Saturday, July 15, 2006

Roleplaying game system "complexity"

RPGs are usually classified along a single, poorly defined, badly named axis: "complexity". At one end are so-called "rules-light" games which eschew having a lot of rules in favor of more use of GM fiat; their proponents are usually, though not always, overzealous about them, not content to espouse the virtues of those games but instead insisting they are the only way to play, everything, positing rules-light gaming as a "revolution". (Thankfully, this attitude has died down in the last few years considerably, but it still shows up.) The other end is variously called "rules-heavy" (usually by the rules-light proponents), "crunch", or occasionally, "rules-rich" (well, that's mostly just me).

The use of the word "complexity" for this is particularly unhelpful, not only because people have wildly different ideas of what adds complexity, but because bulk of rules does not really determine complexity (there is a correlation, but it's not a perfect one). Consider Rolemaster, usually the whipping boy for rules complexity. Is it complex? Yes, actually; but not at all for the reasons given.

It's called complex because of its combat charts: it has one chart for every weapon, with a column for every armor type. Is this complex? No, it's remarkably simple. Roll one die, add one number, add one of a very small set of possible bonuses or minuses, look it up. You've, without having had to think about it, already and automatically accounted for factors like how different classes of armor handle different classes of weapon differently, things which in other game systems require complex, multi-step rules involving conditional logic and multiple cross-references. Rolemaster handles those things better than almost any game out there, and it does it without using any rules, or requiring you to do any work, to get it -- because all that intelligence is encoded in the data in those charts, precalculated and stored. In practice, Rolemaster's combat system is by far the simplest of any game that actually attempts to model even half as much as it does.

Where Rolemaster is complex is in character generation. Some of this is inexcusable: its use of classes and levels, its varying skill costs being determined by a chart when a formula would do just as easily, and how stats take three forms, only one of which is used 95% of the time. You can only chalk those up to the time when it was created, and the evolutionary way it was designed. But some of it is entirely justified, in how it adds expressive range to the character system (I'll talk more about this later).

Rules-light zealots tend to insist that rules only get in the way of roleplaying, but in my opinion, that just means they haven't learned how to use them properly. Used well, they exist to facilitate the game, and will do so far more than they interfere with immersion or momentum. Sometimes you want more rules and sometimes less, depending on the intent of the game, its expected duration, the kinds of things characters will need to be able to do, etc. but you generally always need some, because they serve a number of important purposes.

Player knowledge of world physics: Unless you never play anything but Psychosis, it's probable that your characters will know something about their own skills, what they can and can't reasonably expect to do, what is likely to happen when they do it, and how to achieve straightforward objectives. Can I expect to be able to jump over that gap? If I fight that orc, will I die of an infection even if I triumph? If my Foraging skill is 8, can I survive in the woods during the summer? How about during the winter? Rules help players and GMs ensure they're on the same page. Fewer (or less clear) rules makes it more likely that players will get caught thinking they could do something the GM thinks they can't, which causes all kinds of ugly problems. It also makes it more likely that players will fail to attempt something that should have worked. In both cases, it means players won't have their characters do things that their characters should have realized to do, and thus, breaks realism and immersion at the same time.

Granularity: If you're running a quick one-shot, it's no problem that characters tend to be shallow clichés, and results of their actions tend to be repetitive and unrealistic. It's okay that it's impossible to have the rules distinguish between two similar, but notably different, kinds of characters, because they'd both be described in game terms in the same way. As a game becomes longer, deeper, or more involved, or covers a broader range of possibilities (like a time travel or dimension hopping game), you need a higher degree of granularity. This shows up particularly in character generation (as mentioned above for Rolemaster), where you want characters to be able to be different from one another in ways that aren't just special effects and window dressing, but actually have an impact on game mechanics. You also want granularity in the system that determines the outcomes of actions, such as skill rolls and combat rolls, to add richness to the range of possible outcomes and to allow all that granularity in character generation to actually matter mechanically.

Consistency: Even the best GM can't be as consistent as the simplest written rule. Consistency can be a boondoggle if used inappropriately; a good GM knows when to deviate from it. But throwing out consistency entirely because of this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is precisely because of the background of consistency that inconsistency is so impactful; get rid of consistency and you take away the impact of deviations from it.

Filling in the gaps: No matter how well practiced a GM you are, you will fall into ruts. There will be whole classes of things that should happen that you would never be inspired to include in your games unless something reminds you now and then. GMing is hard and takes up a lot of your concentration. You have so many things to think about at once! The more you can offload some of that work into something else (like rules), and rely on them to remind you of the things it's hard to remember yourself, the better a realistic spread of outcomes you can achieve, all while freeing more of your own attention for the things you can do best that rules can't do, like creative endeavors.

Of course, in all these cases, bad rules will do worse than no rules. A lot of the arguments made by rules-light zealots are predicated on the assumption that the rules you'd be using are bad ones. For instance, that they would take up more of the GM's attention than they would free; or that they would create as many unrealisms as realisms. To be sure there are bad rules sets out there, and some of them are the larger or more "complex" ones, others the more popular ones, in some cases both; but it doesn't have to be that way. There are good rules sets out there that are easy to learn, quick to run, inspirational to the GM, and achieve all of these needs -- though perhaps there's no single game that is all of these things at once!

