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Worlds of Design: How "Precise" Should RPG Rules Be?

I was watching a game played with a dice pool, and could see that the GM was waiting for the dice roll and then deciding by what felt right, rather than having any kind of precise resolution. How precise are the RPG rules themselves, and what are the consequences of imprecision?

But, he thought, I keep them with precision. Only I have no luck anymore. But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

In answering this question, I thought about FATE and its fudgable (by design) rules. It moves far toward storytelling aid and away from traditional game. Contrast the relatively short FATE rules with the vast rules of versions of D&D beginning with Advanced D&D (1e).
[h=3]Miniatures-Based[/h] From a board gamer’s point of view, much about miniatures rules is open to negotiation, a reason why there are referees at so many miniatures battles. Fantasy RPGs derive from the Chainmail miniatures battle rules, not from board games.

Board games must have precise rules. There’s no GM (in almost every case) to interpret or to be rules arbiter. RPGs can get away with vague or incomplete rules because there is a GM (in most cases). On the other hand, an RPG is trying to cover “everything” that might happen, so naturally the rules tend to be much longer than the rules for a board game.

Precision in rules is important to a game’s GM philosophy. If the GM is merely a rules arbiter, then precise rules are vital. If the GM is a god-like guide who is above the rules, less precise rules work. It’s easier for a GM to be a rules arbiter, and that expands the potential pool of referees. We saw this especially clearly in 4e D&D.

Video games must have precision underneath, for programming purposes. Video game design documents (or whatever system is used) must be explicit and complete, so that programmers and other game developers can do what the designer intends.

It’s very difficult to be both precise and concise. When I’ve playtested a board game solo several times, the rules I then write will mostly cover the basics. By the time I’m done with the game (likely years later) there have been questions that required additional explanation, and even though my philosophy is to simplify a game rather than add things to it to solve problems, the final rules will be half again as long as the early ones in order to provide clarity and precision.

"Legalese" is an example of rules-writing gone way too far to the side of precision. But one person’s legalese is another person’s precision.
[h=3]“Reasonable” Players?[/h] The writer of the following comment epitomizes the “rules don’t require precision” attitude:

"[Game] Writers tend to be too wordy and explain everything in excessive detail when in fact their readers are perfectly capable of drawing their own conclusions from just a bit of input." --anonymousmagic

This advice may work for RPGs, where you have both a rules arbiter/god and a group of players who can restrain the rules lawyers in the group. If you're designing a game where people won't be very competitive (no "rules lawyers") then this can work. But it’s bad advice if you're designing a competitive game.

I like rules that are similar to technical writing (instructions), that attempt to be exact rather than "reasonable". Because there are *lots* of unreasonable game players, especially for two-player games where there might not be a majority of reasonable players to rein in the unreasonable one.
[h=3]Chrome[/h] “Chrome” is exceptions or additions to the basic rules to provide much of the color and flavor of historical games and fictional games. But as exceptions/additions to the basic rules it adds to the length and complexity of the rules.

Take the simple example of leaders in a wargame. Standard Risk has just a single kind of unit, the Army. There are no leaders. In Britannia there are a number of leaders, even though most armies are of one basic type, with the leaders adding to the dice roll in combat. Simple enough, but leaders provide a human element in a game about a thousand years of history. In Diplomacy, a faceless World War I game, an epitome of simple that relies on player-to-player negotiations for most of its interest, there are no leaders.

In RPGs, which are the opposite of facelessness, almost every designer will want lots of “chrome” to help represent a “real world” experience, even if it’s a fictional world.

How precise should RPG rules be? “It depends.”

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Lew was Contributing Editor to Dragon, White Dwarf, and Space Gamer magazines and contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio, including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Sadras

Hero
The only really old school thing about 5e is how it's written. And, even then, it's still very much grounded in story creation and creating character in play. The whole "test the player" thing is virtually absent from 5e play.

