But what am I talking about when I say complex? I’ve talked with folks on the Gauntlet Podcast about the problems with describing a game as crunchy or as easy. What does that mean? Often there’s a “I know it when I see it” thing happening. What I'm thinking about isn’t about how hard a game is to understand when you’re reading the rules. That's an another issue and that's often mitigated by most rules teaching being done mentor/mentee, rather than self-teaching. Usually for our groups, one person learns the rules and teaches everyone else. Instead what I’m talking about is complexity when you’re actually playing the game.
So I want to offer one approach—my mental schema for evaluating complexity. It isn’t concrete, it isn’t set, it doesn’t have definitive values. But it offers a way to examine a game and make some judgements as well as compare it to other games. So here’s my ‘formula.’
Complexity can be judged taking a game’s primary activity and measuring the ratio of Resolution Time (steps, decision depth, lookup) to Effect (how much actually gets accomplished).
Let’s look at what I mean by those terms. First a game’s primary activity is the thing you’ll likely be doing the most or is the goal of play. So for example, the primary activity of Brindlewood Bay is gaining Clues. We do other things and NPC/PC interaction is part of that, but that’s more free play and sometimes doesn’t even move to needing mechanics. For Monster Care Squad, the primary activity is healing monsters. For Legacy: Life Among the Ruins the primary activity is doing the Basic Moves, each of which may be different but share a parallel resolution approach.
And for most FRPGs, the primary activity is combat. It’s where we usually have the most mechanics and it’s something we return to again and again.
Resolution Time is the number of discrete steps taken from declaration of intent to final effect. But not all steps are equal. Some steps are optional, meaning they don’t happen all of the time. Some steps are rote—meaning once established in the activity, the default becomes easy to call up. But some steps have a larger pool of choices involved with them—if a step has more than one choice we can say that it has decision depth. The more choices, the greater the depth.
An additional factor for some games is what I’m calling lookup—basically any resolution system which requires each time that you check some additional external materials or tools. I don’t consider something a 'Lookup' if the whole of the resolution turns on it and you can easily recall it from turn to turn (like Basic Moves in PbtA games) or if the Lookup offers examples of a relatively easily calculated formula. What I am talking about are cross-reference tables, like Weapon and Crit tables from Rolemaster or big tables of arbitrary modifiers to the resolution (more than 5 modifiers and they don’t follow a standard progression).
Note for purposes of this I’m leaving out all of the set up bits like moving into position, judging Line of Sight, etc.
On the other side of the ratio, we have the effect. This is also subjective but we could think of it as a percentage—i.e. assuming the action is successful, how much of the task does it complete. Is it a little, like chip damage, or does it usually resolve the task? In combat terms, are we going to be swinging and hitting this thing (on average) several times before it drops or does this roll completely resolve the conflict. Obviously this will vary from foe to foe, but we can eyeball what that looks like.
So that gives us a graph?
- Low resolution time, small effect
- Low resolution time, great effect
- High resolution time, small effect
- High resolution time, high effect.
This is all subjective and it assumes you can kind of track an average for all of these details. There’s a lot of complexity it doesn’t take into account. For example, a system with a low resolution time but a super-involved weapon/ammo tracking system or approach for crafting. Red Markets adds a lot of that. Or where the simple resolution ties into a complex set of resources and other factors—like Legacy: Life Among the Ruins or Shattered City. It also doesn’t consider factors like action costs or initiative, if those are present.
- Declare Intent and decide which of the four action types this is.
- Determine skill used.
- GM rolls or sets the opposition—this step may include the GM using Fate points or other abilities
- Player rolls 4dF and adds skill
- Player may invoke aspects to increase their results
- If this is an attack, the GM applies and describes the effect. If it is Create Advantage, the player names the aspect and notes the invokes. If it is Defend and the player has rolled less than the attack, they must absorb the shifts of damage.
- Effect: If attacking named foes, it may a couple of hits to take out the target. Often building up effects across multiple characters can make for a single attack which finishes them off. Troops may be taken out more easily or be aggregated into a group which takes several hits to deal with.
Hearts of Wulin (Duel)
- Player declares intent and, if not already established, the GM states the scale of the foe
- Player rolls 2d6 plus their style element stat
- Player may now burn bonds to increase their result
- Other players may declare they’re attempting to assist (which results in a split sub-resolution)
- Player compares results to the move and makes any necessary choices. If they succeed or succeed with a cost, they defeat their foe. Otherwise they stalemate and may ask a question or they fail and suffer effects.
- Effect: Success defeats foe.
13th Age (Combat)
- Player declares action—usually by this point they’ll how what kind of attack/action they’re planning on doing—what spell, talent, effect.
- GM checks to see if the attack will trigger some response from the target and says what the target number is (AC, PD, MD).
- Player rolls—adds bonus and escalation die value.
- If that equals or beats the target number, they roll any damage and resolve any additional effects. GM checks to see if this takes out target or triggers effects. A roll of a natural d20 doubles final damage.
- If any additional effects get triggered (like Bard or Fighter’s effects which are based on the natural die roll).
- Effect: Damage is generally chip damage, meaning for standard foes it will take two+ hits to take them down. Troops (Mooks) are handled as a mob with X damage taking out a member of the mob and reducing its damage output.
Star Trek 2d20 (Combat)
- Player declares action.
- Player figures out which combination of Attribute + Discipline applies
- Player decides whether to spend momentum or trigger talents for additional dice/effects
- Players check to see if any foci apply
- If actively opposed, the GM runs a sub-process check stats, deciding whether to spend threat, rolling dice, and calculating successes. Otherwise the GM stats the difficulty
- Player decides if they will use an applicable traits to lower the difficulty
- Other players decide if they will assist—if so run that sub-process
- Player rolls 2d20—more if they have spent momentum
- Players check dice for critical, successes and complications
- Players may now choose to apply some talent effects and/or spend Determination to reroll if it fits with one of their character’s values.
- If final total matches the difficulty, then the action is a success. If the total is higher than the difficulty, they generate momentum and must now decide how they wish to spend it. If they decide not to spend, they can bank that.
- If the action has effect, the player rolls effect dice to determine effect value. If the effect dice allow for triggered effects, those are now applied.
- If the target has soak, they roll those dice to determine effect value. If the effect dice allow for triggered effects, those are now applied.
- Subtract any soak total from the attack effect value to determine how much damage the target suffers.
- Effect: While damage is generally chip damage, the variability of the effect die can swing things significantly. There’s a 33% chance that any die will yield no damage. But characters might also deal out a ton of damage. OOH rolled soak also means that damage inflicted can be negated by armor or cover.
OK, SO WHAT?
I put this together because of the challenge of assessing the different games in the 2d20 universe. They share some basic facets, but different radically in how challenging the play is at the table. It’s a factor that’s more than just lots of charts or hit locations. I think to have a sense of the whole of a game you have to look at the component parts.
For me it’s a way of judging if something fits into my wheelhouse. Bottom line: if resolving an interaction takes significant time at the table and the net effect means we have to do that multiple times over multiple turns, I'm not as comfortable running it. I'll either quit playing it or I look at ways to reduce the resolution steps—do I need to roll as a GM? Can I put certain tasks in the players hands? Do we need to worry about distances and range? And so on.
Tangentially, one thing that warrants further discussion and analysis are the kinds of choices players get to make at each step of resolution. Do they add to the play? Do they let you show off character elements? Do they offer opportunities to differentiate yourself from everyone else?