It’s Complicated

I usually don’t post on Mondays, but I saw a conversation on Twitter that has me a bit upset and I felt the need to write about it. I’m not going to name any names. EDIT: I had a brief description of the conversation and indicated the sides of the argument and was politely asked to edit it down. Suffice it to say that the conversation talked about the complexity of RPG rules systems and it went in an ugly direction. I’ll leave it at that.

I don’t know how old all of you are, or how long it has been since you have been in school, college or otherwise. I returned to college a couple of years ago after a 7-year break between the completion of my bachelor’s degree and the start of my new educational endeavors. I remember something very clearly about starting into my first classes: thinking, actual collegiate-level thinking is hard.

When we go about our daily lives, we do a lot of stuff as routine. Sure we might be smart as all get out, but when you don’t use your brain muscle to think critically, day in and day out, it’s a rough time getting things going again. How does this all relate to RPG rules? I’m getting there, promise.

Think of a middle, high school or college student who has just been introduced to RPGs. They love what they’ve found and they dive into the rules with all of the verve of people whose brains are actively being used and who have the luxury of some free time. They devour the rules and within months, they can turn into some of the most nit-picky rules lawyers that exist. I know, I did that myself. I devoured D&D 3.5 and knew it like the back of my hand, often having to stop myself from correcting my DM during the session.

Then, I had a break from gaming. I left school to work jobs I didn’t care about and the machinery of my brain got rusty. When I got back to school, I kicked off some of that rust, but it took a while to get things going. And then, I started to game again. I got a handle on D&D 4e pretty quickly. After all, it had enough similarities to D&D 3.5 that it wasn’t hard. It was, at its core, still a d20 system.

Then I started writing for Troll in the Corner. I started looking at hosts of other systems and other ways to tell stories through games. And I found something out: I sucked, I mean really sucked, at learning new rule systems. Everything I thought I knew about RPGs was being challenged by the new games I was coming into contact with. The rules didn’t make sense right away they way they did with D&D 3.5 and 4e and I got frustrated a lot of times. In fact, I might have given Houses of the Blooded an unfair shake as my first review because my mind was so locked into D&D. (I need to revisit it when I have time).

My point is: we enjoy a very, very complicated hobby. The game systems we use, no matter how streamlined, can be layered with complexity and we would be absolutely remiss to not be aware of that. It’s a topic that is worthy of discussion, especially for those of us that want to bring new people into the hobby.

The schooling I referred to is going to see me as a middle or high school teacher someday. One of the most important things I have learned while training for that future job is that everyone learns things differently. One of the worst things that you can do as a teacher is tell a struggling student “oh, that’s easy.” The implication is that they should be able to handle it, when they are obviously not able so to do. As gaming enthusiasts, we often find ourselves in the teaching role, intorducing someone to the rules of our favorite games. We need to be aware that different people learn in different ways. Rather than deriding someone because they seem to be aware of that fact and want to address the complexity of entering into our hobby, we need to realx and make sure we are doing all we can to make those rules understandable to anyone who cares to try and learn them.

[tags]rpg, rpgs, role playing games, rants[/tags]

13 thoughts on “It’s Complicated

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  1. Well put ( Golf Clap ) I know a few DM’s and tale tellers that should have that post bludgeoned into their respectively respectless skulls.


  2. What context were the comments made in? If the comments were unrelated to system, that’s one thing. If someone was pushing their agenda in the edition wars, that’s another. Can you post the conversation in question? Who cast the first stone in calling out a gaming system?


  3. The comments themselves, their context and who said them are only important for this site in that they prompted me to write this post. I’m not interested in publicly flaming anyone and I want to avoid even the appearance of doing so. Thus, the parties will remain unnamed and the context unexplored on this site. Sorry.


  4. Only focusing on the relative complexity level of a system and never really touching on points which new players (or you personally) might find appealing isn’t helpful.

    If you cast everything only in the light of what new players might NOT find appealing or easy then it all sort of comes out as ‘gee wiz, thinking is hard.’


  5. I think it has to be ackowledged that there is a difference between thinking about what could be a challenge for new players to learn (wherein you will be focusing on the hard parts) and the actual practice of trying to teach it.

