RPGaDay 2021 #21: Simplicity

Today’s RPGaDay 2021 prompt is “Simplicity”. I’ll take this opportunity to argue for complexity in tabletop roleplaying games.

Every now and then, I see new indie RPGs being launched that tout rules-light systems. Proudly they’ll proclaim that there will be a minimum of die-rolling, or that characters can be created within a few minutes, and so on. Rather than encourage me, such claims end up making me less excited about these games. Don’t get me wrong, simplicity for its own sakeor complexity, for that matteris pointless. Now, I’ve argued before that complexity isn’t inherently bad, nor is simplicity inherently good. Similarly, I’ve argued that rules are there to serve a purpose, and whatever amount is needed to meet that purposes is fitting. Today, though, I want to make a more emotional argument as to why I enjoy complexity.

Firstly, I like rolling dice. I enjoy the clicking of them in my hands or die-cup, the clitter-clatter of them rolling over wood, and gather them all together to add up the numbers. I just even like the look of dice and the varying shapes. There’s something pleasing about those little Platonic solids (and the d10 as well, to complete the polyhedral set). I also enjoy the small arithmetic of character sheets and RPG systems. I’ve spent time working out the probability of rolls, and what different rolling mechanics will mean for outcomes. It’s fun when you roll a unique number in the system, like a 20 in a d20 for systems that reward that, or rolling additional dice per 6 rolled on a d6 for exploding dice. The pure physicality of them is enjoyable to me.

Similar to enjoying the visceral experience of dice, I like RPG rulebooks. At times they feel like tomes of knowledge that I leaf through to find the answer to my problem. Cross-referencing rules and tables bring me back to the fun times I had as a university student, hidden among the stacks in the library reading academic treatises about philosophy. When writing adventures, I’m in the middle of a circle of books, with rules references in one, literary theory in another, and details about monsters or traps in a third. A well-written and designed book is a joy in its own right. Looking at the various illustrations, a good font, or a consistent set of design principles brought into reality is lovely.

It’s not just the experience of the physical books that is enjoyable, though. I like watching the mechanics come to life in play. Just comparing a pair of numbers is all right, and I suppose just rolling a die against an obstacle number will also get you a resolution to a conflict. That all seems rather arbitrary to me, though. I like allocating points to this or that, or forging a character by selecting the right skills. I enjoy mechanics that provide some influence over purely stochastic resolution systems. Whether that’s a set of combat moves or spells that provided bonuses or maluses to the numbers, or actions in volleys and exchanges that introduce elements of strategy, it’s enjoyable to me to see all the gears move in the machine. I like having part of this diegetic world under my control and the rest to be wildly out of it.

And, lastly, I enjoy seeing a full system run like clockwork. I love it when character creation, resolution systems, and reward systems all fit together to create a unified experience. Seeing a system achieve what it intends to achieve is fun. Seeing the emergent property of a system come to play is a pure joy. It’s fun to have worked with such a system and really understanding the core of it.

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