Mechanics new, spirit leaning towards old school is how I would describe it.
Especially since we have returned to more DM control, but not as forceful say as 2e's Story-above-all-else thrust.
 

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Really? 5e is chock a block with new school type mechanics.

Fighter's Second Wind, various reroll mechanics (Lucky Feat, Halfling's Luck), encounter design being set to xp budget, lack of save or die, heck, even the concept of bounded accuracy is very much a New School approach to game design.

5e is mechanically very much a new school game. It's miles away from an Old school game. The only really old school thing about 5e is how it's written. And, even then, it's still very much grounded in story creation and creating character in play. The whole "test the player" thing is virtually absent from 5e play.

I feel compelled once more to point out that beyond Old School (which largely amounts to Gamist rulesets) and New School (which many seem to think largely congruent with a more narrative approach) there's a Middle School which was pretty Simulationist. As mentioned above, skill lists, Ads/Disads lists ("Feats") and plenty of circumstantial modifiers were its hallmarks.

As for 5E, a disclaimer: I am not a 5E expert, nor a D&D expert in general. So if any of my takes are misguided, I honestly appreciate any corrections.
As I see it, 5E has been moving away from the Middle School and more towards Old School in some aspects (deemphasizing character customization via skill lists and "Feats", reducing the number of circumstantial modifiers, thus undoing some of the simulationist Middle School features of 3E) at least.

As for the New School, let's see:
  • Luck and rerolls are not really New School. GURPS had Luck/Extraordinary Luck/etc as Advantages for a long, long time. The first time I encountered rerolls, I think, was in GW's Bloodbowl 2E. The edition is from 1988. WFRP had Fate Points, Shadowrun 2E had Karma Points that could be drawn on for luck.
  • Second Wind: why is that New School? I'm not sure how it's any different from a GURPS advantage. The only unusual to me is that it seems to be more or less once per encounter.
  • Encounter Design: This is largely a D&D thing. Most big non-D&D RPGs leave encounter design up to the eye measure of the GM and rules of thumb rather than use a specific metric.
  • Save or die: This may or may not exist in other games but I am not sure this is representative of newer RPGs overall. In particular, in games with Fate Points of some kind Save-or-Die is less of a problem because you can generally expend a FP to save your skin this time. So if newer games have these FPs, they are more likely to have Save-or-Die situations.
  • Bounded Accuracy: Isn't that a D&D-specific fix of poorly designed (at least in part, don't get mad at me) earlier editions? I mean, Rolemaster had 'soft' bounded accuracy back then: attributes gave you normally max +25 (=>+5 in D&D, nice coincidence), skills could be raised indefinitely but with diminishing returns ('soft') and you had some per level bonus. Anyway, all BA does is improve game balance and plausibility? Is that really a new game paradigm?

Overall, I struggle to identify what you consider New School. If New School games are games like FATE and PbtA (and possibly Genesys), they are in part defined by abandoning trying to have accurate probabilities and by giving players agency over more than their character's decisions, imho.

If it's not these games, what IS the New School here?
 

Hussar

Legend
How is a reroll mechanic not granting the player agency over more than their character?

You keep pointing to Gurps. But Gurps is about the same age as Fudge. It’s not old school. Simulationist? Sure. But not old school.

And again, I don’t consider 3e dnd to be a simulationist game at all. It’s pretty trad gamist with a couple of nods to sim gaming that people have blown way out of proportion.
 

How is a reroll mechanic not granting the player agency over more than their character?

You keep pointing to Gurps. But Gurps is about the same age as Fudge. It’s not old school. Simulationist? Sure. But not old school.

And again, I don’t consider 3e dnd to be a simulationist game at all. It’s pretty trad gamist with a couple of nods to sim gaming that people have blown way out of proportion.

