Friday, January 24, 2014

Rules-light vs. rules-heavy

A round-up of a few discussions that happened at ENWorld in the last few days.  I may be done; I'm more interested in making blog posts than in following up already today, but we'll see.  These couple of topics touch on common themes, so I'm going to group a few points made in more than one thread, and then comment myself.  I am, after all, one of the most opinionated guys on the internet, and somewhat narcissistic, so I'm more interested in commenting myself and reading my own words than otherwise.  Uh... yeah, right.  Anyway...

The biggest games on the market today are considered to be pretty rules-heavy.  D&D 3e was a fairly rules-heavy game, albeit one that was mostly quite elegant in its design, and therefore enabled a fair bit of play without requiring rules look-ups in many cases--the exceptions being some feats, spells, and the always problematic "odd" combat moves like grappling, bull-rushing, etc.  Especially grappling.  4e is arguably "lighter", although not by a ton.  As far as I'm concerned, any game that requires three hardback books to give you the basic rules to play is never going to qualify as rules light.  But much of that material was optional--you didn't really need all those monsters or all those spells, for instance.  Other d20 games, such as d20 Modern or d20 Star Wars (or d20 Wheel of Time, or d20 Call of Cthulhu, etc.) were all perfectly capable of appearing in a single, albeit large, book.

By this criteria, the biggest games in the industry have almost always been rules-heavy games.  From AD&D 1e through to today with 4e and even moreso Pathfinder, these are games that have a lot of rules, and which focus on being extremely codified.  A few other games are also very rules-heavy (Rolemaster and HERO come to mind as the classic examples), but by and large, I believe other games have tried to distinguish themselves from the big games, and one very common way to do so is to be much more rules-light.  BRP, the system of Chaosium, is fairly fast and light in comparison.  FUDGE, FATE, Unisystem--heck, even the Storyteller system of White Wolf, were built in part on the premise that players just want to tell stories, not fiddle with rules so much.  One guy on ENWorld even asked specifically if there was a growing trend in rules-light.

I don't think so; I think there's always been that trend, and it's sparked by an attempt to stand apart from the leading games, which are not so.  And keep in mind that the leading games have always been rules-heavy, indicating that the market appears to prefer that, for whatever reason.  The rules-light trend has always been, relatively speaking, on the fringe.  Although when Storyteller was at its peak, it was big enough to make TSR sit up and take notice.  Then again, Storyteller arguably wasn't as rules-light as all that anyway.

My preference has always been for rules-lighter games, although I've occasionally been seduced by the siren song of well-defined character generation options.  That's my favorite thing about d20--the ability to really well define your character mechanically, which requires, of course, quite a few rules around chargen.

Another guy made an interesting claim.  As the average gamer age increases, it means that the average gamer probably has less free time than he might once have.  Rules-heavy games, which require a certain amount of system mastery done away from the game session itself, and which often bog down an actual session in rules look-up, or in overly detailed task or conflict resolution that takes a long time, seem to be what gamers want but not what they need.  Leading to a strange dichotomy where expressions of frustration amongst gamers with the complication of systems is common, and the exodus of gamers from D&D and/or Pathfinder to lighter games, as in the OSR or elsewhere seems to be common.

I think this is not exactly true, although somewhat insightful.  First off, I think the people who make that claim self-select and are vocal about it, so they appear to be more numerous than they actually are.  The biggest games actually being played still remain rules-heavy games, and most of the gamers that play them, if they are unhappy with the rules-heaviness, they still manage to tolerate it anyway (technically, that's even me--I'd much rather be playing the current Star Wars game I'm in using something like the m20 Star Wars houserule set I came up with instead of d20, but I'm not running, so I'm stuck with the game as it is.  And I don't mean to complain overly much; it's a fun game.  I don't think it's the right system for the game, though.)

I also think that as gamers get busier, they actually spend more of their hobby time reading games and tinkering with game related things between sessions, rather than playing them.  Not to say that they're not playing, just that the hobby is as much defined by reading books and thinking about how to use them than it is with playing.  My group plays about twice a month, on average--although sometimes we dip below that as we get busier.  Our sessions can last 5-6 hours on a Saturday night.  That's a total of maybe 10-12 hours a month.  Clearly, if I'm involved in the hobby as a gamer, I'm spending more time writing blog posts, reading other peoples thoughts on the internet, and going through my game books reading stuff about gaming than I am playing.  And in that scenario, rules-heavy games again have the advantage.  Sure, I may have embranced m20 as a great paradigm for what I want to play, but c'mon.  Even my somewhat lengthy m20 documents, one for Star Wars and one for DARK•HERITAGE, are less than thirty pages, and that includes art, a fair bit of setting info, rambling by me on the nature of good gaming and good GMing, etc.  Rules light games may be easier to play (assuming, of course, that your personality and gaming group can accomodate that playstyle, of course) but they don't offer much in the way of hobbyist activity when you're not playing. 

Pathfinder, on the other hand, is releasing a small handful of new books every month.  Sure, many of them are modules, or are primarily setting books, but they also have significant system books come out with pretty good regularity.  And you can do a lot with those books even when you're not playing.  Heck, I really enjoy reading, particularly the setting books, even though I don't play Pathfinder and am not even interested in doing so.  And I even enjoy browsing through system books from time to time.  I like a number of system innovations that they've made, particularly with regards to CMB/CMD and the archetypes.  Those can even be ported easily back into 3.5 when I'm playing or running that.  And although I don't need modules and don't even necessarily love modules, I do on occasion get a hankering to do something with them.

Because frankly, the rules-heavy systems, the games that put out a lot of content, offer me a lot more hobbyist activity than the rules-light alternatives.  Rules-light may be more my speed in most respects, but only when I'm actually playing.  Which isn't nearly as often as I'd like.

1 comment:

James Sullivan said...

I have been inspired by your efforts here with your own Campaign World and have attempted to start Blogging mine.

I'd appreciate any input you may have. Also, do you have any idea why Blogger won't separate my paragraphs?

Anyway, here it is: