Gamemaster’s Guidepost: The Worthiness or Unworthiness of Complex Mechanics

Today is a fine GURPSday and today I’m going to ramble on about a topic near and die to every gamer’s heart: How can the complexity of mechanics affect the actual roleplaying of a game? First, a few things.

  • To play a roleplaying game is to have some measure of mechanical institutions within the game engine – otherwise it’s just “Let’s play pretend” and we all remember how that ends. “I shot me!” “Nu-uh! You missed!” “Ya-huh I hit!”
  • Most roleplaying games rely on a base mechanic left to chance to decide outcomes of actions by players. Dice, cards, whatever – this is the most primal mechanistic feature of just about any RPG. There are exceptions of course (e.g., Amber), but they are few and far between and often make use of bidding mechanisms that shift the probability to the one with the most skill or capabilities.
  • Most roleplaying games rely on a measure of cooperation between GM and player to help the suspension of disbelief. 
  • Most roleplaying games offer a way to decrease or increase the complexity or details of the experience. Do note that complexity does not equal detailed and the reverse is also true. You can have extremely detailed games with little to no game mechanical complexity or have lots of mechanical complexity with just enough detail to game. Both of these are types of complexity and need to be treated as such.

Using these four principles we can then further build on the idea of what complexity actually means for a given game. Since I’m a GURPS guy I’m going to frame this using that game system, but you can easily do this with other games.

1. Determining the GM’s Desired Level of Complexity
Before you do anything you need to decide as the GM exactly how complex you want to make things. Because 70%-90% of that complexity shift is going to be on the GM. If you want to track the speed of swinging a weapon versus thrusting it or exactly how long it’ll take you to reload a black powder weapon it’s going to eat up valuable roleplaying time. Conversely, less complexity may result in more time to roleplay, but at the expense of more precise results through various mechanics. The GM will need to carefully weigh exactly what he wants to run and how complex and/or details he wants to have to utilize.

2. Determining the Player’s Desired Level of Complexity
Next, the GM should ask his players what sort of details they want to track or how complex they want the mechanics of the game to be. You can easily scare off new players if there is too much to keep track of. GURPS is often accused of this and I learned early on to sweep as much under the rug as I could if I wanted to recruit new players.

In general, use analogic comparisons to popular culture your players are familiar with to get a general idea of their desired level of complexity: “You want more John Wick style gunplay or Shoot’em Up?”

3. Determining the Complexity Your Game Engine Can Handle
This is a big one. Some games are better than others at certain things. Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition and Pathfinder are great for quick play, but keeping a character updated can take some time. FATE eases some of the burden from the GM and assigns it to the players via Aspects, High Concept, etc., but like GURPS requires you either play in an established setting or make everything up (which is kind of the point of FATE really). GURPS of course has so many optional and “bolt on” rules sets that a GM can easily become overwhelmed. What’s more, some systems (*cough* “The Last Gasp” *cough* Sorry, Doug. -CRR) are so detailed that using them can result in bogging down gameplay for the sake of complexity.

Basically, figure out what you want, what your players want, and what the game system you are using can handle without pretzelling the game engine into something it’s not. This can include house rules and such, just make sure all the players know what you’re doing and are still willing to play with them in effect.

4. Putting It Together
Once you’ve gathered all the information that you need to determine how much complexity you plan on using in your game write it all done. Notate any changes from what you are doing or how you are enacting this or that rule. Basically, spell it out in black and white so both you and players know exactly what to expect.

Descriptive Roleplaying vs. Mechanistic Roleplaying
Before I start talking about how I view these playstyles I want to say up front that both of these approaches to gaming are equally valid. Anyone that says otherwise is trying to sell you something. That said, I tend to prefer an overlay of description with details and mechanics hidden underneath. It lets you keep the things great about rules-lite engines (e.g., rapid resolutions of dice and more roleplaying), while keeping the more useful precision game mechanics to resolve everything.

Descriptive roleplaying (i.e., narrativist gaming) allows both players and GMs to bring out their inner thespian and for a while be someone else. You resolve things via simple mechanics or through roleplaying. This is a highly attractive style of gaming and has been made popular by game engines like GUMSHOE and/or FATE. This cathartic roleplaying is popular for a reason! Players get to “be” their characters and the GM gets to create a highly immersive experience.

Mechanistic Roleplaying (i.e., simulationist gaming) does the same thing, but in a different way. It relies on resolution through rules or game mechanics. With this style of play you can simulate (thus the name) various genres in a way that remains true to its style. GURPS is an example of this style of play – though you can easily turn down the complexity with  few adjustments and there is nothing simpler than 3d6 when it comes to dice resolutions.

Basically, know your complexity and what game engines support the complexity you desire.

Picking Over the Bones
I think the idea of trying to discover what your proclivities are when it comes to gaming will increase your experience overall. It not only tells you where your comfort zone is it tells you where you may wish to explore and try out games you normally don’t play or prefer. This is very important for GMs (and game designers!) particularly. Being able to use this or that mechanic or finding a method of eliminating such a mechanic by reading other game systems is incredibly useful for gamers. TL;DR – don’t put yourself in a box and wall yourself off from other games. They’ve got lessons to teach as much as your favorite system.

So what sort of GM are you? Do you like complexity and detail or more roleplaying? What sort of player are you? Are there house/optional rules you are particularly fond of for a given game system? Are there rules you really don’t like? What sort of game engine do you generally like? Those with more complexity or those with less?

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