I guess that kind of depends on what level of complexity you're used to. I'm a 3rd edition player/DM myself, so I don't find the game very simulationist either (and I don't find it particularly different from 5th edition). But I can see how people who are more used to new school roleplaying games might find it a bit too detailed. 3rd edition leans strongly towards miniatures* and such (because of positioning, flanking, attacks of opportunity) and character progression (allocating skillpoints and such). Maybe this is what they mean with 'simulationist'?

(* Note though that miniatures are by no means required to play 3rd edition)
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I guess that kind of depends on what level of complexity you're used to. I'm a 3rd edition player/DM myself, so I don't find the game very simulationist either (and I don't find it particularly different from 5th edition). But I can see how people who are more used to new school roleplaying games might find it a bit too detailed. 3rd edition leans strongly towards miniatures* and such (because of positioning, flanking, attacks of opportunity) and character progression (allocating skillpoints and such). Maybe this is what they mean with 'simulationist'?

(* Note though that miniatures are by no means required to play 3rd edition)
3.x isn't "simulationist" in that it doesn't do a good job simulating a reality. It uses too many abstractions.

It is a process sim, though, as task resolution is resolved by simulating processes. Climbing a wall is resolved through discrete climb checks, etc, etc. These processes are resolved every time -- the rules indicate that any climb with an assigned DC must have an attendant roll to resolve the action. 4e is largely similar in presentation. Both can have this aspect altered at the tables for a looser play experience.

5e starts with a different paradigm, although one that is similar. Not every climb requires a check, only those where the GM determines there's uncertainty and a cost for failure. However, when this is determined, it's still mostly a process sim.

Not sure how to relate this to the overall process because all D&Ds have more in common than with games like FATE or PbtA, but it is an interesting difference in D&D.
 

Well, I qualified above what I am refering to by the more simulationist Middle School:
skill lists, Ads/Disads lists ("Feats") and plenty of circumstantial modifiers were its hallmarks.

It is true that few of these games were predominantly Simulationist (Phoenix Command comes to mind), they were after all expansions on much earlier, simpler and more Gamist rulesets. Many games of the era were aimed at providing greater realism, for better or for worse. D&D 3.x is a child of that era. It fits the above mold pretty well, except it does not have Disads: Feats are entirely positive.

If anyone has a different take on simulationism or on games of the 90s era, let's hear it.

(As for GURPS and FUDGE, GURPS is 10 years older than FUDGE. But I wouldn't qualify it as Old School either, based on my above criteria for the more simulationist Middle School of RPGs.)

Finally:
How is a reroll mechanic not granting the player agency over more than their character?
Sure, I can't dispute that. However, it's relatively minor compared to the power to directly manipulate scenes in more recent narrative games. It didn't affect gameplay other than making PCs less overly cautious.
 

Hussar

Legend
I guess that kind of depends on what level of complexity you're used to. I'm a 3rd edition player/DM myself, so I don't find the game very simulationist either (and I don't find it particularly different from 5th edition). But I can see how people who are more used to new school roleplaying games might find it a bit too detailed. 3rd edition leans strongly towards miniatures* and such (because of positioning, flanking, attacks of opportunity) and character progression (allocating skillpoints and such). Maybe this is what they mean with 'simulationist'?

(* Note though that miniatures are by no means required to play 3rd edition)

Heh. By that metric, 4e D&D would be the most simulationist of them all. :D Somehow I don't think that would fly.

But, to answer you [MENTION=6931283]Alexander Kalinowski[/MENTION], Sim games are all about providing systems that tell the players what happened. The more detailed the sim, the better the answer. But, at it's heart, that's what defines simulationist games. The systems of the game break down events and adjudicate them in such a way that someone observing the game could easily (well, hopefully easily) follow the chain of events.

D&D has never actually provided that. D&D has always been pretty heavily gamist. Even 3e is despite a pretty thin veneer of sim nods. Like I said earlier, in D&D, no one has ever been able to answer what 10 points of damage looks like. You can't even categorically state how something took that damage. For examples of Sim play, sure, GURPS qualifies. Star Fleet Battles. Battletech (both the wargame and the RPG). HARN. The Riddle of Steel. A number of the Palladium games are steps in that direction. So on and so forth.

