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What I Look For in a Set of Fantasy RPG Rules

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I been asked many times why I don't like later editions of D&D and still play older editions. I think this can best be answered by listing some of the major things I look for in a set of fantasy RPG rules.

1) I want rules-lite. I'm not interesting in hundreds of pages of rules. I don't want to waste time have to look up everything instead of just making a ruling on the spot. I don't want players to feel they have to study the rules to play well. I don't want them to even feel like they have to buy a copy of the rules to play.

2) I want simple, fast character generation. Character generation should take 5-10 minutes for a experienced player -- and not much longer for an inexperienced player with a more experienced player helping him. Players should not have to make lots of decisions at character generation. They especially should not have to make many decisions that, if they choose incorrectly, will hobble their character far into the future. I don't want a character building subgame -- especially one that gives a major advantage to players who buy, study, and master the rules.

3) I want simple, very fast playing, abstract combat rules. If minis and battle mats are needed or even strongly suggested, the combat system is probably too detailed and tactical for what I want. Players should not need to learn rules-oriented tactics for combat. Again, I want my players to be able to play without having to study and master the rules. Combat rules do not need to simulate reality exactly, but they should be easy to map to reality. Disassociated combat rules are probably the most annoying type of disassociated rules. Average combats should take 10-20 minutes maximum.

4) I want distinct "classes" that vary in ability and skills both in and out of combat. In other words I want magic-users, rangers, fighters, etc. to be actually different in play. I don't want every class equally capable in combat. Not everyone is interested in combat and combat is not the center of my games. Combat is also fast (see 3 above) so those who aren't good in combat (or who just do not find combat all that interesting) will not get bored in long, drawn out combats.

5) I wanted limited "skills" Many things like finding traps, negotiating with others, etc. should be actually role-played by the players. Saying "I check for traps," rolling a die, and announcing the result is boring. If skills are in the game they should not be usable to short-circuit actual role-playing.

6) I want easy to modify rules. I run my campaigns set in my own homebrew worlds. I change the game rules to match the needs of my worlds. I do not change the worlds to match the needs of the rules. This means the rules need to be easy to modify and not so tightly integrated that almost any change will ripple across the rules with unexpected side-effects.

7) I want generic rules. As I said, I'm interesting in running my fantasy RPGs in my own worlds. That means I want the rules set I use to be as generic as possible. I don't want the rules tied too closely to a specific world or even the designers' favorite style of play. The narrower the focus of the rules, the less likely they are to meet my needs.

8) I need verisimilitude. My game worlds need to feel "realistic" -- verisimilitude as opposed to actual realism is fine. Rules that clearly don't feel real (like only NPCs being able to buy magic items in AD&D or powers that work regardless of circumstances where logically they would not like tripping a gelatinous cube in D&D4e) are annoying. All rules sets have some rules that break verisimilitude (the feeling that the world is real), but the more such rules there are in a game, the less likely the game will meet my needs. Players should be able to easily describe what they are doing in terms of the world, not in terms of the rules. If they have to speak on think in "rules" then the game probably isn't going to work well for me.

What I look for in a set of fantasy RPG rules may be very different from what you look for in a set of fantasy RPG rules. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. However, I think what I look for in rules explains why I prefer older TSR editions of D&D to the WOTC editions. Just as what you look for explains why you prefer the games you do. There is no one true way nor one true rules set.

[Don't forget that Original Dungeons and Dragons Goodies Are Available (for Cancer Fund Donors). There is still plenty of time (over a week as I write this) to make a donation and get in on the giveaway. Thanks much to those who have already donated.]

Dyson Logos said...
July 27, 2009 at 3:43 PM  

The only issue I have with this (I agree with everything else) is about skills short-circuiting role-playing.

I don't find players learning about the intricacies of trap construction, placement, triggering and disabling to be of any interest. I don't think it's "role playing" for the player to learn this material so his character can be the best at finding and disarming traps - it is instead a situation of the reverse, where the player has to have extreme mastery of the real world implications of the system.

I would way rather have a player say "I enter the entranceway carefully, checking for traps in the floor and walls" and then rolling a check than "I lift the carpet with a thin blade and insert my viewing lense to see if there is anything under there connecting the carpet to the floor, if not I then remove the carpet and check for pressure plates. Then I carefully look over the stonework of the entranceway looking for loose stones and traps and poisoned needles, then if none are found I run my hands over the same area feeling for things I may have missed with my eyes." The first is role-playing, the second may also be, but quickly gets boring.

Thasmodious said...
July 27, 2009 at 4:15 PM  

I always find lists like these a bit wonky, as there isn't usually an old school system that actually fits all that criteria. Which leaves you having to mod one or another. Really, you can fit this or any other playstyle to about any ruleset. But in the interests of discussion, let's have a look.

1. 1e and 2e are out, nothing rules-lite about them. OD&D and Red Box fit (but not all of BECMI, 5 boxed sets worth of rules, plus supplements, saw plenty of creep).

2. OD&D and Red Box are really the only ones again. Increased complexity in character options was an early and loud cry from the playing community.

3. Really only BECMI fits this, and that's questionable at higher levels. OD&D's original combat system was a tactical mini's game, 1e got complex quick, with different rulesets for every class and nearly every spell, 2e was just as bad, and with Options it was probably the worst, even over 3e.

