Ease Vs. Simplicity

So, here’s the assertion I made on Twitter yesterday, for all to see: 4e is easier for me to run than Risus. Risus is just abut the simplest RPG I know that I still consider functional, so this is a specific example of a generalization, that 4e is the easiest game for me to GM.

Obviously, that’s stupid.

The reality is that the rules of Risus are shorter than the blog post is going to be. In contrast, 4e is a MASSIVE amount of rules content to be read, absorbed and implemented. How could 4e be easier?

So, first and foremost let’s set aside how easy or hard the system is to learn. That may impact adoption, but it doesn’t impact how much work it is to run. 4e Still has lots of rules, but let’s not worry about how long it takes to read them.

Similarly, let’s set aside skill and just assume a high level of rules familiarity, whether it be with Risus, 4e or whatever game you are comparing it to in your head. This doesn’t mean having all the rules in brain, but rather that you have enough rules that rules questions don’t negatively impact play. Whether you pull this off through knowledge or technique doesn’t really matter. Plus, frankly, if I were talking about the role of system mastery, I’d probably be more inclined towards games I wrote.

So here’s the thing – Risus is unquestionably _simpler_ than 4e. That means that a lot of tasks (adjudication, resolution and bookkeeping) are a lot faster and have fewer moving parts. A fight in Risus can be finished in a matter of minutes while the same fight in 4e might take an hour or more. At first blush, that seems like a strike against D&D, but take a moment to zoom back to the large question, that of effort.

Let’s take as our baseline that great adventuring staple, the dungeon crawl. It is, I hope, a given that 4e is pretty well designed for this sort of game, so I don’t need to do much for it. In contrast, Risus is going make for an interesting time with the same dungeon because, frankly, it will be a hell of a lot more boring. Fights in Risus are not interesting in and of themselves – they’re interesting because of the context, the stakes, and the player investment in the situation. Risus is just a resolution layer on top of those things, and as a result you’ll find that Risus dungeon crawls tend to be much shorter than those in 4e.

From a certain perspective, that remains a great argument in favor of Risus, but again, let’s zoom back to what’s really going on. I, as a person, want to create an entertaining experience for my friends for the next, say, three to four hours, but I’m tired and drained (and maybe old and drunk) so I’m not really on my game. This is where things start going wrong. The apparent ease of Risus starts becoming a burden because all that speed, efficiency and focus means more work for me.

In contrast, consider the 4e Game. If I must do prep, it’s about as complicated as ordering dinner (Go to DDI, find some monsters of the right level, print and go). It’s more work to dig out the minis and maps than it is to come up with fodder for 2 or 3 encounters, and the rub is that 2 or 3 encounters is, in 4e, a pretty full session. 4e fills the time, and for the tired, lazy GM, that’s a godsend.

Now, there are lots of other games with long combats, some with simpler rules than 4e, so what makes 4e stand out? Honestly, it’s that once the fight starts, I can lean on the system to do a lot of the things the GM would normally have to do to keep a fight interesting. Pacing, balance, spotlight, dynamism – these all will flow naturally in a 4e fight, even in one designed with half a brain.

In short, 4e provides the greatest payout for the least amount of work.

But (and of course there’s a but) don’t draw too many conclusions from that. It doesn’t mean, for example, that 4e offers the most bang for your buck, at least in part because the work to payoff ratio drops off almost immediately. The strength of te infrastructure becomes something you eventually have to work against to achieve your goal.

There is a point (for me) where putting the same effort into a Risus game and a 4e game produces a better Risus game, but that point is definitely somewhere past the brain-dead, bone tired state where I really wish I was playing 4e because it would make my life much easier.

6 thoughts on “Ease Vs. Simplicity

  1. Risus Monkey

    You are correct in that you can set up a bunch of encounters and have 4e sort of run itself. However, if the bar is set that low then I’m not sure if it would be worth it to play at all. I’ve run some pretty awesome 4e games, but I’ve had to work pretty hard to make it more than a string of extended fights.

