RPPR Episode 73: The Complexity Complex

News: No Security, a horror scenario anthology set in the American Great Depression, written by RPPR regular Caleb Stokes, is up on Kickstarter. If you enjoyed Bryson Springs or Lover in the Ice, consider contributing to it.

Synopsis: My recent trip to China got me thinking about complexity. RPGs are often very reductive, very simple worlds, but adding a bit of complexity to a game can greatly enhance it. Of course too much complexity can be awful especially in the wrong areas, but tweaking a specific aspect like a setting detail or a single game mechanic can make an average game into a great one. I also reveal my idea for a new Iron Heroes campaign, plus a letter from Tom, shout outs and an anecdote:

Shout outs

  • Liminal States: A genre-bending novel of immortality and Lovecraftian horrors and highly recommended by Caleb.
  • China Road: A journalist travels across China, seeing the highs and lows of the country.
  • The Weird: A massive anthology of weird fiction from around the world. Over 1000 pages of weirdness!
  • Black Books: A hilarious sitcom starring Dylan Moran.
  • Book of Cthulhu: A great anthology of Cthulhu mythos fiction.
  • Nyarko-San: An insane anime recommended to us by several RPPR listeners. A very unique view of the mythos to say the least.
  • Stealth of Nations: A study of the world’s global informal economy. Great fodder for dystopian and post-apocalyptic games.
  • A Corpse in the Koryo: A brilliant detective/thriller novel about a police inspector in North Korea caught up the machinations of competing security agencies.
  • Wool: A highly reviewed and recommended sci-fi ebook novella. Only 99 cents!

Music: Beautiful Lies by B-Complex

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  14 comments for “RPPR Episode 73: The Complexity Complex

  1. crawlkill
    May 26, 2012 at 2:29 am

    whoa, Caleb’s got his kickstarter up? get an ad up on the actualplay site! I could’ve missed it! and China Road is an aaawesome book. one of the few I’ve run into that’s actually by a Chinese-speaking westerner, not just a devoted tourist. there’s a pretty good rendition of it up on audible.com, in fact!

  2. James
    May 26, 2012 at 8:25 am

    This is james(J-train1) on the Minecraft server.
    Question 1: Ross, where did you get that end cap music? I would like a copy.

    Comment 1: Interesting that you talk about China Road. My major was Asian studies in college so that topic interests me. It is surprising what the people of Western Nations knows or care to knows about China. There is more to China then what we see on the national news.

  3. Fridrik
    May 26, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    If you want a good book on china by a westerner I would have a look at “Red China blues”

  4. Journ-O-LST-3
    May 27, 2012 at 6:00 am

    My dad just gave me China Road since apparently I had come to many of the same conclusions. In Sichuan foreigners are called “Old Outside(r)” because people from Sichuan have never seen the ocean.

    As for complexity, it mostly requires talking to the players before the game. I think it’s more of a focus issue.

  5. Beej
    May 29, 2012 at 11:10 am

    So I watched an episode Nyarko-San. Its like I’m on drugs. Like when a roach is being passed around a concert and you take a hit but right afterward you realize there’s not just weed in it because the world starts spinning and you can no longer for coherent words?

  6. joecrak
    May 29, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Tom if you enjoy Black Books and spaced, like everyone naturally should, then another Brit-com you might enjoy is The League of Gentlemen, it sadly suffers from having the annoying laugh track for the first 2 seasons, but loses it for the third. Great show, though the first episode can be tough getting through, though I felt the same for Black Books.

    While I’m not familiar with Iron Heroes a game I am familiar with that deal with business aspects, language barriers, and reputation that affects your trade is 7th Sea. Granted its sets in 17th century Europe just with all the names changed, but the Roll and Keep system is great. They even have their own wannabe China. I’m not a fan of their published history, but that doesn’t stop me from changing it when I run it for myself. One of the things I love is the detail they go into for all the different fighting styles, or swordsman schools.

    They also have the game Legend of the Five Rings, but that deals more with being a samurai in a not so subtle Japan, small part of China, though the merchant skills are there.

