Howling Tower: Complexity and Option Fatigue

Howling Tower: Complexity and Option Fatigue

Howling Tower 3By 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!

17 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Complexity and Option Fatigue”

  1. Interesting points here, Steve. I think its important to note that the earlier systems encouraged a lot more rulings than the newer systems did; the more things become codified as “options,” the fewer options you actually have. This is a technique that we would call overwriting in history but I don’t know the word for it in any other term.

    Essentially, by defining a single option, you are at the same time discounting all things that are NOT clearly within that definition. By saying, “You are allowed to do this, this, and this,” you deny the ability to do anything not enumerated in that list purely by inference.

    I found that 3e and 4e suffered the most from this problem, as the DM was never encouraged to make intelligent rulings, but rather to compute the effects of various rules much like a judge at a Magic: the Gathering game.

  2. hey, I agree with the overwhelming choices idea. My wife was a new player, and playing a druid, she was overwhelmed with the spell choices she had to make every time the party rested. There was just so much choice. The key is to give some good options, and when players are ready, they can move out of the set options and take from the entire list.

  3. I think it is true that we can eventually become overwelmed with choices, however, I find that preferable to being limited to only a few options by design mandate. A game system with inumerable options leaves me free to make choices and costomize my experience. Even if that can be frustrating sometimes, I am limited only by my desire to master the material. When my options are limited by design fiat, I find myself bored and frustrated by a lack of design flexibility which I think is worse.

  4. There is some value in being able to say NO. When that power is taken away from the referee, the game degenerates into wish fulfillment. Likewise, many of the choices of 3.x in particular are false choices.

    When there are “good” choices and “bad” choices the bad choices aren’t really choices because they are sub-par. Likewise, the options that you have in combat are really false options. Before 3.x you could attempt to do anything you could imagine (to be told NO by the DM, perhaps) in combat. After 3.x, these choices were restricted to a list of pre-devised maneuvers and you needed feats to even be good at those.

  5. There are two isssues here. One is the difference in the structure of the rules. The structure is based on having more definition in how the rules work. ie. does the system define how far you jump with a hard number or does it rely on the GM to rule this? A more structured system is more complex, but this is not the kind of complexity monetioned here. The big adder of complexity is the option explosion. This is how many classes do you have, how many feats, magic items, spells etc. By the end of it, D&D 3.5 had 53 base classes. Base classes as in “I’m playing a 1st level _____”.

    As I’m sure Steve’s next article will cover, part of this is based on the fact that publishing this kind of material ensures the widest audience. Players will want it because it applies to their character, GM’s need it because it applies to their players’ characters. Adventures would only be bought by GM’s, setting material only applies to people who will play in that particular setting. It’s a conundrum that all gaming companies have to deal with.

    @Idabrius, The “lack of options” in newer systems is more a mental issue than a rules system issue. I don’t find that the groups I play with have a problem looking outside of the box. And I’ve seen some old-school GM’s that aren’t good at looking beyond the box as well.
    I personally have a problem running older systems. Running a game involves a lot of skills, many of which are not related. I find that when most of the rulings are up to me, I spend a lot of time on rulings to try and be both fair and consistent. With more sturctured systems it comes up less and I have more examples to go by for the items not covered by the rules. This lets me focus on the storytelling part of the game. This is something based on each group’s play style. I’ll be interested to see how D&DNext comes out to see how it supports both styles.

  6. “the more things become codified as “options,” the fewer options you actually have.”

    The earliest example of that in D&D is, of course, the thief. Before that class came along in Greyhawk, anyone could try to climb a wall or hide in shadows. There were no rules for those things, so success was up to the DM, but there were no restrictions on them, either. Then along came the thief and BAM!, all those wall-climbing fighters and skulking magic-users were out of luck.

  7. The game as it stands now is pretty hard to approach for people that have never played. Just too many options to even know where to start, at least in watching several new people try to figure things out, even with coaching.

  8. I love how current and former D&D designers continually ignore Paizo and Pathfinder in their endless navel gazing about how to create a financially successful, fan appreciated, fun to play, version of D&D that appeals to new players and existing ones from each edition. Uh, guys, you just might want to look over at Pathfinder for a minute, they seem to have covered all those bases already!

  9. TC, I hear what you are saying, but this you’re running perilously close to edition war trolling. Keep it civil, and I think you’ll find your point gets more traction.

  10. My experience is behind D&D, so that’s what I address. I have nothing but admiration for the folk at Paizo and the business they’ve built. It’s impossible to say that Pathfinder will never mirror D&D’s boom-bust-boom edition cycle. If it doesn’t, I’ll be right there cheering for them.

  11. @Zaukrie, it’s hard to get started with too few options as well. In old-school games the DM brings so much that it’s hard to imagine a neophyte doing it. I’d search my memories about how we did it several days ago, but the results are so embarassing I’ve wiped it from my mind.

