The Simplicity Trap

Right now, ttRPGs are having an interesting moment. Fifth Edition D&D has exploded in popularity, in part due to its streamlined nature and approachability. On the flipside, now many people are trying Pathfinder 2e (historically more “rules heavy”) because they are unhappy with the direction WotC is taking.

Shadowdark just made a boatload of money for being rules-lite & efficient OSR system that has the approachability of D&D 5e but the grit of OSR. Also in team simple. One Page RPGs are a thing and have a passionate fandom online.

So what level of complexity is Optimal for RPGs?

Debates on this could go on forever. Some people love the simulation-ist vibe of Shadowrun others frankly use D&D books for the pictures and make the rules up as they go along.

I do think genre impacts the decision a lot. Rules-Lite games tend to either be very easy or very (and capriciously) difficult. Without there being a compelling set of factors to strategize in, players either have full control over the story (at one extreme) or are slaves to the dice (at the other).

Some Rules Lite games (Cthulhu Dark to me stands out as the masterwork in this genre) can pull off a rule set that while greatly simple, fits the vibe of the genre it is aiming for perfectly.

The Core Mechanic for Cthulhu Dark is

  1. Add a d6 if the task is within (normal) human capabilities.
  2. Add a d6 if the task relates to your occupation.
  3. Add a d6 if the task risks your sanity. (Which is a different color)

You succeed no matter what, unless someone considers it narrative interesting for you to fail, in which case they can roll against you. But wait if you always succeed how is that scary?

Well first if the Sanity die is the highest, your insanity level will increase. Furthermore rolling a 1 could mean that you succeed, but break your leg doing so. There is lots of freedom for GMs to interpret dice rolls, character creation can be done in 30 seconds.

But it works.

Why? Because this ruleset, while simple, understands that HP Lovecraft stories are not about success vs failure – they are about characters slowly going insane. Given that Lovecraft games are mysteries, or involve brutal monsters, a failed roll could end the story if a failed roll could always result in a failure.

Instead this system, like a Lovecraftian tale, has the characters fall in apart, in part because they are succeeding. The irony is that despite (unless rolled against) certitude of success, their demise is inevitable.

But Simplicity can also be a trap

I think, sometimes, the fact that our core rule sets are simple can oddly lead to more complexity. Let me explain this seeming contradiction/

In 5e spell caster is very simple. Spells require verbal or somatic components, but most of the time this does not come up. There is a rule for concentration.

Primarily, characters have spell slots. And they can cast as many spells as they have slots.

Super simple. You can hand a pre-made character sheet and say you have X many spells and these are the spells you know.

But this also requires massive complexity. Because the rules are so simple, the game depth can’t come from the rules as such. Much of the PHB is a list of spells, spells and more spells.

Then we have expansion books with more spells. In other words, because there is nothing about the spell slot system that (sufficiently, compellingly) explains the magic of the world, magical lore / gamification has to come from an endless list.

Roll a d20+bonuses compare to DC. It is super simple, but precisely because of that requires an entire book of monster stat blocks. The game depth comes from an endless list.

What are the alternatives

One answer is, perhaps this is not a bad thing. Players enjoy exploring the list of spells and strategizing what to pick.

However if we want to skip the endless-list mechanic there are a few directions we could jump.

One direction is to have a ruleset that is simple, but still allows for narratively-compelling character creation. FateCore’s Aspect system is the masterwork here. Characters are defined primarily by five phrases called aspects that define narrative truths. The system allows for limitless character possibilities and ensures that the character sheet does trully describe a character – someone with traits, characteristics, history, values. The Rules are simple, but tie to the story in such a way that it can’t be played out.

The other direction is the direction Blades in the Dark takes. The Core Mechanic of Blades in the dark is more complex than “roll d20 and add”.

From the SRD:

  1. The player states their goal for the action.
  2. The player chooses the action rating.
  3. The GM sets the position for the roll.
  4. The GM sets the effect level for the action.
  5. Add bonus dice.
  6. The player rolls the dice and we judge the result.

Some players wouldn’t even get through that list. We are at Six steps before we even judge the result!

And yet this complexity enables simplicity.

Blades in the Dark and the inspired Forged in the Dark rule sets only have one core rulebook (not Three like D&D) and its much shorter and simpler than even most Fantasy Core rulebooks overall.

Without overly complicated stats, we the Core Mechanic references how trained the character is, whether they are in an advantaged or disadvantaged position, that certain actions even if successful have different degrees of impact on the narrative state than others, and allows for degrees of success.

Enough about the game world is considered in the Core Mechanic, that an endless list of stats isn’t needed for a meaningful outcome to be produced. Playbooks (the equivalent of classes) have only seven special abilities.

And they don’t need anymore to have a good game.

Which way to go?

