Elegance vs Complexity in PbtA: Fight!

So I’m about halfway through my deep read of Urban Shadows. It is a masterclass in mechanically elaborate PbtA design.

It eyeballs like it’s also good, as in functional, evocative, accomplishes its design goals. What it isn’t, is elegant.

I’m currently playing another inelegant, mechanically complex game (Motobushido). It also is functional and evocative and accomplishes its design goals. But things don’t fit together so smoothly. The learning curve is long. But it gives you a lot to hold on to, widgets to play with, buttons to push.

I dunno. Elegant design — to my mind, meaning it gets the most possible accomplished in the fewest mechanical steps — is intimidating as a creative goal. Emergent complexity out of a simple start, jeez, that’s great right? I know, as a nacent maybe-designer, it’s so intimidating that sometimes I just say fuck it, here’s another layer, perfect is the enemy of good. 

Probably most of the games I play are inelegant and mechanically complex. That’s pretty traditional design, right? I mean, lots of small press games are far more elegant than their hardcore trad predecessors, certainly. A tight focus helps achieve that.

So anyway Urban Shadows. I’m totally okay with how mechanically elaborate it is! The game feels sprawling and epic, like it can go pretty much anywhere you want to take it inside the genre. It’s like…as far from Sagas of the Icelanders as I’ve gotten within the PbtA universe. I would also, personally, characterize SotI as “elegant.”

I know I’m gonna start a lengthy bullshit argument about the meaning of the word “elegant,” and I totally do not intend that. I’m not saying this is how it is, nor am I making a case for this is how it should be. Game design can have many goals, and some of those goals may require a bit of inelegance.

0 thoughts on “Elegance vs Complexity in PbtA: Fight!”

  1. FWIW, I am not opposed to mechanically complex systems. I would rather have a good game which does what I want it to do, than have an “elegant” mechanic simply for the sake of having it. (This car has three speed settings, Forward 50 MPH, Reverse 50MP and Park, but IT LOOKS REAL GOOD!)

  2. Execution is everything! You can do complexity well and you can do it poorly. 

    When everything is an exception to everything, jeez, that’s a bit much for me.

  3. Other than SotI vs Urban Shadows?

    Okay. Probably the most elegant game I’ve ever run, the thing that starts with the least and delivers the most, was Dust Devils. Holy hannah that thing packs a punch. It’s about ONE THING and it does it so well.

    Burning Wheel is, I think, pretty inelegant (once you move outside the Hub system) but also packs a hell of a punch. Definitely accomplishes its goals.

    Lacuna is elegant but it doesn’t do much. It’s cute! We played it! And it does pull a surprising amount of play out of, basically, one mechanism and tons of evocative setting and situation. But you gotta bring a lot of your own work to the table; Lacuna doesn’t do much for you.

  4. Sorry, I meant like, specific game procedures than are elegant vs complex, not game to game comparisons. Although I think I understand a bit better where you’re coming from now.

  5. I’ve sworn off of PtbA games that I won’t ever play, but the nod from you is enough to interest me. You didn’t steer me wrong with Mutant Year Zero.

  6. Small example: Urban Shadows has not only four core stats for what your character does, but also four stats for the Factions in play. And players have both personal and factional moves. It (probably) works great! And it’s 2x the basic mechanisms of other PbtA games.

    OTOH SotI has a lot of moves due to the man/woman move split but you only need to concern yourself with your gender’s moves. 

    The Factions thing is just one example! It popped to mind when you asked. 

    I am the first to confess that this isn’t like…a rigorously constructed “position” I’m talking about. No positions, no defense, no stomach for a lengthy fight today.

  7. SotI, I think, looks a bit more elegant than it actually is. There’s a lot of hidden complexity around The Man and The Woman. If you avoid those playbooks it’s simpler, but not quite as simple as… say, Monsterhearts?

    That said, Urban Shadows definitely has more moving parts. When I was playtesting I, semi-conciously, did a Burning Wheel hub and spokes type thing where I started off with basic moves, added in playbook moves late in the first session, and got to factions only in the second session.

    Really, I think its like a swiss watch once it gets going — lots of moving parts, but they grip well together and grip well with the fiction. (Where as my feel about Motobushido, which you can correct me on as you’ve actually played, is the game parts grip each other well but don’t always tight grip with the fiction.)

    P.S. I hate saying “the fiction.” It’s a stupid way to talk about it, but I think everyone here probably can guess at what stupid thing I’m saying.

  8. Yeah I think that’s an accurate characterization, Brand Robins. Also distinctive to the PbtA superstructure. The fiction<->procedure pass-off is well defined and easy to understand, in a way that IMO probably no other game has been so explicit about.

    Other than Burning Wheel’s explicit intent -> task -> consequence cycle. Different solution but equally effective.

    I’ve got another biggish post about exactly this brewing in my brain. Maybe next week.

    (Oh jeez I just pulled a Brand!)

  9. Though, side note: I think there’s a very particular elegance about the way that Urban Shadows ties advancement into the ongoing drama: the main way you advance is by marking all four factions. That’s it. No XP to track, you don’t have to remember what conditions let you mark XP, you don’t have end-of-session procedures to earn XP, none of that. Simply “mark every faction”.

  10. Interestingly, I think one of my subconscious motives for writing skins for Monsterhearts must have been to make the game less elegant. Because almost everything I’ve written for it does that. Hm.

  11. Oh sure, yeah,I can see the benefit of forcing (!) the players back into the same constrained fiction-cubbies over and over. Tight reincorporation, less reliance on lucky little triangles popping up from the relationship questions.