    @TC, if you are talking about the popularity of Pathfinder, you have to account that it was based on a game that already had tons of fans. I really like Pathfinder and Paizo, but it was much less of a risk then introducing a new game from scratch.

  12. John The Philosopher

    To Mr. Winter
    You raise some very interesting points. Yet like so many other game designers and theorists I come across, you overlook one simple fact: that there are two different ways of learning a game. The first way can be called the analytic way of learning, i.e. the memorizing of set rules. The second way of learning can be called the continental way of learning,in which one comes to understand and master the fundamental concepts of the material. This distinction is important because it affects how the game material is presented, learned, and understood. Under these terms, the new player will approach the material in an analytic fashion. They will try to learn all of the set rules which tell them how to play, what they can and cannot do, and will be overwhelmed by a massive amount of rules and options. The experienced player, or system master as you would call him, has come to comprehend and master the underpinning concepts of the game upon which the rules are based. Because of his mastery of the underpinning concepts, the system master will be less worried about the individual rules, and undaunted at any plethora of options.
    The bottom line:
    Rather than trying to redesign the game without alienating new or experienced players, game developers need to work on better teaching methods of introducing and covering the material.

  13. It’s not just rpgs. I know a guy who’s a big fan of boardgames and card games and is constantly buying new ones. Every time we sit down to play one of them, it’s got enormously complicated rules, and I hate it. I want to play, not write a math paper with a zillion variables. (I can make strategy and tactics more complicated all by myself.)

    And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve realized that I could have won the game if I’d been able to remember subrule #10,000, except that then Bob would have won first because of subrule #32,071. At that point, you just don’t care anymore.

    It’s like some gamers, and game designers, find playability and speed insulting. Excessive complication is the really insulting part.

  14. @John The Philosopher,
    No matter how it’s taught, some people will prefer to think in a certain way. And even if you don’t have a problem learning the amount of rules, you might not like spending the time looking through the options.

    Personally I do, but I realize everybody doesn’t and we should have a variety of games.

    A practical hint is to look at what options are coming up for your character between games and note down some of the choices that appeal to you. Then when you level up, you can look through your notes choices and quickly decide.

  15. Steve Winter has written some of the most insightful and even handed posts about modern D&D over the last years. His latest posts about D&D Past, Present, and Next did however surprise me a bit in magnifying the problems of modern D&D a tad too much. (A malaise that always accompanies edition changes.)

    4E requires remarkably little system mastery. You could give a new player the 5-page summary from D&D XP 2008, a readymade character and they’re ready to go. What little system there’s in the game, he or she would pick up in play, and that’s speaking of two sessions max.

    Same for the DM. Because the monsters all follow the same mechanics, there’s no learning-the-rules-curve in 4th in the way that I experienced in 3rd, when every odd levels I’d find myself running a different game of ever increasing complexity.

    So we’re not talking about increased complexity, but options bloat pure and simple. Options bloat presents itself in two guises. First, to the outsider. A 4e newb joining a 12th level game advertised as ‘anything on the DDI Char builder is legit’ will give up. The amount of options are impossible to digest for him to make meaningful choices, even if you give him or her a reasonable amount of time.

    That’s the main issue I see. To someone who already knows what class he or she is playing will have it nice and manageable. (We run 4e out of the books, by the way, and stopped with Adventurer’s Vault 2, to keep it manageable.) When you level up there’ll be two class books – the book your class appeared in, and one ‘Power’ book – and two items books (AV 1 and 2) if the group uses a sort-of wish-list system for magic gear. It’s *very* manageable.

    So whenever I read on the fora how 3e or 4e are bad for having hundreds of feats in the system, I assume that these people (1) assume the system requires or standardly runs on a lot more source material than one needs to use (under 3E we always had ‘you can use up to 3 books to build your PC’) and (2) are looking at modern D&D from the outsider’s point of view, i.e. before having chosen a class or some other means of narrowing-down the options bloat.

  16. The system of feats and skills in 3E/PF can be daunting. My wife and I both started playing at the same time back in 1978 (I was the DM, she was one of my players). She has always preferred fighters, because she is a “hit things and kill them” kind of player. In older editions, that was exactly what her fighters always excelled at doing. When I converted my game to 3.5, she looked at all the new options (feats & skills) and finally said to me “you fill out my character sheet. I don’t want to mess with all this, I just want to hit things”. Her character has all the feats and skills appropriate to her level, but she hardly ever uses them.

  17. When I initially left a comment I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me
    whn new comments are added- checkbox and now every time a
    comjent is added I receive four emails witth thhe same comment.
    Perhaps there is an easy method you are able to remove mee from
    that service? Manny thanks!

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