I think there is another issue with these discussions in that people tend to associate certain ideas with their own preferences, so, "Old School" becomes "games I like" and "New School" becomes "games I don't like". There's certainly a tendency in these discussions to see that people's personal preferences strongly influence their definitions.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Sim games are all about providing systems that tell the players what happened.
Well, any RPG system eventually has to tell the players what happened so that things can proceed. :) A sim system, though, also tells the players either directly or by clear inference both why and how it happened, iwith those answers being consistent with everything else that has gone before in that game's particular setting.

The more detailed the sim, the better the answer. But, at it's heart, that's what defines simulationist games. The systems of the game break down events and adjudicate them in such a way that someone observing the game could easily (well, hopefully easily) follow the chain of events.
Because of the 'why' and 'how' answers and their internal consistency, yes.
 

Hussar

Legend
Well, any RPG system eventually has to tell the players what happened so that things can proceed. :) A sim system, though, also tells the players either directly or by clear inference both why and how it happened, iwith those answers being consistent with everything else that has gone before in that game's particular setting.

Because of the 'why' and 'how' answers and their internal consistency, yes.

Yes. That's saying what I wanted to say, only better. :D

Although, thinking about it, D&D combat, for example, doesn't actually tell you what happened. Not really. It tells you that the PC's lost X amount of HP and that the monsters died (presumably) but, that's about it. How the monster died and what those lost HP actually mean are anyone's guess. It's no different than the old Final Fantasy games where numbers just sprung out of your forehead when you got "hit" by an attack. You can't actually tell me what happened during those 5 rounds of combat. You can make something up, sure, but, anything you make up is "right" because the mechanics sure aren't telling you what happened.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Also, unless I am mistaken, calling skill lists a "Middle School" attribute of the '90s seems misplaced given how the idea of skill lists were introduced as early as D&D's OD&D Thief (1975). Skills then became a more robust system for all characters with Traveller (1977) and slightly later with RuneQuest (1978), which introduced Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying Game. So over a decade before '90s era gaming.
 

Hussar

Legend
Yeah, and, really, [MENTION=5142]Aldarc[/MENTION], skill lists were pretty much standard pretty early in many games other than D&D. I mean, you look at old games like Star Frontiers, or the 007 game, or Gangbusters or Top Secret, all of these had skill lists. I'd argue that D&D is something of the outlier here. Pretty much most games went with skill lists. Sure, 2e brought in skills, although the system was seriously rudimentary. It wasn't until 3e, really, that skills became standard for all players.

Thing is, D&D has always incorporated whatever was popular at the time of publishing. It's never been the one pushing the envelope.
 

Shasarak

First Post
Yeah I would have to agree that 2e was the first edition to use Skills, well Nonweapon proficiencies, so that makes them a standard Old School rule.
 


Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Sim games are all about providing systems that tell the players what happened. The more detailed the sim, the better the answer. But, at it's heart, that's what defines simulationist games. The systems of the game break down events and adjudicate them in such a way that someone observing the game could easily (well, hopefully easily) follow the chain of events.

They also tend to have a large dose of "realism" patched in. (Air quotes intentional.)


D&D has never actually provided that. D&D has always been pretty heavily gamist. Even 3e is despite a pretty thin veneer of sim nods.
D&D in my view really shows its roots as a wargame, even in 5E, which dips its toes in narrativism in places. Prior versions also were pretty simulationist in some respects, for instance in the higher levels of play where you were expected to be spending your gold on a stronghold and there were scads of price lists for hiring staff and other costs. That said there are ways in which it's inconsistent, but by and large it's definitely gamist.


