Simplicity in rpgs is a tricky subject. Most people assume that simpler is always better. A simple game is easier to learn and to teach, and it usually moves along faster and requires less of the players. A few people reject the notion entirely and crave complexity, both for the perceived realism it brings and for the complexity itself, because complexity is usually robust and meaty.
I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle. I favor something that is robust and has enough to it that it’s a believable simulation of something, but I want a game that moves along at a good pace and doesn’t get in the way of the story.
Before I go any further, let me define some terms. When I say “robust and meaty,” I mean a game with enough going on that I can have a lot of encounters and they can all (potentially) feel and play out very differently. It means a fair number of character options that can be mixed up and arranged in different viable ways, lots of different kinds of challenges and opponents, and some factors to encourage long-term play without things getting repetitious. When I say “simulation” I just mean that the rpg is trying to portray something–it doesn’t have to be reality. A well-made Scooby Doo rpg wouldn’t have any resemblance to reality, for example, it would be simulating Scooby Doo cartoons.
Now, I’ve played a lot of 3rd Edition D&D, as you can well imagine, as well as its progeny: various d20 games, Pathfinder, and so on. At its best it is certainly robust, but few would call it simple. It can be, in fact, a headache for GMs at times, and extremely challenging to new players to attempt to learn. While it’s a system for which I’m well known, I think that if I was going to design something brand new, I would try to make it simpler, and in some ways much simpler.
Why? Well, because D&D is its own animal, so to speak. D&D needs to be D&D. It needs to play like D&D, feel like D&D, and offer various options like D&D. But that doesn’t mean other games need to do the same. If I was going to design a new game–and I am–it could offer less precision in its simulation in order to achieve faster play, for example. Is it vitally important to have a game that tracks every pound of equipment a character is carrying and offer a fairly believable subsystem for determining how much different characters can carry? No. Not always. Is it likewise important for a game to offer a way to track how good a cook someone is and compare it somehow to how good a climber someone else is, and make sure that these ratings are tracked for every single being in the game, PC or NPC? No. Is a complete list of every weapon that’s ever existed, with each weapon carefully distinguished from every other weapon needed? No. And so on.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that these things are bad. There’s no judgement being made here at all. Instead, the point is simply that there are different ways to make a game, and they’re all valid. And the different ways lead designers down different paths, which are likewise all valid. And often interesting.
For example, I want to design a game where a GM can create NPCs and other challenges on the fly–fully statted people, creatures, traps, objects, barriers, etc.–all on the fly. Not just quickly, but right there while they sit at the table. In their heads. Now that, all by itself, is a hugely different game than 3rd edition or Pathfinder.
To accomplish this, I’ve got to make things simpler, obviously. But I don’t want to take so much away that the game doesn’t feel robust to the players. The obvious solution is the one that many games take: NPCs don’t follow the same rules as PCs. PCs have their own creation system and ways of operating, and NPCs–whether people, animals, or tentacled beasties–have theirs. The only thing that is important is how the two interact. As long as that is interesting and has depth, with opportunities for variation, change, and encounters that feel and play out differently, what NPC stats actually look like don’t matter. I’ve come up with some ways to make challenges that PCs face–whether it’s a locked iron door, a ravenous tiger, or a deadly assassin–extremely easy to concoct. So easy that GMs can do it with no advance prep at all (although a couple of minutes here and there would make them even better). Without having to spend hours creating NPC stats, the GM can focus all of his prep time on the story, the setting, and the descriptions.
Which means that this new rules set can and should be tied to a setting and genre filled with great stories, imaginative inhabitants and locales, and jaw-dropping vistas. And that’s great, because that’s exactly the kind of thing I want to provide.
And that’s just one way in which–and one reason why–I would opt to create a game with various aspects being much simpler than many games. I want to make things easy on the GM. I want fast-moving encounters. I want quick initial character creation. But I don’t want to give up on characters with a lot of interesting options, and robust, long-term game play. It’s a balancing act, as most aspects of game design are. In the coming weeks, I look forward to providing more specific details on all of this, and on the game that I’m working on. I hope you’ll follow along.