Thursday, August 4, 2011

Complexity vs. Playability: A Question of Campaign Scale

In the historical miniatures wargaming world, there's a widely-understood truism, almost a mathematical formula really, that states that as the complexity and detail of a set of rules increases the scale of the fighting depicted on the table shrinks. This is especially true for World War II miniatures rules: if you're tracking each individual soldier's morale and supply of grenades, if you're paying attention to the type of shell the tank is firing and tracking individual systems' damage levels, you're going to be playing with maybe 30 figures to a side and a vehicle or two in support. Outside of special convention exhibition games, if you want to field anything more than a platoon of troops per side and actually play a game to completion, certain concessions have to be made to "playability" - streamlining the process, boiling things down to a single die roll or two.

Reading through Christian's excellent Loviatar zine and his progress updates pertaining thereto, I was struck with a thought about how this scale could apply to RPGs. See, "PC freedom" is for the most part one of those RPG sacred cows. If you're planning on running a campaign that restricts players in any way, you better advertise it well in advance or you'll be facing mutiny. So most GMs (myself included) tend to plonk down on the side of "whatever's clever" and leave it at that. The thing is, Christian's running his game with Pathfinder but he's restricting action (for the time being) to a single city block.

Part of my personal evolution as a gamer these past few years has been in moving away from complex systems like 3.x/Pathfinder or GURPS in favor of more flexible and "lighter" systems like Castles & Crusades and BRP. But I'll be the first to admit that more complex systems have a certain charm - a well-written stat block for Pathfinder or GURPS is truly a thing of beauty and, as Christian's reminded me through his Loviatar efforts, kind of a hobby unto itself.

I've toyed with the idea of giving the players a complex system while keeping things simple on the GMing side of things. But maybe there's another way, too. I could actually see myself returning to GURPS or diving into Pathfinder as a GM, but with one caveat: as with miniatures games, with the complexity and detail of the rules increasing, the scale of the campaign would have to be proportionately smaller. That is perhaps the problem I've had with more complex systems: my ambition and desire to bow down before the altar of "PC freedom" has far outpaced my ability to actually interface with the rules. Running an open-ended and/or world-spanning campaign using those more detailed systems was just asking for frustration and overwhelm on my part. In terms of WWII miniatures games, it's like I was trying to put on a recreation of the Battle of the Bulge using Battalions in Crisis.

At this point, I'm mulling small-scale campaign concepts that could fit this new paradigm of complex rules/restricted setting. I'm thinking they'd have to be fairly role-play intensive, but with meaningful combats interspersed. Physical scale would be restricted by necessity; Christian's city block is a great example. For a fantasy milieu restricting races, monsters, and other variables would be desirable. I think a campaign that had a definite arc envisioned from the get-go (and discussed with the players) would be a good idea, too.

Off the top of my head, here are some campaign ideas that fit those criteria:

  • A Roman gladiator campaign where maybe (and realistically) one in four sessions actually features combat in the arena; the rest would be politics of the ludus and associated patrons and their power games.
  • A cyberpunk campaign set entirely in a single apartment block or urban project in an arcology; the group's only contact from birth with the outside world is through the 'Net.
  • The (mis-)adventures of a pirate crew and their ship of fortune; perhaps Irish pirates raiding the English from their coastal village base or converted Europeans operating out of a semi-independent piratical city-state.
  • To take a page from Christian's campaign, a GURPS Goblins game set entirely in a single ward or district of Regency London.
Heh, looking over that list I see it betrays my other burgeoning tendency: a greater and greater interest in running campaigns set strictly in our own world history, or something very close to it. But that's a topic for another day...
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