For examples of Sim play, sure, GURPS qualifies. Star Fleet Battles. Battletech (both the wargame and the RPG). HARN. The Riddle of Steel. A number of the Palladium games are steps in that direction. So on and so forth.

Millenium's End was a classic simulationist game of the '90s.


I think there is another issue with these discussions in that people tend to associate certain ideas with their own preferences, so, "Old School" becomes "games I like" and "New School" becomes "games I don't like". There's certainly a tendency in these discussions to see that people's personal preferences strongly influence their definitions.

This is a very good point. I've tried to avoid going in that direction for the very reason that it just muddies the waters.
 


Personally, I think (A)D&D has been a gamist-simulationist hybrid (to varying degrees) up to and including 3.x. I should add that I consider OD&D, based from what I've seen, simulationist - for the mid 1970s. ;) Not from the POV of any later era though, obviously.

And, as mentioned, there was a general trend for RPGs to become ever more "realistic" for a time. The Forge was probably an inflection point for that.
As for skill lists, they may not be a sufficient feature but probably a necessary one. So I kinda stand to my above assessment.

Battletech (both the wargame and the RPG). HARN. The Riddle of Steel.
That's interesting because it shows the two schools of simulationism that exist to my mind: attempted simulation of reality (to varying degrees, see reference to skill lists in 2E) and simulation of a fictional world - genre simulation. I consider Harnmaster/Riddle of Steel more in the former camp and stuff like Feng Shui more in the latter. As well as FFG's Star Wars.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Trying to categorize generational trends of games by GNS does not ultimately seem that useful. Most of the debate becomes about making broad, empty statements about both games and GNS rather than meaningful statements about the games themselves or gaming trends.

Arguably the biggest split in games is pre-Forge and post-Forge, though not in terms of mechanics or even the frequency of certain GNS expressions. Instead, I would say that the overarching general trend of roleplaying games post-Forge is marked by the self-aware conscientiousness about their game design. Namely, it has been about the intersections between the play intent that drives the design, how the mechanical design cultivates that intent, and how whether those elements succeed harmoniously within the praxis of play. It is a trend whereby the implicit philosophy of game design became a more explicit philosophy.

For example, when one looks at both OSR games and more "narrative" games, one can see that there is an elucidated sense of design intent. What sort of roleplay is this system attempting to cultivate with its mechanics through the play experience?
 

Proper periodization is always a contentious task for historians. The Middle Ages, for example, are only roughly defined - still it's good to have that rough definition for conversation about the subject.

In the case of RPGs, I think it's good to understand how the simple early games blossomed in the 80s and 90s into ever more complex and supposedly realistic, more simulationst games. And that around the year 2000 a trend towards lighter, more experimental and more narrative-focussed games began. You can of course group the games before that together under the label "trad games" and you wouldn't be wrong in doing so. But if you do that, you should be aware that a very gamist game like, say, 4E (later date I know) probably won't make a simulationism fan all giddy in excitement, whereas a more simulationist game like Hârnmaster probably won't excite many people who are die-hard 4E fans. People that love both most certainly do exist but they're somewhat different games still. There's a divide. (I know because I am one of those genre simulationist who don't mind the occasional round of D&D and the like at all but very much prefer different types of trad games.)

So, I do agree with you about a lot of things but still feel the need to point this distinction out.
 


Hussar

Legend
Well [MENTION=5142]Aldarc[/MENTION] I’d say that you are on to something. I’d add to that the difference between OS and NS games is the degree of experience both designers and players have in the hobby.

Think about it this way. In 1975 ish how many hours of gaming experience could Gygax and co draw upon when designing Adnd? Hundreds? Doubtfully thousands.

Then compare 3e. The designers, never minding the thousands of hours of personal gaming experience could also draw on the millions of hours that hobbyists had.

Then look at Pathfinder or 5e with their pen playtests. We’re talking tens if not hundreds of thousands of play hours going into the game.

That’s got to have a huge impact on how a game is designed.
 

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