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

Comments

PMárk

Explorer


So just because people are lazy we need to dumb down a game? Maybe RPGs don't need to be mass-market, maybe they are, and should be, just a niche game. Not everything needs to have mass appeal.
Yeah, thought the same. I'd add that not every rpg need to have mass appeal and that's still not true, since fairly complex games are quite popular, while there are plenty of really obscure minimalist games.

It's just not that simple as "people don't want complex games in this rushing world".
 

Yaztromo

Explorer
I can understand this point of view: there are simple and quick RPG systems that work pefectly well and that allow you to start playing purposefully in five minutes (lieterally). They would be perfect to involve new players and new game masters, but reality is that there is more money to make in complex games that appeal to hard core fans and scare away possible newcomers that may expand the number of gamers. More money in complex games means more opportunities to hire best creative talents for complex games.
Simple games have to go uphill.
 
I can understand this point of view: there are simple and quick RPG systems that work pefectly well and that allow you to start playing purposefully in five minutes (lieterally). They would be perfect to involve new players and new game masters, but reality is that there is more money to make in complex games that appeal to hard core fans and scare away possible newcomers that may expand the number of gamers. More money in complex games means more opportunities to hire best creative talents for complex games.
Simple games have to go uphill.
I don't think this actually holds out anymore.

Paizo, which pretty much is one of the complex system kings, repeatedly indicated even during their best years that they were not making that much profit for their game. They were trapped in having to rely on the more-expensive books to keep their profits up enough to stay in business; the guy in charge indicated repeatedly this was exactly why their subscription services don't offer PDF-only options, despite the fact they offer pretty much everything as a PDF. And keep in mind this was back when Pathfinder was the dominant tabletop; I have no clue what financial shape they're in now, but I seriously doubt it improved.

WotC, on the other hand, has made it a point to use a slow release schedule with a, for DnD, massively simplified system... and they've shown profit repeatedly ever since 5E came out. Even Hasbro has mentioned them positively in a few shareholder reports, which is quite rare for WotC.

Pinnacle Entertainment, on the other hand, makes most of their money not through selling a load of books, but by leveraging Kickstarter to fund their projects so that all income they get after the books release is profit. They also advertise the Kickstarters of other companies using their ruleset, guaranteeing those companies will do the same for them when they decide to do a project.

Pretty much, the two companies doing well are not doing so through complex systems; neither 5E nor Savage Worlds are actually complex. And the one big-name that did rely on a complex system wasn't doing that well even at their height.
 

zurg

Visitor
I disagree with the article. Complex games are easier to GM because you can rely on the rules as others have stated. Also, who doesn't love giving their money to companies and people making new editions, new games, new rules, etc? These people are the ones keeping our hobby alive and moving forward. I support as many of them as I can, even buying games and supplements I know may never hit my table. All hail capitalism and its ability to constantly destroy and advance things.
 
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thzero

Community Supporter
Pinnacle Entertainment, on the other hand, makes most of their money not through selling a load of books, but by leveraging Kickstarter to fund their projects so that all income they get after the books release is profit.
Got a cite for that?

While 5e may not be 3.X/Pathfinder complex, its hardly 'simple' and I wouldn't put it at the same complexity level of Savage Worlds either.

Pretty much, the two companies doing well are not doing so through complex systems; neither 5E nor Savage Worlds are actually complex. And the one big-name that did rely on a complex system wasn't doing that well even at their height.
but reality is that there is more money to make in complex games that appeal to hard core fans and scare away possible newcomers that may expand the number of gamers.
Thats junk. Go to GenCon, most everyone will be there except maybe WotC, and ask them point blank.... "are you trying to scare away possible newcomers?" I bet the answer is a resounding "no".
 
Got a cite for that?
Yeah. "Stuff I Interpreted From Watching Them Do All Those Damned Kickstarters," ArchfiendBobbie, Miskatonic University Journal of Business, December 15th, 2016.

(I hope you got a laugh.)

While 5e may not be 3.X/Pathfinder complex, its hardly 'simple' and I wouldn't put it at the same complexity level of Savage Worlds either.
Savage Worlds is actually a bit more complex. Take a good, long look at the rules for vehicle chases, certain bits of magic, etc. 5E core rules involve a lot less wonkiness and a lot fewer special cases as long as you're not throwing in optional mechanics like crazy.

