May 18, 2014

Complex Business

Game design is about communication and like with any other thing where two (or more) people interact with each other, there is room for misunderstandings. To communicate in a way that is clear a game needs to be elegant, simple and concise. The more clutter your game has, the more likely it is that people will not understand the rules, be confused about what is going on in the middle of a game, or think they understand it all when they actually don't. Designing a game is a quest and Complexity is the dragon you must defeat to complete it.

But here is the thing: Complexity is also fun. If I wanted a game that did away with its complexity I'd be playing tic tac toe or rock paper scissors instead of doing this. You don't have to kill the dragon, just make it your ally - then you have a kickass dragon on top of whatever it was you were questing for. The point is that you don't have to get rid of complexity, you just have to know how to use it effectively.

As far as RPGs go, complexity works on three levels that I can identify. Some games stick to only one level, but most use all three. Today I'll go into those a little and how BCG uses them, while elaborating on what makes them good when done right or bad when done wrong.

Just remember some people will get it wrong no matter what you do.

Concept Complexity

Concept Complexity is the simplest of the three levels, and is the one we usually talk about when we say that a rule is simple or complicated. Concept Complexity is a combination of fluff, the rules of the game, and using language efficiently. More Concept Complexity makes each special character ability unique from a flavor and rules standpoint. But the more of them you have, the more complicated they have to be to keep them all unique. Having ten pages of weapons or spells distinctive from each other is the hallmark of a game with a lot of Concept Complexity.

At the core, Concept Complexity is about making the game's nuts and bolts unique. When you execute it properly, Concept Complexity makes each of the components in your character sheet stand out because each one is a different cool thing. When you execute it badly you end up with rules that are either poorly explained or carry a ton of unnecessary baggage.

For an example I'll use Combinations, one of the most difficult things I've ever had to design, more specifically Component Unit.

Component Unit
Internal Upgrade (10)
Effect: Choose one of the four External Areas belonging to the Unit you will combine with. After you have Combined, the lead Unit gains all of your External Upgrades and Weapons assigning them to the chosen Area and it may use your Might, Guard, Systems or Speed in place of theirs if it is higher. You are now a Subpilot for the lead Unit. If the chosen Area is Maimed the lead Unit does not lose you as a Subpilot nor do their Attributes return to normal.
Parts of your Mecha have been clearly designed to be linked up and shared with other giant robots. Maybe it can form the arms of even larger Mecha’s torso, or turn into a giant backpack for another Mecha.

This has quite a bit of text, so it ranks pretty high on the Concept Complexity chart. When you read it for the first time and break it down sentence by sentence the process should be something like this:

-I have to choose an Area? I wonder what that will do.
-Oooooooohhhhhhhhhhh I see I can use this to turn into the head! And this gives the other PC my Attributes. Cool.
-And I am now a Subpilot. Okay that makes sense, I'll look up what that means later.
-If the Area gets beat up I can still help. Neat.
-Oh hey the Subpilot thing is right next to this ability. How convenient! Subpilots can take Utility Actions and don't get to Move for free. That's fair.

Not included: Explaining how combining is supposed to work.

In rules terms there is a lot going on here, but most of it is pretty intuitive if you've ever watched a show with combining Mecha. By making "Subpilots" their own thing in a sidebar we unclutter the rules text and because the rule now has a name it is harder to forget what it does. It is not all that difficult to memorize it after using it two or three times.

Could Component Unit be even simpler? Yes, but not without losing some of its flavor or utility value. Tilt the Concept Complexity too much towards fluff and you get a hundred guns with their own range, clip size, weight, loudness and other things that are supposedly relevant but often aren't. Tilt it too far towards rules and you get gimmicky things that are different for the sake of being different and don't really resonate conceptually. Cut corners when editing and you end up with something that is confusing and needs to be read like three times over.

Most RPGs have a lot of Concept Complexity, the exception being the most freeformish or storygamey of the bunch. The problem is usually not in having Concept Complexity at all, but in not managing it well. Sometimes less is more.

