Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why Game Systems Have Bloat (aka, Support)

Often the concept of game systems getting bigger - more rule books, more supplements, more adventurers, more everything - is presented in pretty malicious terms. The companies want dependent customers, so they keep out a steady supply of supplements that you need, to keep you dependent on them.

While this can be true it's not the only model I see. I see this one a lot:

1) Game comes out. People buy it and like it.

2) People clamor for more support for the game. Authors and publishers and fans alike want to add their own stuff to the game. ("I like GURPS but it needs ninjas. Here's a book on ninjas.") If it doesn't get this support, it probably dies somehere along the line. If it does, it might be fan demand ("Write a book on ninjas!") or authorial ideals ("I love this game, but it needs ninjas!") Or it might just be a fanzine, or a fan publication, or a fan website. People want support for their games, and either buy it or make it.

3) Eventually there is so much stuff out there that people feel like it's too much, problems with the system's design choices are exposed, and want to try starting over with the basics. A new version comes out. Start over at #1, if it's done well.

Repeat repeatedly.

You can try to dodge around this a few ways, and there are good ways to do it (supplements are useful but truly optional for play) and less good ways to do it (supplements are critical and non-optional for any kind of play in the larger community). There are good reboots (new version fixes nagging problems in the old one) and bad reboots (new version creates new problems, or serves only to replace something that didn't need replacing). Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

That's speaking as someone who writes supplements and buys them. I write stuff I think the game could really use, and I hope to sell them to people who think the same thing ("Yes, GURPS Dungeon Fantasy really does need ninjas!") It's part of the life cycle of games, in my opinion, and it's healthy rather than malicious.


  1. Malicious, maybe. I like to explain to people that GURPS is a toolkit for making your own game. And yes, making your own game takes time, thoughts and a good dose of love. It is easy to get wrapped up into chasing all of the good stuff written by people sharing the same kind of love. With GURPS, at least we know that this is the kind of people authoring the supplements.

    There is another side to this coin: there seems to be a resurgence of "old school" gaming. People, tired of all the shennanigans, and convince themselves that life was so much better back in the days of D&D white box. It wasn't: unless all that you want to do is roll for secret doors, and carry a ten foot pole to probe for trap (at which point, D&D White box works just fine).

    What I think is needed most, is for a GM to draw the line, enjoy the wide selection of reading material and roll this into a story that people want to be part of. Rules are made to be handwaved, I think.

    1. It's weird, but some people can't draw the line.

      "Let's play Car Wars Compendium... but just use pocket box equipment."

      "Let's play Star Fleet Battles... but just use Basic Set rules that aren't optional or commander's level."

      "Let's play BattleTech... but just with that first technical readout."

      I've met people that cannot conceive of the above even when presented with the choice.

      Then there's Traveller players that write their own house rule book with stuff culled from several editions.

    2. Guilty!

      I tend to be a completist, and I also tend to be a rule-follower. I dislike house rules (though I've mellowed some on this) and prefer that there be an "official" way to do things. May stem from my experiences in playing pick-up games at the FLGS - you follow the rules as written, you can cut down on some of the munchkinry.

      That's why GURPS nearly lost me when I got back into it with 4E in the last year or so. There are these excellent rules, and I want to make them all available. Low Tech Armor and all of the "realistic" portions of Martial Arts, for example - I want an excuse to use them all, but sometimes I think I'm the only one.

    3. That inability to draw a line, and decide where to stop, isn't terribly uncommon. But I don't think of that as a game flaw - there isn't a supported RPG I can think of that doesn't have more rules than you'd want to use all at once.

    4. @Christian

      I never played OD&D before last year, but your characterization does not fit my recent experience. OD&D is a whole lot more functional than you give it credit for. It does demand a certain amount of referee rulings (how does elf level progression work, for example) but that is actually a benefit in some ways.

    5. @Brendan -- OD&D by itself... well... if you've been initiated into the secret knowledge, maybe. It becomes an entirely different game once its outfitted with a complete set of Judges Guild products. Nevertheless, B/X is the first truly accessible/comprehensible edition of D&D.

      I can't blame anyone if they respond to OD&D the way that Ken St Andre or Steve Jackson did, though. (Though my respect for OD&D increases the more I apply myself.)

