Geek Girls Rule! #125 – Sometimes Simpler is Better*

I catch a fair amount of crap for my love of “rules light” systems.  “Oooh, how typically ‘girl’ of you!”  Blah Blah Blah… Whatever.   Now, in my defense it isn’t that I can’t handle crunchy, rules heavy systems, I can.  I played, and ran, GURPS for years.  For heaven’s sake, I’ve played Rolemaster

I just don’t want to.  If I have to dive for the book more than twice a game session, it starts to feel less like fun for me, and more like work.  If every combat involves pouring over charts, consulting three different damage indices and special rules sections, I start to lose interest.    

This is not to say that for those people who think that sort of thing is fun, that they’re wrong.  They are no more wrong than I am.  We just have different ideas of fun, and that’s ok.  I’m not a big fan of leaping out of perfectly good airplanes or off of bridges with rubber bands tied to my ankles for entertainment, either.  And I’m sure most of those folks would be bored to tears by the thought of spending an entire evening reading an academic treatise on the psychology of sex and gender, and taking notes… for fun. 

Different strokes for different folks, right? 

So, I don’t think the hardcore “rules” gamers are any more wrong or bad than am I and my constant hand-waving. 

That big, pissy, whiney kettle of fish dumped over…

Wizards of the Coast has put out a “lite” version of the 4th ed rules for playing D&D with children, for a module called “Monster Slayers:  Heroes of Hesiod.” 

I think this, much like Mouseguard**, is brilliant.  It’s not that I don’t think 8 year olds of either gender can’t wrap their heads around the rules of basic D&D, it’s that not all of them are going to want to.  Some of them are just going to want to tell the stories that D&D and other role-playing systems are useful tools for inspiring.   And I don’t see any reason why they should have to master a rules heavy system to have the sort of fun that can be adjudicated, if everyone is amenable by, “Ok, you rolled a 7, you win,” instead of factoring in Armor Class, Hit Points and all that fun stuff. 

Now, some 8 year olds are going to play the “lite” version and want to explore the harder, more crunchy, full version.  Some will be content with the “lite” version, and some of them will be bored to tears by the entire endeavor and ask if it isn’t recess time yet.  That’s all ok. 

If you must, think of Monster Slayers as the gateway drug to gaming.  Me, I think it’s awesome the way it is, and might even entice me into playing or running D&D again some time in the near future. 

*Better being a relative term, a matter of opinion and not a statement of fact.

**Ok, guys, why the hell can’t I find a simple, straight forward page for the RPG that I can just point people to anymore?  Luke used to have one on the Burning Wheel site, but all mention of it appears to be gone. 

16 thoughts on “Geek Girls Rule! #125 – Sometimes Simpler is Better*

  1. As someone once pointed out, the great secret of roleplaying is that no rules are necessary. This even applies when using dice to adjudicate results. However, another great secret is that rules can be valuable, as well. There is no badwrongfun out there, and some people enjoy the close structure of 4E D&D or Pathfinder, while others would prefer the simplicity and freeformness (to coin a word) of 0E; some people want Mouseguard, others want Burning Wheel with lots of optional rules; Rolemaster or T&T; and so on. Some people want the rules to help prevent bad GMs, others want to take a risk on a Referee’s overreaching in the pursuit of greatness.

  2. @Chris

    In a more modern sense “rules” are what you choose to do that is agreed upon (explicitly or implicitly) by the participants. Thus you cannot play without rules.

    If I say “each of you imagine three things about your character” and everyone does so we have created a rule ad hoc. If someone says “can we say one thing about another character as well?” We are negotiating for rules. And then I might say “when two disagree the conflict is resolved by a vote of the other players” we have created a resolution mechanic.

    In general I don’t think people want stricter or more diverse rules because they dislike a person but rather because they like what the rules do do.

    I also have to say that you are very lucky to have not seen “bad” fun, but occasionally people will step on the toes and feelings of others in their attempt at fun. This *is* in fact bad and also typically unintentional (most people trip up other players because they are trying to do something else, not because they delight in tripping up others).

    There is this unnecessary schism that says “on one hand we have structure” and on the other hand have a “GM reaching for greatness.” I pose that we have “Groups working together to build the games that they enjoy” on one hand and not worry about the other because none of us go there.

    As for gateway games, I love the fact that we mock the concept of gateway drugs in nerd culture.
    I wish that the mouseguard comic were more popular. It is simple, good and a licensed property of a good comic. I think it is the only game like that.
    Freemarket is basically “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” the game. It is simple and it has a non violent story (or at least potentially non violent). So that might appeal to people as well.
    Dread is another great gateway game. It can hook people interested in horror.
    Misspent Youth (if ever published) can hook people interested in YASF.

    These games are all simple, based on things people know and the game explicitly tells you how to perform every aspect of play. Games like Dragon Age or Dresden Files rely on the GM knowing how to run games and depend on his skill in performing for quality.

  3. The older I get, the less patience I have with elaborate rules. I don’t do algebra, spreadsheets and bookkeeping for fun. I used to be die hard into stuff like Shadowrun many moons ago, but I just don’t have the patience for it any more. After years of Amber Diceless, I’ve just gotten spoiled by the sensation of not having rules get in the way of roleplaying.

    Running for teens also shifted my perspective on the subject too. I don’t have the patience to explain rules to a bunch of novice gamers. Character creation and advancement was just a bear until we got to Amber. After that the kids were (mostly) old enough to read the rules for themselves and figure stuff out.

