By now, everyone has had time to settle into the idea that D&D is getting another revision. I’m using this week to look at some D&D history, what revisions mean, and their effects. Today’s episode concerns complexity and option fatigue.
Every revision of D&D has made the game more complex somehow. Complexity comes in different wavelengths. Each edition has dialed down one sort of complexity but always at the cost (or the gain, depending on how you look at it) of ramping up another type.
A game like D&D is unquestionably a complex system. It has a large number of parts; when those parts interact, they create an even larger number of relationships; the relationships are nonlinear and dynamic; and a decision regarding one part ripples through the other parts in ways that can be hard to predict. And that’s from the point of view of players; for game designers, it can be even worse. (Game designers always conclude that a revision is needed before players do. That notion will come up more than once this week, over at howlingtower.com.)
For the first half of D&D’s life (back in the AD&D days), the game’s complexity arose mainly from its open-endedness and its presentation. Players and DMs had to be skillful at navigating the game’s labyrinth of rulebooks, which were laced with exclusive and often contradictory rules.
That shifted with the release of 3rd Edition. For the last fifteen years or so, most of D&D’s complexity has come from what system analysts call option fatigue but is more commonly known as information overload.
People make better choices when their options are limited. If you give someone fifty options, they’ll get confused, frustrated, and impatient, and probably wind up choosing an option that isn’t the best for them either because they were baffled or just want to end the pain. If you give them five options, they’re much more likely to zero in on the best one. System analysts and psychologists have known about this effect for a long time. Marketers and salespeople have been taking advantage of it for just as long, to your benefit and to your detriment. Ever wonder why you’re paying more for your cell phone plan, cable TV, or car insurance than your neighbor is? There’s a good chance you were overwhelmed by all the options and finally just said, “Fine, I’ll take that one.” At the other end of the scale is analysis paralysis—refusing to make a choice at all, because none of the options rise above the others as the best.
Picking a new feat or spell for your half-minotaur 8th-level bladesinger/5th-level psionicist isn’t as momentous as deciding how much and what sort of insurance to carry on your auto, but it can be even more complex in decision-making terms. That’s the type of complexity facing the current crop of D&D players.
In the late 1980s, TSR studied the sales appeal of AD&D compared to “Basic” D&D (Basic/Expert, B/X, or BECMI, as it’s now known). The common wisdom was that Basic D&D was the best choice for beginning players because it was a simpler game—it had fewer rules. New and inexperienced players, however, actually saw that paucity of rules as a drawback. To them, Basic D&D was more complex than Advanced D&D, not less, because the DM and players were faced with more situations that had no clear solution. In contrast, AD&D told you exactly (or approximately) what to do in an enormous range of situations. The answers might be hard to find, but they were in those books somewhere. Extensive rules that covered more situations translated to the DM spending more time flipping pages in a search for answers but less time sifting through options. The end result was a perception that while AD&D had more rules than Basic D&D, all those rules made it easier to play. Inexperienced players liked the confidence that came from AD&D providing all the answers, so they gravitated toward AD&D. Experienced players liked having open-ended options and were the main audience for Basic D&D.
That result surprised a lot of people inside TSR. It was an eye-opener, and it affected design and marketing philosophy for years.
A corollary to this effect is system mastery: the more experience people have at manipulating a set of options, the better equipped they are to weigh them correctly. An insurance adjustor will make a better decision about his own insurance, in considerably less time, than I will. Someone who’s been playing 4E weekly for four years will level up his 16th-level wizard in less time and with more confidence than a rookie player who’s advancing from 1st to 2nd level.
But system mastery goes only so far. A game can quickly reach a level of option fatigue, where it serves system masters at the expense of everyone else. When that point is reached, it’s time to start thinking about a revision.
(There’s more of this monologue at Howling Tower. Wednesday’s topic is the dysfunctional, codependent relationship between publishers and players.)
About the Author
Steve Winter has been involved in publishing Dungeons & Dragons in one capacity or another since 1981. Currently he’s a freelance writer and designer in the gaming field. You can visit Steve and read more of his thoughts on roleplaying games, D&D, and more at his website: Howling Tower. If you missed the first of these entries on the Kobold Quarterly site, please follow the Howling Tower tag to read more!