4. Really, any edition fits the bill here.

5. Is a very old discussion and divide. One crowd agrees with you, the other says that a socially awkward player that doesn't like to stand up, do voices and act out everything should still be able to play a bard if he wants to. Basing the success of a characters attempt to smooth talk the Duke on the actual character, rather than the player, is the way development went. I'm in that camp, btw. There's no less RP down that road either.

6. It's all easy to modify, so anything fits. I've played every edition with a ton of houserules. No D&D system was ever hard to hack, with 3e probably being the worst of the bunch, but still infinitely hackable, you just had to watch the numbers a bit.

7. While several editions have assumed a setting of sorts (Blackmoor, Greyhawk), they've all kept a pretty neutral overall focus. Any fit.

8. No topic is more overdone than verisimilitude. I blame the word. People like saying and writing it. Verisimilitude is always in the eye of the beholder and not tied to any game system. For some, any movement system that doesn't account for acceleration will fail the test, for others you absolutely have to adhere to encumbrance rules or they go nuts, for others its the need for a complex system of weapon speeds and initiative. A DM in my group has a set of rules he uses for how much your mundane clothing and gear gets damaged in combat because, for him, ignoring torn cloaks and pouches is less "real". It's really just an overused codeword to diss one system in favor of another, when neither system holds up to any real scrutiny and the overall design evolution of RPGs has been towards more cohesive rulesets, rather than the anything goes of older editions (hey, let's use percents with thieves because the only thing better than 1d10 is 2 d10s!)

As for "tripping a cube", that one's a pet peeve of mine. You are not tripping a gelatinous cube, you are applying a set of modifiers that can represent a great deal of different "in game" situations. Don't get hung up on a word, you need to call a grouped set of modifiers applied to a situation something. If you can't see how a gelatinous cube could get hit or exploded in such a way that its ability to attack accurately is hindered and it is a bit easier to hit for just a moment, then I would suggest watching the last half hour of Terminator 2 and rethinking that position.

greywulf said...
July 27, 2009 at 7:33 PM  

You do know you've just described Microlite20 to a tee, don't you? :D

Talysman said...
July 27, 2009 at 8:07 PM  

I agree with all these desires, although I'd modify point 7 to say that I want general rules plus setting-specific modules that can be applied to create specific setting effects, or that can be used as patterns for my own setting-specific modules.

But I'd also add an additional desire of my own: I want minimalist rules that can be combined to create deep effects, rather than a bunch of rules specific to a class of effect. I want rules that suggest ways they can be combined or altered to create a great deal of detail and consequences. I want rules that I can look at and think, "hey, I wonder what would happen if I did this plus this?"

Randall said...
July 28, 2009 at 7:27 AM  

Thasmodious wrote "OD&D's original combat system was a tactical mini's game..."

Not really. Chainmail was a minis game. The original OD&D combat system used to hit tables and die rolls from Chainmail, but not the actual tactical combat system. The "alternative combat system" given in the original three OD&D booklets was the one most people used and it did not use anything from Chainmail. OD&D's combat was very fast, abstract, and did not use minis (see Early Versions of D&D were NOT Tactical Combat Minis Games).

Other than that, your comments just show me that you probably look for different things than I do in a game -- which is as it should be.

Randall said...
July 28, 2009 at 7:30 AM  

Greywulf wrote "You do know you've just described Microlite20 to a tee, don't you? :D"

Microlite20 is the only version of D&D 3.x I will actually play. Thank you very much for creating it.

Robert Fisher said...
July 29, 2009 at 11:30 AM  

I was surprised by how much I am in agreement with these points. Only in that I’m surprised when any two gamers agree on that many preferences. ^_^

Now, Thasmodious, a list like this doesn’t mean that you only play games that exactly fit all of them. It only means that the more of the points a game fits, the more Randall will prefer it.

And for me, role-playing games are a coöperative endeavor, so you have to be willing to accept some of the preferences of the other people at the table. So, you almost never get to play your ideal game even if you can find it.

Dwayanu said...
August 2, 2009 at 12:13 AM  

(1) Thasmodius's view of AD&D points up the danger that simply having rules can be a temptation to feel obliged to use them. I never considered AD&D anything but what was billed on the covers: a compilation of material for D&D. It was not suddenly transformed into more of a burden than it had been when scattered among supplements and magazines.

(2)(4)(5) Depending on how broad your interests are, it may be worthwhile not to get too locked into a rigid "I want D&D" standard. There are trade-offs among some of the 8 aspects. Also, factors "not usable" to bypass description of actions are a pipe dream; turn that around to a positive statement, and you'll be more realistic. Don't get too hung up on jargon (i.e., "skills"), either, or you won't see the forest for the trees.

(6)(7) Old D&D seems generic because it has come to define its own genre. It's "easier" to modify partly because folks tend not to care so much about the consequences. Another part, though, is modularity (due largely to its having been bashed together piecemeal). Conscious modularity in design is something I strongly advocate!

(3)(8) Abstraction and verisimilitude are fundamentally opposed. There may be a (fairly common) confusion here with simplicity versus complexity.

Something to consider in terms of rules-heaviness is how many rules you actually use -- not just the ones that are written down. Now, how about consistency and verisimilitude? There's a middle ground between a too-heavy text and too-arbitrary adjudication. Both the "role-playing" and "game" elements call for an imagined world that operates according to rules. Experience and common sense can mostly be kept in one's head, but some factors are likely to be forgotten if not written down (or at least shared in an oral tradition). "Rulings, not rules", taken too literally, is the last refuge both of the incompetent referee and of the one who has ceased utterly to be a referee and become instead the operator of a railroad.

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