First time I saw the term “Complexity
Creep” was in reference to Magic the Gathering adding new mechanics like
Legendary, Rampage, multi-color cards in its third expansion set called Legends. These new mechanics had to have their own
special rules with rules insert cards.
These new rules weren’t incorporated very well with the old rules and
caused a lot of confusion. In the end,
the extra confusion was worth it, but it took the Magic development team years
to sort everything out. And as a result,
there were a couple close calls where Magic: the Gathering almost died.
Complexity Creep can apply to RPGs as
well. In big games like D&D or Ars
Magica, rules from new editions pile on to old rules in an attempt to A) enrich
the play experience and B) solve known design issues. Unfortunately, sometimes these new “fixes”
end up convoluting what play should actually be about. For instance, take a look at the character
OD&D circa 1976
AD&D2e circa 1998
D&D4e circa 2012
ODnD fits on a single page and tells you
up front what’s important. In ADnD2, we
can see a lot of extra fluff, a notes page, and plenty of optional character
traits like Psionic powers. You can
easily see how two editions later, much had been added to the game. It’s not ALL relevant. Having had experience with this character
sheet, I can tell you that almost all of it past the second page can be ignored
by most players. But on the 4e character
sheet, everything is relevant to the character.
I wanted to show you one that was filled out just so you could see how
much stuff a player is responsible for during play. There are so many icons splattered across the
page, so many fields to fill out and keep track of, and so many rules right on
the page that your eyes can go buggy just looking at them! As you can see, the game went from a simple
dungeon crawling game to a massive epic style adventure game. But in the end, did all that additional
complexity add enjoyment and streamline play?
Ask the OSR guys.
For smaller press games, like your
typical indie game, complexity creep is not usually spread out over multiple
editions. Instead, the creep happens
Complexity itself is not necessarily a
good or bad thing. Designers generally
add complexity to their mechanics when problems arise during the design or
during the playtesting phases. There
are questions, issues, and situations that will always arise during play. Some will be singular to a particular group,
but others will be common enough that every play group or nearly every play
group will have to address it. When a
problem is common enough that a large number of groups will have to confront
it, it’s time to make a rule- i.e. add complexity. That’s not a bad thing, that’s a necessary
part of design. Complexity solves
problems that stall or prevent fun play.
That’s it’s job.
But there is a point where complexity
goes too far. This can be hard to talk
about without stepping on people’s toes, but step on them a bit I will. Some designers get toward the end of their
design phase or even playtesting phase and feel that their books aren’t long
enough. They have it in their mind that
an RPG should be a certain length, and if it’s less than that, people might not
buy it. As a result, they start adding
in extra rules and optional rules that suddenly cloud what the game is really
about. This is a silly notion that RPGs
have to be a certain length, but designers- especially new designers- fall prey
to it. Your game does not have to be a
certain length to be good or done or marketable. It just needs to have coherent rules that
communicate your passion and vision for play.
Never add rules just to add length.
Another complexity trap that designers
will fall into is including certain rules because every other game in the genre
has included them. The poster-boys for
this kind of complexity creep are drowning and falling. A dungeon-based RPG where drowning and
falling are real dangers is a great place for these rules. A romance fantasy game is not. Another legacy rule from older games is
reload time for weapons. A lot of games
include these arcane rules for “realism’s” sake or whatever. If it’s not a tactical game where the act of
reloading actually matters to the fiction, you probably don’t need to worry
about including it. When you’re
designing your game, ask yourself, “Do I really need rules for drowning and
falling? Do I really need rules on how
long it takes to reload an AK-47?” Often
times, you won’t. This relates, somewhat,
to the design problems I outlined in my article on the 20:4 ratio. If something is not important to actual play,
then it’s probably not important enough to include in the mechanics of your
Finally, I believe that designers add in
extra complexity because they’re afraid the players won’t have enough to do and
they’ll be bored. This happened with my
design on Cutthroat. All the stuff about
being arrested and whatnot is total crap.
It shouldn’t be in there, but I was afraid that the players would get
bored tear-assing around town and beating the living daylights out of each
other. Turns out, both those things are
really fun! The game didn’t need the
The real depth of play that is so
fulfilling actually comes from the interaction among the players, not just the
interaction between a player and the mechanics.
So piling on more and more of them is not necessarily the best way to
go. Your game should have enough
mechanics to help the players generate the kinds of play you want, and that’s
it. If you go beyond that, you’re
allowing needless complexity to creep in.
Keep your design focused; that’s the best advice I can give.