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

Monday, May 10, 2021

Needless complexity is gatekeeping + justify every rule

I watched an interesting video from Nerdarchy a while ago. The tile is "D&D Ability Scores: Why are We Still Doing it This Way". While the discussion on ability scores is not new, I think they nailed the true issue:

Needless complexity is gatekeeping.

I'm paraphrasing here but they basically ask: 

Are these things the true gatekeepers of D&D? Or: in order to play D&D, do you need to learn all these rules that matter very little or nothing? We are just making math with extra steps at this point... 

Anyway, here is the video:

And I completely agree with this idea. Every little rule that is included in the (300+ pages) PHB and doesn't have a clear function is a small obstacle to new players. And every player that I've brought from other editions (or other RPGs) to 5e had a harder time then they should, IMO. The rules often got in the way of the game.

But this is not only for new players. I've been playing 5e for a few years, and D&D for more than three decades. The fact that there are so many rules in 5e often turns me off from playing the game, even though I really like the system as a whole.

Believe ir or not, I'm playing GURPS at the moment and the basis of the system feel somewhat simpler. Probably because each character has a smaller number of special powers (still, too many skills).

don't get me wrong - 5e is decent enough. SOME features are ridiculous, but MOSTLY it is a good system. I just wish they had gone a couple of extra steps: cut repetition, make races a bit simpler and more flexible, a smaller list of spell that you can cast at any level, and remove some features that are only there to give you +1.33 damage (or some other ridiculous amount) per attack.

By the way, I started listening to a new podcast, The GM's Guide, yesterday. Only one episode so far ("Designing Your Own RPG System"), but I really like it. He says something to the effect of "you need to justify every rule you have" - which is exactly what we're saying here.

But, in the end, it's just a matter of taste. I love Moldvay's Basic, for example, but I wanted to add more stuff, so I wrote Dark Fantasy Basic. I think 5e is too complex, but the melee weapons are too simple - so I wrote a couple of PDFs to enhance it. In the end, I'm not without blame...

The solution? I'm not sure. It might be having a lean spine (maybe the "basic" version of 5e but something like Moldvay's Basic might be even better), and building other things (feats, extra spells, subclasses, etc.) ON TOP of it, according to your taste. Character creation at first level should probably be easier - add complexity as you go.

But I guess there is no perfect solution. The best I can do is choose what works best for me.


  1. I think the increased complexity is one of the reasons that the largest group of new players is adults in their 20's and not kids in their teens. In the 80's and 90's almost everyone I knew who played were teenagers. There were some older players but it was not uncommon for a 14 year old to pick up a basic box set and talk their friends into playing. I started with AD&D and my DM was 15 at the time. My 16 year old struggled through figuring out how to create a character reading the 5E PHB on her own.

    That complexity is a bad thing, in my opinion.

    1. Yeah, new players - not only to RPGs in general, but also to 5e in particular - are one of my main concerns here.

  2. I still stand by that the best way to do a TTRPG system is to have emergent complexity that is from actual system mastery, instead of seeking specific feat combos. Thus you don't end up with the same issue of trying to cover edge cases or power creep.

    1. I like the idea of emergent complexity, but not sure what you mean with actual system mastery. Could you give me some examples? sounds interesting.

    2. I guess as I see it, instead of having specific rules for every case, have rules where logical extension of the initial rule.

      This allows for a small base rule-set that can be easy to recall, and you can run through them fairly quickly.

      Of course, you still need a base rule-set which covers all your base conditions which may still take a lot of pages. For example, if you want some form of a cantrip + spell points for scaling up, you need to cover your base cantrips. It lookes like for example Spheres of Might and Power for 5e does a good job at that. However, navigating the free wiki is still daunting.

      It's a complicated balance (and may be inherently contradicting and self defeating in the end). However, I think what it comes down to is that the most complex part of the rules should be in the character creation/level up process of the game (and that should be as easy as possible). Thus when it comes to actual play, the gameplay is smooth and unhindered.

    3. Ah, I see - and I agree.

      A good example might be "contests in combat", from 5e. Grappling only covers grabbing and shoving, but you could extend this to disarm, disturb concentration, stun, blind, etc.

      Instead, we get different feats, features, etc., that do the same thing is a more complicated manner.

      Making a generic "contest"/"stunt" rule with some small examples like that is one thing I plan to do in some future "Manual of Arms" book.

    4. That makes sense.

      I also still like the idea of just using stats as a target threshold (roll under) with then having saves and AC as a roll over. The idea of character skills then being used through dice manipulation instead allows characters to still have a 'growth' probably makes the general skill resolution simple and condensed. It still has the same philosophy of 5e skill resolution, but instead of adding bonuses, it's just a quick check.

      Players can then spend daily resources to bolster the check. This can probably also make group checks easier in the sense that group brainstorming is less "does one person make the check (with or without advantage from aid)" and more "the party can choose to spend additional resources to guarantee that they pass the check, but will cost daily resources. It essentially reflects just being tired at the end of the day. 'Nova' effects are not just a combat concept, but a more broad feature of resource management.

    5. I like the idea of "players can then spend daily resources to bolster the check". I'm very close to saying "just use HD for all powers and that's it". Easy to do with warriors and spellcasters. Rogues have few daily resources, but a skill boost would be a good idea for them.

    6. On one hand, I see where you are coming from. On the other, I still wonder if there is a way to make HD operate as a separate pool of HP that only gets targeted on a critical hit or if HP is 0. It is essentially a Vitality and Wounds concept, but it's something that (imo) better reflects slow recovery from a brutal fight. And I think HD alone would be too few (and too differently valued between classes) to just have a lose dice system.

      What I could see done is that Warriors and Spell casters spend the resources to manipulate attacks and spell casting respectively. Your Experts would then do the same with Skills. I probably would also make skills more 'efficient' than spells. For example you skill bonus instead of being added to the roll, is the conversion rate between the daily resource and the die manipulation. So if you have a skill 'rank/proficiency' of 2, you can spend a point to add/subtract up to 2 from the roll. If this is the common resolution framework, I would then make Experts have a 'free' baseline which could be mirrored in your Martials and Spell casters doing the same with combat and spellcasting respectively (if at smaller values). If saves and AC are defenses that set a lower bound the effect needs to roll over, then for skills that threshold can be high enough that resources are spent to lower that threshold to something that can be passed.

      So in the end, there is maths involved, but it's not the same degree of bonus juggling (I would hope).

  3. I agree, they should have started with a stream-lined basic system and then had an Advanced version of the game with all those extra bits, races, spells, etc. A bit like the way they did it back in the 80s except the Advanced wouldn't need to be a stand-alone. Once you've groked the basic the Advanced would be easy, but throwing it all at people at once, well that's a bit much to absorb and it is one of the reasons most people still need others to teach them to play.

    1. Yes, this! Come to think of it, the "basic" PDFs are a good start, but I wish they were even simpler.

  4. I agree, and I'm disappointed that Wizards couldn't pull this off, because this design method was key to the success of Magic: the Gathering. They built a straightforward core rule set, then put exceptions in each card. I think they tried to do this with 4th Edition, but they only did it for combat, when it seems obvious that players to do more in these games than just fight...

    1. Yes, MtG is great example of good design!
      4e had some nice ideas too; even if I'm not a fan of 4e, I can see 5e abandoned some stuff that they shouldn't have.