Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lessons From Gen Con: The Rule of Rules-Light(er)

One of the biggest sentiments coming from my gaming peers this past Gen Con weekend is that we just don’t have the time to play like we used to. I know I’ve mentioned that issue before here, but it can be tough transitioning from 8-12 hours every weekend to 4 hours every other weekend. Long combats or systems giving you “resolution lag” (“uh, hold on, let me check that…page…um…ok, so derive that from your STR stat, then…”) can effectively end a session before it ever gets a chance to get going.

That’s why I see more and more of us going to simpler, more streamlined systems. It’s why Savage Worlds is expanding like it is, and it’s a big reason why FATE-derived systems, or Rogue Games’ 12 ° system, or indie fave Fiasco is catching on with some of the blogging crowd. I’ll bet it’s a big reason I saw Exile Games Studio with its Ubiquity system more crowded than I thought it’d be. It’s part of the reason Michael Wolf’s free, light RPG Warrior, Rogue, and Mage has had over 2k downloads in an impressively short amount of time. It’s also at least part of the reason people are interested in many of the classical retro-clones and the link, I think. I had two lengthy conversations with a guy over the merits of Tunnels & Trolls and Labyrinth Lord in this regard, pretty much of out of the blue.

Gamer Dads, Moms, and older, busy professionals still want structure, but they want fast gameplay and easier rules, too. Is there still a market for the complex? Of course, but I think the trend towards rules-light is going to continue and gain momentum. It doesn't have to be hand-wavy freeform, but a streamlined, fast-play set of rules is much in demand, I think.

For those that still like more complex games like Pathfinder, a bevy of “helper” accessories and software, such a HeroLab, are always popping up. If we play those somewhat more complex games, chances are we’re also looking for software and resources to cut down prep time.

When I look at the small-press companies at this year’s Gen Con, from Troll Lord to WEGS to Pinnacle to many of the companies in the Cubicle 7 family, I see companies pushing rules-light systems, especially compared to the bigger companies of the hobby. The Big 3, at least, might be pushing (at least) rules-medium, but it seems like a lot of us were in search of something different. And it was there for the taking.


Bonemaster said...

It's funny but when that guy was asking about prep time or the lack of it in the GM's Jam at GenCon, I was going to ask if he thought about switching to a system that a little more rules light.

Zachary The First said...

@jeff: Of course, there are many reasons to enjoy a more fiddly system, such as Rolenaster--I know I do. But I do think we'll see the push towards the lighter stuff continue.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Great observation. I know this is the case in my own life. I'm actually still somewhat interested in crunchier games, because I feel they give me greater depth for campaign play. But when I actually think about implementing them, I realize I just don't have the cycles to do the work and that it will be even harder to find players who do.

Zachary The First said...

@olman: I know exactly where you're coming from. At the same time, I still want a system robust enough to support my gaming, and not just a storytellling exercise.

DNAphil said...

I have been feeling that pull to rules-lite games for the past few years. I have seen my purchases drifting to the more Indie style games, because they tend to be lighter in prep.

I have also found myself avoiding games that are supplement heavy as well, or just agreeing to stick to Core Books.

jcosmon said...

I think you are right.

I think it is funny that we talk about SW as "rules light" -- I mean, its not from the perspective of anything pre-ever-expanding Hero and GURPS (and 4e!) There are detailed rules for movement, combat, skills, aspects, drawbacks, powers, etc. It is pretty quick, but not light on rules except by comparison.

I think you are right, Zach, that there are a couple of places where speed and ease of resolution really matters, among them character creation and combat.

If the character creation is very complex and convoluted (again, GURPS and HERO on this list -- and even the supporters of Pathfinder and 4e say you really need a computer to manage chargen!) then players are already overwhelmed by the need to master the game before they even play.

And combat -- when a combat encounter takes up hours and hours to resolve, then there is not that much left to do in the game. I don't mean you have to have a story game, but if the players think -- "I don't want to have a bar fight, we'll be here all night" then something is wrong.

At Gencon, I sat down to play Metamorphosis Alpha, everyone made characters from nothing, we got equipment, got the campaign world explained, got the hook, adventured off and had four different and distinct combat encounters against wizards and bearoids, had laser pistols explode, stole a shuttle from the Warden, killed a giant snake, and then escaped into another plane (finding ourselves in the D&D module Shrine of Tamoachan.)

This is for five players who had never played -- one of whom was also operating 4 cloned women (which I dubbed his "wenchmen") who all acted in combat.

All in four hours.

Richard Iorio II said...

Smaller is better. I much rather have a simpler rule set that I can crunch up or crunch down while I play. I think sometimes people forget that Rules Lite does not have to mean simple rules. It can mean easy set up and run time.

jcosmon said...

I think DNAphil is right.

When I understand a system like SS&S, I know how the game is played. But with an ever expanding list of more combat skills, prestige classes, weapons, races etc (and the need to pump out more product) these systems start complicated and then get more complex (they START as complicated as 3.5 and quickly push out.)

If we have a skill list, and basic classes, do we really need a new class of CyberRune HexMaster?

Also, I think it has been said before, but I think a danger of these expanding rules sets are often like the debate over the Bill of Rights. The danger of enumerating any rights is the impression that any not explicitly said are not there. "Oh, no, I forgot to mention freedom of the Press! I guess its not a right."

