee of the game.

      Later editions simply DO NOT TRUST the DM. I wrote a little article about player/DM balance, which I think has been upset in recent editions way in the favor of the player to the point where respect for the DM has vanished.

      You can find that here.

  2. Love the article; thanks for the peek behind the curtain, especially the counterintuitive findings that experienced players enjoyed Basic more than AD&D. That really explains a lot.

  3. I'm not sure that 'information overload' or option fatigue' are really telling you anything at all. These are flakey, general, abstract terms, buzz words that are batted about like management speak and everybody nods their heads in mock agreement.

    A system should never be designed to be complex, after all, nobody wants a system that is '
    so complicated or intricate as to be hard to understand or deal with' (a classic definition of complexity).

    You can think about what it is that you want to simulate and come up with a rule system to do that and you are one level away from the thing you are simulating. If you then start trying to analsyse the abstract system to find patterns in it, to then apply them to another abstract system, you are moving two levels away from what was being simulated in the first place. This is because you are forgetting what the point of what you are doing really is.

    So forget all of this analysis and go back to looking at what it is that you are simulating and build up from that. If its fantasy, then read some fantasy books and start there. For gods sake do not start with multiple sets of abstractions and build another one that abstracts it further.

  4. Simple rules produce complex and satisfying games at the table. Complex rules produce confusion and look-ups during game time.

  5. Rules mechanics are about applying force (damage, compulsion, persuasion) to an object (person, place, thing, situation) using a lever (sword, magic, skill). I'm of a mind that the codifying of the effect is important, in that is must be internally consistent, manageable and balanced enough to maintain player interest, but every moderately successful game system does that. What sets the best ones apart are their success in conveying the flavor of their genre to the players.

    Dungeons and Dragons' creators (with a lot of help from players and Tolkein) invented a genre that oldsters are well-familiar with and that still manages to delight youngsters. The flaws of 4E, though sometimes hard to put a finger upon, are where it diverges from the tropes of that genre or fails to make the most of it. Someone talked about flavor text and I think that's a big deal, but of course it is more than just that.

    This longing to return to the past is a familiar one. It seeks to recapture what was lost along the way in striving to find ever more-incremental improvements. But the truth is that the next "big thing" isn't found in the past. Daring to reach for the next big thing and failing doesn't invalidate the risk. I think WotC reached for that, and is now in once-bitten-twice-shy mode. True to form, they try to go back to the basics and, like most intelligent creatures, they know they have to change it up a bit. I think their only real hope is to keep trying, though there is little evidence that something truly revolutionary is likely to spring from institutionalized minds, clever or no. The best they are likely to do with this back-to-the-future approach is to get some of us old-timers to come back from Pathfinder (or wherever). That's going to be a tough sell.

  6. Look at the fallacy of this argument:

    "But the truth is that the next "big thing" isn't found in the past"

    The NEXT big thing is found in the FUTURE by DEFINITION. The future can contain the past and it can also be inspired by it. Therefore, the next "big thing" may actually be an an old story retold.

    There is little wisdom in applying one way of thinking (physics based forces) and attempting to apply it to something that is not designed for (roleplaying games). It's like trying to understand D&D via the rules of Hockey... you have nothing but nonsense as a result.