    Of course you’re going to focus on the appealing parts when trying to generate interest. But before you get there, you need to be aware of what might trip them up. Otherwise, you’re not doing your job as an educator. And I realize that I might be crossing from teaching a rules system to teaching in the classroom, but I (as a future teacher) see little difference between the two.


  6. In my opinion, complexity is something that rewards established players. As we gain knowledge in a system, we look for more and more things to find “interesting” and that we can play with. That’s awesome and something I look for in a system I’m going to play for a while. I love finding the neat little tricks in Pandemic for instance. And while I want to play Dominion again, it’s steep learning curve kept me from enjoying my first game with it.

    However, would you tell a person learning algebra for a first time that they just aren’t thinking hard enough if they complain it’s a bit complex than what they are used to? I wouldn’t. It belittles them and shows a misunderstanding of what it’s like to be new to algebra. Instead I would explain to them why learning algebra is good, the puzzles it solves and the things it lets me do during my day-to-day life. We also don’t throw new students into the middle of calculus.

    I talk about complexity a lot not because I think it’s bad (although it’s not always to my taste), but because acknowledging complexity can help us help new players better. And complexity itself is only good so long as it’s enjoyable. If the complexity keeps someone from enjoying a system, you have two choices: say the game isn’t for them or find a way to make the complexity not be an issue. The latter can be done by streamlining bits or through education. But if you never try to look at it through a new person’s eyes, education just won’t work.


  7. I’ve played D&D for 10 years – a little of 2.0, 3.5, & now Pathfinder rules & I still don’t “get” 4.0. To me, it’s a completely different system & my brain is so used to how the old system ran. If I had a good group to play 4.0 with & more time to learn the rules, I’d probably not hate it so much. I also play Vampire: The Masquerade & I hated it the first time I played because it was so different from D&D. I’m used to the rules now so I don’t even think about the differences anymore.

    I could see how complaints about the system could get tiresome to a “seasoned” player. I know the few times I played 4.0 I had a really difficult time & asked a lot of questions. The one thing that turned me off the most was the bad attitude of the people I was playing with.

    I don’t know what I’m trying to say…I’m just rambling now. Basically every one is entitled to their own opinions but if you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all!


  8. Lots of good comments. But I wonder… wouldn’t you say it’s also not fair, in the algebra example, to constantly express negativity about algebra because it’s too hard, and promote pre-algebra because it requires less, or is less complex? Putting down one system as “too hard” to promote another game is just as bad a putting down a game as being “too simple-minded.” I think the lines of communication are getting crossed… but I definitely feel like there’s a lot of Anti-Algebra going on. The initial argument was just about whether or not a product should be fit for both new and advanced gamers – it wasn’t until the “Pre-Algebra is better than Algebra” edition wars were brought up that the knives came out.


  9. The only comment in this thread that mentioned different editions was Kath’s and I don’t think she did anything but express an opinion based on her experiences. Didn’t seem all that Edition Wars-y to me. In fact, one of the points of my post was to get away from even kind and polite comparisons between editions. Kath did not wrong with her examples, but it wasn’t the point of the original post.

    Still, there is a point where the Algebra analogy falls apart. Unless you’re really in love with Math, I don’t know of many people who enjoy Algebra. However, the vast majority of RPGs on the market have plenty of things that recommend themselves to potential players. The point is that, as advocates for whatever game we love, we need to focus on what’s awesome about it and not what sucks about systems that are not our favorites.


  10. Tracy, I couldn’t agree more. It should be less, “you play yours and I’ll play mine,” and more “let’s play yours and then play mine.” I’m saying we should be spend less time criticizing the systems, and more time rolling the dice.


  11. The “initial” comment was itself part of an ongoing conversation about the complexity of systems. Rather than arguing about whether or not the system is complex (which even those who work on 4e and Pathfinder admit they are), I’d love to see more help for new players approaching the system, regardless of the system.

    I have reasons for writing the way that I do and I know it’s not everyone’s style. It sometimes, but not always, helps players who are new to the system and gives people who are invested players new ideas from time to time. However, telling me how to play D&D, what is fun about it as if that’s universal, etc, doesn’t help matters.

    And I don’t constantly express negativity towards Pathfinder. I know at least two people who bought the books in part because I talked about the things I like about it. I’m currently writing a review of Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv that will suggest it as something that even people who don’t play Pathfinder should buy.


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