3 min read

The Subtle Art 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.
The Subtle Art of Simplicity
Kill the owlbear. Simple?

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 rather marvellously, there’s a Goldilocks zone—not too simple, not too complicated—in which a game and campaign can thrive and grow. The trick is keeping your game in the zone.

For me, simplicity in gaming has five main advantages:

It’s Faster

With less to deal with, it’s easier to make choices. Too many options can lead to decision paralysis.

Furthermore, the horror of decision paralysis is much greater when the group must agree on a course of action. The more options you give them, the longer this decision will take. I have learnt this to my chagrin in a recent campaign. We'd decided to try a full-on sandbox game, and the party couldn't decide what to do. In retrospect, I'd gone overboard with adventure hooks. Lesson learnt.

Similarly, in combat or other challenging situations, a profusion of options can slow the game to a crawl. Picking from four actions every round is normally simple; repeatedly choosing from ten (or more) is much trickier (and time-consuming).

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. (This is doubly true if that something 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 in a simple game. Complicated games (particularly at higher levels) often bog down or collapse under the weight of their various rules and options.

Similarly, there is a point in the plot of a complicated campaign where things grind to a halt because no one knows what is going on (and what they should do next).

It’s More Accessible

Simple games or campaigns are more accessible for players because they seem less daunting and have fewer barriers to entry. For example, would you prefer to read (and understand) a 300-page core hardback or a 64-page softcover before starting the game? Which requires less investment in time and money? Which has fewer barriers to entry?

It's Easier to Prepare and Less Stressful

Simpler games and plots are easier to prepare and thus are less stressful. It's relatively easy to find a couple of hours every week to prepare for the game. It's much harder to find ten hours.

Don't do stress management, do stress elimination. Why add more stress than absolutely necessary to something enjoyable?

The 80/20 Rule

This all brings me rather neatly to the 80/20 rule (or the Pareto Principle). Essentially (and ironically), the 80/20 rule is simple:

In any given pursuit—designing an adventure or campaign, say—80% of your result comes from 20% of your effort. To put it another way, 80% of a company's sales come from 20% of its customers.

If this general principle is true, it means that 20% of your effort and preparation produces 80% of the possible fun and enjoyment in your game. With this in mind, is there any real point in 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.

For example, will adding a new set of character options or book of monsters, or even another subplot, make the game that much more fun? Even if it does add more fun, is the investment in time and effort worth it? Does it just add more to the GM's "job"?

The Big Question

Given the Goldilocks zones of simplicity and the 80/20 rule, would you be better off spending your time (your most precious and irreplaceable resource) and money elsewhere instead of adding more to your game in the pursuit of the perfect campaign?

If you spend two hours a week working on your campaign and make your players 80% happy, you'd probably be insane to spend an extra eight hours preparing to make them (say) 90%. You could better spend those hours more productively elsewhere. Perhaps instead, you could spend more time with your family, play in someone else's game or do something else you enjoy.

For me, the answer is clear.

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