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RPG Rules Complexity and Casual Gamers

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I've heard a number of people say that the complexity of the rules of many modern RPGs are one of the major things keeping casual gamers away from the game. While rules complexity certainly is part of the problem, I don't believe it is as big a part of the problem as some do.

Look at the first edition of AD&D. It was a relatively complex game, but it has lots of causal players -- because while its rules were complex, you really did not have to know many of them to play. A lot of rules knowledge -- let alone system mastery -- wasn't needed to play. The only person who really needed a good knowledge of the complex rules of first edition AD&D was the GM.

New players could create a fighter or a thief in minutes and really did not need to know any rules to play the character. They could just tell the GM what the character was doing in regular terms and the GM or other players could easily translate "I try to hit the zombie with my sword" or "I try to sneak down the corridor without the guard in the side passage seeing me" into whatever die roll was needed. Unless the player wanted a magic-using character, little to no knowledge of the rules was needed to play.

The player never needed to buy or study rules books to play well. All he had to do was describe what his/her character was doing and roll the dice when told to. Neither their lack of rules knowledge or lack of system mastery did not really hurt them -- nor did it hurt the rest of the party.

Games that more or less require people to buy rulebooks and study them to master the game system are unlikely to attract many casual gamers, in my experience. Worse, they often tend to make casual gamers unwelcome at a table that includes non-casual gamers as their lack of knowledge of the rules and their lack of interest in system mastery hurts the other players.

In my experience, complex rules don't turn off casual RPG players unless they are expected to read them and master them. If they can just say what their character is trying to do in non-game terms and roll the dice when they need to do, casual gamers do fine with complex games.

Roger the GS said...
May 24, 2010 at 5:54 PM  

Cynically though, I would say that the companies don't value casual gamers as much as the people who buy ruleboooks, splatbooks and accessories. A table full of casual gamers sells maybe 3 products, a table of intense gamers sells 20.

Randall said...
May 24, 2010 at 6:17 PM  

Roger: Sadly, I suspect you are right about who the major RPG companies value. It's short-sighted, of course, as there is a lot of profit in casual gamers. Of course, you have to know how to market to them and you can't use the train of unending supplements to generate your profits.

JoetheLawyer said...
May 24, 2010 at 6:57 PM  

There is something to be said for growing the hobby by appealing to casual gamers, so that maybe some of them become more intense gamers. A larger ocean has more fish of all types in it.

Ed Keer said...
May 24, 2010 at 8:58 PM  

I returned to the hobby after many years away and can tell you I'm the bane of my 4e group. No matter what I do, I can't calculate my to hit number for all the powers I have correctly. I've got the constant deer-in-the headlights look when I try to do anything combat-wise. I wish I could convince them to play old school...

JB said...
May 24, 2010 at 10:04 PM  

MMmm...unfortunately, even with "rules light" RPGs, casual gamers still can be at a loss for "how the hell do I play this?" as I discovered this evening.

Robert Fisher said...
May 25, 2010 at 5:03 PM  

Right. There are two things that made AD&D accessible.

1. Good (essentially compatible) Basic Sets that introduced people who didn’t have experienced mentors to the hobby.

(1b. Modular rules that made it easy to ignore large parts of the AD&D rules when you “upgraded”. Truth is, my groups were really mainly playing “Basic” D&D even though we were using the AD&D books.)

2. Experienced mentors who don’t believe that the rules are the final say and who aren’t into showing off their mastery of the rules at the expense of others.

I have seen some of #2 with modern games too, though.

That said, I have come to the position that more is gained than lost when the rules are simpler and, thus, more people at the table have a firmer grasp of them.

Robert Fisher said...
May 25, 2010 at 5:05 PM  

Oh...and AD&D certainly had/has it share of anti-#2 people.

Kiashu said...
May 25, 2010 at 9:33 PM  

This is one advantage of random roll character generation systems. The player needn't know much to create a character. Same for class-based.

It's also an advantage of level systems, since typically there's not much to know or decide about if the character starts at low level, and complexity is added as the character goes up levels - so the player can discover the rules in play rather than having to study them beforehand.

I can run an AD&D one-off in an afternoon, but if I want to run GURPS the one-off will just be character creation...

Aaron W. Thorne said...
May 27, 2010 at 11:19 AM  

You raise some good points here. My only recent experience with this was a while back when the DM's daughter wanted to join in on a game when we were still playing 3rd ed. Her father helped her create her character, but she really could care less about reading the rules and learning the system, she just wanted to play with "the boys" with her druid character. Pretty soon her father the DM got frustrated with her total disinterest in learning the rules and the fact that he had to keep explaining everything to her, though, so he dropped her from the game. If we had been playing a less complex game I don't think this would have been a problem (the DM is a hard-ass about knowing the ins-and-outs of the combat system, but doesn't require you to understand every power or spell completely so that your character is 'optimized,' for example). I still think he was being too hard on her, but to some degree I can understand his frustrations. If we had been using a rules set that required less directly player knowledge of the rules I bet it would have worked out better.

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