  12. It also seems to be a great way to explore how the players are and aren’t aligned. Because you can trigger Faction Moves by working with or against members of various factions.

    And, well, Debt Moves let you mark Factions as well, and so does starting up trouble with Factions (Hit the Streets, Face to a Name, Investigate a Place of Power). So it all keeps that engine going and uses the Factions as poles that the MC can use to ground and shape the city.

  13. Other thing I really like: the Intimacy Moves are a perfect fit for this style of story (as opposed to the Sex Moves of Monsterhearts and AW). Mainly because I think they feed perfectly into the themes that the mechanics are gunning for. But that’s more my thoughts and I don’t want to step over any thoughts you might have therein.

  14. But for real.

    I found SotI to be clunky as heck when I ran it for a group of edda-heads. Stuff like: what happens when a women stabs somebody? The division between genders is interesting on the face of it, but it ended up requiring me to come up with a bunch of custom moves on the fly when people wanted to do things that were not a move. Which was a lot.

    I think US is not so complex. Faction stuff (moves and marking factions to advance) and corruption are the new additions to the PtbA world, and both of those are really just xp under a slightly different mode.

    Debts are just Strings that make more sense.

  15. What happens when…man what? She tempts fate. It’s the catchall. 

    But interesting that you had that experience!

    Agreed re Debts. I’m not at all in love with Strings, and yet they seem perfectly functional for a huge universe of fans.

  16. I’ve played the game with one of the designers and I think for the people that like the more meta game aspects of this game which is also a part of PbtA it works well.  But it was totally not my thing.

  17. Paul Beakley That’s what we did for a while. But, any PtbA game that devolves into the “Act Under Fire” analogue to replace stuff that’s regularly coming up is missing the mark, imo.

  18. I guess I’m OK with strings in concept but my MH players don’t care about them at all. I draw attention to them a few times in every session, and so many little mechanical things trigger from them, and I think in two long games and one con session I’ve seen a player spend a string exactly zero times.

  19. Travis Scott I will also totally cop to the fact that I ran SotI once, had a really terrific one-shot of it (the seidkona’s player was terrified that she had to Tempt Fate to club a drunk housecarl to get away from him), and have not seen any long-term issues or whatevers in action. 

    Totally get that games change shape before your very eyes under repeat play. Hell, that’s pretty much the running theme of the Indie Game Reading Club!

  20. I also want to be super-clear about not ever, ever pulling the “duh, this worked fine for us, don’t know wtf is wrong with you/your group/your brain” trick.

    Dear god I hate that. I will block myself if I pull that shit! Just watch me!

  21. Travis Scott, when a woman stabs someone in SotI she’s probably Tempting Fate as described, yeah. But how you frame that is up to the MC. It doesn’t have to be “she murders them / she somehow fails”. It could be “she’s not discovered / everybody finds out” (with the assumption that the person will die regardless), or it could be “she doesn’t become accursed in the eyes of Odin / she totally does” (with the assumption that the assassination attempt will guaranteed fail).
    The way I’m reading most PbtA games is that players making Moves while adhering to the prescribed trigger and move outcome grants them full system-supported agency, while anytime players try to do something in the fiction that falls outside of those moves, the MC decides the outcome based on what makes sense from a simulationist and/or dramatic perspective. A woman stabbing someone in SotI is undefined – there is no move for it for a reason, so what transpires is decided by the MC by fiat. Is this an open fight between a knife-wielding woman and an armored, axe-wielding man? The woman stands no chance of inflicting grave harm by tempting fate, but might be able to question his honour or otherwise destabilize him. Is she stabbing him in his sleep? He will definitely sustain grave harm, maybe just perish outright – the stakes are about something else.
    In my view that is why SotI is so elegant – it prevents players from seizing agency in ways that don’t conform to the cultural setting, which forces them to further their motives in ways that are thematic to their characters. Which in some ways include rebelling against and transforming that same cultural setting.

  22. Contrariwise, I will totally say SotI doesn’t work because it didn’t work for me. Also, you can’t block me, because my solipsism won’t let you.

  23. He is the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt of the G+ indie game world.

    Mikael Andersson Totally! I may have probably needed to see someone else run this game before I attempted to. That said, we ran into lots of situations (not just women stabbing men) where people were doing risky things that needed custom moves and that 100% fit with the eddas (or so the people at the table with degrees in the eddas told me). Lots of the moves just don’t work for me conceptually or technically.

  24. My first session of SotI had all the players decide to go out mountaineering to find some missing sheep. Lots of Fate Tempting, totally yawn-worthy, not fun at all for anyone. So I agree there’s plenty of activities one might find reasonable to engage in due to realism or source material that simply isn’t supported by the game’s moves. My advice would be, rather than doing custom moves for (at least most) of that stuff, just treat the outcome as undefined as far as the system is concerned and let the MC declare what happens. Skip to the more interesting parts, like who’s going to gift who with a bushel of barley and use the resulting bond to peer into their soul.

  25. To be fair Travis Scott I am pretty sure that in SotI if there isn’t a move for something, then the PC can just do it. Even if what we are talking about is a physical assault say.

  26. I’ve run Sagas, have a degree in lit, took a 600 level class on Egils Saga (not an Edda, that being a major part of the point), and think SotI is very good, but not for the reasons Paul says, but for exactly the reasons that poor Travis thinks it’s bad.

    I’ve got a lot to say about this, but I have to run now. I’ll do a big ass post about it, Urban Shadows, and how freeform is the missing key to all your problems in gaming, even though it sucks as a form of gaming itself, sometime tomorrow.


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