The Dilemma of the Simple RPG


In my experience with contemporary college game clubs, there are many younger people who have not yet tried tabletop RPGs. I was also told that many of the players coming to the evening games at a local shop have been new to tabletop RPGs. This is different from my pre-Internet, pre-video gamegeneration (Boomers), where most game-minded people were exposed to D&D because it had so little competition for leisure time.

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Another reason for the difference may be the “crunchiness” of many contemporary RPGs. That is, the fiddliness and time needed to generate a character and start actually playing the game is offputting. Then there is the difficulty of running a character because there are so many details and numbers (such as skills) involved. The rules interfere with the adventure.

Yet we continue to see the most popular RPGs loaded down with vast rulebooks. Unfortunately, the seeds of long-range destruction of any RPG edition are built into the capitalist economy.

You don't need a Ph.D. in history to know a lot can be explained if you "follow the money". To make money you need to sell product. If your primary business is RPGs you have to produce a game that is not only large but very extensible, so that you can sell additional rules. In the long run, that makes the game crunchy and unwieldy, dooms it to become too complex to appeal to the less than hard-core players.

Complexity may be a boon for some players. 3rd Edition D&D (3e) became "find rules somewhere that give me an advantage." This is a complete contrast to my advice to GMs dating back to the 70s: prevent players from gaining unearned advantages. When I GMed 3e I said "core rules only, no add-ons." When the highly-tinkered-by-additional-rules "one man armies" are present in a game, the more casual players are left behind in several ways.

"Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler." - Albert Einstien

Complex games also make the GM's job harder. As there are more rules, there's more work for the GM. The biggest problem of tabletop RPGs, compared with other games, is that GMing is work, not play. We need more GMs to "grow" the hobby, yet complex games with constant rules add-ons lead to fewer GMs available.

The typical course of events is that RPGs get more complex as more rules are added, until the entire edition is abandoned and a new one comes out. While D&D Second Edition wasn't much different than 1e, and many more or less ignored 2e (I did), each succeeding edition has changed the game drastically to help persuade players to buy the new version, coming full circle with 5e. In each case, a new edition led to lots of sales. And each was then subjected to the rising pyramid of additional rules.

Money talks. Unfortunately for RPGs, money argues for complexity, not simplicity.

contributed by Lewis Pulsipher

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


I've seen plenty of RPGs "on a single page", or similar simple mechanics. So, I think that's out there.

But, then, I think you allude to the fact that the money for developers lies in producing more product for people to buy.

And then, there are people (like probably everyone reading this) who like to get into lots of details and are willing to buy those products.



First Post
The first version of D&D had a very limited number of characters(fighting men, magic users, and clerics) and races(Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits and Human). Men and Magic, the equivalent of the later PHB, has all of 34 pages in a 5x7 format. Later versions added more races and class options. Then feats and skills. And more spells. More stuff = more pages = more complexity. And complexity is rarely linear with page count. Yet that is what a lot of players wanted. The early Dragon magazines often featured a new unofficial class or class subtype. Many of those are now considered basic character classes today. Of course, today's PHB often has page counts in the hundreds and the pages are much larger then the original game.

Game rules aren't the only thing that have grown more complex. Early players often ran through one or two session modules that might grant one level at the end. Today, large lvl 1 to 20 adventure paths rule, often spanning multiple books. Woe to the group that decides at level 3 that they really don't like the adventure path they are running in. But they seem to be what the majority of the player and GMs want.


This has not really been my experience. I started 4e and 5e with just playing (My start with 1e over 20 yrs ago was different). We used some pregenerated characters and the very basics of how to play and just started playing. We were playing in like 15 min. max. I even did this for one of my sons birthdays. I let 6 boys pick from a stack of pregenerated characters, gave them the 15 min. overview and took them through a 2 hour adventure. I even printed a giant map (approx. 5' x 8' I think) that I tapped to the floor.

I guess my point is, just because a game has complex rules doesn't mean it has to be played complexly. I like D&D because I am familiar with it enough that I can play it by the seat-of-my-pants and then, if I need or want it, there is some more complexity to access.


First Post
I think, increasingly, people are getting the idea that simplicity is a good thing... and publishers are going to have to accept that diversification is their ticket to success.

