Complexity vs. Simplicity in Character Design

Sacrosanct

Legend
I'm going to pick on D&D, but this is applicable to far more than just D&D. I'm talking about the design decision between complexity vs. simplicity, specifically around core character design.

By and large, D&D takes the simple route. Most classes of the same archetype are the same mechanically for their powers. What is the difference between a cleric and a wizard? Armor? They both use the exact same mechanic for spellcasting. As does every other caster other than warlock (pre-1DND). Even half casters use the same mechanic. And that's Vancian. I don't blame D&D for that; because it's D&D it pretty much has to keep certain sacred cows of design sacred. That, and because it's the biggest name out there, it has to be accessible. If every class had a completely different mechanic for it's powers, it would be more stuff for players to try to learn. And that would turn folks off.

On the other had, having a more complex system offers a ton of more flexibility and makes each class feel unique. Sometimes I feel D&D's big strength (accessibility) is one of its greatest weaknesses. The trick is finding the sweet spot, and that's gonna vary from person to person. I've found that once you get away the assumptions that each class needs to follow the same rule, doors open to really add flavor and the opportunity to allow the class to feel more on-theme, so-to-speak.

For example, let's look at the bard. In D&D, it's a typical half caster. Mechanically, no difference in spell casting than a wizard or cleric. They use the same spells, with the same effects, as those classes. "Oh! but my bard casts fireball with their lute, not a twiddle of the fingers like a wizard!"

Yawn. During gameplay, that never comes up. 99.9% of the time it's "I cast X." The same as every other caster.

I was talking with one of my players, and he deserves credit for this idea, as much as I'd like to take it :p Instead of casting spells, bardic magic is based on rhythm, tempo, and invoking emotion. That's what song, poetry, dance, and instrumentals do, right? So for bardic magic, they start their turn performing, using tempo and rhythm to choose an emotion. Each emotion has a list of certain effects the bard can impose. the next round, the bard can continue and build off of that performance, adding another effect, possibly chaining them as combat progresses to powerful magics.

For example, anger is:
Anger
  • +1 PD bonus on attack rolls.
  • Must attack an enemy to the best of their ability on their next turn.
  • -1 PD penalty to all Will ability checks.

And it can be chained with other emotions in subsequent rounds, like:
Love + Hope + Anger = the target also gains resistance to one damage type for the duration.

Meaning, on round 1 you choose 1 anger effect, on round 2 you add 1 love effect (both are active), and on round 3 you add 1 hope effect (all three are active) AND you trigger the combination power.


Another example is the classic swordmage. In most games, it's pretty much a fighter/magic user hybrid. But if you don't assume you use the same core mechanic for spells, you can build it into a true warrior class that uses magic to augment battle. Therefore, the magic could be tied to the battle itself. The arcane warrior can harness the energies created from the chaos and emotion that is created in battle. These energies are used to power the swordmage's spells, and as the combat encounter progresses, the spells get more powerful and more powerful options are unlocked. Their magic isn't tied to spell slots or spell points, but is tied to how epic the battles are. Like what a warrior would focus on thematically anyway. A warrior won't sit down and study spellbooks, they'd find a way to harness magic from combat directly.
 

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Pedantic

Legend
I've long advocated that thematically different abilities should be represented in mechanically different ways. I'm not terribly familiar, but I've gotten the impression that's something PF2 has leaned in to expressing via slightly different combat loops for each class?

The biggest counterarguments tend to be about the difficulty of balancing characters with wildly different resource schedules, which I think is somewhat overblown, and perhaps more reasonably, the difficulty of creating appealing, but not overtuned synergies between classes and sufficiently variable tactical options inside all your different class subsystems to make choices in combat engaging.

And to be fair, picking from a list of spells is already a lot of character differentiation, if there are enough spells. The character that can cast Animate Objects and the one that casts Sleet Storm are very different in their combat applications. You can get away with a lot by aggressively pruning effects lists between classes.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
On the other had, having a more complex system offers a ton of more flexibility and makes each class feel unique.

Well, yes, of course it does.

And if your design goal is to have uniqueness come out of mechanical complexity of the character class, that's a fine thing to do. But that has some drawbacks, too, such that if that's not specifically the design goal, you probably won't choose that path.

