The problem was that every time I read those games or wrote my own, I couldn't stop adding stuff to them. You see, there are many bits in my favorite RPGs that I find unnecessary and dull, but there are lots of small things that I like and, sincerely, have a hard time leaving out of my game.
It took me a while to realize I wasn't looking for minimalism at all.
Wikipedia has an useful definition that says minimalism “describes movements in various forms of art and design […] where the work is set out to expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts.”
The thing is, I rather like many features that one could find non-essential, such as the interaction between weapons and armor, encumbrance, skills, and so on, but I still dislike the rules-bloat that sometimes come with it. What I want is to have a system with all this stuff and some simple rules to go with it.
What I was looking for is elegance.
Elegance is a debated topic, often confounded with minimalism, but to me they aren't the same (although very close to each other). Dictionaries define elegance with words like effectiveness and simplicity. Once again, I found a simple explanation in Wikipedia (emphasis mine):
|Minimalist cover art - T&T UK 4th edition
The difference, for me, is this: while a minimalist game eliminates every detail that is not important or essential, an elegant game uses the same solutions for different things, which means that few rules can be used to cover many situations, whether essential or not.
For example,"3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars" has a minimalist set of traits: Fighting Ability (FA) and Non-Fighting Ability (NFA), and not much else. This is not elegant per se (although the game is very elegant in other aspects), but it is simple and good enough for that particular game. For elegance, I can hardly think of a better example than Delta's house rules, that uses the same Target 20 mechanic for attacks, saving throws and thief skills, without deviating much from Original D&D. It cuts redundancy, not details.
Although the concepts are different, any good minimalist games will have a healthy dose of elegance, or risk becoming uninteresting. “Whenever you try to do anything you must roll 6 on a d6” is hardly a game at all. The aforementioned Risus and Searchers of the Unknown are good example of minimalist games that use elegance in order to maintain simplicity while allowing for a good range of distinct situations.
Another important point to focus in is “inter-related problems”. Using a single mechanic for different things isn't necessarily elegant if those things have little to do with each other. For example, creating “social hit points”, “social attacks” and “social armor” in order to use the same system for combat and interaction in D&D sounds clunky, not clever. Likewise, unified mechanics might be simpler, but not necessarily elegant.
The opposite of elegance, in my opinion, is useless distinction. This is the reason I could never understand versions of D&D where the fighter gets an attack bonus that rises from, say, +1 to +17 during 20 levels, instead of simply getting +1 per level, or why use two different ways to adjudicate thief's skills (say, 50% chance of finding traps and 3 in 6 chances to hear sounds). Of course I could find worse examples, but those are the ones I think most people will be familiar with. Adding such details for no reason makes the game more complex but no more effective which, by definition, makes it less elegant.
When writing my own stuff, I often try to think of multipurpose mechanics, ideas that can be used to expand the game without making it more complicated. Take abilities in OD&D, for example: most of them have few purposes for most characters, and they work fine that way. But if one is creating new stuff for OD&D, he could use the existing abilities for new purposes (roll 3d6 under ability to achieve something is a popular one) instead of coming up with new abilities or new mechanics.
In order to make the games I like simpler, I no longer try to cut all that is not essential. Instead, I try to find the most useful tools I can, and use them for as many situations as possible. That is the philosophy I'll do my best to follow when talking about weapons, abilities, modifiers and similar topics in the coming posts.