Rules: Looking for the Sweet Spot

Rules are tough. Rules bug me and fascinate me. It’s just part of being a gamer I guess. It’s an interesting phenomenon that after several years of pretty much exclusively playing D&D 3.5, then 4E, then Pathfinder — with excursions to Shadowrun Anniversary Edition and Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2E — and only small side trips into other games, I’m completely and totally burnt out on “rules-heavy.” Don’t get me wrong, WHFRPG2E is not that bad, and Shadowrun is a fantastic game (but really crunchy), but I’m worn out. I just want to run free and blow in the breeze and just play with my imagination again without worrying about what the whether my hammer is “brutal 2” or my gun is ceramic with plastic bullets or whether my cyberarm is getting spoofed…

And the thing is, it might be the burnout talking but I really like playing this way. I like rules-light. I like no grid combat and simple character creation, and narrative style play. I think my mantra for rules these days is pretty simple… “rules should only empower and never frustrate.”

I’m not saying that you should write your game or play your game such that everything is just sweetness and light and easy as pie for the PCs. I’m saying that as a player what I want game rules to do is open up the possibilities inherent in the world and my character without frustrating me (as a player) with weird complexities or encyclopedic completeness. I’m saying that the rules of the game should exist to facilitate interaction without stifling creativity. As a player (and I’m talking about me here) I want the rules to give me just barely enough to lean on and know that I can trust them and absolutely no more. I think hitting that spot is one of the things that makes me love Amber so much.

Here’s another example of a game just hitting me in the face… I wrote about joining a new Scion game. Character creation was really interesting because players can effectively handwave their character’s mortal life. Want to be a rootless wanderer with a sweet muscle car? Done. Want to be a rising star college professor at a prestigious university? Done. Idle Rich? No problem. Ex-Marine? Okay. It’s a conceit of the game that your mortal life is just that — your mortal life. So it doesn’t much matter what you’ve got. You don’t buy wealth levels or equipment (for the most part) in a Scion game. I loved the freedom this gave us as we made our characters and I love the freedom this creates in play. I tell the GM — “hey, I need help with a project. I’ll call Beth in the engineering department. We worked on a faculty committee last semester and we kinda clicked.” And he says, “Sure.”

And that’s great… but then we got into combat. And suddenly there’s a pie chart and tracking something called “ticks” and every combat action has speeds measured in “ticks” and rolling the dice is an “instant” and… some things are actions that use ticks, some things are just modifiers to actions — but they might modify your DV — or maybe your damage or accuracy… and combat sucks. Just the method of moving around this weird little circle is frustrating — not being able to plan ahead at all because you never know how many ticks someone else might take, aiming and holding actions, and… well… combat sucks. (Feel free to disagree if you like this system. I was ready to just chuck it and walk away.) I went back and read the rules for Scion combat after that session… it had been a long time and I wanted to be better at it the next time to frustrate my GM less… and I was more annoyed after reading them than when I was playing them and didn’t know what I was doing because honestly my GM was actually playing pretty loose with them as it was.

You know my favorite initiative/combat order system? Savage Worlds. You deal everyone a card. You might have one or two things that can have an effect on that card (but not too many) and then you just go around the table jumping in as your turn happens. It’s visual (so is the battle wheel) without being an impediment. It’s fast, it’s simple, and it still creates tension without causing a feeling of numbness to set in. Holding an action? Keep your card. That’s, it’s, genius. So. Simple. But more than just being simple, it just works.

And that’s what I want from all the rules in my games. I want them to work but in the simplest manner possible to open up possibility in play without causing trouble.

Whew. Glad the semester is over, glad to be starting a new job, glad to be writing again…

Thanks for reading.


11 responses

  1. sometimes I feel the same way. i remember all the years playing runequest were character creation took like 10 minutes and combat was percentage attack vrs percentage parry.

  2. Arashinomoui | Reply

    Thing I love about the tick system is that it changes things from being positional-tactical is that it becomes timing tactical, which suits my “modeling fiction” mindset more. My favorite system for this is 7th Seas with the “roll the dice, that’s the order in which you act” style of initiative. I keep playing around with this concept some myself.

    Feng Shui has a similar method from what I understand. Each “tick” remove a bead, when you run out of beads do an action which generates a number of beads. Certain interrupt actions added beads apparently. I may be way off as I’m doing this from memory of other people’s descriptions.

    But yeah, Scion combat sucks. And I say this as someone who has GM’d Exalted 1st and 2nd edition. It sucks a lot.

    1. I certainly see your point… and White Wolf has had a thing about speed of combat maneuvers for a while… the Street Fighter storytelling game had speed as a stat for your combat powers.

      I’m not sure I see how this is any better at “modelling fiction” than say, Savage Worlds. To me it just seemed to further complicate an already complicated part of the game (combat), add a fiddly bit that seems counter to immersive play, and not add much to my ability to be tactical because the profusion of maneuvers makes it difficult to know what an opponent (or even a teammate) is going to do which just leads to effectively needing to wait until your turn to see what the “battle wheel” looks like.

