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Author Topic: Elegance versus Mess in Game Design  (Read 696 times)

Spike

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Elegance versus Mess in Game Design
« on: June 30, 2009, 03:42:07 pm »
I was prompted to thought by the resent resurrection of my Haven setting for a brief D&D game this last weekend.  As some of you might recall it was originally used for Runequest rules, and was designed as generically as possible with regards to rules systems... though the influence of Runequest could not be underestimated.

To bring this more to topic, one of my semi-regular players who has been referenced in the past for his habitual character death/swapping brought in a Nezumi from Oriental Adventures... sort of.

Now, I am a fan of the L5R nezumi, and thus (by extension) their OA presence.  Mr. Character ADD, however, did not utilize any of that, being content to be a talking rat, but that is neither here nor there.

Now, as you may recall, the races of Haven do not include Rat men of any stripe, though I was able to fit him in under the auspice of 'one of those less common races that occupy the corners'.  The signature 'trait' of the Nezumi is, you might recall... Survival.  They are hardy survivors who live where other races can or will not.  

That would be Orcs in my setting, and by extension the Half Orcs for playability.

Now: Lizardmen DO exist in my setting and thus porting in the Dragonborn from 4E to the Pathfinder we were using should be relatively simple.  

But what is the role of a Dragonborn character (we have a player who wants to do a dragonborn...) in a party of D&D?   According to my 4E book they are constitution based.

This spurred the entire thought regarding elegance in design. If D&D were 'elegant' in how they handled races there would be six races (plus humans), corresponding to the six attributes, like so:

Strength: Half Orcs
Dexterity: Halflings
Constituiton: Dwarves
Intelligence: Elves
Wisdom: Gnomes
Charisma: Half Elves.

This would be elegance, a clear correspondece of a signature defining trait with the world/system.  

To a lesser extent, my cultural studies assignment of defining traits represents another, broader, method of doing so.

Compare, however, to what you actually have in D&D, a sprawling plethora of races that only SEEM to fit a pattern, if you don't look too closely.  Nezumi don't look out of place in D&D because you can have multiple races that fit into the simple pattern above. Nezumi are not Dwarves despite, arguably, having the same attribute spread.  Dragonborn are not dwarves despite, arguably, having both the same attribute spread and possibly similar stereotypes (dour agressive tough guys, possibly viewed as excessivly tilted towards masculine characters).

D&D is the most popular game out there and even its detractors have nary a peep regarding the races aside from 'too tolkeenesque', which is hardly and objective measure of quality.


This lead me to think on the new World of Darkness.

Each 'fatsplat' has five 'races' and five 'factions'. Fatigue sets in when faced with a new 'fatsplat'.  The Races (in vampire this is most explicit) do divide up much as I postulate above. Gangrel are tough (Resiliance as a clan discipline), the Nosferatu are strong (vigor) and so on. There are actually nine attributes and thus there should be nine clans, but that isn't quite the pattern being filled.... but bear with me.

Compare the old world of darkness with its original idea of 13 clans, which was then complicated by the spread of new, additional clans scattered here and there, and the fact that only... what? 9 clans actually appeared in the main book?  Then there was the crossover on disciplines. If you liked a particular discipline (celerity, for example) you probably had two, if not more, clans to look at in the main book alone (Brujah and Toreador in this example).

It was a mess.

Yet, even after five years it is quite easy to find players who have not switched over to the new rules/new setting.  In fact that was a minor issue for me this last week in a horrible example of mixed party play... one of my more active players was, to be blunt, crazy. Not the character, the player, and by accident I put one of the most passive players into the position of 'party leader', with the balance of the players being very new to Roleplaying in general.  It was, in short, a disaster.

But more importantly, every experienced 'world of darkness' player at the table was still playing in the old world, and thus 'new' to the new world.  Obviously this is not a representative sample, but it is interesting.

Comparing to my own older thoughts on the subject it occurs to me that while an elegantly designed rule set and world  can be very appealing aesthetically it may actually be poor design.   Too elegant a rule set may be too easily mastered, leading to boredom with nothing new to find out, it certainly leads to 'game exhaustion' when talking about a 'house engine' used for multiple games in a line. The new world of darkness, for example lost its appeal around Mage.  Dream Pod 9 can only sell me a new game if the premise is radically different and appealing, despite the fact that I love the shit out their system... on paper.

