Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rules-Heavy RPGs And The Future

To my mind, the mid-to-late 90’s were largely (though hardly exclusively) about fiddly, rules-medium-to-heavy systems. In the earlier part of this decade, D&D 3.5 and Exalted weren’t Rolemaster or HERO System, but neither were they Risus.

It definitely seems we have seen a swing in recent years more towards simpler mechanics in games. That’s not to say there isn’t room for Pathfinder or FantasyCraft, but at least online I tend to see more and more gamers (including yours truly, a grizzled Rolemaster aficionado) espouse the virtues of rules-lighter games. Of course, we’re all getting older, aren’t we? We don’t have the time (we think) to master the volumes of rules we pored over when we were in high school or before the rugrats came along.

Yet I wonder…will the pendulum swing the other way again? Will complexity return as the online tools to manage it become more an accepted part of our tabletop experience? It’d be interesting to see a Rolemaster resurgence, as thousands of players again discovered the joys of massive critical hit charts and Tripping Over Invisible Turtles.

I think if more rules-heavy games surge again (not that they’ve ever completely gone away), it will be because of computer aids or electronic products that automatically handle that complexity. We already have spreadsheets and some products that do these things—I think when they become an expected part of the game, rather than an exception for most groups, you’ll see some of the common complaints of rules-heavy systems (“they’re too hard to learn, they’re too complex for newbies, resolution/chargen/anything takes too long”) will fade away. There’s no reason that with the right equipment and/or personnel our complex rules systems can’t be run just as quick as rules-light games. The amount of time we have to game may lessen gradually as we get older, but the tools to maximize that time are promising indeed.

14 comments:

Ryan said...

I still have to admit that I'm tech-resistant when it comes to gaming aides. I like the idea of learning complex new systems, but I find that I just don't have the patience. Give me something like Savage Worlds or Basic D&D where I can be ready to hit the ground running. In other words, I like systems that let me get to the good part (playing) faster.

That being said, I do have a Rolemaster 2nd edition boxed set that I plan to learn probably this summer...

Rob Conley said...

The main reason folk use rules heavy systems is to use the wealth of options. Sure there is no reason that any of that can be done with D&D or RISUS but in these systems the options come with mechanical effects.

The downside of all this is prep time for players and GMs. Running the game is often not an issue provided the GM gets enough experience running the system.

Having playaids make a vast difference in running these games. I have a folder full of cheat sheets and aids to help me when I run GURPS. Certainly Harnmaster would not work well without it's combat card. With the card it is easy to run.

http://www.columbiagames.com/resources/4001/harnmaster-combattables.pdf

The main reason that OD&D appeals to me now is the brevity of prep. Because I haven't change the my setting's fantasy tropes despite switching from AD&D to Fantasy Hero to GURPS returning to D&D is proving a good fit.

Badelaire said...

I'll also agree that in my younger days I was drawn to more complex systems, and now that I'm (a little) older, lighter games appeal to me. I wrote my own RPG when I was in college that had elements of more traditional complex systems, and I found as time went on that it required just too much prep time. Now, as I wrap up my first draft of a new RPG, it's a much lighter game mechanically.

I think one of the biggest hurdles for complex games is that, if they are presented as a cohesive whole, most of the rules which are, in reality, optional are seen by users as required. This is actually I think one of the reasons GURPS, a potentially VERY complex game, has survived all this time; they are still able to boil their game down to a 32 page "lite" version that is a fully functional system; everything else in GURPS is an additional add-on, and in the newer edition I think they have gone to some lengths to emphasize that all the other rules are optional rules.

This, I think, is how a pen & paper complex RPG needs to be handled if / when someone decides to bite the bullet and develop another new complex commercial game. You need to build a really strong core system that's perhaps 64 pages or so, and that's it. Offer lots of other complex rules, but treat them all as completely optional "plug-ins" that can be bolted onto the game. Part of the problem of RM (even though I like the system a lot) and other very fiddly, complex systems, is that you couldn't easily separate what is core from what might be optional without a lot of work and possibly "breaking" the system. If the game is built as modular from the ground up, it becomes a lot more viable for more players.

Giga boy said...

I've always hated complex systems with a passion and I'm quite tech-resistant.
My hope is that Rules-heavy games disappear from the scene completely.

grue said...

The RPGs of old were a hobby for us nerds mostly and since nerds the world over love memorising rules and tables we've always had a good time.
By the time the "vampires" started roleplaying the game went mainstream -where is has remained- with all the good and bad that come with the transition. ;)

Zzarchov said...

I believe this is an accurate statement, I meant at once point non-d6 probabilities were "too complex", but new game aides make the complex simpler (ie, dice specifically meant to handle that, the standard gamer dice, and later the d10 to simplify percentile, no more d8 x d12 or 2 d20's and taking away 10 on 11+ on each die.)

Mike said...