This isn't the days of 1E, 2E, or 3E where you can build a system that requires its own library just to house the books and expect to make a lot of money. The systems that still do that tend not to do as well as a result. Some games can get away with it, but they still don't see as much popularity as in the past by a long shot.

I think we've hit the era where games like Savage Worlds will be the book-heavy games.

J.L. Duncan

First Post
This is a good article. I disagree.

Crunchy or basic are different ideas. There is room for either, if they achieve something unique.

Some might agree with Einstein, but in regards to design... "Everything, should be as simple as possible, not simpler?" (BTW: I always thought Einstein was making a pun with that, the idea that if your original concept could be made simpler, then it was faulty to begin with) This is not measurable in my experience of human nature and even the artisan (more often than not) has a very complex process (and/or experience), to arrive at simplicity. Money does talk, so what you cannot do, is throw a group of new players into a session of Pathfinder and expect clean sessions from day one.

A GMs job is as hard as he/she makes it. A GM that knows this, is worth their weight in gold! Bringing a new group of players to a RPG which is crunchy (and applying that crunch to the letter) is the fault of the GM, not the system.
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I can see his point, but, there are a few additional issues. There is a trade off. A rules heavy game has this big, steep learning curve at the outset, but, at the table is often MUCH easier to run. Because the DM/GM can rely on the rules to a large degree to give answers and resolve situations, the mental load on the DM to make the game run smoothly is much lower.

OTOH, rules light games, while significantly easier in the sense that you can learn the game in a much shorter period of time, are often much, much more difficult to run at the table and the experience will vary much more because of the DM.

IOW, a more extensive ruleset, run by an average DM will give a better result than a less extensive ruleset run by the same DM. The less extensive ruleset doesn't allow the DM to rely on the system, and makes it that much easier for the DM to make mistakes.

I'd argue that the Rules Light games are less DM friendly than the rules heavy ones. Sure, you can learn the game faster, but, because so much of the game relies on you, the DM, to make it run at the table, rules light games force DM's to play amateur game designer at the same time as they are trying to run the game.

Think of it this way. Which would more likely to be an enjoyable 3 hour session - a 3 hour 5e session with a completely new DM running some module, or a 3 hour session of Dread with a completely new DM? Yup, that Dread game might be fun. It might also be absolutely horrible. Presuming our 5e DM actually follows the rules to a reasonable degree, it's unlikely that his game will go completely wahoonie shaped.


I disagree with the article.

First, for some number of players (New and old) more rules are much better than fewer rules. Fewer rules begat arguments at the table about how a thing or things are supposed to work, which invariably leads to the end of games. No one wants to play a game where every action takes ten minutes of arguing to agree on how something works.

Second, the article seems to suppose that one must purchase every rule book that's released. A group need not purchase anything other than the core books for an RPG and they can be happy forever.

Third, rule books aren't the only income generator, nor are they the optimal one. The optimal income generator is in Adventures. GM'ing becomes a heck'uva lot easier when all you have to do is read a few dozen pages instead of writing a few dozen pages. It lets time-limited people play the game, it lets imagination-challenged people play the game, it grows the customer base. Which is why WOTC's decision to axe Dungeon magazine and go with a digital platform that will have very limited penetration is extremely confusing, they basically shot their growth curve in the foot.

Simple RPG's aren't a magic bullet. RPG's that don't generate ambiguity and have ample ready to use material are a magic bullet.


Heh, I agree [MENTION=6756765]Rygar[/MENTION]. I think both Paizo (first) and now WotC have proven that there is certainly money to be made in adventures. That we don't really need the endless splat churn that we saw for many, many years.

Heck, considering that three years after its release (about), the 5e PHB is sitting at number 33 O.O on Amazon in Books. Not in niche, but in all books. That's AMAZING.

It really does look like WotC has hit the magic bullet this time around.


I'd say a simple game is more DM dependent. A good DM makes for a good game in this case. Crunchy games take some of the load off a DM -- to a point. Past a certain sweet spot of rules adequate to cover most situations the additional rules become a burden with unforeseen interactions and too numerous options bogging the game down. Moderation is a good thing :)

A game with an extensible set of rules that can cover unplanned for events is good. Not a rule for every specific situation, but rules that can cover many situations. When rules try to account for too many specific things with rules suited to exactly that certain event they become unwieldy. Character options are no different. The proliferation of options for characters presents the same type of situation. Past a certain point it becomes problematic. Of course, everyone probably has a different opinion on where that point is...