Yet, despite a near burning rage at level/class based design, I can still be convinced to pick up a new D&D based game just to find the new, messy, ways they do things.  Compare, if you will, D20 modern vs D&D.


Just a random train of thought, but it does occur to me that in the long run an excessive elegance is probably just as bad for a game as an excessive mess... which in itself isn't relavatory but: the line for 'excessive' in elegance may be much lower than recognized.
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Halfjack

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« Reply #1 on: June 30, 2009, 04:53:30 pm »
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Spike

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« Reply #2 on: June 30, 2009, 05:34:48 pm »
I give them to my enemies so they might polish my armor better, but that is neither here nor there.
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« Reply #3 on: June 30, 2009, 05:55:31 pm »
That is a very interesting point that I'd not considered.  I think it's more valid than I'd prefer.  I think that the root of that is in exploration, part of the enjoyment for some players is finding a really esoteric rule or power and using it to great effect.  Like finding a shirt with a witty saying on it that no one else has.  A system that's too elegant and transparent has none of that to find, so it loses that.

I must think on this more.

Benoist

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« Reply #4 on: July 04, 2009, 10:27:14 pm »
First things first: I really dislike the term "elegant/elegance" as applied to game design. I really do despise this type of Forgy speech. With a passion. It's not you Spike, but the word. I needed to say it.

Now that said, I used to think like you do: that game components linked to each other in a very straightforward, logical way, smoothing out the actual logic of the game, and making it easier to grasp, would make for a better game.

I actually don't think so, now, because smoothing out all the game components, their relationships towards each other, and the overarching logic of the game doesn't automatically make the game better. It will, however, make the game two-dimensional and boring, sooner or later.

I much prefer when there are relatively few game components/sub-systems, each of them with a relative shallow depth to them, rather than a single overarching logic that permeates everything in the design.

"Elegance" in this case certainly does not automatically equate with a better design (i.e. a better game play).

PS: You're all example of races and attributes is interesting, because I'm thinking of doing something like this when I will expand the character classes available in my OD&D campaign.
Fighter: Strength
Thief: Dexterity
Cleric: Wisdom
Magic User: Intelligence
Some type of Minstrel/Bard would feel the Charisma slot, and I am thinking of having some kind of Armiger-type (Iron Heroes) design for the Constitution-based class.

Anyway. Imagine now that we would have the races defined as in your example AND these classes in the game. That'd be an example of the overarching, smoothing-out logic I was talking about, and it'd make the game two-dimensional IMO, but mileage does vary, obviously.
« Last Edit: July 04, 2009, 10:30:16 pm by Benoist »

madunkieg

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« Reply #5 on: July 04, 2009, 10:37:44 pm »
Quote from: Spike;311072
D&D is the most popular game out there and even its detractors have nary a peep regarding the races aside from 'too tolkeenesque', which is hardly and objective measure of quality.
...
Each 'fatsplat' has five 'races' and five 'factions'. Fatigue sets in when faced with a new 'fatsplat'.  The Races (in vampire this is most explicit) do divide up much as I postulate above. Gangrel are tough (Resiliance as a clan discipline), the Nosferatu are strong (vigor) and so on. There are actually nine attributes and thus there should be nine clans, but that isn't quite the pattern being filled.... but bear with me.

Compare the old world of darkness with its original idea of 13 clans, which was then complicated by the spread of new, additional clans scattered here and there, and the fact that only... what? 9 clans actually appeared in the main book?  Then there was the crossover on disciplines. If you liked a particular discipline (celerity, for example) you probably had two, if not more, clans to look at in the main book alone (Brujah and Toreador in this example).

Actually, there were 7 clans plus clanless in the original main book, representing the 7 deadly sins and the search for a new deadly sin. But yes, it turned into a mess.

Quote
Yet, even after five years it is quite easy to find players who have not switched over to the new rules/new setting.

I think that's because of something separate from the cleanup of the mess (a mess which was rapidly reintroduced within months of the new edition). The new edition is not evocative. Whether you liked metaplot or not, just the idea of an impending apocalypse added more to the game's morality play than any of the archetypes. The nWoD world is just...blank. The morality play that defined oWoD has been pared back to the bone. The elements of seduction (the best selling component of current-day vampire stories) has also been downplayed a little, reducing the evocativeness further. What's left is politics, which can be fun, but it's less than what oWoD offered.