I do think that large rulebooks have a valuable use. If you wanted to play a ten+ session campaign, or (as some do) play all the way from Level 1 to Level 20 a system with Large Rulebooks can add a lot of depth to the experience.

Even if you are going shorter in your playtime, the large books can still trigger creativity and paint a compelling picture of the world and provide depth.

It can be fun to go through all the options and fit all the pieces together.

I just want to note that sometimes what is “Simple” and what is “Complex” is not as clear cut as it may seem. It is possible to make a rules-heavy onepage RPG. It is possible to to make a relatively simple system (like 5e) that has an endlessly expanding group of books.

Perhaps the better question is to ask:

  • What do I want from an RPG?
  • Does this ruleset fit the genre?
  • Does this ruleset fit the amount of time I want to give to the game?

Where does Hostile Sun Fit?

Under a Hostile Sun, as far as success vs failure goes it dirt simple. It is a d20 roll under system.

What the system does though is directly tie each stat to a resource and gamifies the collecting of these resources. Then, on top of this economy, builds all the other systems of the game.

With Resource Currencies:

  • You make bait to enable tame attemps
  • You feed the creatures you tamed to reactivate their stat pools
  • You can homebrew (both in and out of game) your own potions
  • You can unlock Elite areas by unlocking Elite Resources
  • You can build inventions or mutate pets.

Expansion upon expansion of books is not needed to define more potions or equipment. Creatures can be invented, even on the fly, very easily by the GM. But because everything is tied back to the resource economy the game stays on guardrails.

A Cthulhu game system needs to build sanity into its core mechanic to reflect the type of story it is telling.

Hostile Sun builds Resource collection and time/opportunity management into its core systems because making choices with scarce resources is what drives the plot of a Hostile Sun story. The most interesting thing isn’t “will the astronaut succeed and doing this or not” the question is rather “is it worth the time-risk to do this?” or “Do I really want to spend my scarce resources on this?”

Hostile Sun Alchemy

I do worry that perhaps my initial potion system went too simple. Two (very simple) tables defined potion making. This still left important choices to be made, as the same resources you used to make a potion could be kept to tame creatures, or saved up to build Elite Resources.

But I do think the initial potion system went too simple. So currently I am thinking through three ideas.

The Current Rulebook has already been revised to add a few more rules. The same tables remain, but a new type of potion Persist Until Dismissed requires an ingredient be added to make the potion balanced.

A balanced potion includes both Geologicals (Molten Minerals, Odd Ore) and Botanicals (Arcane Algae, Strange Sap and Helpful Herbs). Whether the potion is balanced, purely Geological or purely Botanical in turn determines it stability.

Thus a potion will have one of four “types” Instant, Persist Until Dismissed, Action Assist, and Stat Switch and will also have a Core Ingredient (one of the Five Resources). The Core Ingredient and potion type determines the formula for the recipe.

This, hopefully, gives game terms sufficient to describe the traits of the potion – Type, Core Resource, Recipe, Stability, # of Uses, and Balance – and make each potion fill different, but still having a small number of rules and only two short tables.

But What if?

I am considering two routes to add another layer of nuance to potion making.

The first is to break “Instant” into two categories – Instants that do something that is within human capabilities and instants that go beyond what a human, even with time and tools can reasonably do.

For example – it is within human capabilities to crack a safe. But it takes time, tools and might set off alarms if not done correctly. If a player wants to homebrew a potion that acids through the safe, that potion is ultimately accomplishing something (breaking into the safe) that is within human capabilities. It does it better and faster. But the overall effect is within human capabilities.

Now if a player wanted run as fast as the Flash, breaking the sound barrier or wants to control the weather at will, this would clearly be beyond human capabilities. Even with tools, humans cannot run as fast as the flash (exempting light-speed travel, but that is a whole ship not a mere person as such) or control the weather. These would be beyond human capabilities.

Prices would increase for going beyond human capabilities, and thus give a sense of variable power level that can distinguish between potion recipes that are of the same Type and Core Resource. Also allowing for varying power level, potions that impact unwilling targets can be made harder to resist by adding more ingredients.

The other route is to have both Primary and Secondary ingredients and have the characteristics be defined by both. This makes the Alchemy table a very complex looking 8.5 by 11 table that I currently keep in Excel, and that’s with throwing Helpful Herbs a bit under the bus (you will see what I mean when you look at the table – I could fix by having Helpful Herbs still be special but have their own table)

Both Systems (early drafts) can be found on my Google Drive or on

What do you think? Does the simple Alchemy system (with the Balance / Persist Until Dismissed) rules added get the job done in as few rules as possible?

Or do you like one or both of the expanded alchemy systems? Do you think an Alchemy System can, at least for some use cases, replace the ever growing Spell-lists of other Core Fantasy games?

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