Thats junk. Go to GenCon, most everyone will be there except maybe WotC, and ask them point blank.... "are you trying to scare away possible newcomers?" I bet the answer is a resounding "no".
Been. Asked. Got that answer from everyone, including WotC.

Asked them the follow-up question of, "How many complain about the complexity of your rules?" The more complex the rules were, the more complaints they got.

Followed up with a third question of, "How many buy your stuff here?" The answers broke down along lines expected due to a combination of marketing and how well-known they are, though I noticed Paizo's answer was lower than Pinnacle Entertainment's and WotC's.

Call it junk all you want... but go ask the people at Paizo directly why they don't do PDF subscriptions. They'll tell you flat-out they can't afford the profit loss. Assuming that you don't get fifty million people quoting you and referring you to one of the dozens of other times people asked that question and got that same answer.

Ask that of Pinnacle Entertainment, and they'll flat-out tell you they simply don't do subscriptions because they don't need to. And WotC will, if asked about PDFs, do their normal verbal shrug or point you to Fantasy Grounds in their typical "we don't really care" tone.

If you want more fun? Go take a look at the release dates of their products. WotC never had a fast schedule on 5E, so it's no surprise they're not bothering with new releases that often. Pinnacle Entertainment pretty much treats Savage Worlds like hobby income, so it's really no surprise they have a schedule of "when we feel like it" for how fast they get products out. But Paizo, for whom Pathfinder has been serious since day one? They're ramping down their production schedule in Pathfinder; new Campaign, Companion, and Modules are being released on a reduced schedule as of late and now they're going bi-monthly with the APs. What does it tell you that rather than ramp up production with a new product coming out, they're ramping down and devoting half their resources to that new product?

I want Paizo to succeed as well. They're a good company, and their products are amazing. Golarion you can run nearly any form of fantasy you can imagine in without changing to a different setting. But the same attention to detail that had them producing so many products for so long has bit them on the rear hard, and you can see it both with how they're ramping down Pathfinder production even before Starfinder was an announced project and in how they're planning to treat Starfinder. And you can hear it every time they admit that allowing pure PDF subscriptions would put them out of business.

Edit: And because this post was depressing, I invite everyone to contemplate Ponyfinder. Because Ponyfinder is awesome.
 
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thzero

Community Supporter
Savage Worlds is actually a bit more complex. Take a good, long look at the rules for vehicle chases, certain bits of magic, etc. 5E core rules involve a lot less wonkiness and a lot fewer special cases as long as you're not throwing in optional mechanics like crazy.
It's also a 'generic system' and 5e is not. If you look at just the core Savage Worlds even tossing in fantasy it is really quite straightforward.


Been. Asked. Got that answer from everyone, including WotC.

..lots of blah blah..
Well, forgive me if I don't believe random person on internet actually did what they said (I wouldn't believe me either...). Do it journalist style, I'll be more than happy to at least give it credence.


Edit: And because this post was depressing, I invite everyone to contemplate Ponyfinder. Because Ponyfinder is awesome.
Ponyfinder is about as far from awesome as you can get. That's just depressing.
 

thzero

Community Supporter
I want Paizo to succeed as well. They're a good company, and their products are amazing. Golarion you can run nearly any form of fantasy you can imagine in without changing to a different setting. But the same attention to detail that had them producing so many products for so long has bit them on the rear hard, and you can see it both with how they're ramping down Pathfinder production even before Starfinder was an announced project and in how they're planning to treat Starfinder.

I play PF a lot. However, I hate Golarion with a passion - not that I was really a fan of Forgotten Realms - both try and add everyone's taste into it, and it just ends up tasting like bland gruel.

I admit, I've not bothered to chart out the spacing of the Paizo products; but they are still doing quite a bit of PF right now. New bestiary, a new campaign settings, a couple of new APs, fairly steady stream of PFS scenarios, etc.

Re: Starfinder... ever think that since its a unknown, and no idea how it will be received, that any company would be wise not to take things rather slow with said new property? Yeah, seems to be wise idea.
 
[MENTION=6680772]Iosue[/MENTION] posted a video where WotC people were talking about a survey they conducted.
Results: "One interesting tidbit was that there was a positive correlation between complexity of class and non-combat satisfaction, and a negative correlation between complexity of class and combat satisfaction. Good stuff!