Quote
Comparing to my own older thoughts on the subject it occurs to me that while an elegantly designed rule set and world  can be very appealing aesthetically it may actually be poor design.   Too elegant a rule set may be too easily mastered, leading to boredom with nothing new to find out, it certainly leads to 'game exhaustion' when talking about a 'house engine' used for multiple games in a line.

Actually, calling nWoD elegant is a bit like calling a battleship maneuverable. However, nWoD offers more options than oWoD thanks to emergence, which can be an elegant concept. Since there are few constraints in either nWoD or DP9, I have to assume you're referring to feeling constrained to emergent archetypes. A game may allow you to play anything, but only allow a few templates (emergent archetypes) to be successful (MMORPGs are horrible for this). Yep, it's a problem. One way to solve it is to not over-focus the game on one task (e.g. combat, or politics, as in nWoD) and include other activities (seduction, moral debate, religious debate, as oWoD had).

Quote
Yet, despite a near burning rage at level/class based design, I can still be convinced to pick up a new D&D based game just to find the new, messy, ways they do things.

And you're not alone. D&D is made accessible due to its familiar terms. Fighter, elf, dwarf, these are words that even non-gamers often recognize. Lancea Sanctum, Daeva, these present a steep learning curve for players to get into nWoD. That means D&D's archetypes are easily grasped, while nWoD players must learn everything from the ground up before starting to make a character. It discourages exploratory play, and that's a lot of rpg players.

Quote
Just a random train of thought, but it does occur to me that in the long run an excessive elegance is probably just as bad for a game as an excessive mess... which in itself isn't relavatory but: the line for 'excessive' in elegance may be much lower than recognized.

If you want a game that has excessive elegance, look up Go. It's had a short run of...well, it's estimated in the thousands of years. The problems with nWoD come not from elegance (or emergence) in archetype construction, but from the exclusion of many side thematic elements in the game. The game's personality is muted.

Simply put, nWoD is boring. oWoD is not, so people put up with the mess.
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Arminius

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« Reply #6 on: July 05, 2009, 01:42:17 pm »
Quote from: Benoist;311855
First things first: I really dislike the term "elegant/elegance" as applied to game design.
It's a very common term in math and programming, and I think it's very aptly used in game design as well. IMO.

Also, I've been wondering this for a while, do you pronounce the "s" in your handle?

Benoist

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« Reply #7 on: July 05, 2009, 02:35:49 pm »
Nope, you don't pronounce the "s". :)

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« Reply #8 on: July 06, 2009, 02:04:38 pm »
We deal with a similar question in setting design all the time, in terms of Divset vs Conset (Diverse Setting design vs Conceptually designed setting).
In terms of design, it is so much cleaner and easier to create and run a Conset setting, but Divset settings seem to have a level of realism and staying power.
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Spike

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« Reply #9 on: July 06, 2009, 04:06:29 pm »
Benoist: I was trying to avoid jargony language and hoping I had picked fairly clear words. By no means am I wedded to 'elegance' in the original post, in fact I rather got tired of typing it.

I am, however a little confused by your post otherwise. You seem to agree with my notion (is it a premise? That might be a bit much...) that trying to design the setting a little to... um... cleanly? leads, ultimately, to a boring design.

Then you head right on into 'boring design' by taking my admittedly rough example of how D&D could have gone, racially, and applying it to classes (and better than I did, admittedly) in your idea of what you wanted to do?

Madkunig: While the exact details may be slightly off, you ARE sort of reinforcing my point. We aren't necessarily talking about the smoothness or granularity or what have you of the system but the design. New world of darkness IS very... tidy, at least out the gate, even if it has to bend over backwards to do so.

Take werewolf: Five auspices, five tribes, five Pure(enemy) tribes, five reknowns...  then look at vampire: five clans, five covenants; moving on: Five mage towers and...

See? I can tell you, without looking, that there are five natural types of changelings and five political groups they can sign on too... without ever glancing at the book... just as one glance showed me the same for promethean (at least the five types...).