As for money, as a publisher you can choose to sell more and more to a select audience or produce a product that appeals to a wider audience. Hopefully you manage both, growing the audience and deepening the game at the same time. If you keep the rules moderate in complexity you can expand your audience. And yes, adventures can certainly fill out the sales quota. Especially as more people play your game.

*sigh* Playing hooky. Back to grading papers and prep work...


hmm...I'm a little torn, but generally agree with the article. (Complex rules can be as much boon or bane for a GM, IME.) I've seen the mass of rules be an impediment for new players more often than otherwise.

However, I'd also say that there is a certain art to writing a good set of minimalist or rules-light rules. Most of the rules-light games I've played or read have been poor because of a failure to recognize that art, trying instead to create a stripped-down version or combo of GURPS or D&D or whatever quasi-sim trad rpg mechanics they like best. (Often they seem to think that some rough general guidelines about setting DCs is enough to make a game!) The better rules-lite games manage to give the GM enough of a scaffold to respond to as well, if they even have a GM. Most importantly, they provide clarity of authority and result usually by leaning on the narrative "wrapper" of the story in a way that complex systems rarely do. I'd point to many PbtA games as evidence of this principle in action. There's a lot of "weirder" fringe games that manage this as well (Fiasco, Archipelago, etc.)


Not your screen monkey (he/him)
I think the article has a point but I don't think it's just the economics of the RPG producer pushing the complexity of a game. The players push it too and often the game company is the one responding to that demand. Among the most common house rules added to games like AD&D were critical hit tables and specific injuries, neither of which the game easily incorporates. Yet there they were - created by the players/DMs/fans of the game. As hobbyists, the players and GMs crave additional complexity, in mechanics or strategies or even both, and will add it themselves if the publisher doesn't do it.


I am having a hard time following the logic of this article. Perhaps I'm stupid and don't see what is obvious to others but there are a couple of things I don't understand.
First off, it's stated that there are more new players at events and clubs than there used to be, and less experienced players. Ok. That's fine. But... the reason for this is that rpg rules are too complex? I don't get it. How are those two things connected?
Next, this is put forth as an argument for simpler rules. Is many new players at clubs and events a bad thing? Doesn't that just mean that there's a lot of recruitment to the hobby, which would really be a good thing?
To sum up. There are mostly new players at events because rules are too complex. That's why the rules should be simpler, but they won't be because complex games are more popular and so make more money, and that's why the companies make the games complex.
I can't make sense of it.

EDIT: I get it now. I misread the first paragraph.
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First Post
I think the new way is to sell you the same rules, but on different devices.
You have the Players Handbook in print, then you buy a Fantasy Grounds copy, then you pay $5 a month for a subscription.


First Post
Ok. That's fine. But... the reason for this is that rpg rules are too complex? I don't get it. How are those two things connected?

A steep learning curve keeps people from getting involved in your game, but to make money you need more rules, making your steep learning curve steeper.

I guess its like Bowhunting.


Anyway, I have introduced lots of teenagers to the hobby over the last couple of years, and I really don't see the this learning curve barrier in real life. Most of these kids are instantly hooked when they give the game (5th ed D&D) a try, even though they don't understand all the rules at first. I really think that lack of exposure and competition with video games is the main reason the hobby might be less popular than it was (if that is indeed the case).
Also, seeing as WotC has purposely slowed down the rate of publishing new rules expansions for the latest addition, I think the argument that you need to publish a lot of such books to make money falls flat. I agree it probably has been a problem in the past, but it doesn't seem to be the direction the industry is heading in at the moment.
In addition, there are actually legitimate reasons for publishing new editions, such as keeping up with the times. As gaming trends change, games need to change with them or risk becoming obsolete and irrelevant. I think the idea that "new editions are just to make money" is a bit cynical.