Read more: http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?544621-Mearls-and-Thompson-(and-Crawford)-at-DigiPen-(video)#ixzz4fo561t9C
"

Not totally on topic, but an interesting side note.
 

aramis erak

Adventurer
Rules Light doesn't actually make GMing well easier - only the lookup time changes. This can make it LOOK easier, but faster and easier are not synonymous.

Rules light requires the GM to make more rules calls, more interpretations, and be more in tune with his players.

And I find that I'm better able to wing things with a mid-complexity game rather than a low-complexity one.
 

S'mon

Legend
As I said, my experiences are quite different from yours. I come from a LOOONNNG history of very, very poor DM's. IME, a good DM is not a common thing to find. So, going from 2e to 3e was a huge breath of fresh air as 90% of the table arguments that we used to have vanished practically overnight.
Poor GMs who could run a good game of 3e D&D?
It sounds to me that the main difference is that your group/you/those around you seem to like to argue about how the GM is running the game. I don't regard that as a legitimate thing to do at the table. In fact I saw far far more arguing from players in 3e D&D games than in any other version, precisely because
everything is so defined. It's really odd because I'm 44 yet almost all your experiences seem consistently
the exact opposite of mine. Even on eg boardgames - IME hobby boardgames of the 1970s and 1980s were indeed very complicated, whereas now hobby boardgames are typically much simpler.
It's like we're in Mirror Universes. :D
 

S'mon

Legend
Well, a couple of things.

1. Moldvay Basic isn't exactly a rules light system. Look at the combat rules. That is not a rules light system. :
Yeah, I actually learned GMing from Fighting Fantasy the Introductory RPG, which really is
rules-light. But I was aided by "What is Dungeons & Dragons?" which was a book about Moldvay Basic.
 

S'mon

Legend
But Paizo, for whom Pathfinder has been serious since day one? They're ramping down their production schedule in Pathfinder; new Campaign, Companion, and Modules are being released on a reduced schedule as of late and now they're going bi-monthly with the APs.
30 minutes of Googling reveals no reference to this from Paizo. The Starfinder APs will be bimonthly, but all the Pathfinder AP references on Paizo's site still refer to them as monthly. So they are actually ramping up production overall. :confused:
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I think this is another one of those assumed binaries that does not really speak truth to power. I think it matters very much where complexity is applied. I tend to favor games with a hidden depth. Simple to create characters and start playing, but with lots of meat to dive into in play. I think 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons fits the bill as does Apocalypse World, Blades in the Dark, Edge of the Empire, and Chronicles of Darkness. I mean this is the model behind World of Warcraft, Texas Hold'em, and Overwatch are built on. It's all about emergent play.
 

Hussar

Legend
/snip

Even on eg boardgames - IME hobby boardgames of the 1970s and 1980s were indeed very complicated, whereas now hobby boardgames are typically much simpler.
It's like we're in Mirror Universes. :D
Oh, sure, there were complicated board games back in the day. ASL. Anything by Yaquinto games. Sure, I'll agree. But, those were some really niche games that only hard core board gamers played. Compare to now, where you have games that run the full range from very simple, to extremely complex. The only real difference is that now, there are so many more board games to choose from, and it's so easy to buy whatever you want.

But, yeah, I think we've had very different experiences. Like I said, once we switched over to 3e, rules arguments lasted about 3 seconds - DM makes a call, someone questions the call, the rules guru in the group points to chapter and verse in the book (typically hitting a Hypertext SRD link) and move on. Unlike in earlier editions where there just wasn't any rule to look at.

I think a big difference for me, is that games like Basic/Expert D&D aren't rules light. They're rules absent. My fighter wants to climb a tree. What do I roll? Well, that's entirely a DM call and it usually boils down to the Roll a D20, Roll High, method. And then you run into things like, "NO, you absolutely cannot jump in armor" and "Of course that katana can cut through a wall" sort of shenanigans.

Rules light systems, at least good ones, are ones where you actually have a rules based answer for actions. Savage World's Rule of 4 is a perfect example.
 