So, I submit that the interesting question is, what design goals are better supported by complexity, and what are better served by the simplicity?
 
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aco175

Legend
I like the idea, but fear it is too complex to have each type of caster tie to something else other than some core-type mechanics. If there was a book of spells for a bard that made spells out of emotions and have them ready, then maybe. Maybe even a system of base emotions and base effects for each. Then add more 'levels' of spells to make more complex and damaging effects. There would still need to something to fit into 1 round casting and having an effect go off.
 

Pedantic

Legend
The bard proposal reminds me a lot of Pillar of Eternity's Chanters, which I always thought would be quite good for a TTRPG. Instead of emotions, and requiring a specific combination of emotions to achieve a given effect, they had to chant "phrases" that are all minor area buffs (and notably didn't take up their primary actions, letting them attack normally) and then use "invocations" once they'd built up enough appropriate phrases, which were standard big spell effects. They were storyteller themed and a nice thematic touch was that nearly all summoning magic sat with them.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
My favorite is still 3E/PF1 and if I could design a game it would use those as guides, but include something like bounded accuracy to tame the wildness. I don't mind disparate mechanics for classes, but I do want them to play well with each other. Both across the battlefield and while multi-classing I mean. For example, Paizo tried a lot of this with the gunslinger, summoner, alchemist etc... It got pretty wonky with some classes working the system in unintended ways. PF2 really reigned it in for a silo'd approach like 4E. I dont want to call that simplistic, but it is very templated, which I find too homogenizing. Points for PF2 though for avoiding the unintended wonkiness of adding material to a solid foundation. There has to be a point between them?
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Supporter
By and large, D&D takes the simple route. Most classes of the same archetype are the same mechanically for their powers.
It’s one of the things I like about D&D through the ages. However, I appreciate that they HAVE tried other casting mechanisms for different themes: AD&D psionics and spell-like abilities; 3/3.5Ed warlocks, psionics, truenamers, shadowcasters, incarnum, reserve feats, and so forth. But some were better designed than others, and only a few had enough fans to make a big impact on the game.

IMHO, a lot of that is because the other systems are often handicapped in some way as opposed to the core mechanics. One of my most recent 3.5Ed characters is a straight warrior type- no multiclassing. (A rarity for me.) Most of his fantastical abilities come from race, feat and template choices. But as mystical as the PC is on paper, he’s not a powerhouse.
I've long advocated that thematically different abilities should be represented in mechanically different ways.
That’s what I love about HERO, Mutants & Masterminds, and other toolbox systems. You can even have extremely similar characters operating with very different mechanics.
 
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I'm talking about the design decision between complexity vs. simplicity, specifically around core character design.

My personal preference is for mechanical complexity to 'buy' verisimilitude. If you're going to have a dice roll, it's because whatever element is being produced really ought to be random; if you're going to have two dice rolls, it's because it wouldn't make any sense to combine them; and so on.

So I like simple characters in stripped-down systems that run really fast at the table, and I like complex characters in detailed systems that produce good simulations.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
For example, Paizo tried a lot of this with the gunslinger, summoner, alchemist etc... It got pretty wonky with some classes working the system in unintended ways.
This is why I wouldn't want to see a bunch of new rules for different powers. 1) Side effects. 2) Making the GM's job harder. More complex, yes. Net benefit to the game? I sure hope so.

I don't know that the rules have to be more complex to add this interest. If you leave some ambiguity in the rules, then PCs can add their own flavor without making things more complicated for all. If spellcasting, for example, requires 2 "actions," then one caster can say " I read from my spellbook for two actions," while the bard can say, "I do the Hulkster ear-wave, then feed off the crowd's emotions before I cast."
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
This is why I wouldn't want to see a bunch of new rules for different powers. 1) Side effects. 2) Making the GM's job harder. More complex, yes. Net benefit to the game? I sure hope so.

I don't know that the rules have to be more complex to add this interest. If you leave some ambiguity in the rules, then PCs can add their own flavor without making things more complicated for all. If spellcasting, for example, requires 2 "actions," then one caster can say " I read from my spellbook for two actions," while the bard can say, "I do the Hulkster ear-wave, then feed off the crowd's emotions before I cast."
I think folks want more differentiation than flavor wave for the mechanics. Coming up with a core foundation that allows for it is tough.
 

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