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.