S'mon

Legend
I think a big difference for me, is that games like Basic/Expert D&D aren't rules light. They're rules absent. My fighter wants to climb a tree. What do I roll? Well, that's entirely a DM call and it usually boils down to the Roll a D20, Roll High, method. And then you run into things like, "NO, you absolutely cannot jump in armor" and "Of course that katana can cut through a wall" sort of shenanigans.

Rules light systems, at least good ones, are ones where you actually have a rules based answer for actions. Savage World's Rule of 4 is a perfect example.
Well, for climbing tree, jumping pit et al Moldvay has "roll under DEX on d20" or "roll d6+attribute bonus vs target number" (mentioned in a few places but oddly not universalised). But I do sort of agree. I like running Target Number systems like 5e which tell me "roll d20+bonuses, a good target number is between 10 and 20 for easy to hard tasks" - they do often take less mental effort than running my Mentzer BECM game. But OTOH there would be nothing to stop my 5e players complaining when I occasionally tell them the task DC is 23 (or 27) if they were so inclined.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I don't have time to respond to this essay with the length and attention to detail that it deserves. I feel it's addressing a very important issue in a rather unorganized manner.

I will leave a quote behind that touches on my understanding of the issue:

"If your game has Rule Zero in it, it's rules heavy. Period. And the more you rely on Rule Zero, the heavier it gets."

And likewise,

"If your game doesn't have Rule Zero in it, it's not an RPG; it's a board game."

The problem is that there is no such thing as a rules light RPG. It's a myth. And there is certainly no such thing as a successful rules light RPG, and not just for the economic reasons that the OP describes. The problem is that simplicity in an RPG is actually not an attribute of the rules, but an attribute of the scenarios. An RPG is simple only for a certain set of scenarios that it handles in a simple way. So long as the scenarios match these simplifying assumptions, the rules will seem 'simple' or 'light-weight'. As soon however in the course of play you move away from these 'toy' scenarios and have more organic scenarios things may no longer seem so simple. Dealing with these new scenarios in a simple way will require a new set of simplifying assumptions about things like granularity and process resolution. But, as a result, now you'll have several different resolution methods.

A system that ignores that isn't simpler. It's just incomplete.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
It really boils down to your players.

I've had both good and bad lite RPG nights but few mediocre ones.

With more complex games, I've had many more mediocre nights, few good nights and more bad nights.

The bad nights came from bored players. The bored players come from two camps, those who are impatient with the rules and those who are frustrated that the rules don't give them the tactical options they want ( regardless of the complexity of those rules.)

The mediocre nights were from the pace of the game becoming deflated by looking up the rules too often.

And the good nights were times when the rules weren't really a factor, or we threw them right out the window.
 
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Moravave

Villager
I like to DM like I'm the priest, not God. The rules are God, they are the final word. I think my players appreciate that as well. I can make a judgement call to move stuff along but if we choose to take the time, the actual rules answer will always be waiting for us in the books. As a group we love looking something up and seeing the way the rules solve the problem - we're all gamers, this is part of the fun for us, working within the system.

I'm currently looking to run some B/X and 1e for nostalgia purposes but one thing I'll miss about 5e when I do is all of those clean, easy to find answers. 5e has done a very good job of being both light and robust at the same exact time. The more I play it the more I appreciate this.
 

Mercule

Adventurer
Before getting into things, let me be clear that I think there's a pretty broad middle ground and that the "sweet spot" depends a lot of factors including, but not limited to GM skill, player skill, competitiveness, play goals (where they fall on the GNS scheme).

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.
I could not disagree with this more. Over 35 years of gaming, I've done various degrees of rules-light and rules-heavy, with the highest number of gaming hours logged between all D&D/AD&D editions (except 4E), Hero System, Storyteller/oWoD, and Shadowrun. At various times, I've bemoaned the ailments of "imprecise" or "vague" systems and at others, I've cursed rules-lawyering players who wouldn't let things be. One round of Phoenix Command, at a con, cured me of any interest in truly "realistic" game rules. I understand the lure, but it isn't what draws me to game.

