Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Design Aesthetics: Simple, Detailed, Procedural

I'm stuck at a point in the 52 Pages houserules where I'm confronting two tasks that seem unpleasant.

Remember, the One Page Rules idea is about being simple, elegant, or at least enough for each chunk to fit on a Powerpoint slide using 18 point font. I'm coming up against two tasks where I really would prefer to do things differently  in actual play, so it's hard to honor the spirit of the 52.

One is my beloved carousing table. I want to fit a whole set of rules onto about 40% of a page. But it seems just too violent to chop down the many odd occurrences to a set of generic outcomes.

The other is the treasure page. Yes, I have an idea for a really super-simple approach to treasure that goes very well with the 52 Pages aesthetics, but again, I would prefer rolling up treasure on a big ornate multiple d100 table where I can get marten fur capes or octagon-cut chrysoprases or Dust of Sneezing and Choking.

See, there are three ways you can handle game mechanics. You can go Simple, where combat is: each side rolls d6, add modifiers, higher side wins. You can go Detailed, where combat means, each side rolls on a d100 table with modifiers and gets a result of what you do to someone else or what someone else does to you. (that would actually be pretty cool - an all-critical-hits approach to combat). Or you can do what most systems do and go Procedural, where there are complicated interactive rules that give the players the feeling they're making decisions.

Each aesthetic also has a standard.

  • The Simple should be really simple - easy access, basic results. It should involve as few rolls, lookups, and choices as possible.
  • The Detailed should be really detailed - easy access, complex results. Each table should really brim with spirit, options and creativity.
  • The Procedural should, by that standard, make the players using it feel like they are making real choices, or should make the GM using it  feel like the world is making real choices. Difficult access, but complex, interactive and realistic results.

This map also lets us identify a no-man's land, where a procedure is complicated and at the same time estranges players from the feeling of choice. The pinnacle of this: the unplayable hyper-realistic kind of system that has flourished throughout the history of role-playing, where your hit on an opponent unleashes all kinds of weapon shear and armor abrasion and bone fragmentation, but ultimately it's all as boring as watching a pachinko ball cascade down. By the same token, offering too many options can also rob the players of the feeling of choice, as they thrash blindly about in the long period before they gain "system mastery."

How would this apply to treasure rules?

  • The Simple would just dictate a random amount of treasure value by level, and what general form it is in.
  • The Detailed would be a d100 x d100 table with all kinds of rare goods and magic items in there.
  • The Procedural would take "treasure types" to the next level, basing treasure on what a creature would accumulate, or what would be found in the particular ruin; you could almost roll through the history of each room ("the tomb had a golden funeral mask; it was removed by robbers but the hidden sceptre was never found, and then in came the gnolls with five barrels of wine and a sack of silver coins.")

By this standard, the 52 Pages is about half simple and half procedural. And yes, as you'll see soon, that also applies to the treasure rules I'm working on. I'm pretty sure that when I finish the 52, the return of the repressed is going to compel me into blurting forth something really Detailed, like Pergamino Barocco.


  1. There is a distinction, which rarely has attention drawn to it, between your notions of detailed and the procedural/simple mix.

    Gygax started simply but in AD&D, which I consider exemplary. he presented so much detail because his AD&D is the daddy, fathering many local procedural/simple campaigns.

    So for example his treasure tables are exhaustively detailed, but I have used merely the tiniest fraction of the kinds of treasure he lists there. His detailed lists show the recommended bounds for a D&D style game. I have my own tiny lists of derived and invented (by me) treasures.

    What Im saying is there are two kinds of Treasure Page for a published 52 page system:

    1. Detailed and characterful. Now go reader and make a small selection from this for your own game.

    2. Procedural/Simple. This is how I (Roger) do things in my campaign.

    One approach is a superset for all campaigns. The other is good example from a single campaign.

    1. Good point. I am actually going to let the last few pages - the example mini-campaign setting and mini-adventure - do a lot of the lifting in that regard. Rather than saying what is possible and workable, I show examples.

      On that note - in my teens, I learned better lessons from the sample dungeon in Holmes Basic than I did from all the rules in the DMG.

  2. Take a look at how OD&D does treasure. Outside of the detailed list of magic items and monster treasure types, this is the entirety of the OD&D treasure system:



    These tables show how the distribution of the treasure should work, but the details of jewelry and magic items can be left to the campaign (as Kent writes).

    Of course, half of Monsters & Treasure is a collection of magic items from Gary's campaign, but I don't think something like that fits within your design ethos.