  7. Richard
    June 7, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    L5R is complex, in a good way.

    Meaning: there can be tons and tons of social nuances, or not as many, depending on the style of game you’re playing.

    Hell, even the different subtleties between clans and clan diets can be made something interesting.

    For example: everyone in Rokugan eats rice, however, red meat is considered taboo and disgusting. The Unicorn clan, however, have spent 800 years away from Rokugan, and thus have taken to eating red meat often. How would non Unicorn clan characters react when they’re invited into a daimyo’s castle and served haunches of beef?

  8. Patrick
    June 10, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    The more I think about “complexity” in games, the more I cringe. Honestly, how often do players follow the plots that you create for them. I understand that the inclusion of certain mechanics can create a short leash of sorts, but complexity is generally tied into buy-in. Without buy-in, a person would have a very difficult time running a complex game even with the inclusion of a limiting mechanic, no matter how well intentioned…

    I am growing more and more fond of the FATE system and pretty much any system that provides a mechanism for players to participate in the act of storytelling. I think a complex game can be achieved by a system that rewards the level of buy-in by your PCs. I think participation isn’t a difficulty for most of the RPPR crew, however, I game with one particular individual who is far more concerned with “winning”, sometimes at the cost of breaking the story, than creating a fun and challenging narrative…

    I think that the more important question is: Does complexity in a game translate to greater player buy-in? Most of the time, IMHO, the answer is rather hit or miss.

  9. MKS
    June 14, 2012 at 12:12 am

    All combat immediately turns RPGs into their wargame roots, slowing down the action into a slow crawl

    Some RPGs have immensely complicated backgrounds

    To tom complaining aboot Champions and math:

    you already play quite complex games, you’re just so used to them you don’t have to think aboot them — GURPS, I think, is more complex than Hero system and involves more intricate math (esp when you try to build things like robots and vehicles…) — GURPS belays its engineering roots

    and you grok something as arcane as AD&D 4e; hearing that system played reminds me of listening to bridge or an alchemical discussion :3

    I write this from the pov of someone who has math anxiety & still can play and enjoy something like Champions (where you can create someone with explosive Charisma and sticky strength…) & Rulemaster

  10. July 12, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    Oh my god! Caleb’s exagerating tone on certain lines always leaves me laughing.

    “YOUR WRONG! YOUR WRONG and I hate you!”

    You stay classy Caleb.

  11. Steven Lee
    March 3, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Did you ever play this merchant RPG? Is the Actual Play up?

  12. March 4, 2013 at 12:44 am

    The Merchant campaign is done – just waiting to finish Know Evil and New Arcadia before I start posting it.

  13. Steven Lee
    March 4, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Thanks, looking forward to it.

  14. KenR
    May 5, 2015 at 10:50 am

    I swear I *heard* the look Caleb gave Ross after “there’s a pronunciation guide in the RPG!” before the brief discussion on teaching.

    One of the most important things about complexity (which you guys absolutely touched on), is that people perceive it differently. Some people are turned off by complex or difficult to learn rules, while others are intimidated or left cold by overly involved settings. Especially in the indie game discussions too much complexity is often seen as something that gets in the way of the story – but finding the right level really adds to the whole experience. The yuan-ti ramps and anarchist popularity contests are great examples.

    In a Dungeon World game, my players found a bunch of evil masks, so I wrote up a custom move just for using those masks and added in a “corruption” stat for doing so. It definitely made the game more complex and the move was only used a few times, but it underscored to the players that these things were a big deal and something they had to take care of.

    Also just to be picky, I think Ross mixed up Robert Ludlum (the Bourne series) with Brian Lumley (author of Necroscope and some Lovecraft-inspired fiction).

    For another interesting take on China and the complexity found there, Fuschia Dunlop has a memoir/overview of her time learning to cook in Chinese culinary school and traveling around the country, called “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: a Sweet-Sour memoir of eating in China.” In addition to things like drinking hot water, she talks about how the Chinese love foods with distinct textures – which often seem rubbery to Westerners.

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