There's a minimum amount of rules for "completeness", but most games can fit their core rules onto a single page -- or less. For D&D 5E, it's "determine your bonus (stat + optional proficiency + misc mods), roll a d20 and add bonuses, compare against the DC (AC is a special case of DC), if you roll equal to or greater than the DC then you succeed/hit/whatever. Some effects are not binary and typically use another die to determine how well an action succeeds (damage die). The rest of the page can be used for showing the DC chart, how to calculate AC, opposed checks, etc. You could summarize the character creation and advancement rules onto another page, maybe two. While a handful of additional rules exist, the vast majority of everything else in the PHB, DMG, and MM represents either guidance for applying those core rules, exceptions to the core rules and general guidance, lists of powers that open new things that can be done with the core mechanics, and/or reference tables to find bonuses.

That's not to say there's no value in anything beyond the most core, say, 32 pages of rules -- one of the things that keeps me with D&D is the extensive lists of monsters and spells, both of which could be considered "application". The point I'm really making is that there are a lot of pages devoted to stuff that a "good DM" should be able to wing, IMO. It doesn't really matter whether attacking through cover grants a +2 to AC or disadvantage on the attack; the math is pretty similar for most DCs. It actually doesn't even make much difference whether it's consistent between attempts, other than the basic appearance of whether the GM knows what he's doing. Likewise, the long-term implications of a +2 situational bonus vs. a +3 situational bonus are pretty minimal, unless your group has really selective luck and misses by 1 a lot.

IME, when there are a lot of rules applications provided, there's a tendency by all involved to ensure they're following the rules as closely as they can, even if it means slowing down play when the details aren't going to change the result. In AD&D (and other games of that era), we rotated GMs with some regularity -- there were generally two primary GMs in any group I was part of, with others occasionally taking turns. Each felt free to tweak rules applications as he saw fit, based on story flow and setting lore. Yes, there were the occasional rules arguments or attempts at rules lawyering. But, the GM felt free to say, "suck it". Those GMs that made generally good rulings and kept the game moving in a fun and engaging way had standing groups. Those that failed to entertain weren't as in demand and would either improve or disengage.

Clearly, a new GM won't have the experience to make fair rulings. That's part of the process of becoming a good GM. So, having sufficient rules applications help a GM to understand how to apply the rules to situations. Too many applications can overwhelm the newer GM, though. Too few, and the GM has to learn too much by sink-or-swim. The truly newbie GM can only handle so much, but their ability (and need, typically) to digest additional rules applications increases quickly. At a certain point, however, a GM will gain sufficient comfort with the basic rules and the particulars of applying them to various situations that there is not really a need to have as much spelled out. At this point, additional complexity in the rules are either ignored by the group or provide fodder for arguments, depending on the group. So, I'd say low-moderate complexity benefits the novice GM. Moderate-to-high complexity benefits a proficient GM. But, low-moderate or even low complexity benefits an expert GM.

But... Players are the other side of the discussion. For the first part of the curve, the same thoughts apply: as much complexity as they can handle to gain an understanding of how core rules can be applied. What about the expert player, though? Do they benefit from a return to lower complexity rules? Well, it depends.

If the group is meeting for the "game" factor, then increased rules complexity means more opportunity for game mastery. Personally, I love highly complex strategy games; the more moving parts and obscure rules, the better, and I get a huge thrill from using strategies that bring together subtle rules interactions in surprising ways. The gamist RPG player will, of course, be more inclined to enjoy heavy rules and good for them.

If the group is really about the story and focuses on things like pacing, character depth, etc. then too many rules will just get in the way. Once you have enough tools to do what you need, the rest is clutter. In fact, a group that gets together primarily to tell interactive stories may never need to get to the moderate-to-high level of complexity.

My personal belief is that the middle road is going to be most applicable to most groups: neither too complex/gamist nor too simple/narrativist. Only very experienced groups (not just GMs) will benefit from either very complex or very simple systems. Those that do are likely to only benefit from one or the other. They are both a niche of a niche. The extremely light systems have the advantage of being cheap to pick up and run for one-shots or other special case games. High complexity systems demand system mastery that only comes from focus and dedication.

D&D 5E is probably about as complex as I'd care to see a mainstream (that being a very relative term) system to go. In fact, it's a bit too complex in some areas, for my taste. I'll openly acknowledge, though, that I would consider myself to be a more than proficient GM and I favor the narrative aspect of RPGs, preferring to keep system mastery in the realm of board games. That's just what I want out of an RPG.
 

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