    For me, Risus is the game that practically runs itself. I’ve internalized the system to such a degree that I can take a 4e (or 3e or 1e) dungeon and run it right off the page using Risus. The benefit of using Risus is that I ca actually finish a sizable dungeon in a single setting.

    But it took me a while to get to this point. Most people, I assume, would agree with your post. 🙂

    Reply
  2. super rats

    The gravity of 4e’s system is a genius devil to me. The system is designed so well it barely needs a DM during combat. The creatures have these things that they do and they’re hard coded so everyone knows exactly what to do. If grabbing an encounter from a module, it even spells out the tactics the creatures employ. It makes it so easy to coast along sometimes, particularly when a fight has gone past the 1 hour mark. Sure, more than half the critters are gone and the party has a 99.999% chance of winning, but I feel tempted to keep the fight rolling because the critters still have their interesting things. It kind of extends fight scenes to a point where fights are no longer interesting. It takes more work to break out of the fight pattern than it is to continue. In part because stuff is happening, keeping everyone occupied…and I don’t have to do any work. That’s the devil part, tempting me to be lazy.

    I totally get the easy to DM thing. Jumping back into exploration and investigation mode after combat really puts it into stark contrast to me. It takes me a few minutes to get back up to speed, so to speak.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    I can not say that I agree with this.
    I think you are short changing the value of Ease of use, system knowledge and mastery, and resolution time.

    Mainly because I equate ease to prep time, resolution time, and mastery in order to get X amount quality.
    In a game like Risus I can spend 5min to prep an encounter that will take 10min to resolve, and get a X value out of it. To get the same level of enjoyment out of a 4e fight I can spend about the same amount of time to prep, but it will several times longer to resolve.
    The level of enjoyment argument has more to do with the quality of the story IMO.

    Reply
  4. Anonymous

    I can not say that I agree with this.
    I think you are short changing the value of Ease of use, system knowledge and mastery, and resolution time.

    Mainly because I equate ease to prep time, resolution time, and mastery in order to get X amount quality.
    In a game like Risus I can spend 5min to prep an encounter that will take 10min to resolve, and get a X value out of it. To get the same level of enjoyment out of a 4e fight I can spend about the same amount of time to prep, but it will several times longer to resolve.
    The level of enjoyment argument has more to do with the quality of the story IMO.

    Reply
  5. Obsidian

    If I’m in the mood to play something that’s mechanically sound but not demanding of me (in the role of GM), I’d lean more toward playing a board game than running 4e or something similar with lots of mechanical support. Or play a story game that parcels out the narrative responsibilities amongst all the players. Our group gave up on 4e when it became clear that, although 4e did what it did very well, it was contributing exactly nothing to our roleplaying experience. We simply weren’t that interested in bashing monsters or accumulating treasure.

    Reply
  6. Reverance Pavane

    Well yes. If you want to play a tactical boardgame, then 4E is the superior choice, because that’s what it is.

    Yes, sure you can download a couple of monsters, and maybe even use a generic board to battle one, but it’s an isolated incident. Where is the context? What does it mean if you win the fight? What if your players want to avoid the fight? How does this encounter connect with anything else? It’s fine if you just want to resolve a fight against a random opponent,* but as far as a role-playing game is concerned…

    [Although at least with 4E you are unlikely to encounter 4 ancient huge red dragons in a 10′ x 10′ room…]

    So you are essentially saying 4E is better at running 4E than Risus. Which it probably is [I do much prefer The Fantasy Trip over 4E for tactical roleplay myself.]

    Whilst I haven’t run Risus I have run a fantasy campaign using Over The Edge and it worked very well. Negligible work to create opponents (especially if you start with “adjective noun” descriptors [such as “Elvish Knight” or “Charming Beggar”]), and lots of tactical fun as players out-thought their opponents to bring their various strengths into play.

    Then again I prefer sandbox play, so I find 4E to be much more troublesome because I never know when and where (and with what), that my players will pick a fight.

    [* Admittedly I’ve encountered people who simply played D&D 3.0 by opening the Monster Manual to a random page and battling what they found there. Your proposal strikes me as rather similar in effect. And just as much fun.]

    Reply

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