Society for Interactive Literature West

Game Design

Keep It Simple

Copyright (c) 1992 Stephen R. Balzac.
Society for Interactive Literature
Originally printed in Metagame, the Journal of the SIL

It's Friday night, and you've just picked up your character packet. It's a big, thick one this time, and you can't wait to see what sort of juicy bluesheets, items, abilities, and all are inside. Unfortunately, your excitement gives way to a mounting sense of dread as you remove a thick manuscript reminiscent of War and Peace from your packet: the rules. Glancing at the combat system (clearly the most important part), you find that most of the tome you are holding is devoted to just that subject. As you start reading, you begin to wonder if you can possibly absorb all the information before Sunday afternoon. After a while, you probably put down the rules and hope that the GMs will explain it all; failing that, that everyone else is just as confused as you are, and so no one will even attempt combat at any point during the weekend. If someone does attack you, well, you can always have a GM deal with it then.

An exaggeration? Unfortunately, this scenario, or ones very like it, have happened all too often in games. With the best of intentions, the GMs put out a ruleset so involved and so complicated that most of the players simply can't figure out what is going on. Players end up scared by the rules, and avoid those sections that they don't understand. Combat system is too complex? Little or no combat occurs, and when it does, the GMs end up having to walk the players through it... again and again. Thieving too complex? It just doesn't happen. And so on. Most experienced players can remember at least one game where a major game mechanic was never used simply because no one could understand how it worked.

In part, this situation results from the GMs forgetting what the rules are for in a live roleplaying game. Unlike chess, where the rules define the game, the rules in a live game exist to provide a structure for the action and a framework for roleplaying. The rules, however, are not the game, they are instead a description of the game mechanics. What does this mean?

A live roleplaying game is a form of consensual hallucination: sort of a virtual reality inhabited by characters brought to life by the players of the game. For this to succeed, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the players, and a willingness to agree on certain game mechanisms for various interactions. The rules provide the framework for this consensual hallucination. They define the boundaries (is it legal to break into another player's hotel room and ransack it? What do you do with all those non-players running around?) and explain the game mechanisms for simulating those aspects of the game that are dangerous, illegal, or impossible: most commonly combat, thieving, and magic, although other possibilities abound. After all, you can't have the players beating each other up to decide who wins a combat; ransacking rooms can prove embarrassing to all concerned, especially if the player accidently picks a room belonging to a non-player; and the Underground Society of Evil Wizards has convinced everyone that magic is impossible and do you really want to prove them wrong?

When walking down the street, how often do you think about the physics involved in each step? If you had to, you would probably fall on your face. In the perfect game, the rules should be just as unobtrusive. Within the context of the game, combat, thieving, magic, or whatever you choose, should appear as simple and straightforward as walking, and as invisible as the foundation of a building. Sure it's there, and you know it's there, but how many people pay attention to the foundation on a day to day basis? Your game mechanics are the foundation of your consensual reality. If your rules are too complex, the players will be unable to use the game mechanisms which you have so carefully designed. This, in turn, interferes with their ability to roleplay, and the surest way to destroy the imaginary world that is your game is to have rules that make it impossible for the players to roleplay their characters: a mighty warrior who cannot understand the combat system is going to have some real problems in combat; a wizard who is completely bewildered by the magic system may be quick to anger, but he'll probably lose out a bit in the subtlety department.

Some GMs may feel that you should have deliberately obscure rules when you want to discourage players from engaging in a particular action too often. Now it is certainly true that the more difficult something is, the less likely people will want to do it, for fairly large values of "it." However, this difficulty should be intrinsic to the game, not to the rules. For example, just because shooting someone is easy doesn't mean that you'll want to do it. After all, there may be witnesses, and, if caught, you'll end up in jail for the rest of the weekend. That, however, is a difficulty the player can work with: it's the player's job to figure out how to get his victim alone. It's not his job to wade through a morass of incomprehensible rules to discover that if he gets his victim alone, he can shoot him without being seen.

