The Power of Simplicity

I’m coming to realise, the art of simplicity is a subtle one to master. If your game is too simple, you risk boring or alienating your players. If it’s too complex, you risk frustrating or alienating your players.

 

But the good news is that there’s a Goldilocks zone—not too simple, not too complicated—in which a campaign can thrive and grow. The trick is “getting into the zone”. 

For me, simplicity has four main advantages in doing just that:

  • It’s Faster: With less to deal with, it’s easier to make choices. Too many options can lead to paralysis. That’s the case whether you are talking about in-game decisions (which adventure to go, door to open or NPC to talk to) as well as the mechanical aspects of the game (what feat or class to take at the next level, which magic item or spell to activate or what combat tactic to use). 
  • It’s Easy to Add Something: It’s much easier to add something to a simple game than take something away from a complicated game (particularly if the something you are taking away is a player option). Add something new and look like a munificent hero. Take something away and look like a swine trying to ruin your players’ fun. Which option would you prefer?
  • It’s More Robust: With fewer “moving parts” and less complexity there is less to go wrong. Complicated games often bog down or collapse under the weight of all the various rules and options. Similarly, there is a point in the plot of a complicated campaign where things just start to grind to a halt because no one really knows what is going on. 
  • It’s Easier to Grasp: Simple games or campaign are more accessible. They are also easier for players to “get” because they seem less daunting and have fewer barriers to entry. For example, would you prefer to read (and understand) a 300-page hardback or a 64-page softcover before starting the game? Importantly, games that are easier to grasp also require less investment—both in terms of money and time—on the participants’ behalf, which reduces barriers to entry.

Of course, as I said above, if the game is too simple it likely won’t work in the long term. 

 

The 80/20 Rule


This all brings me rather neatly to the 80/20 rule (or the Pareto Principle). Essentially, the 80/20 rule is simple. In any given pursuit—designing an adventure or campaign say—20% of your effort provides 80% of your result. To put it another way. 20% of customers generate 80% of a company’s sales. 

If this general principle is true, it means that 20% of your game produces 80% of the possible fun and enjoyment. With this in mind, is there any real point spending loads of time and effort (and perhaps money) trying to nudge the needle upwards to 85% or even 90% fun? That’s a pretty epic diminishing return on investment.

So, for example, following the 80/20 rule—and trying to keep my game in the goldilocks simplicity zone—is there any real point adding in yet another subplot, adventure hook or a new set of rules options? Will my snazzy new battle mat and painted miniatures, new book of monsters or whatever really make my game that much more fun? Or will it just be more stuff to keep track of and drag to the game? Or in the case of new rules and plot hooks is it just more stuff to understand and remember that doesn’t actually bring that much extra fun to the table?

 

The Big Question


Given the Goldilocks zones of simplicity and the 80/20 rule would I be better off spending my time (my most precious resource) and money elsewhere instead of adding even more bloat to my game in the pursuit of the perfect campaign? If I can spend two hours a week working on my campaign and make my players 80% happy, I’d probably be insane to spend an extra eight hours preparing to make them (say) 90% happy because I could better spend those hours more productively elsewhere.

Perhaps instead, I should spend my time with my family, keeping fit and growing my business? 

For me, the answer is pretty clear.

 

What Do You Think?


What do you think about the Goldilocks zones of simplicity or the 80/20 rule? Let me know, in the comments below.

 

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

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5 thoughts on “The Power of Simplicity

  1. What I found is that, taking notes pays dividends. For gearing up to game day, I have a trio of events I want to have happen in a four hour game. On my big game days, I try to do five events. I also stream/record my games, because I think having a video file to replay back is very important. It comes in handy when remembering things, and getting a detailed record is easy if you have the ability to listen to it back during the downtime you have between games.

    I’m of the mindset that there’s the portion of game where you sit and chew the fat with your fellows. This is where no gaming gets accomplished, but as a Referee, you can get your NPC figures set up behind your shield, ensure your notes are in order, and politely de-stress your players, all the while doing something to further prepare yourself for the zero-hour moment.

    A good item to do is to have a verbal recall of the important events from last game. One of my players has taken the beatings poorly, and I took note of the fact all the thieves guild problems he was having as a leader (probably bad of me to let him have a chance to do this). As I go through this, he is remembering the footpads of his that are being incarcerated.

    Now that everyone is focused on game, we have it the zero mark. And from here, I like pushing the players further into the game. Anything you wanted to buy of normal inventory, just send me a note you deducted it. If there is anything that you want to buy over five hundred gold, we probably need to just go through that.

    the Players are now funneled into the portal, and now are characters in the shared universe. Until you decide to let them out of the moment, as a dm, you’re describing what is going on and reacting accordingly to their actions.

    Also, players that don’t show up, it’s a time for you to take notes of what the character would do offstage. Maybe he’s just whoring through a block of dens, or sleeping off a drunk, or he’s attending a promise keepers meeting.

    USE THEIR ABSENCE TO YOUR STORY ADVANTAGE. This is where he is at a town square and heard a bard sing a song about a curious chapel, miles away. The character recalls an elder paladin that retired there, and the player now has a new loose thread to follow, to seek the wise mans counsel.

    Just thoughts, guys and gals. Have a good game, and may your hits be crits.

    • Bruce, I’m also a huge taker of notes (although I find it a challenge to take the notes during the game session itself and so tend to make more extensive notes afterwards). I have a campaign notebook in which I note important events, NPCs met etc. It’s nice to look back at it after a campaign ends!

  2. Simplicity? Savage Worlds. Universal System, 15 minutes from learning to playing, and many, MANY supplements, both official and fan-based.

    They say Fast! Furious! Fun! for a reason.

    Complex? For me, without going old school, is Pathfinder. So many rules and extras that it’s almost overloaded. If I have to spend more than one “session 0” just to make characters for a small group, it’s just not worth it.

    Just my 2¢ worth.

  3. This is interesting timing for me. We are taking a break from our normal swords and sorcery style campaigns which means I’m taking a break from GMing. I get to play a character in a Traveller game that’s going great. When we switch back to fantasy, I’m going to run a campaign in The Dark Eye.

    So I’ve been organizing all my sources for material in the “off” time. Things that help me with encounter ideas. Sources for ambiance and verisimilitude. Ideas for treasure piles. And on and on. Over the years, I have amassed so many things that now I’m overwhelmed with possible source material and idea generators that I’m trying to figure out how I may organize it so I can find what I want when I want it! It’s proving quite the challenge.

    • It sounds like you can’t see the woods for the trees! Being organised is a perennial problem for GMs I think. We’ve only got so much space behind the screen after all and our players demand our constant attention. You’ve given me another idea for a blog post! Thank you.