Same thing in these complicated combat systems, once you have them all described, then players stick to them. They don't have to come up with something new when they have a company-designated list of combat abilities. Why come up with a creative way to take out the monster when you have "Monstrous Cleave of the Fourteen Raptors (6x per day, DM: +2/+3+/+6, -2 KNB, +2 SV vs F/J ~~ (123/6d8)"

Or, even worse, when you have "jumping" or "move silently" as a skill, are you in effect saying that those that don't have that skill can't do it (if they can, then what is the point of having that skill?)

Are you forced to make the "unskilled" attempt so hard that everyone is forced to buy skills that might be otherwise assumed to be common for adventurers? And, if everyone has to be given a big enough set of skill points to buy Drive, Sneak, Spot, and Eat; then does that open the door for a power gamer to ignore that and plow all those points into combat skills? "I decided to not take Spot, Drive, Notice or Eat, so I am very thin and dim, but I also have +25 to hit and damage (in d20 system)."

Is this how systems get broken in the first place?

scottsz said...

@jcosmon: I'd love to read more about that game session! The C1~Warden links are interesting.

I never thought about it before, but C1 would be a perfect transition from a Sci-Fi to a Fantasy setting without characters being aware of the 'shift'.

jcosmon said...


It is better than that. C1 was done by a couple of players in Jim Ward's MA game. When they wrote it, they put in a little easter egg -- in one of the crypts is a tiny model of a spaceship that flies around the room.(I will see if I can find the reference.)

In our Gencon game, the DM used that as the danger to the Warden -- the sensors were going crazy because they detected that the Warden was on a smooth surface in a standard zero-G environment, but the hull was not collapsing (as a 28-mile long starship should, evidently.)

In his adventure, a wizard had -- reaching throuhg the planes, discovered the Warden and summoned it here (shrinking it somehow) and how had sent in "adventurers" to explore the tiny ship. We, in the ship, saw them as invaders and battled them.

So, when we exited the ship, we found air and the way that the adventurers were shrunk down. Through our own actions we grew big (by taking the shrinking medallions off of dead adventurers, and found ourselves in the model city in C1.

At the end, we -- including a mutated Raccon and Urtle the mutated turtle -- were slouching towards Greyhawk.

jcosmon said...

Okay, in C1 it is Encounter 19:

"Inside this silver coffer is a strange coppery figurine,
narrow, with fins, somewhat fishlike. Written on the side of
this figurine are strange runes. Etched near the slimmer
end is a small arched square panel.
The runes are in a script similar to Gray Elven and spell out the
name “11-NEDRAW’. Deft fingers will be able to open thesmall
panel, revealing a hollow with a wall of lighted colored
beads. Touching any of the beads will cause the lid of the
statuette to close. After a few seconds, the figure will rise into
the air and start to fly about the alcove, hovering sometimes
and avoiding being touched by characters or missiles. Once
an exit is available the craft will fly from the party and move
randomly through the ruins, stopping at doors and pausing
for a turn. . . . This floating
statuette Serves no purpose and is more or less a false lead."

II-Nedraw -- ho, ho!

scottsz said...

@jcosmon: I'm doing an analysis of C1 over at LotGD, and that tiny spaceship is one of the most cruel timewasters in the module... dragging players all around...!!!

Sounds like an awesome game session you've had !!!

jcosmon said...

Ha, I guess you are the last person I need to quote the text! Sorry about that, I didn't realize who you were.

I love that series of columns. I thought the one about WG4 was great -- and when the DM revealed where we were, I was familiar with C1 because I had gone back and reread it from your column!

As an aside, is there some way to get all of the columns on a given module in one package?

scottsz said...

#jcosmon: I keep a 'status' page on those here:

I was close to having the WG4 PDF completed, but have to rework sections to pull out some of the internal art... it's a huge file.

Should be done in a few weeks...

scottsz said...

@jcosmon: Forgot to say thanks for reading the Cold Text posts, by the way!

Zachary The First said...

Wow, it seems like this post hit home for some folks!

I think the point about sticking to the core books is interesting. On one hand, that may not in itself keep a more complex RPG from overwhelming your game. But if you're set on a campaign that doesn't run away on you, that might help in keeping your game under control.

scottsz said...

@Zach: Apologies for straying from the topic...

Zachary The First said...

@scott: Not a worry!

jcosmon said...

Yeah, Zack, sorry about the jetstream-like drift!

Lumrunner said...

Personally I would love to switch to a rules light system, but my players prefer the crunchy stuff.

In my Star Wars game I try to stick to a couple of core books for myself, using Threats of the Galaxy as my go to book for NPCs and enemies. I keep a core concept of where I want the story to go and then turn the players loose.

This developed after prepping numerous times and having those preparations turned upside down. The game runs well as it is. But I am actually glad they aren't producing more books for it, it was starting to get as bad as 3.5 with book bloat.

If I had my way we would use a system like Savage Worlds or Fate, or even lighter to accomplish things. I am over 40 and a father of 3, and really have no time to be prepping for games or memorizing numerous books and their rules that surprise me when they are pulled out.