I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Minimalism, Elegance and Multipurpose Mechanics

I once tried to write minimalist RPGs. After a long period of infatuation with detailed, “realistic” games, I got a bit bored and thought I could enjoy something faster, simpler, easier - maybe my own version of Risus, Searchers of the Unknown or Lady Blackbird. At that time, I was very interested in going back to D&D but couldn't stand a few features that have been present in most editions of the game: endless charts, complex XP rules, and long lists of various things (such as spells and equipment), so a naturally gravitated towards things like SotU, Microlite20 and so on.

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
In engineering, a solution may be considered elegant if it uses a non-obvious method to produce a solution which is highly effective and simple. An elegant solution may solve multiple problems at once, especially problems not thought to be inter-related.

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.


  1. Great post! Thanks for that. I'd like to add one more thought to elegance vs. clunky (like you describe with the AD&D Fighter devlopment): there is a didactic dimension to writing rules. That means (or can mean) for one that irregular pattern shifts help in memorizing the rules and another point could be that, while it seems unnecessary when seen as rules only, it changes the perception of the player in another (and I think favorable) way than linear growth would. Because mixing it up like this demands attention and brings a bit variety. That is not a bad thing (I might even go as far as saying, it's very important). When looking at rules we are (in a way) seeing them from a birds eye perspective, but the view from within the game is just as important and what is already linear and easy from the outside will be even more so when actually playing it ... I might be wrong, though :)

    1. Thank you! This is a very interesting idea; I hadn't thought that irregular pattern shifts help in memorizing the rules for some people, because for me it's quite the opposite. Also, I can see why this shifts might bring some variety and fun to an otherwise predictable progression.
      I guess it is a question of preference, to some degree.

  2. Well, I'm not sure if it makes them easier to learn (it could), but it most of all puts some emphasis on the different levels instead of making it all the same, which helps recognizing changes as the characters get stronger. Domain play (to give an example) is something mostly ignored by D&D players, although crucial for mid to high level characters (at least in the D&D RC and AD&D). Which leaves the question if character development asked too much with adding a domain dimension to the game or not enough to fascilitate it (like ACK does). Because the main reason to not switch to domain play (as far as I know) is that people like to do what they did the whole time. And that seems to indicate that the rules didn't distinguish enough between levels to begin with ... Well, this could be an example where linear growth as supported by the rules won't support shifts in power levels (or not enough). It's that old shtick where a (one!) wizard would have to kill roughly 455 huge red dragons to get to level 36 in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. So depending on the scope of a game, it might even be necessary to have shifts like this ... I don't know :) Anyway, got me thinking and that's what good posts do with me. Maybe it warrants a post on it's own.

    1. Yes, domain play adds a whole new dimension to the game; ACKS made it much clearer, to me, which helps a lot, although there might be other obstacles to domain play (think of a party of six, each with their separate lands, feuds, etc). It is worth mentioning that RC had some options for "travelling" classes such as Paladins and Avengers, if you didn't want to go the "domain" route; this is a very interesting idea that didn't get much attention in most retroclones.
      I liked what 4e tried to do with tiers, although I'm not a fan of 4e per se...
      I think if players are level 9 (or whatever), they should be able to chase a domain, or some mystical powers, or something else, depending on their inclinations.
      There is certainly a lot to be said about the subject...