Rules are the engine that helps the GM do the bits that can be easily handled by rules; they don't replace GMing, and GMing doesn't replace them, if you want the best results. Sometimes you want lighter ones and sometimes heavier ones, because sometimes you want to pull a lighter load quickly, and sometimes you want to pull a heavier load a longer distance. Let me conclude with a bit of silliness with some truth in it:
(note: plans are currently underway to put two more trailers on)
(someday, I hope to get a trailer...)
(note: gears are grinding because it's been overloaded with too many yummy pastries)
(yes, you can play a ninja... even in Bunnies & Burrows)
Risussame as FUDGE, but with all the safety gear stripped off for speed, then replaced with garish, fluorescent racing stripes
The Window
(comes with the first eight pages of the skateboard repair manual, reprinted in medieval blackletter)


litlfrog said...

First--The Window joke had me absolutely chortling! Second, the Prism link is nonfunctional. That's probably important!

This is a really good defense of rules-rich systems. My preferred system is GURPS with all the optional combat mods turned on and a few extra house rules, so you see where my preferences lie. :) Rules-light systems are great for some games. More to the point, a good GM can use them for ANY game without overdue embarassment. Still, I wouldn't want to do a Renaissance intrigue or modern military game using The Window: I want to KNOW what kind of spells I can cast/guns I can shoot.

I'm particularly curious to try a superheroes game in a system like Capes or Truth and Justice. HERO (and GURPS 4e, I suspect) can let the player tweak their powers very closely, but comic characters rarely observe such firm limits.

higgins said...

Speaking of rules-rich systems, I was really surprised not to see The Riddle of Steel here. The system is excellent and realistic, but it probably takes time grtting used to. The magic categories kind of sucked in my opinion, but there's an upcoming supplement that should be desingned for personal magic customisation.

I've mainly used The New World of Darkness rules myself, a set of modern horror rules that has been ironically used exclusively for fantasy gaming in my group. Not that we've played anything but fantasy lately, but neverthless. Homebrewed freeform magic. The elemental magic here is based on my rules.

The nWoD wound system bugged me however and I've come up with mix of Over the Edge and One-Roll Engine from Godlike superhero RPG.

The important bits of Over the Edge can be viewed here, and One-Roll Engine Quick Start rules are downloadable here.

I really liked OTE's talents. ORE's skill system was similar enough to nWoD to get my players confused, but the wound system's detail was just at the level I had been looking for, so I mixed the two systems together. I assume that successfully, but that remains to be determined if I ever get a chance to run something new. The very basic idea for a mix looks like this, if someone's interested.

I don't know if you have any experince with the systems I mentioned, but being Eastern-European it's kind of interesting to see what kind of system an American roleplayer uses. The picture seems totally different. I have seen a bit of GURPS (I own a couple of sourcebooks, but I've never seen the actual system in use) and Window, which translation to Estonian I helped to edit. Viewing Rolemasters characters on the internet made me dizzy, but I've never seen a rulebook. Fudge... I know a system exists with such a name. Paranoia is popular here as well, but that's a setting.

HawthornThistleberry said...

I love the Over The Edge setting, but have only GMed in it a few times, mostly as a sort of "appetizer" rather than a campaign. However, I have ignored the rules there; I hear good things about them but I have my own rules-ultralight system which I find far more comfortable when I want that, and anyway I find the OtE setting (surprisingly enough to most of its fans) does very well with a rules-rich (or "crunchy") system.

I also have played Paranoia a lot, though not recently, as my current group isn't very fond of it.

I've heard of all the other games you mention, but not played any. I have a copy of Phoenix Command which if I remember right is related to Riddle of Steel in some way, though I could be crossing wires. But never played it, just got it to read and mine for ideas. World of Darkness is of course very popular, but it's a genre I have little interest in.

higgins said...

It wasn't the rules-lightness that I loved in OTE, it was the ability to customise. As far as game-mechanics were concerned, you could have ANY skill or ability you liked, literally. That means you can run cyberpunk and barbie games with the same set of rules (and even sheet). I say that's excellent multi-genreing.

I myself have no problem with horror genre that WoD represents, but its supernatural splat clichés and stereotypes are annoying indeed. No vampire has ever seen a werewolf, but the PC vampire meeting a PC werewolf has a 95% chance to get a complete overview of werewolf society, tribes etc.

As for TROS, it has nothing to do with Phoenix Command (which is somehow related to Living Steel, as I found out in wiki). Phoenix Commans is sci-fi, The Riddle of Steel is low-magic gritty medieval. Plus it's the only RPG ever to be approved by The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. Being so detailed and realistic (especially in meleé combat) I find it being the best rules set to play jedi duels. There are even appropriate rules mods.

HawthornThistleberry said...

Oh right, Living Steel and Riddle of Steel, I get those mixed up.