Reduction and Simplification: When is it "good"?

NSR and OSR systems, for good or ill, feature a lot of reduced, simplified representations of complex ideas. You don’t have sword arm strength, you have Strength (your whole body). You don’t have health or stamina, you have Hit Points (whatever those are). You don’t have evasion or dodge or resilience or armoured locations, you have Armour Class, et cetera. But at the same time, NSR and OSR can be very discretised: your inventory is usually kept literal in slots or in lists, mutations and abilities are charted out in detail, and more complicated games will feature a detailed magic system.

At the same time, however, we see systems that challenge this orthodoxy: the most popular of these is probably quantum inventory, whether as a thief ability or a “supply” item you can collapse into any individual common item to prevent obsessive inventory tracking. Next up, hit points can be discretised into hit locations and wound tables or games with a more gritty, realistic feel. Magic can be made freeform for games with the opposite intention, and FKR geatures evrything from “just roll 2d6” to “how exactly does the sword collide with the neck guard and at what angle”.

My question is simple. How do you determine when something should be simple and when something should be detailed? And why have we embraced certain types of simplification (ability scores) while rejecting others (items, magic) by and large?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue.


This is a great set of questions and bound to give rise to much discussion here, especially as so many house-rule-makers and designers hang around here.

I want to mention is that this is an old debate. The early instinctive reaction to D&D was to make more and more systems for things to which our attention should be drawn. This was to achieve a sort of realism within fantasy and also to allow characters more rules-defined differentiation (rather than “just another third-level thief”). So, for example, Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) went for an idea of “completeness” (assuming that everybody was trying to do an “authentic medieval” fantasy) by piling on rules for social class and “authentic” magic and, generally, more things to keep track of. That way of doing things built up for a while. I still have a soft spot for the arcane rules of Aftermath (1981) and Powers & Perils. In the latter, for example, every PC requires a certain number of Food Points per day, depending on the character’s stats, and each food item is worth a certain number of food points for the one who consumes it. Hit locations, which you brought up, were in RuneQuest early on (1978).


Although RuneQuest has always had a following, the others I just mentioned were failures with respect to audience size. I’d peg that on their complexity.

I think the problem was that complexity just to be “complete” is a serious distraction from play. Instead, people should make a system for stuff that matters in the world or genre. For example, Call of Cthulhu wouldn’t be the same without the Sanity rules.

So, partly it depends on what things need to be tracked to simulate the kinds of attention that the genre requires. Genre, which is comprised of shared expectations, is the common ground for everything.

I have come to think that a lot of the complexity that we have in games came to be specifically to allow statted-out advancement, instead of narrative advancement. It’s as if designers made more stats just to give room for regulated, tracked advancement, in the tradition of experience points.

Speaking for myself, after my return to gaming, I have far more sympathy for systems that are descriptive rather than numerical. Narrative complexity and narrative advancement don’t require numerical stats, but they do require memory or records of events.

What are all the numbers for? They establish points of agreement resistant to interpretation and easily rendered into factors for dice odds, so that players and referees don’t disagree about what’s possible. By that measure, the more agreement there is about genre and expectations between participants, the less rules-and-numbers complexity is required.

With that in mind, I think that rules complexity and stat counting facilitate (1) methods of advancement and (2) play between strangers (who may not have established genre expectations), but whatever gains stat complexity offers are mitigated because (a) complexity also hinders newcomers and (b) players who play with each other for a while cease to be strangers and feel out genre expectations with one another.


I think in part it ties into what the people making it are most interested in, or rather what they think benefits the most from being one or the other (and this varies from person to person of course!) Some folks most likely see combat as something to be abstracted since its a fail state or single moment action to them, while inventory, since it’s tied into problem solving for example, might benefit more from being discretized. And so on vice versa, for people with different ideas.

And its always a balancing act, of how much granularity you want to put in (at cost of players having to remember it and use it). Some folks just go all out full granularity for everything! Others abstract absolutely everything also.


Many game designers have built-in assumptions about what kinds of games they (and others in their circles) like to play. Rules-lite games take these ideas and simplify them further, balancing abstraction with fiddly mechanics.

Breakthrough mechanics like auto-hit in ItO or quantum inventory (which I don’t think is as popular as you might assume) are frequently pushed ahead of other rules in rules-lite games, defining their uniqueness in many cases.

When a designer starts working on a project, they typically have 1-3 goals in mind. “D&D, but we’re all undead.” Or “Shadowrun, except easy to run.” Or “Into The Odd, but more compatible with old school modules.” These self-imposed limits/goals help shape and focus a game, which makes development easier and can also help attract interest.

Finally, known mechanics like “HP” and stats like “STR” are well-understand concepts in this space. Sticking to them can really help ease a new player’s learning curve.

All of these factors come into consideration when developing a game, and can shape the rule-to-play difficulty level.

