Tuesday, September 23, 2014

More Rules, Less Rules and Choices

I was responding to an anonymous comment on Gaming Ballistic this morning. It repeated something I hear a lot - in old school D&D, you can attempt anything.

This is true, but the way I see it, the sentence should be, "in tabletop RPGs, you can attempt anything." It's not a rule set benefit, it's a game style benefit. It's the difference between having rules to let the ref adjudicate the results of actions and having a game with rules all follow. The difference between an RPG and other games in large part to me is that you can attempt anything in the former, and the rules are there to provide support to those attempts. In non-RPG games, the rules are generally there to list the only things you can do (and often specific things you can't do.)

But I don't see quantity of rules as being anywhere on the scale of availability of choices. You could play a whole RPG with no rules, and attempt anything at all and leave the decision about what happens up to the GM. Or you could play an RPG with lots of rules, and attempt anything at all, and leave the decision about what happens to the rules and GM together. The effect of those choices might be wildly varied (because of the GM and/or the rules) or pretty much all the same (because of the GM and/or the rules.)

Rules light games can be great, because you'd effectively being told to just try stuff and see what happens. But on the other hand, sometimes limited rules can effectively hold you back, by amalgamating all of your choices into a small set of results. Not to pick on Swords & Wizardry (because I really like the game!), but in general combat choices work out to be:

- Who do I swing at?
- With what weapon?

and then the effects are resolved with a die roll unmodified by much else. A GM can rule bonuses or penalties, to be sure, but there isn't a lot of support for different combat choices in the system itself. There are rules for high-DEX fighters lowering their AC with parries, but it's not a particularly effective choice and it sees about as much action as that rule did in AD&D (basically, none.)

Compare that to, say, Rolemaster 1st edition, which I played back in the day. It was:
- Who do I swing at?
- With what weapon?
- How much of my bonuses do I put into offense or defense?

and then you go. Only one more choice, but you could make or break your character with that last choice. Do I put my 70 with Broadsword into full offense and hope I score a fight-ending crit? Do I hold back and maybe miss a chance to end the fight with my timidity? Lots of choices, because of that extra rule.


- Who do I swing at?
- With what weapon?
- With what attack mode of the weapons?
- Aiming at what target, if any?
- What maneuver do I select to do that?
- Where do I step to do it?
- What combat options do I select?

and then you go. There are so many choices that I wrote a post about avoiding getting too hung up on them.

The additional rules-supported options in Rolemaster and then GURPS add more meaningful choices with concrete, supported results and thus more choices.

On the other hand, additional rules can limit you. If clerics can turn undead in D&D, by default that means no one else can - the rules for doing that are covered by that one class's abilities. Either you're a cleric and can or you're not and can't. The poor wording of Thieves in Supplement I: Greyhawk effectively say only thieves can sneak around or climb walls, even if the intention was different. The rules in GURPS for effectively 5 shades of offense or defenses (All-Out Attack, Committed Attack, Attack, Defensive Attack, All-Out Defend) means you don't get to choose nuances between them like in Rolemaster with its open chance to split points out. So rules can also say, that's not a valid choice, and cut "can attempt anything" down to "attempt any of the following" or to "can attempt anything except (whatever)." The lack of attack options in S&W can mean you worry more about the larger issues around the combat, and don't worry about each individual blow. And if you read this paragraph and said, no way dude, anyone can attempt to turn undead in old school D&D, the GM just has to decide if it works - I'd agree, but that's any argument that rules quantity isn't a limiting factor on choice. Those rules can also empower you - without the turning ability listed, maybe the GM wouldn't let anything turn undead. Having them, it's a clear sign that kind of behavior is expected and called for, and is thus a new option (for some characters) in the game.

In short: Additional rules can limit your effective choices by telling you what you can't do, but additional rules can also open up new choices and differences between choices and therefore give you more options.

When I look at rules sets, I basically want:

- enough rules that the decisions I make matter, and have different effects from other decisions I could make.

- but not so many rules that getting from decision to rule application to result disrupts the game.

