Welcome back! Today’s unasked question is “what’s the deal with complexity in games?”
Today’s unedited answer is, of course, very complex.
But seriously, let’s just talk about complexity a bit. It’s a tough topic that I feel is the sole differentiator between people who like different role-playing games.
And if that doesn’t sound complex at all, just you wait.
To start I just want to explain that I don’t hate complexity. In fact, the nature of rules in D&D is what allows the game to work as a storytelling device – if there were no rules we’d all just be sitting around chatting. The rules create the desire to make something more cohesive.
However I often see people complaining about a lack of complexity. The main difference between 5e people and Pathfinder people is exactly this, at least in my opinion. Pathfinder is complex and 5e is simple.
Even within those groups, however, there are those who want to add more complexity. And that, I feel, is foolish.
A certain level of complexity is required. We have to define what a character can and cannot do, of course, and we also have to define the methods by which the DM can affect the world. These definitions allow us to all understand the game on equal ground.
What these complex systems do wrong is assume that “more complexity = better game” with no regard for context. Adding in a realistic and deep asthma system to 5e doesn’t make it a better game – in fact it does quite the opposite.
At the end of the day, the question is about what content is worth the complexity.
Encumbered with Mechanics
Let’s take Encumbrance (or as Pathfinder calls it, Bulk) as an example. When I first started playing Pathfinder, I was incredibly impressed with Bulk. The 5e Encumbrance system had always been such a pain to track that we had never bothered with it. This new Bulk system seemed much more manageable.
We then proceeded to play Pathfinder and never use the Bulk system. It just hasn’t come up and we haven’t needed it. If someone tries to do something unreasonable our DM can just say “no way” and we’re good.
It wasn’t important in 5e to know exactly how much a cannon weighs, and it wasn’t important to know how much Bulk a cannon has in Pathfinder.
Because at the end of the day we all know that you can’t just carry a whole damn cannon.
Does this mean the Encumbrance and Bulk systems are bad? Not at all! I can see uses for both (even if Bulk is still likely better). But the point is that it isn’t a necessity.
You can also compare this to other stories. How many times did encumbrance come up as an issue in Lord of the Rings? Wheel of Time? Both series mentioned the concept of “there’s only so much you can carry” but in neither case were they central themes of the story.
Because ultimately we aren’t reading those books to hear about the inconveniences of carrying everything you might need. We’re reading for epic battles, dangerous adventures, and fantastic magic.
And that begs a question…
Is Anything In Need of More Complexity?
So are there places where D&D could use some added complexity? Personally my answer is no – say what you will about 5e’s many issues, but one thing they seem to usually have a good grasp on is the principle of “simple and playable above all else.” Something Pathfinder unfortunately doesn’t share.
But there are a few places where D&D just doesn’t have enough specificity. The clearest example of this is in crafting magic items, which as far as I’ve seen has never gotten any clarification. Some people make magic items somehow and that’s pretty much all you get.
So would 5e benefit from having rules on making magic items? Yes! Does 5e need those rules? No!
For one, crafting magical items is something that only spellcasters can do. Even more than that, you generally only find three classes behind magical item creation – wizards, artificers, and clerics. While a sorcerer or warlock could make a magic item, that isn’t as much in their fantasy (and most of the warlock’s magic item fantasy is fulfilled by the Book of Shadows and Pact Weapon).
Additionally magic item creation is normally a higher-level activity. You could get some 1st levels making potions, and 5th levels may dabble in trinkets and scrolls, but you usually don’t expect significant magic item crafting until you hit like 10th level. And, no matter what people may actually want, the numbers consistently show that the majority of games never get past the mid levels.
So if we did add a magical item crafting system, it would only be usable by an extreme minority of characters. Now you might be thinking “that’s perfect then! it doesn’t matter if it’s complex if only a few people will use it!” And you’d be right in that.
But we’re still left with two issues. The first is bloat – even if a given mechanic is not intended to be used by 90% of players, it’s still on the books and thus taking up space. The second issue is that just because it’s intended for high-level play doesn’t mean it’ll stay there.
Another problem presented is the slippery slope issue. If we have a system for creating new magic items, shouldn’t wizards have the ability to create new spells? Should we add the ability to modify existing magic items?
I hate slippery slope arguments, but in this case my point is more that “these are all equally valid concerns” rather than “doing this one thing will inevitably cause all of these other problems.” We physically cannot perfectly simulate fantasy life (unfortunately) and so we have to be careful with what we spend effort on.
Sounds Awfully Complex
Ultimately my gist is that I always see these “a new ruleset gives 5e some much-needed complexity!” clickbait titles and immediately think “have you not played D&D?”
And this ties into a trend online in which simple systems are seen as insufficient. That if a game (of any kind) isn’t complex then it isn’t worth playing. But in reality it’s the simplest games that get the most success.
I know Minecraft is a typical example, but there are others as well. Early Hearthstone got its success from its simple mechanics (which are now dead somewhere in a ditch). Super Smash Bros is successful because of its “party game first, fighting game second” design. Look at all of these successful games and what you generally find is an inner simplicity that makes them so appealing.
And I know there’s a market for complexity. Many people get bored with these simplistic games and eventually move on to more complex ones. But those people, as far as I’ve seen, are in the minority. And the best games, the ones with the most success, are the ones that are exceedingly simple but still have sufficient depth to keep fans of complexity interested.
I feel that most tabletop RPGs fall into that latter category. Base 5e is simple to play and easy to learn (for the most part). Pathfinder 2e is more complex, but is ultimately still something you could pick up and play without only a moderate amount of prep time.
Both also have other options to add complexity. If you want to, you can multiclass in 5e in order to get a character that more closely matches your preferences. The absolute glut of feats available in Pathfinder 2e means that you can customize your character to be as simple or complex if you like.
And finally, due to TTRPGs’ nature as a collaborative experience, the games need to be simple so that everyone can play them. You need a group of people, and you need rules that a group of people can understand and agree on.
So if you want to add complexity, go right ahead. But the game doesn’t need it to be a good game.
Please. I already had to learn THAC0 once, I don’t want to have to do it again.