As a designer in this space, I can only give you my particular method;

  • I first come to terms with the concept I’m trying to deliver (e.g. ItO but more “compatible” with old school modules, or Dungeon World but for one shots). Every mechanic should either this experience; otherwise it is dropped.
  • With any mechanic, I ask myself, “Is it essential? Does it advance the goals I already stated?” If not, it gets cut.
  • When creating a new mechanic, I consider the mental bandwidth required - how many simultaneous concepts does a player need to keep in their minds at the same time? If the answer is more than two, I usually do not institute the rule. This seemingly arbitrary rule helps keep me focused.

It can be a hard balance; for instance I really wanted to change some bits about Cairn before its release, but kept them because I hoped it would maintain compatibility and flavor with ItO and some other old school modules. An example of this is using HP instead of something more obvious like Grit or Resolve. Those do a better job of expressing what that mechanic does, but then there would have been more conversion from other ItO games/adventures, not to mention old school modules.

I hope that helps somewhat.


I feel like it should always be about supporting “what will the characters and players be doing in this game?” with a side of examining what needs to be complex, and what needs to be simple, to keep the game flowing (at your table, because there will be tables that want more, and tables that want less). Are aspects of older games (D&D) being included “by default”? Yeah, but I’d argue that’s because they support the desired experience in a tested way, or at least don’t hinder it, and because they’ve become shared assumptions, places we all kind of agree on “what that means” without thinking about it much (which is fraught, but also reality).

Ultimately, anything you simplify or abstract is something you’re moving along the spectrum from designer controlled (for lack of a better word, we all know drift happens) space into social contract and negotiation space, supported by those shared group assumptions. That saves you time (you’re not redefining Strength yet again) and it allows you to leverage those shared assumptions (“everyone knows what ground Strength covers”). Working in a few pages, maybe even just a few sentences, you don’t really have the luxury of taking the space to redefine stuff that already works fine to support your game’s premise; you have to leverage assumptions, or you have to give the GM a lot of authority (“Strength is what I say it is”), or both.

Ultimately I think it’s really important to examine what you’re simplifying, and why – are you doing it because complexity there is unnecessary for the game experience you want to have? Are you leveraging assumptions so it’ll still be potentially relatively complex, just on a per-table basis, to varying degrees? Are you doing it because you saw it in another game and it looked cool? All valid, but I think it makes a better designed game if you examine this.


Do people really design games separate from play? I start simple, and then add complexity when my players want it.


I think it also has to do with what makes a game fun and what different people find to be fun in a game. Some people like to play games for a fun evening out among friends. You know, drinks, snacks and a fun time together. If you’d make an analogy to boardgames and the like, these people would be the guys that bring Uno of Jungle Speed or even Twister to the game night.

Then there’s people who like to play games as a challenge to their intellect, for the strategy and the problem solving, for contest with others, to see who is the best, who can understand the rules best and use them in the most efficient ways. These are the people who bring Agricola or some other game where there’s multiple instates, hard to predict scoreboards, …


I feel like it is “good” simplification until it interferes with play, and vice versa for complications.

For example, getting rid of hit locations is a “good” idea until you are running with a group that freaking loves them or doesn’t feel like combat has weight without them. Games without classes are great until you get a group that wants to just pick classes like choices on a soda machine and slot into their predestined roles. Then it’s a decision on your part about who you want to build this game for, rather than whether the rules are necessary or not.

Inevitably what happens is that the preferences and fashions catered to by one generation of game designers become the “design mistakes” of the next movement. I’m a little hesitant to judge old games for some of their futzy shit for this reason.

When I did Eldritch Gambit I based its weirdnesses, simplifications, and complications on my own preferences and input from playtesting groups. It’s probably not the best advice for increasing popularity, as literally no one plays it or talks about it, but I am quite happy with how it turned out.


I think a lot of people start with a high concept, throw together some draft rules of whatever complexity suits that concept, and playtest and refine from there.

I think it’s interesting that the game designers who have responded are self-consciously making new games that are legible to players who are invested in existing, well-known games.

There are several reasons to do that.

  1. to make the transition easy for the players of earlier games.
  2. to make the on-ramp easy for new recruits.
  3. to reduce the effort (or need) to convert old supplements and modules. (This seems to be a major one.)
  4. to “fix” the stuff one did not like about those existing games (and we have fixes upon fixes, like the new slot-based mechanics in open playtesting for Old School Essentials, which is bound to have a little volume sooner or later of rules variants).

A game like Knave does all four of these.

My point is that simplification (or adding complexity) is always relative to a prior standard. If OD&D is that standard, complexity and simplificiation will look one way. If we were trying to simplify (or complicate) Chivalry & Sorcery, though, we’d have something different.

If this kind of development is all relative and reactive, then it’s no wonder that we seldom have major offshoot branches of rules in the hobby, such as PbtA or GURPS vs D&D-legible games.

Can we clear the screen and start from scratch? How long does it take before rules designers fall right back into well-worn grooves?


Can we clear the screen and start from scratch? How long does it take before rules designers fall right back into well-worn grooves?