      You know, I didn’t remember but Exalted does use the “tick” system doesn’t it? Oh, Exalted… some of the best gaming books I’ve ever read but a game I have no desire to play at all.

      1. Arashinomoui

        First edition had a standard 1d10 + some points; Second edition had a slightly improved/revamped version of tick based combat – I say modeling the fiction based on it being more about picking the right moment to act versus ensuring that you are standing in precisely the right spot.

  3. I agree with you on rules-lite and “run free and blow in the breeze.

    As an example, in our Microlite20 game this past Monday the party was fighting a Gibbering Mouther. It had attacked several of the party members and had successfully grappled (using the easy M20 grappling rules) the party’s Elven Cleric. The player asked if she could attack the creatures “arm” that was grappling her to get it to let go. I thought, “Oh , is there a rule for that in the monster’s description?” I thought about stopping the combat and looking up the complete Gibbering Mouther’s Monster Manual listing and then I just said to myself, no. I told the player she could do this if she scored enough damage and I think I handwaved a figure in my head of 5 hit points to get the “arm” to release it’s grapple. She had her Cleric cast inflict light wounds, did 9 points of damage, and I ruled the Mouther let go of it’s grip.

    And as smooth as that combat continued. Was it the right call? Was it the wrong call? Eh, it was a fair call and with the opportunity of success or failure it kept things interesting and more importantly, moving along.

    1. Rules don’t determine right and wrong calls, enjoyment and fun determine those.

  4. I don’t have much to say other than, “Ditto”

    My sweet spot in rules is exactly that: Just enough so we’re all on the same page, playing the same game. Everything else can be handled by rulings and interpretations.

  5. @Arashinomoui

    I see your point about “at the right time.” I haven’t played it a lot so maybe I’ll come around some but after my first few encounters, I don’t see it… I just find it off-putting. But maybe with familiarity will come a better understanding.


    I appreciate your solution. I think what my experience with more modern games has been lacking is that sense of “just make it happen.” My experimenting with C&C is really making me happy in this regard.


    Yes. You say it very well. Just enough so that player and GM have a shared language at the table, and no more. Thanks.

    1. Arashinomoui | Reply

      Oh it isn’t a very *good* implementation of the theory (the battle wheel, which makes it infinitely easier to understand was a fan-made creation), but that’s what it is trying to do. And the conceptualization suits my preferences.

      And it isn’t that modern games do it any less – there are plenty of games that tried to capture everything Phoenix Command ( is a particularly horrific example of this, which “resolve[d] injuries to specific digits, organs, and bones, and simulates the physics of different attacks, such as bullets with different velocities.” No I never played it, the description of someone discussing a round of combat has stuck with [read: scarred] me over the years.

      I think you just need to stick with the rules-light implementations that you enjoy – avoid the shadowruns, eclipse phases, BRP, and other medium-to-high crunch games that not only give you a mechanic, but strive to give mechanics that provide how things should be resolved.

      Me personally? I like a little more structure to the shared language. I like there being a shared expectation of the fact that X will generally, except in specific circumstances, work like this, and that Y will be more useful in other circumstances.

  6. There are certainly older examples of this… but some — like Phoenix Command (wow) — were probably just poorly made games. Warhammer Fantasy 2E actually was a pretty good compromise in this regard for me. It had hit locations and crit charts but it was all very quick and easy to resolve and didn’t pull me out of the game. It’s interesting how that system really seems to work for me in execution (but I’m not a fan of the character creation)…

    Whereas I enjoy character creation in BRP but I’m not a fan of the system… hmmm… since they’re both percentile systems, maybe I should tinker with that…

    I didn’t realize the Battle Wheel was fan-made. Despite not liking it that’s pretty cool. My comment about more modern games though really comes from a sense that it’s not so much about simulationist play (like a lot of complex older games) and more about “play works like this.” Which clearly works for some players (like you) but it just drives me nuts.

    Ah well. You are right. I’ve really come to appreciate rules-light play again. I’d gotten away from it for a long time and it’s been nice getting back to it. Of course, big thanks to my Scion GM as well. It’s nice to be playing something instead of GMing too!

  7. Philo Pharynx | Reply

    I heard that Savage Worlds used cards for initiative, but is there any way to modify the initiative for somebody who’s faster than normal? I’d still like something like that.

    BESM 2nd edition is my favorite “rules-medium” game. I’ve had some bad experiences with poor Gms to go to something truly rules-light”

    @Arashinomoui, Phoenix Command was a piker compared to Leading Edge’s older game Sword’s Path/Glory. It broke time into 1/12ths of seconds and calculated how much slower your attack was if you had a chain shirt with long sleeves as compared to one with short sleeves. And it had damage tables that covered every little detail of the body. You know how deep you stabbed and if you hit bone or organs. Surprisingly it wasn’t that bad to play, if I remember correctly. That hard part was refiguring all of your stats every time you picked something new up or put it down.

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