Thursday, February 14, 2013

What is Complexity Creep?


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 sheets below:

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 during design.

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 text.

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 extra complexity.

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.




Unknown said...

I'm totally getting what you're saying, mate, I've stumbled across this dilemna while designing my own game. And guess what? It was falling and drowning that had me stopping and really doing some hard thinking. In the end I included them, and I think they work ok, time will tell. I had a bit of complexity creep while sorting out how different magical styles interact with each other, kept inventing more way to defend or resist spells and in the end I scrapped the lot and came up with an easier, simpler method for dealing with everything. It was kind of a punching in the air moment actually. Keep up the good posts!

Troy_Costisick said...

Thanks, James. I wish you all the luck in the world with your design! :)