Saturday, 14 January 2017

In Praise of Maximalism

I expect if you're reading this you'll know about Melan's recent post, "Against Ultra-Minimalism". This post is an orthogonal response to that.

My basic idea of a good game book (whether a good rule book, good module, good bestiary, whatever) is that it should be well-designed - which typically means efficiently designed - and interesting to read. Those are the platonic ideals. While the design should therefore be "minimalist" in a functional sense - it should be minimally complex, i.e. only as complex as it needs to be - the approach to content is subject to a totally different set of considerations. Give me good, interesting, exciting, readable, imaginative, dare I say even poetic, prose. I don't want to read a rule book written like a car manual. I want to read a rule book written by Proust, Ellroy or Vance. I don't mind how different the style is, but give me style. Give me voice. Give me something good that I actually enjoy reading for its own sake.

By the same token, I don't want to read a book full of "This is a bronze-age village exporting pitch next to a bunch of Vikings and a colony of 15 ents." I want a rule book full of real ideas to inspire and entice - ideas that mean something - and which I wouldn't have thought of myself. I can't get enough of those.

So I don't actually mind how long a rule book is, if it's genuinely well-written and imaginative. I tend to prefer shorter books because most RPG writers are completely dreadful at writing and pretty unimaginative. But if you can write, and have good ideas, why go minimalist? Give me more of it. Be as maximalist as you like. Misty Isles of the Eld could have been twice as long and I'd have still loved it. Ditto Maze of the Blue Medusa. I want books, like those, that are brimming with invention, not limited by the false modesty of minimalism. "Less is more" as a principle is over-rated; you can over-egg these things, but nobody ever talks about the dangers of under-egging, which in my view are all the more pernicious because that sort of approach tends to take on the character of an orthodoxy which cannot be questioned.

11 comments:

  1. Yes, exactly. There is no virtue in terseness for terseness sake. Everything should be as verbose as it needs to be, no more and no less.

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  2. I hesitate to even dip my toe into this tempest in a teacup (hence my comment here rather than on the original post), but...

    Does anyone know from whence the minimalist slant stems?

    The one-page dungeon contest was originally created as a CHALLENGE to OSR designers...a lark of a project that was seen as difficult precisely because so much more is (generally) needed for a decent, site-based adventure. Swords & Wizardry was 146 pages, more than 20 pages longer than the original LBBs. Labyrinth Lord's 138 pages is quite a bit longer than B/X's 128 (especially considering the lack of duplicate tables, cover leafs and artwork found in the original Basic and Expert sets). OSRIC is huge. My own B/X Companion was held to only 64 pages as a matter of design, but was meant to be used in conjunction with B/X, not as a standalone game.

    When did we first start championing an "ultra-minimalist" approach?

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    1. I think it's something to do with wanting to go back to first principles and get away from the 3rd edition/Pathfinder approach of massive splatbooks and adventure paths.

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    2. Even though I consider Dungeon Squad very an old school game in spirit, it was Microltie20 from 2006 that first pushed towards minimalism while still keeping compatibility with D&D-esque products. Since then, many various Microlite-clones have been released (such as PathfinderLITE and Microlite74).

      Searchers of the Unknown came out the same year as Pathfinder (2009). It was kind of the antithesis of the 3E bloat: a complete game on a single page. It was more like an exercise at game design, though; nevertheless, it spawned many one-page clones of it.

      World of Dungeons in 2012 was also a pretty big influence driving towards minimalism.

      2016, however, saw way too many ultra-minimalist games released, mostly following the suit of The Black Hack (including, but not limited to The Anime Hack, The Cat Hack, The Cthulhu Hack, The Elf Hack, The Kid Hack, The Pirate Hack, The Powers Hack, The Pulp Hack, The Rad-Hack, The Space Hack, The Super Hack, and The Wasteland Hack), but there were others, too, like Swordsmen & Skeletons, In Darkest Warrens, and The Maze of Memory. And The Black Hack is about to receive a revision so... it's still not the end of it.

      It's very easy to produce such minimal games, but it is very hard to produce a really good minimal game, and the community as a whole seems very forgiving when it comes to these releases. Like, consider how little attention was paid to The Nightmares Underneath, Perdition, or Rabbits & Rangers, whereas The Black Hack - not that it is a bad game or anything - was praised solely for its minimalism. It almost seems like minimalism is more valuable for a lot of folks than good content (still not saying TBH has no good content, but it's purely D&D condensed to a few pages with a couple neat rules changes that have been floating in the blogosphere for quite some time).

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    3. I agree with that. I think "minimalist" games are popular because they don't need a great deal of time to learn or prepare for. That is undoubtedly a virtue. But it is why the community is so forgiving, as you put it, when it comes to that sort of system.

      For what it's worth I tend not to get involved in new systems these days, so I haven't paid a great deal of attention to TBH.

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  3. He likes more to his games. To claim that what he doesn't like is bad for the hobby is where he irritated people.

    And it might be worth it to remember that Proust took 13 years to write In Search of Lost Time (and died before the final volumes were published.) It may seem like we are in an era of minimalism or ultra-minimalism but those titles that offer a bit more they also take a lot longer to write and organize the layout / art, etc.

    How long did it take you to write Yoon-Suin?

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    1. I think he had his tongue in cheek a little bit about it being bad for the hobby.

      That's a fair point about time. Yoon-Suin took I think about 3 years, but I wasn't working on it all the time during that period.

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  4. I have thought this for a loooong time now. Well said!

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  5. So we should get a 600 page extention to Yoon-Suin soon then? ;)

    Ancalagon

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    1. Funny you should mention that...

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    2. That is excellent news!!

      To comment on the original post: It's a bit of a tall order. Having good/original ideas for gaming and being a good writer are two separate skills. I might be able to come up with a decent/fun idea or three for gaming (you should see my notes on slugmen reproduction haha) but I might be a poor writer. Meanwhile Joe Bob over there writes wonderfully, but can't come up with an original idea to save his life.

      So how does one parse that? And there is also the Dunning-Krugger effect too. My neat ideas might be tired or boring, and perhaps Joe Bob only *thinks* he writes well... but in fact his writing is trite and irksome.

      Ancalagon

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