Play Complexity

 Play Complexity is the most extreme of the trio, because games tend to either revel in either having all they can get or avoiding it as much as humanly possible. Play Complexity emerges from the choices available to a given player in the middle of the game, depending on what else is going on at the time. In BCG you have to keep track of things like Terrain or Tension that make some of your Upgrades and Weapons more or less useful depending on context, so it has a decent amount of Play Complexity. But you don't have to keep track of visual ranges, acceleration speeds or fuel usage so it is not all that complicated when you compare it to other similar games.

The flip side of the coin is that games with too little Play Complexity limit your options to shooting your guns at the bad things until they stop moving. Some PC abilities use existing rules to create Play Complexity, like Techniques do with Tension. Others create new spaces of Play Complexity, like Restorations, which have their own little rules system somewhat independent from the rest of the game.

Play Complexity also exists in the form of abilities that react to triggers, like how Active Defenses can be used in response to an attack or Invincible Alloy keeps you alive with 1 Threshold when you would have normally been destroyed. Every single one of those is another thing to keep track of in the middle of the game. Failing to remember a key modifier at the right time can lead you to lose when you ought to have won and that is pretty frustrating.

Basically don't be the guy on the left but be the one on the right.

When you pull it off, Play Complexity makes for dynamic and intense game sessions. When you mess up the execution, Play Complexity makes for fiddly and wonky mechanics that get more in the way than they help you have fun. Play Complexity can be tricky because the rules can be simple individually but complicated when you get them all together. A single Enemy with Commander Type is one NPC with essentially two Actions you have to take into account, and each new Support makes said accounting more difficult.

Build Complexity

Build Complexity is about the choices you have when creating a character or powering them up. In some games all you have to do is choose whether to be the fighty one, the brainy one, or the charming one and maybe pick a favorite skill or piece of equipment then you're done. BCG has quite a bit of Build Complexity, but since the entire point is that you're supposed to make a pilot and giant robot to taste, that issue is more of a feature than it is a bug.

Customizing your PC to your liking can be a fun minigame in itself in a good game, and that is what BCG aims for. Not just that, but your choices of Skills and Upgrades tell the GM more about the kind of game you'd like to play. If all your sheet says is "Elf Wizard" then you're probably interested in learning more arcane secrets. But if you chose Stealth, Survival, Animal Person and Danger Instinct for your PC you are telling the GM that you expect to see action outdoors and that you can work well on your own if you have to do it, and they can use that information to plan something suited to your character.

Build Complexity also has an element of long-term strategy to it - if you figure out ahead of time how you want to make your character grow and work towards that plan, you'll have a stronger character. It rewards optimization and number crunching a fair bit more than spontaneous decision making, but this is basically true of any game that puts the Player in control of character advancement. What there are things I can do to mitigate it: We have templates to help you with choosing your initial sets of Attributes + Cool Stuff, Mid-Scene Upgrade can make up for weaknesses in your loadout and the book outright encourages rebuilding or switching Mecha if they aren't working out for you.

Build Complexity adds a lot of replay value to the game because you can have similar characters that play out in different ways. You just have to be careful not to turn the process of character creation or advancement into homework by having way more options than you could need. BCG minimizes the amount of options by condensing similar ones together like how the Temperature Miracle does both heat and cold (with the option to specialize in, say, fireballs and do nothing else if that's your thing) or Terrain Specialist works for ground, aquatic, or 0g environments but makes you choose one.

Having too many options makes it harder to find what you want.

That Wasn't so Complex

Complexity is a double-edged sword, and knowing how to use it will open up new venues of play that other games lack. You can minimize complexity if you don't want to deal with it though, and that works if you don't mind having less options. Battle Century G is all about op
tions, but keeps complexity at arm's reach rather than fully embracing it. Part of why I like complexity as a designer is that it makes my job easier - it is easier to describe a flamethrower's rules in a hundred words than ten - but as a GM and Player I also want to have a game that can be played with minimal trips to the rulebook to look up stuff you don't remember.

It is difficult, but that's what makes it so satisfying when it works.

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