I'm currently playing in an Exalted game, which is more rules-heavy than the games I typically play. While I like it, the complexities of the rules needlessly (IMO) grind certain aspects - such as combat - to a screeching halt. Every time I want to try a stunt to hit somebody, it seems like I take five minutes to add up all my potential modifers to hit, the Storyteller does the same to figure out defense ... and then we go through the same thing again to figure out damage. As we grow more familiar with the game, it's sped up, but it still seems unnecessarily complicated to me.

Computer/electronic aid for this game would be a tremendous help. I think in general, you could see a shift back towards rules-heavy with computers, as it puts a lots of the fiddly/crunchy bits behind the scenes, so to speak.

Helmsman said...

Ultimately all successful games ever (not just RPG's but any game from Backgammon to Call of Duty) have followed the "Easy to Learn - Difficult to Master" mantra. Thus the foundation must be clear and concise and easy to understand but the rules must offer the depth of gameplay to hold up under long-term use to be truly successful.

Rules light RPG's might seem like they're the future to bloggers because we bloggers want something we can assess and get an accurate impression of in 15 minutes so we can pump out a quick 1000-word post on a unique subject to keep our pageviews up. Complex games are the anethema of that.

Forums on the other hand are a completely different medium where complex games thrive because the participants want those complexities to discuss and debate-on.

Ultimately what players want is the option to play that cool concept they've been thinking of. If the rules that exist restrict the way they can play that concept then they'll be a turnoff, but if the rules are so vague that their exploration of the nuances of the concept are mechanically meaningless then they're equally a turnoff. Role-players want enough substance to give their actions purchase, but enough flexibility to be able to still do them.

d7 said...

I think we're all seeing this through the lens of our own life. It's humbling, but something we bloggers have to remember is that we are the vast minority of roleplayers out there, and our experience doesn't generalise to the RPG-playing base. We are generally older, have work and familial commitments, have a game library that isn't limited to a single system, and have the experience of years of gaming.

The typical gamer isn't us. The typical gamer is in their teens or early 20s, has a limited income but few demands on that income, has few fixed demands on their time, has a steady group they play and socialise with, and mostly has experience with only one game.

These gamers have one system to focus on and have a lot of disposable time to absorb and re-absorb the rules and setting. Rule-heavy games are good for this market because it creates system commitment and the time required to learn and master them is commensurate with the amount of time they want to spend on their system of choice. Rules light games don't appeal so much because they don't hold the attention enough.

That's the key, I think: a heavy system is necessary to satisfy a single-system gamer who has a lot of free time. There will be publishers putting out heavy systems so long as there is a large group of gamers who want their gaming time filled by a single system. I don't think the rules-heavy game is going anywhere.

Now, it's entirely possible that I'm generalising from my teen years and that things are different now, but there are enough signs to make me believe that things really haven't changed that much for younger gamers.

Rognar said...

As a 40-something, life-long gamer, I played B/X D&D and AD&D and AD&D 2e and D&D 3/3.5e and now Pathfinder. I can honestly say, I will never go back to earler versions of the game, at least not, as my regular game. I like the detail, I like the character options and I like the large amount of material that has been and will continue to be published by companies like Paizo to support my game system of choice. Having said that, I hold no ill will toward old school gamers. You have your thing, I have mine. If you hate rules-heavy, don't play it. I just don't get why some people want my game to disappear, I certainly don't feel that way about yours.

Giga boy said...

@rognar:I'm not an old schooler.
I've played a lot of game systems, D&D (including 3.5) being only one of them. To me 3.5 (in and of itself, without splatbooks) is not rules-heavy.
I'm talking of monstrous rule-sets as Rolemaster (and its nth companion), Hero, Chivalry and Sorcery and stuff like that.
BTW it's me and not all posters here expressing a wish they'd disappear, something I know they'll never do.

anarkeith said...

It's interesting that you suggest computer-aided systems might revive complex game systems. I'd suggest that the character development grind has come from pc and console games. What I think the simple-system audience craves is the storytelling and interactivity that computers simply can't offer (yet).

Being able to declare actions that are not defined by rulesets requires a human GM and a creative player. I think the old-school movement is about that creative fluidity, something that can't be matched even if you frankengame a complex ruleset with computer tools.

clash bowley said...

I like games with lots of options, but which play like rules-light, and are easy to prep for. Anything I want to play that doesn't fit these strictures gets the Procrustes treatment - too heavy games get lopped and too light games get stretched - for any dimension where they don't fit. People who like RAW should never play with me as GM. I was tossing rules out of (pre-A)D&D before I ever played a game. I don't even play my own games RAW.

grue said...

@anarkeith: Well, a calculator can multiply 853672 times 8873623 in miliseconds but see a human do it in his head and we'll all be impressed.
Memorising tons of rules gives RPGs the esoteric facet that enchants us. Using the rules by memory while rolling arcane looking dice and achieving beautiful story events is what keeps some of us in the hobby. :)