How do you write clear rules? You might start by deciding exactly what you are trying to do. What is the game mechanic supposed to simulate? Combat? Wonderful. Decide how you want combat to work in your reality. Write up a blow-by-blow description. Look at this and consider it carefully. Are you spending ninety-nine percent of your time describing situations that will occur maybe one percent of the time? Does the remaining one percent of the rules cover ninety-nine percent of the situations that are likely to come up? If so, consider just describing the ninety-nine percent in your rules and adding a "See a GM" clause. Resist the temptation to bury the players under mountains of verbiage describing situations that virtually never come up; that's what GMs are for, after all. If you can't simplify the rules, look at your game mechanics. Perhaps they're too convoluted. Does it really add anything to the game if you calculate that if the sword hits one inch below the knee then the person falls down, whereas if it hits three inches below the knee then he slows down and weakens due to blood loss, and if you hit the knee itself... Maybe it's enough to know that you hit the leg, perhaps just that you hit. It sure is easier to write.

Of course, just because your rules are simple doesn't mean that they're going to work. The rules, and the underlying game mechanics, must also be appropriate to the game. A perfectly clear description of a game mechanic that simply does not work is basically worthless. In one game, the GMs devised a thieving system which required the thief to place a piece of paper reading "you have been robbed" into the pocket of a target to successfully pick his pocket. While "put pocketing" may be a wonderful simulation of pick pocketing, it tends to be a bit beyond the abilities of most players. As a result, the thieves were completely ineffectual, the Thieves' Guild became a moot point, and, worst of all, the GMs never seemed to quite grasp why the players were so upset. The rules were perfectly clear, but the game mechanic just didn't work.

This goes back to the virtual reality aspect of the game. The atmosphere that you are trying to produce will influence the game mechanics you develop, or should, and, in turn, the game mechanics will influence the atmosphere of the game. In Dragon, we used a fairly complex combat system, necessary to capture the feel of dueling as described in Steven Brust's novels; in Secrets of the Necronomicon, the magic system is very complex, in order to capture the feel of an H. P. Lovecraft scenario. In the former, we wanted players to feel as though they were involved in an elaborate sword fight; in the latter, as though they were researching arcane spells in musty tomes. In both games, the rules on how to use the combat and magic were straightforward. The strategy, however, was difficult. The rules for Go are trivial, but knowing the rules does not make you a master of the game. Similarly, the rules explained the game mechanics used in Dragon and Secrets, but using those mechanics effectively became part of the roleplaying aspect of the game.

Thus, the rules and mechanics helped to strengthen the framework of the games. They enhanced the ability of the characters to roleplay instead of detracting from it. Conversely, excessively wordy rules and inappropriate game mechanics weaken the framework of the game, and potentially ruin the major point of the game: roleplaying. Without roleplaying, a "live roleplaying game" is not particularly interesting. In Dragon, most of the magic is sorcery: fast and easy for those who know how, and impossible for those who don't. Requiring Dragaeran sorcerers to look everything up in tomes and decipher mounds of gibberish to cast spells would have been completely inappropriate. But it worked in Secrets. In Lovecraft stories, combat is simple and direct: the monster oozes out of the ocean, grabs someone, and kills him. Fights between people are equally brief, if not always so gory. An elaborate combat system, detailing different types of punches and kicks, wouldn't work. Yet in Dragon, the combat system did exactly that, only with sword moves.

When designing game mechanics, keep in mind that they must fit your game. Will the mechanic be easy to explain and to use (although not necessary easy to master)? Will it fit into the atmosphere you are trying to create? Will it help make your reality more solid? Or will it frustrate players, interfere with the roleplaying, slow down the game, and generally force the players to pay too much attention to "real world" details instead of playing the game? Most important, if a game mechanic is intended to enable players to accomplish certain goals, will it actually do so? Or will it leave them bored, frustrated, and feeling cut out of the action?

So remember, keep it simple. Don't ask people short on sleep to wend a tortuous path through a labyrinthine opus of rules. Instead, give them something easy to understand and fun to play. Make sure your game mechanics are appropriate to your game, that they add to the virtual reality that you are trying to create, not detract from it. And if the game mechanics are complex, make sure you explain them concisely and coherently. Your players will appreciate it every time they pick a pocket, swing a sword, or cast a spell.

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