Different Strokes for Different Folks


Over on his RPGtalk blog, Ben Lehman wrote:

I wish I had words to express the pure joy that is writing Anima Hunters powers. There’s something of the pleasure of writing the Polaris aspects, without the pressure to be super-poetic, and the additional pleasure of choosing Feats in D&D. Watching the powers fit together in interesting ways as I am writing them is just great. It’s like writing a crossword puzzle or something.

I have a soft spot for expressions of honest enthusiasm like this. It’s cool that Ben is enjoying this aspect of writing his game. But it got me thinking about my own tastes and preferences.

Y’see, I hate this kind of thing. I don’t think it’s bad design–not at all. It’s just design that doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t have a good name for it, but there’s a whole massive strain of it in RPG design, and it always, always bugs me. To pin “it” down further, I’ll list examples:

  • Spells in D&D are the biggest offender. In AD&D2, at least, each one was its own separate ruleset, doing its little dance, and stepping on the toes of a million other parts of the system.
  • Pretty much any sort of “power list” is a child of D&D’s spells, with their pages and pages and pages of kewlness
  • D&D3’s Feats are all about this.
  • Two words: Weapon Lists
  • Burning Wheel is rife with this stuff–Traits, lifepaths, spells, skills–Luke loves it (and does it well, I might add).
  • tSoY’s Secrets and Keys work like this, too, although with more clarity and less complexity than the above examples

I sometimes think about it as a 2 x 2 grid with “simple” and “complex” on one side, and “pieces” and “interactions” across the top. So, checkers has simple pieces (each piece can do one thing, kings can do one extra thing), with moderately-complex interactions (when you can jump, when you must jump, etc.). Chess has more complex pieces (6 different types, each with their own moves) and much more complex interactions. Clicky-based minis games (although I’m not real familiar) seem to have very complex pieces (dozens of different figures, each with their own advantages & disads) with rather simple interactions (do damage to the other figure).

I like games where the pieces are simple, but the interactions are complex. My Life With Master excels at this. There’s only 5 scores in the whole game, and 2 of them are common for the group. But the interactions of those scores produces something truly beautiful. Sorcerer also has simple pieces, for the most part (adding in the demon powers does raise the complexity level, though), with highly complex interactions.

It seems to me that Ben is enjoying creating complex interactions of complex pieces. Which is great for people who can do that. I can’t. Considering that the FVLMINATA magic system, cool as it is, is 100% Jason Roberts’, you won’t see this in any game I’ve designed.

Simple pieces interacting in complex ways: That’s what I like, that’s what I do.


6 Responses to “Different Strokes for Different Folks”

  1. Thanks for the link!
    You realize that, in Anima Hunters, there are actually only five things of any account:
    1) Maneuvers, which changes position
    1a) Position
    2) Combat, which reduces or preserves hits
    2a) Hits
    3) Timing
    Every single power is some form of swap between these five currency elements.
    Now, it turns out that a lot of people don’t like long lists of currency swapping capabilities. This is totally cool! But part of the goal of Anima Hunters is to avoid the “breaks” in more complicated systems by reducing everything to a reasonably simple set of interactions, and then riffing on those simple interactions rather than adding new ones.
    (I call these games “listy Gamism,” btw.)

    • Actually, I didn’t realize that about Anima Hunters because, well, I suck at keeping up with games-in-progress. That simplicity is a good goal.
      I’m one of those folks who doesn’t like long lists of anything. Give me a good, solid principle that I can apply myself to whatever crops up and I’m happy.
      I’m not too fond of the “listy Gamism” term. Since what we’re talkin about is a family of techniques, it seems wrong to link them to a set CA. Keys in TSoY and some Traits in BW are used to drive Narr play, for instance.
      Not that I have a better term… I suck at naming stuff, too!

      • Ah, yes, lists do appear in other games which are not gamists, but there is a particular school of Gamism, exemplified by D&D3, which is all about choosing things from lists. It’s very similar to CCGs.
        It’s a technique which works well for Gamism, particularly when combined with a relatively simple base system. Anima Hunters is basically my stab at it.

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