Too neat, too tidy, too clean... to elegant. Boring. As much as I might LIKE to add changlings to my collecting, or frankenstiens... I am frankly too fucking bored of the neatness and just can't be bothered to spend the money.
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madunkieg

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« Reply #10 on: July 06, 2009, 07:11:15 pm »
Quote from: Spike;312195
Madkunig: While the exact details may be slightly off, you ARE sort of reinforcing my point. We aren't necessarily talking about the smoothness or granularity or what have you of the system but the design. New world of darkness IS very... tidy, at least out the gate, even if it has to bend over backwards to do so.
...
Too neat, too tidy, too clean... to elegant. Boring. As much as I might LIKE to add changlings to my collecting, or frankenstiens... I am frankly too fucking bored of the neatness and just can't be bothered to spend the money.
Actually, I was saying that 5x5=25 of each is just fine, just as each creature type always started with 8 (7 groups + independents) apiece for each creature type in oWoD. Check the first edition books, not the latest editions, for each faction and you'll see that it all started even neater than nWoD. Bloodlines turned this initial nWoD elegance into a mess just as fast as new clans did for oWoD. The part of it you're complaining about hasn't really changed much. nWoD is just as elegant/messy as oWoD (nWoD is maybe a little more messy by now).

So, maybe it's a pattern you don't like. That's fine, but it's not unique to nWoD, it's in oWoD, too. It's also in Legend of the Five Rings and a host of other rpgs that came out after Vampire hit the market. If you want to know why people aren't switching, let me assure you, it's not the "elegance."
« Last Edit: July 06, 2009, 07:22:19 pm by madunkieg »
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Spike

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« Reply #11 on: July 07, 2009, 11:56:16 am »
Oh, I got you know: Somehow my relatively innocous choice of game systems as an example has tripped some peeve of yours and so now you are in this thread to defend it to the death.

Ok. You win.


Whatever point you are trying to make that is tangental to the actual discussion... its yours, you OWN that motherfucker.

Now. Lets move on, as I am reasonably certain no one is really all that interested in a blow by blow analysis of the various editions of WoD.


LordVreeg brought in an excellent example from, I assume outside traditional RPGs (Computers?), though he did bring the Jargon with him.  The freeform 'organic' settings do seem to hold up better in the long run, possibly because they feel more 'real'.

This might suggest that the entire discussion revolves around a subset of the 'suspension of disbelief' topic, which leads me to an interesting bit of 'The Secrets of Zir'An', involving the equipment section, but I, unfortunately, am out of time to post.
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Benoist

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« Reply #12 on: July 07, 2009, 12:04:27 pm »
Quote from: Spike;312195
Benoist: I was trying to avoid jargony language and hoping I had picked fairly clear words. By no means am I wedded to 'elegance' in the original post, in fact I rather got tired of typing it.

I am, however a little confused by your post otherwise. You seem to agree with my notion (is it a premise? That might be a bit much...) that trying to design the setting a little to... um... cleanly? leads, ultimately, to a boring design.

Then you head right on into 'boring design' by taking my admittedly rough example of how D&D could have gone, racially, and applying it to classes (and better than I did, admittedly) in your idea of what you wanted to do?

There was a misunderstanding! I thought you were actually advocating for "boring design", as you call it. My point is that "elegant design" does not automatically equate "better game".

My post-scriptum about classes and attributes in my possibile OD&D houserules was just to point out the ressemblance with your own example. I used this to then say that one or the other would be alright (race OR class linkable to attributes), but BOTH at the same time would be smoothing the game too much and make it boring.

Is my post clearer now? Looks like we actually agree.

Spike

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« Reply #13 on: July 07, 2009, 01:33:36 pm »
Of course we agree. I'm a genius after all.... :P
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« Reply #14 on: July 07, 2009, 02:08:30 pm »
I'm usually a sucker for "elegance" in game design. Let me be more specific. I like when a game use some well thought principles, which may or may not have a steep learning curve, that get reused, with possible variations, in the different parts of the system. It means that the time invested by players in understanding the basic principles will be rewarded because they're used again and again during play. Now when it comes to the setting and its interface with the game system (like previous examples about char gen) I'm not a fan of "elegance" anymore. Human cultures and history are fascinating because of the contradictions and ambiguities. So a pattern of x clans /factions/races where each have their own specific game advantage is quite boring to me. It stomps on my suspension of disbelief.