Elegant vs. Simple

I’m play around with a game idea. I’m asking myself Jared Sorensen’s three questions and trying to make the nebulous more concrete. I am a firm believer that system matters, or as Adam Koebel would say if it isn’t in the game it’s not part of the game.

My outline already has some implied ideas, which I’m OK with. I want a light system that doesn’t care your attention to keep switching between role-playing and gaming. But I’m also kind of a system wonk. I especially love systems that can elegantly take a bunch of thinks and make them work together beautifully.

My problem with this is that a beautifully designed system on paper could grind to a jarring halt at the table. I love the original Shadowrun system (First to Third editions) because of the initiative passes and how amor interacts with damage and the condition monitor. I think it’s a very elegant system to make all the parts work together in a logical and satisfying way. I also admit I have no wish to play a game using it. Why?

The most successful games I ran were Rolemaster and Buffy. In retrospect these games were liked by my player for the same reason I believe people like Powered by the Apocalypse and Fate-based games. At their core is a very simple system. Often roll, add modifiers, check result, apply consequences. In many of these games the first three are so familiar to be thought of as one quick, albeit extended, action. And then it’s right back to the role-playing.

The appeal of modern indie games comes from all the other things that sit on top of a very simple resolution mechanic–and basically start skewing the results. It means all that “story game” stuff is just their to reward or punish the role-playing you already do via the core mechanic.

And so my revelation today is that most successful games often have a trivially simple core rather than an elegant or satisfying mechanic because most people don’t care if the system models the real world, but rather that their large gun does more damage or their crush on an NPC is what allowed them to win an arm wrestling competition.

Tune in next week when I argue that Fate is crunchier than Pathfinder, just because Pathfinder’s crunch is finite.