#RPGaDay2020 9: Light

Ẁhoops! I forgot to post something yesterday. It’s a bit cheaty, but I’ll post today. In fact, I’ll respond to Fub’s post about rules-light systems, and piggy-back off of that. In that post, he takes a strong stance for rules-light systems:

In my opinion, lighter rules give a better experience because there’s more time left to create better fiction.

from https://ragas.nl/fublog

When it comes to this, Fub and I are very much in disagreement. When I played D&D, I was always frustrated by the Diplomacy skill: there is a skill that is supposed to govern diplomatic resolutions, but almost no explanation of how that works. So, the usual houserule people go for is to just act it out, and ignore the system. At that point, in my opinion, you don’t need to be playing the RPG, as you’re just storytelling together. Now, if that’s what you’re going for, then that’s good—enjoy your storytelling together, but don’t argue to me that you’re playing an RPG at that point. You may be roleplaying, but I wonder to what extent we can call it a game.

I’ve played some rules-light storytelling games such as Universalis and A Penny for My Thoughts, and they’re interesting experiences but I don’t see their rules-light approach as a solution to the problem I had with the Diplomacy skill in D&D. For instance, what if you have a player who wants to play a highly intelligent, socially fluent character, but they themselves lack those attributes? I couldn’t expect somebody who doesn’t know how to negotiate to roleplay a negotiation that is a satisfactory game experience. However, to me, RPGs should allow you to play and explore with things that are not necessarily available to you.

The solution to this problem is part of why I love Burning Wheel so much. It has modular resolution systems, that the GM can apply as a tool to focus on or gloss over conflicts to their choice. Let’s take an example of a martial conflict. If the conflict doesn’t matter, then just say the player character fights and defeats their opponent (essentially a rules-light or storytelling solution). Perhaps you want to know whether the fiction will twist in an interesting direction based on the conflict, but not make a big deal out of it? Just use an opposed role, and set consequences before hand—it’s basically just a random outcome generator. Want the conflict to be part of a larger system of wear and tear on the character? Make it a Bloody Versus: you do an opposed roll, and the outcome also results in some status changes for the character. Is this the large climactic fight between two people that you’ve been working towards all session? Out come the Fight! rules, with structured volleys and interactions, designed to mimic a Kurosawa movie samurai-showdown of clashes, separations, and moves. The moves available to characters lock together in an extended rock-paper-scissors style, encouraging players to vary up their moves, and resulting in a cinematic experience around the table.

In my opinion, to argue that removing rules improves all games is to suggest that rules are only a nagging bureaucracy that prevents you from actually playing the game. If you feel that the rules of a game are preventing you from enjoying yourself, in my opinion you’re just playing the wrong game. If you feel the rules aren’t supporting you and helping you have more fun—you’re playing the wrong game. If, however, the rules help shape your storytelling as a DM; if the rules help provide structure to the players; if the rules through restraint breed creativity, well, that’s when a game can really shine. Rules are tools, not obstacles.

3 thoughts on “#RPGaDay2020 9: Light”

  1. I might have been very unclear if you think my point was to abolish all rules, because that is certainly not what I am advocating! I specifically say that you need rules in order for it to be a game. What I was (trying to) say(ing) was that rules should get out of the way of generating interesting fiction.
    If you have a top-heavy rules system, then all of the cognitive capacity of the player will go towards the system (which dice to roll for which ability, which modifiers are in effect etc etc), instead of going towards the fiction.
    You cite Burning Wheel as a good game that generates interesting fiction, and I’ve told you before it seems like over-engineered crap to me. Yes, it generates interesting fiction, but only _after_ you have gotten past all of the rules fiddling. Why not make the rules less complicated, so that the players have more mental capacity left to engage with the fiction?

    1. I might have misread your post, then; I did read it in a bit of a hurry—apologies for the misunderstanding! I think in general we agree on the same approach to rules, though disagree on the way Burning Wheel works. To be fair, it is one of those games that takes a (couple of) playthrough(s) to really sink in, and at that point it either clicks with you or it doesn’t. In that respect, I would compare it to Dark Souls: it takes a little bit before the gameplay really becomes clear, and then you either love or hate the challenge.

      Your examples, for instance, indicate a crunchiness that is very native to D&D: an attempt to maximize a numeric value in order to beat a target number. So, the player ends up playing an accountancy game of modifiers, abilities, checking a grid map to count squares and seeing how to min-max a situation. Burning Wheel is, for the most part, exactly opposite to that. Yes, the total package seems quite extensive, but that’s also because you’re not supposed to use everything at every moment—that’d be like completely unpacking your entire toolbox every time you just need a screwdriver. The onus is on the GM to determine which rules to apply when or, even in session 0, for the entire group to decide which systems to employ.

      Furthermore, players are specifically encouraged through multiple ways not to deal with the rules or min-maxing stats and attributes. For instance, the books specifically state that a player should never say “I want to use my skullduggery-wise”; if that happens, the GM should be asking two questions: “what is it you are trying to achieve?” and “what would your character do to get there?”. Both questions are to steer the player away from thinking about mechanics and towards thinking about narrative. Similarly, the skill system is geared towards advancing and learning skills by using them, which will require making checks you cannot succeed in—again a way to steer players away from min-maxing or rules-centered styles of play.

      I could write this out as a giant post, but in the end I do argue that yes, Burning Wheel takes some practice to get to grips with, but that it’s outward-seeming complexity is actually a misrepresentation of its consistency and philosophy. Like most games, it takes a little practice with the system to see where it shines.

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