I totally agree with this article. A lot of RPG players and GMs enjoy more detail and complexity in their game system. It makes it interesting and challenging for them. I think the author speaks to the experience of new and more casual players who "ain't up for all of that." Many game companies are happy to feed into the demand for more detail and options, especially because these players and GMs are their regular customers. Give the people what they want. Unfortunately, that may sometimes push the "I ain't up for all of that" crowd away. Refreshingly, WoTC seems to have adopted a new strategy -- instead of frenetically producing new stuff they prefer to maximize sales of fewer but well-researched (survey tested) products by building demand and anticipation of these releases. It's worked on me, I've bought every 5e release. I would never have attempted that with 3e or 4e. Still, I think there is room in the market for WoTC to produce a "simple as possible, but not simpler" version of 5e more geared towards casual or new players who just want to sit down and play.


First Post
The better rules-lite games manage to give the GM enough of a scaffold to respond to as well, if they even have a GM. Most importantly, they provide clarity of authority and result usually by leaning on the narrative "wrapper" of the story in a way that complex systems rarely do. I'd point to many PbtA games as evidence of this principle in action. There's a lot of "weirder" fringe games that manage this as well (Fiasco, Archipelago, etc.)
There are also the Robin Laws/Ken Hite games which are roll a d6 to decide most everything. The Dungeon World (PbtA) stuff is roll 2d6. Savage Worlds is also roll a few d6 for most everything. Those seem to be the type of games that break through for awards and sales these days. Crunchy systems seem to appeal to people that have already played them in the past, not the new players.

Take for example Palladium games-its back, but its back with Savage Worlds rules. There probably aren't many new GMs for Palladium games. Whereas the less-crunch stuff with the scaffold can get picked up pretty quickly by new GMs. I've done it midgame, just straight told a new person you are now the GM and it worked perfectly fine.

If you look at D&D and Pathfinder-theres not a week on this forum when someone doesn't post "New DM, What Did I do Wrong?" Players I know that try DMing come up to me and ask me to sit in on their games and help them out. The players killed the monsters before the monsters could act. The players teleported to the boss in the first 5 minutes and killed him, and the game was over in 20 minutes. DM not knowing you can only cast a cantrip and a 1+ level spell in the same round. Honest and dishonest mistakes the DM didn't have the rules knowledge to catch. It is a steep learning curve.


It is hard to cater to casual players and hardcore players at the same time.

My players are casual. I started the group about 7 years ago when they were all 11-12 yo (my son and friends).. They are now young adults. Even after all that time, they don't get into the books or rules minutiae. They don't get into backstories, or planning out mechanical crunch paths for their characters. They don't read thr books outside the table, and buy nothing. They treat rpgs like they do playing Monopoly, or Clue, etc. They have fun for a few hours and then off to whatever else is going on in their lives. Rules, complicated systems are an abomination to them. Ive gone that route with various systems and it always is backlash.. So I keep it simple and light for them. Otherwise they would rather play a videogame or watch a movie.

You cannot make any money on them. Yet they love playing and even after 7 years, we are still playing once or twice a month. Had a session yesterday. So how do you market to them? You rely on GMs and making their (my!) life easy. Complicated systems and limited gaming/prep time do not mix.

The people who live, eat and breathe gaming are a completely different kettle of fish, and are the ones who make you money... they crave more more more.

It's a tough balancing act for a manufacturer, and how do you ensure longevity with what direction you go in? As a player and consumer, it's a completely different set of needs and wants.

This is the big issue with competing luxuries and decrease in free-time , compared to a few decades ago.

At any rate, I think there are fewer diminishing returns with simplified systems and leaner business models. WOTC's success with 5e seems to be a good indicator- They are in much better shape with 5e than 3.0/3.5 at it's height with it's complicated rules and vomitous flow of official books which eventually drove consumers off to become their competition, or to other systems. 4e also failing to be a success because of WOTC being unable to figure out the core D&D audience and how to engage lapsed and potential players (and fwiw- that is not a bash on 4e. I am a fan of it much moreso than 3rd or 5th editions).

aramis erak

I'd argue that the Rules Light games are less DM friendly than the rules heavy ones. Sure, you can learn the game faster, but, because so much of the game relies on you, the DM, to make it run at the table, rules light games force DM's to play amateur game designer at the same time as they are trying to run the game.

Yes... rules medium and rules heavy games do more to enforce setting and genre than do rules light games...

Rules light, there's less to get in the way, but also less to rely upon, and a far less consistent experience even with the same GM.

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