Honestly, I doubt it. Differentiation from the paradigms are rare, because patterns of play burn themselves into your mind just as figures of speech or methods of writing do. Its telling that the game that made it big in PbtA after Apocalypse World (and arguably is still one of the biggest PbtA games) was “Apocalypse World D&D” i.e. Dungeon World.

And even if we could start from scratch, there’s no guarantee what comes out will be good given that means we cannot leverage the work people have put into refining these old concepts over the years, making any ex nihilo offering almost certainly worse than the “regulars”.


I never quite thought about it in terms of “designer-controlled” vs. “table-controlled”—I bet there’s a great deal of truth to that.

Like you say, “drift happens,” and the table is de facto always in control no matter how rulesy the game is, but the designer can still take on some semblance of authority.

And there are reasons you might want to take authority as a designer—to facilitate play with strangers, for example, as Lich pointed out.

To briefly make my own contribution: I’ve blogged before on the basic question of why people prefer different RPGs, and I think what I said there about familiarity and context also applies to why people make different design decisions: Why do we all have different preferences in RPGs?

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We can’t start from scratch, but we can certainly broaden our range of inspirations. There are lots of ideas that have never come together before, waiting to be combined. It’s a kind of alchemy.


I don’t design systems, I write adventures - I don’t need more systems/games to get the play experience I want so take this for what it’s worth … but … for me the basis of when to use simpler mechanics and when to dig deeply is “What is the intended Locus of Play”

That is complexity requires time and the attention of people at the table to manage so one wants to spend those limited resources on the things that matter to the game. So if I am writing or running a game that’s about fighting 16th century sword duels and I intend to spend 2 hours minimum on each duel (or a superhero game - anything about tactical combat really), I’ll want to spend a lot of rules on designing for combat. Multiple types of parries, rules for binds, different schools of technique etc etc. I will likely spend less time on rules about encumbrance – because duels aren’t about exploring a location or traveling long distances.

Now the tricky part is that even all tactical combat games are going to be different. A superhero game is likely going to take more time on the effects of environmental effects (collapsing buildings and exploding fuel tanks say) then my dueling game, but Superhero Punchdown likely won’t need to worry much about strong and weak blade sections of a saber vs. a small sword.

Generally though for Classic games I try to focus on light rules to leave time for description and ad hoc decision making. One of the conceits of Classic play after all is that players try to avoid appealing to the character killing dice and mechanics through clever problem solving if they can.


I had always assumed that at this point i RPG history there is always a game that is 90% what you think you want. Maybe you add some tweaks before starting or whatever but mostly you change things to suit the table. Lets call this DMing as design.

That’s what I do. My campaigns are run on bits of systems taped together as we’re going. Blogged about that mentality here: Introducing Mechanics Shop

But I guess you could also come at things with a designer/engineer mindset…

It just seems like every game is “ItO+Knave but Dolmenwood” or “D&D but PbtA” or “D&D but PbtA but simpler” or whatever. It FEELS like those games come out of play.

Like, I’m always thinking “oh, clearly this person had a player who wanted to be robin hood” or “oh, their players liked building bases” when I read games.


My brain doesn’t really work that way. It’s a “big picture” kinda brain.

If I tried to duct-tape two games together, I think I would inevitably end up taking them both apart, figuring out how every little bit worked, and then putting them back together in a completely different way. Then I would be unhappy with the result and do it again, and again, and again.

I think if I did that parallel to running a game, the rules would change so much from week to week that the players would get pretty annoyed with me. (One-shot playtests at the very least are necessary to really design well, though.)

Well I don’t think you change core mechanics week to week, but sometimes you are playing Knave and your players want to build a castle… Well Forbidden Lands, Worlds Without Number, and the Rules Cyclopedia all have some rules about that so we can use one of those.

Because the game is about facilitating the players. You can’t really ensure that anyone not at your table is going to play your game and certainly not that they will play it “right.”

My inclination at that point (when I’m lucky enough to see that point come in a lasting game) is just to make stuff up, not worrying about rules, but allowing the likelihood of things to dictate what makes sense. Then I throw in some curveballs from the setting. I suppose somebody might call it “FKR,” but it’s basically Referee Powers (rather than cobbling together rules by other people). Maybe that’s what you are talking about, though!

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Meanwhile, I would read all those pre-existing castle-building systems, think to myself “none of these are really what I want,” then proceed to write my own.

Because when you said,

I had always assumed that at this point in RPG history there is always a game that is 90% what you think you want.

That’s where you’re wrong! I’m perpetually unsatisfied with everything! :stuck_out_tongue:

(Sorry for having this little sidebar conversation, it’s not really about simplicity, but I’m new to forums and I’m not sure what the etiquette is… Is this sort of thing better off in its own thread or is it okay for threads to wander off a bit?)

I think that might be what separates game designers from whatever it is I am trying to be. Like, I enjoy making things, but I’m not really interested in trying to perfect anything and don’t really think in terms of closed systems.

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