Reflections on Complexity in Game Design

I’d like to share some personal terms of art I use when talking about game design, because I will probably want to use them in the future, and it would be handy to be able to simply hyperlink to what I mean.

There are three dyads I want to talk about today. The first comprises brittle and robust; these terms discuss the scope of things that a game system can do. A robust system can handle a wide variety of issues and situations without breaking down. The HERO System, for example, is an RPG which places a high value on robustness; the implicit design goal is to be able to handle any concept within the game’s mechanics. Original D&D, conversely, is a brittle system; it’s pretty good for going into dungeons and killing things, but anything outside that scope requires the players to expand the rules somehow. (Arguably, this was a good thing for RPGs as a whole, by demanding large-scale rules innovation and ferment from the get-go, but that’s a different topic.)

The second pair of concepts is simple and complex, which cover, in essence, how much stuff you have to remember or reference in order to play the game. A system in which you have to roll a die and exceed a certain number to succeed is simple; one where you have to roll a die, apply a raft of modifiers, cross-reference with the difficulty of the task on a table, then roll another die, apply a different set of modifiers, and check another table, depending on the results on the first table, is complex. (Some of you may know what I’m talking about here.)

Finally, we have elegant and baroque, which refer to the relationship between the other two quantities. An elegant system has high robustness relative to its complexity; it is no more complex than it needs to be. A baroque system, on the other hand, is more complicated than it needs to be for its expressive power. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; some systems are deliberately baroque in order to convey a certain flavor. Original Deadlands, for example, is extremely baroque, using all the major polyhedral dice, playing cards, and poker chips in its resolution system; some of this baroqueness, however, pays dividends in setting a tone for the game.

Aesthetics of Play: An Occasional Series

Theorizing about roleplaying poses me a difficult challenge. I’m generally dubious about totalizing theories of playstyle like the GNS scheme or the older Adventurer/Problem-Solver/Roleplayer triad — I think they all tend to highlight real and interesting issues, but they tend toward the Procrustean, trying to cram all game styles into a fairly limited space with questionable success.

On the other hand, I gravitate to stylized categories like a moth to a stroboscopic bonfire. It’s a character flaw. 

The way I’ve decided to wrestle with this particular issue is to keep my theorizing on a lower level, focusing on value clusters that prize particular types of gameplay experience. Borrowing, folding, and spindling a term from the MDA framework, I’m going to call these clusters aesthetics of play. These aesthetics are not intended to be exclusive; multiple aesthetics can be, and usually are, operative for any player at any time. I’m going to try to avoid constructing opposing pairs of aesthetics, as I’ve had limited success with that in the past, but I may present two different approaches to a single issue at one time.

I’m also going to take this opportunity to note some stylistic ground rules. In all Aesthetics of Play essays (and, probably, other future theoretical works), I’m going to be using bold for emphasis. Italics are going to be reserved for introducing terms of art. I’m certain that my choices of terms of art are going to seem questionable to someone at some point; I recommend Jargon and Definitions before writing me snide emails about my choice of terms. You can write the email regardless, but I’m going to ignore anything along the lines of “That’s not what X means!”

The Bestiary of Stupid: The Clich

Last night I was on register, and my coworker was putting away a special order which was something like “The History and Origins of Cliches”. However, the left edge was partially covered by a note, and so my geek-soaked brain parsed it as “The History and Origins of Liches”. It made me think, however, that fantasy gaming needs yet another undead monster: the clich.

Whenever an evil wizard of great power dies at the hands of a young hero whose father and/or village he killed, or by falling from a great height into fire, or by otherwise getting his long-due comeuppance, a clich may be created. The new clich will rapidly set about its nefarious plot of world domination and/or sweet vengeance, cackling madly at every opportunity, killing henchmen who dare to question its harebrained schemes, and capturing heroes in order to reveal its secrets to them. A clich can only be killed permanently if a hero succumbs to temptation and accepts the clich’s offer of vast power in exchange for his submission: the cognitive dissonance will cause the clich to explode.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Food Review: US Chinese Food

2490 El Camino Real
Redwood City, CA

I have a taste for bad Americanized Chinese food. I credit it to the year when a New Haven hole in the wall called Main Garden was my source for several meals every week. As such, I tend to hunt down low-end Chinese food wherever I go, in hopes of finding food both tasty, ample, and dirt, dirt cheap.

US Chinese Food isn’t a bad entry in the field. It’s a cheery, brightly-lit place as steam table cafeteria-style restaurants go; it lacks the plasticized aura of Mr. Chau’s (a local Chinese fast food chain, for those outside the Peninsula area). A combination plate, which includes an entree and either chow mein or fried rice (or half and half), is $3.95. The service is friendly and quick, and the food is pretty fresh for steam table food (they do one thing I haven’t seen before: they wrap half of each large tray in plastic wrap, thus staving off the inevitable drying out).

I had beef broccoli this time out. It was good, but not exceptional. The beef was fine; not delicious, but not rubbery or unappetizing. The broccoli was surprisingly fresh-tasting. Most steam table beef broccoli has been steamed to within an inch of its life, and this entry was actually firm and crunchy. I would have been a bit happier with this development if they’d used less stem; fresh crunchy florets are great, but you want broccoli stem a little more thoroughly cooked. The sauce was OK. Sweet and unassertive.

I got half and half for my starches. The chow mein was good — greasy, but that’s to be expected. My only complaint is that the noodles were a little…institutional. They were square, and a little doughy. Very filling. The fried rice was mediocre; nothing was specifically bad, but there was a flavor to it that just didn’t seem right. (It’s surprising to me that relatively few restaurants around here make good fried rice. Gin Mon back in Belmont made a darn good fried rice, and I’ve been to a couple places up in SF that were good, but a good fried rice seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Safeway used to make a decent pork fried rice, but these days they only seem to have chicken fried rice, which is not as good.)

Jen got the General Chicken (one of the peculiarities of modern Chinese food is that there seems to have been a consensus, at least here in the Bay Area, to drop the whole debate about how to spell Tso/Tsao/Cho/Mo/whatever and just call the spicy-sweet fried chicken bits dish General Chicken. Better than Default Chicken, I guess). The general consensus is that it was pretty good. Not very spicy, and probably would be better if it were fresher; this tends to be generally true of fried chicken dishes in steam table restaurants. Jen agreed that the starches were unexciting; the square noodles seemed to bug her more.

Still, when all is said and done, it’s a decent Chinese lunch for 4 bucks a head, and the portions are quite hefty. They don’t take credit cards, but they have an in-house ATM. They have tables in the store if you want to eat in, and they have parking in back. I suspect I’ll be going back the next time I get the yen for a big mess of cheap Chinese.

Originally published on LiveJournal