I have been thinking a lot about complexity in rpg’s , that and the metric ton of shit that Rob Schwalb took over a recent blog post . From what I can gather it seems that some folks felt betrayed by his self-admitted rant as they perceived it to be the metaphorical equivalent of him dropping his pants and bricking into the mouth of the character optimization play style and by extension into the mouths of 3rd and 4th edition fans, who he was supposedly meant to represent in the design of 5th edition. I didn’t take his post that way, I mean really what DM hasn’t felt the berserker rage as some filthy fucking optimizer…er sorry… -deep cleansing breaths, finding my warm happy place- I am also not prone to being narcissistically wounded by the decisions a game company makes or need what I like to be validated by others, but hey that’s just me. Anyone who has followed Rob’s personal blog shouldn’t be surprised by this at all as he has long expressed his growing dissatisfaction with the aspects of very “crunchy” game systems that were becoming increasingly at odds with the experience he was looking to have at the gaming table. If you look past the hyperbole, you see a guy who is really just describing the results of his gaming “vison quest”, and what he has learned about his preferences and what makes the hobby awesome for him.
I also happen to agree with what I think Rob is trying to say. I didn’t take his post as advocating or that he, in some way conspired, to remove the mechanical crunchiness or complexity from D&D, but rather that the game needs to offer more than just that. D&D, to be truly successful, moving forward needs to allow and support different play styles. I realize that you can play a given edition anyway that you want and are not limited to doing things just one way and I am not talking about flirting with barmaids or talking to the king because those are the same whatever you’re playing. I am talking more about the game in action. For example you can try and recreate a heavy exploration or dungeon crawl feel similar to what you experienced in 1st or 2nd edition D&D with say 4th Edition but the system constantly fights you. It pulls for long set piece tactical skirmishes where the roleplaying, exploration, and interaction happen in combat. The combat essentially is and where the roleplaying happens. The combats are long because we need to make sure to use every standard, minor, immediate, free, and no action we painstakingly crafted together and that are at our disposal. Character creation can be a beast, even for someone like me, and a bit of a barrier just from the sheer volume of decisions and options. It’s one thing if that kind of stuff is your jam, but if it is not then you are kind of boned in 4th edition. I saw this first hand in my face to face group, were none of them probably ever read the core rulebook let alone a charop forum. Character creation and leveling were brutal. When they clicked on that button for their first level feat you could see their eyes glaze over at the nauseating volume of choices. Again, it doesn’t mean 4th edition is bad or wrong or that you can’t just say fuck it and pick the first option you see, it’s just the system pulls for something different. I found Pathfinder the same way, maybe even more so.
After reading the Basic Rules I am beginning to get sense of what they meant by an edition for everyone through modularity and I think it’s fantastic. If you want easy character creation and an old school feel of play you go with the baseline classes, opt out of feats and stick with stat bumps, and use theatre of the mind for combat. It’s quick, easy, and you’re cooking with gas. You want a more 3rd to 4th kind of feel? Then add some of the more complex sub-classes, opt into feats, use the rules for grid play, and boom Bob’s your uncle. There is even supposed to be different ways to handle healing, other than the default hit dice system, coming in the DMG that will allow you to tailor it to your desired play style. For those of you who are having aneurisms at the thought that Mr. Schwalb has single handily ripped out the still beating heart of the charop play style devoured it in front of you, take it easy. It doesn’t matter what system it is the minute you have any choices there will always be the best choice and best combinations, especially with multi-classing and feats. Plus this is just starting; you don’t think there is going to be tons of more player options in the future? You have to remember that charop is a lucrative play style for any company, because there are more players than DMs and player options sell. I think the take away is that WOTC is trying to provide you with options in terms of play style, not choosing one over the other. Is it going to be perfect? No, but what in life is aside from beer, pizza, and for some of us online streaming pornography?
Personally, I would have to say I have been leaning towards moderate complexity, in terms of character creation and game rules. You could sort of say I am like goldilocks in that regards. I like a descent amount of choices or options in character development and play, but not so much that it is overwhelming where you have to study the books like they were the Dead Sea scrolls. In gameplay, I am finding I prefer a system that is easy to adjudicate (parsimony over simulationistic detail) and combat that is not sluggishly long. I know you are laughing at the last point as I have played predominantly 4th Edition over the past 4 years, but it is likely that fact that has more clearly defined my preference. However, having said that I can make do with less or more complexity; I am kind of a cheap date that way. I am pretty intrigued with the new D&D, and maybe it will hit my sweet spot, but more on that later.