Obviously, that's going to vary from person to person, game to game. It won't always be the same for the same group session to session, nevermind campaign to campaign. But in my opinion and experience, the "heaviness" or "lightness" of a rules set doesn't limit your choices. It just tells you how many of those choices are explicitly going to affect play more often than not.


  1. In my experience, with the folks with whom I've played, structure is a good thing. We played "Mage", and rules basically say, "You have 2 dots in Entropy magic, just ad-lib some cool stuff you should be able to do with that". For some players and GMs, this might be great fun. And my group did just fine with it, but we all agreed that maybe it was a bit too free-form. We also played some of ICE's "Cyberspace" in which the player tells the GM his intent and the GM has to qualify the difficulty of whatever's being attempted. Is jumping from one moving car to another while pulling the pin on an FAE grenade an "easy" thing to do? "Challenging"? "Wicked Difficult"? It's fun to say to the players, "So just try something" and then see what happens. But if it's too wishy-washy then it risks feeling arbitrary. And in the groups I've played with over the years, perceived arbitrariness has been a Very Bad Thing. Does GURPS present to many options that you can't not begging calculating mods in your head? I loved that Galen decided to head-butt a truck-sized insect without worrying about the mechanics. But how often to players just *do* something? It's a tough balance. Too few rules leads to arbitrariness and the perception that it doesn't really matter what you do because the GM ends up deciding if you win or not. But too many rules can IMO and IME stifle some impulsive I'm-just-gonna-go-for-it actions.

  2. There's very definitely a split between the school that says "tell me broadly what you'll do, we'll roll to see how well that goes, and then we can narrate what really happened based on the result" and the one that says "tell me specifically what you want to do, we'll roll to see how well that goes." Neither is objectively better, but I do tend to prefer the latter.

  3. I'm inclined to agree that it's a style rather than rules choice, if only because my experience with RPGs before there were enough of them for there to BE an old school distinct from anything else, is that they strictly dictated what you could and couldn't attempt. Back in the late 70s when I was first exposed to white-box D&D, the local interpretation was that if you're in class X and you want to try something that class Y does, you're out of luck. You're a wizard and you want to wear metal armor? No, can't do it. You're a fighter and you want to try to climb a wall? Nope; fail. What now calls itself "old school" is, certainly, AN old school, in that it's one of a number of approaches which appeared in reaction to vague, incomplete rule sets, but it's not THE old school.

    I seem to have wandered slightly from your point, but all these kids in my yard are distracting me.

  4. For me, I do prefer less rules.

    D&D 3e/3.5e really was about the limit of what I'd tolerate. As a DM, I felt constrained by it. I felt like all of those "options" slowed the game down and made the players think in terms of the rules of what they could do, rather than attempting to do something and using the rules as a convenience.

    Others, no doubt, have different opinions.

    I'm not sure now if "less rules" can be considered "Old School," especially if you start including games outside of pre-D&D 3e that where known for there rules (Rolemaster, GURPs, etc.)

  5. From personal experience I cant stand fundamentally flawed systems whether that is in terms of lots of or few rules.

    I still remember vampire games where the player described: I do a back flip followed by spin and neck chop. GM: ok plus one difficulty and a plus one to damage. Me: really? Anyone calculate those modifiers? See if they are useful or op? Are they at all related to real life?

    Compare GURPS where there are detailed rules and the complexity of the rules reflect the complexity of the action. So if I want to play a storytelling game with low emphasis on combat then I can say 'ok im not good at fighting so I move behind him and try to hit him over the head' and know that an all out telegraphic attack is effective in terms of the game and realistic rather than the GM saying 'ok plus one to hit and plus one to damage....'

    Even with D and D 4th listening to podcasts of some exciting battles where the rules while not realistic are balanced like a computer RPG im always struck by how much better those abilities would be with GURPS.

    So those 'Daily Powers' that eg knock back and stun... I could build that in GURPS and you could use it with a deceptive attack or a feint etc much greater complexity making the rules more useful


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...