Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rules Light or Rules Efficient?

It's funny how things run together at times. I've been writing and updating this post for a few days and now I see that Barking Alien and Erin Pallette  have landed in the same ballpark. Cool.

I've realized in looking over the campaigns I am running and contemplating that all of them use simpler, possibly even "light" rules. Much has been written about this and busy schedules etc. but I think it's a little more than that. I think more games are written now to let you get more done at the table during your weekly game session than was done previously. They are "Rules Efficient" rather than "Rules Light".

Last year when I restarted or revised what I was running I started with Savage Worlds, in particular Necessary Evil. Most of the time a Supers campaign means a lot of rules crunch but SW is not that complicated. More importantly it runs very fast at the table and still feels like a superhero game. I was amazed at how much we were getting done in one 4-5 hour session - thank goodness I was running a published campaign or I would have run out of material in that first session if I had planned it out based on previous experience. Adventures fly by without feeling thin or short on content. The players had a blast and as a DM I had a great time too. Compared to Champions in particular, no, it's not as granular or detailed but then again it runs so much faster and with so much less overhead for the DM that it's a worthwhile tradeoff in my opinion. Granted, if we both take stony-skinned bricks as our characters they are going to look a whole lot alike in NE, probably moreso than in Champions. However, given the massive universe of possibilities implied in most Supers games, why are we taking such similar characters? Even with Champions there's going to be a lot of overlap.The solution here isn't found in the rules, it's "let's not play the same character"*, and if you're doing that then NE will handle diverse character types within a campaign just fine

I also started up a Basic D&D game with the Apprentices. It's not a new game nor is it the most flexible game as written but after 10 years of 3rd Edition it was shocking how fast combat ran. It was also easy for them to run multiple characters so that even with 3 PC's each (tough to pull off in many RPG's) they blew through huge chunks of the dungeon in just a few hours. Again, it's not the most detailed game, but it is a lot of fun to play because it doesn't require a bunch of page flipping or reading through 100+ pages of rules to begin, and you feel like progress is happening within a session, not just in between them. As a DM, after years of "stat-paragraphs". the one-line stat block for monsters was incredibly refreshing.

Then I started up a D&D 4E campaign. Whoa, there's a rules-heavy game, right? There are big thick rulebooks for the game but the way it's set up you don't really need to read most of them. D20 is still the roll +stat +skill +/- modifiers that it's been for some time but those modifiers have been reduced to +/-2 or +/-5. Difficulty (target number) is a progression from 5  to 10 to 15 to 20 and so on. What this means is that the numerous tables of many slightly different circumstantial modifiers and charts of various slightly different target numbers are largely gone from the game. As a player, the numbers you need are right there on the sheet. As a DM the numbers I need are in a handy statblock whether its a trap or a hazard or a monster - no need to look stuff up in one of dozens of books. I won't try to call it Rules Light but it is amazingly efficient in play. Now it's not as fast as Savage Worlds or Basic D&D at resolving combat - instead it focuses on combat in such a way as to make it satisfying all on its own. It's a little like Hero System in that regard in that much of the mechanical aspect of your character is tied to combat, but that's a really fun and interesting part of the game, while the rest of it is a lot less dependent on rules for resolution.

Having mentioned it a couple of times and despite my not running it for years,  I'll even toss in Hero as an example of Rules Efficiency. It has a unified mechanic and while it has a huge bloated rulebook almost everything is resolved the same way within the game. Character creation takes time but once created a character can usually be run solely from their sheet, with a limited need to look up rules. Like D&D 4 combat can take a while, but also like D&D 4 it's worth it!

Looking at my notes I think one of the key elements of a Rules Efficient game is making it a goal to avoid referencing rulebooks during play. Sometimes this is achieved through the mechanical design of the game, sometimes it's having less detailed rules altogether,  and sometimes its as simple as having a good character sheet or character builder that covers all the mechanics on the sheet. I know I hate it when we have a session grind to a halt as everyone whips out a book to look up grappling rules, or falling damage, or movement rates in armor while underwater and poisoned, or any number of special cases that get their own section of the rules. Unified mechanics help a lot here but it's more than that alone.

Other games:
  • Star Wars Saga Edition does this fairly well, though it has a few leftover bits from 3E D&D that pop up at times. most of it is very smooth. I still think it's a very efficient game. One of the reasons we switched to it was because d6 Star Wars in its later forms turned out to not be so efficient, with table after table of modifiers and special cases for every skill, and even ones for movement rates in different terrain that seemed very wargamey and out of place in that legendary system. I could probably trim most of that out but it was easier to just jump to Saga and start with cleaner and somewhat more familiar rules. One of these days I intend to go back to d6 and run it the way I think it should flow but it's going to take some work.
  • ICONS looks very efficient to me though I have not played it. It goes with unified mechanics and very broad rules to keep things moving without a lot of bog-down. I think it would play very quickly ala Savage Worlds in a regular tabletop campaign.
  • M&M 3/DCA takes a lot from D&D4 (modifiers are all +2/+5 among others) and cuts the universe of Superpower effects way down by using "Affliction" as a single power that can inflict various predefined conditions (like D&D4 conditions) instead of having a bunch of separate powers. I'm betting it plays pretty quickly too but I haven't had a chance to try it out yet. Soon...
  • Traveller, particularly Mongoose Traveller, is not one that I talk about on this blog a whole lot but it has unified mechanics and a fixed target number like Savage Worlds. I suspect it would play very quickly mechanically. Deciding what to do has always been the biggest slowdown in our Traveller games anyway.
So in the end it's not really about older fully-employed and married gamers raising kids and not having time to play and so demanding simpler games. To me it's about finding ways to get more out of the time you do play whether that's a few hours a week or a few hours a month. Bogging down in long tedious combats or overly detailed travel rules can sap the momentum of a campaign. Figuring out what are the most fun parts of a tabletop RPG and then honing your rules to focus in on those parts is important and different games will focus on different things, hopefully allowing every gamer to find something to their taste. In my experience stopping the game to look up rules is a serious momentum killer and fun-ender. Minimizing the need to do that is a valid design goal and one I applaud whether it's a lighter rules approach like Savage Worlds or a better organized and structured approach like 4E. They're both "better" in that I get more out of each session whether it's as a player or as a DM. Also, Rules Efficiency is not something easily identified by the size of the rulebook, although that can be a guide.** I find that it's mostly discovered in play, sometimes as a shocking revelation as the players speed right on past where the DM has planned or read and shoot off into new territory with the DM working to keep up. 

Efficiency is not even something I really looked for until that first Savage Worlds session, followed by that first Basic D&D session, followed by the cratering of d6 Star Wars. Now it is something I look for and whether you're pressed for game time or not it's something to consider. How much do you get out of your sessions? How much time is spent in lookups and rules arguments instead of playing through the adventure? My tastes have moved to where the best answer to that is "damn near zero" and if a ruleset can't get there and stay there then it's time at my table is limited. 

*Unless you're supposed to be siblings or twins or something - that's cool.

** Like Pathfinder - ye gods that looks like a game I have no interest in running. Except that I love Paizo, so I hope that it does well for them. Just don't ask me to run it.

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