    6. I hope this doesn't turn into an edition war / system war. I wasn't posting about D&D. Just about RPGs in general, and how and why systems expand.

    7. Don't worry, we will be good. :-)

      Both minimal and expansive good games exist. Sometimes that expansiveness comes in the form of support and supplements.

    8. Part of my point is that the reason game companies exist, and stuff gets put out for games, is that we the game players demand it. If the companies don't make it, we will. Even if they do, we will.

      And even pretty minimal systems like OD&D had a flood of supplements. Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, Gods Demigods & Heroes, Creatures & Treasure Assortment, 4 different geomorph sets, official miniatures, a monthly magazine full of optional rules and classes, etc. And at least three different re-boots of the game under the original creator's helm of the company! It seems like a cognitive dissonance - companies churing out books is a bad thing but we want support.

    9. I do think it's important to realize that there is potentially a problem with the support/supplement dynamic, as discussed eloquently here by TSR alumnus Steve Winter:


    10. That highlights exactly the style of support that Car Wars developed in the mid-eighties. The clamor of the autodueling fan for more "character options" (vehicle, really) and "official rules" was great. Ogre/G.E.V. didn't have that dynamic-- and largely stayed in print while Car Wars collapsed.

      4e, 3.5, 3e, and 2nd edition (A)D&D all owe a debt to Car Wars for blazing the trail.

    11. Brendan - I've read that before. It's good stuff, and it's what I meant about having good way to do it vs. a bad way.

      jeffro - well, Ogre/G.E.V. has been in an out of print, in various forms, for a long time. It's coming back, but it's been nearly impossible to get it for a long time now. I think that's a different pair of examples, anyway - board games are really different than RPGs.

      Either way, we all want some kind of support, it's just a question of what.

  2. I think that some of the sense that one must use all the rules available comes from the sort of people who play RPGs competitively: to them, it matters that everybody everywhere be playing the same rules set, because that way they can measure their performance against other players on level ground. I certainly knew D&D players who felt that if it was published, it ought to be in the game, and they had great trouble when the d20 licence removed the quality bar for supplements. If such a person is trying out GURPS and sees a wall of books/PDFs, that can be quite intimidating.

    What I tend to end up doing with GURPS is using the high-resolution mechanics when the players want them.

    Dungeon Fantasy is a great example of this - if my game won't have ninjas, I don't need the ninjas book. If the player of the cleric is happy with what DF1 says, I don't need DF7. And so on...

    1. Interesting. I definitely want to use all the rules, but mostly because they increase the granularity/believability and reduce or remove some undocumented situations. I'm definitely the sort of player who doesn't play to win, but to portray a character, though, so I may be a real outlier. :)

  3. The difference between support and bloat is that support is explicitly optional, whereas bloat may be tangled up with important core features. You can handle this by house rules ("no dragonborn") but such an approach might end up having many more unintended side effects when dealing with rules that are not explicitly optional. For example, I wanted to remove minor actions from type 4 D&D, but after some hacking it became clear that they were quite deeply embedded in the system and that it would be more work than it was worth.

    1. Perhaps that's a good way to divide it. But often any kind of stuff being sold is characterized that way - bloat, or encouraging dependence on new products, or whatever.

  4. I've been considering this some more, and one game system that often gets called out on this is Shadowrun, 4th edition in particular because it is so well supported.

    In my not so humble opinion, this situation is one part additional rules to flesh out new situations, one part new fluff to keep the buying public buying, and one part stealth errata. It leads to an inevitable power creep when every new book has gear, spells or races that are, in game mechanics terms, better just to make sure they're different.

    Traveller was like this (and back in the day, folks made up plenty of house ruled stuff, copied it at the office when the boss wasn't working, and sold it locally at the FLGS) to a degree. Car Wars suffers from it (see: the laser controversy). And honestly, any game associated with fiction, where the fiction continues to grow in power levels to keep reader interest, is going to see similar power creep.

    The advent of games like D&D 4E, that heavily leveraged the Internet to make errata an immediate thing changed the ground rules a little, I think. When you start having official rule changes like that, it becomes harder and harder to say "You can play with just the three core rulebooks!" anymore.


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