    And, really, the boys were the ones who had the most trouble with rules. I quite literally had one of the boys ask me, “I finished step 2. Now what do I do?” “Is there a step 3?” “Um… yes?” “Then how about you do step 3?” *sigh*

    Once the girls got the hang of it, they dove right in, and I felt like a dork for having cushioned them for so long. They may very well have been able to get the rules if given a chance. I was just too wary of helping 6 kids make characters with no past experience.

  4. I don’t do algebra, spreadsheets and bookkeeping for fun.

    Well I do, and even I think Shadowrun is too much. 😉 The 4th Edition of SR almost dragged me back into it (cyberpunk is my favorite genre, cyberpunk fantasy is awesome) but they did too little, too late to fix the issues with the bloated rules system.

    I love D&D 4E however. I consider it a rules light system, in that the design is exception-based like Magic: The Gathering, so the general system is simple, the complexity comes in the large number of options available and is almost entirely limited to character design and adventure design time. Once you’re actually running the game, you only need to know about the ‘pieces’ (monsters, feats, powers) that are relevant because they’re currently available, and you can leave the rulesbook at home. Literally. I play the D&D Encounter thing at my FLGS (1 hour a week) and all I have is my character sheet straight out of the Character Builder with my list of powers and feats all neatly explained on the sheet and I never need to consult my books, ever.

    I think we consulted the book *once* to clarify a ruling but that was because the guy hadn’t printed out his power cards.

  5. @Josh

    I don’t agree that “rules” negotiated during play are rules, per se (though the situation is muddied and fuzzed by games like, eg, Nomic, but that is pretty much the intent of those sorts of game). “Rules”, to my way of thinking, are generally agreed upon guidelines or procedures set at the start of the game (or, as you note, decided upon by mutual consent during the game). Anything that happens during the game (including negotiating exceptions or rule alterations) are interactions, not rules per se, or they might be rulings, or something else, but not rules. If we all sit down to write a novel together, the interactions we have in writing it are not rules, but are just that, interactions – the “rules” (if any can be said to exist) in such a situation are pretty much nonexistent. We could say that the “rules” include “we will end up with a finished story”, but that is more like a goal than a rule, really. (One could argue that general social rules regarding the “story writing” ritual of the society in which we exist are “rules” for such an event, but that starts to stretch the meaning of “game rules” so far as to make the term useless – at that point, why use a specialized term at all?)

    “Rules”, then, are frameworks within which “interactions” occur, by mutual consent. “Interactions” are the particular and actual social interchanges which occur between people, and in this particular instance refer specifically to such interchanges within the context of a type of ritual activity we term a “game”. “Rulings” (which I mention above) are specific applications of the “rules” decided by a procedure set in the rules (in most games, by decree of a player designated the Referee or some such term; other games might use a system of polling the players, pure random chance, or whatever). “Resolutions” are applications of the “rules” and “rulings” to the state of the game in response to player actions within the game context.

    All of that theoretical terminology aside, though, the original quote was in the context of professional, commercial rules systems, which I probably should have made more clear. As it was, I was making an oblique “in-reference” to a game which I designed and which was developed by the Geek Husband What Rules and a friend of ours, then further developed by a number of people, and which can be transmitted entirely orally in less than five minutes. The Geek Girl What Rules has referred to it here before, as the “Two-Die” or “Bridge” or “Trait” system, which are the three names we’ve come up for it. I’m currently engaged in writing it up, but only because I think that I have a couple of clever additions to that basic framework which people might like (involving wealth and injury, two subjects treated extremely abstractly in the oral version – I intend to make them only slightly less abstract in the written version, after some commentary on this very blog).

    “Badwrongfun” is a shorthand referring to a type of argument that some people are not having the “right” kind of fun when they play games which are disliked by the arguer. An example would be if I had said that 4E and Pathfinder are obviously inferior to 0E, and that players of 4E and Pathfinder are therefore not “really” having fun playing them and so should switch to another game (to be clear, this is something I do not actually believe, despite the fact that 4E is not at all fun to me for a number of reasons that are unimportant here). Similarly, a partisan of 4E saying the same about 0E would be equally wrong, or a story gamer talking about trad games, or a player of RuneQuest saying the same about Dogs In The Vineyard, or any other such argument. It does not refer to the fact that some kinds of fun may be at the expense of other people, which might be just “badfun”.


    If a game requires one to memorize or look up more than a couple of pages of information, it is not in any way “rules-light”. All of those “options” that 4E provides are rules, as they are methods of allowing the characters to interact with the game world, and one needs to know those things in order to be able to play the game effectively (if I can’t build a character without feats or skills and be effective in the game, then I have to know about those things; similarly, if I have to know particular things to defend myself against overwhelming feats or skills, then that is an essential part of the rules I have to learn to be able to play effectively; that doesn’t even count in the rules about “attacks of opportunity” and whatnot involved in the combat wargame that is the centerpiece of that game). “Rules-light” is one of many reasons that I prefer either story/”proto-story” games (In A Wicked Age, Dogs In The Vineyard, HeroQuest, Unknown Armies, and so on) or seriously old school rpgs (D&D 0E, RQ, Traveller, and such) to most modern rpgs. Well, I also like GURPS and HERO System, but then I don’t make any claim to a foolish consistency.

    Which isn’t to say that you should dislike 4E (far from it! If you’re having fun playing it, then play what you like), just that you shouldn’t call it “rules-light” when it clearly isn’t.

  6. Gah, that’s what happens when I edit things quickly, there are going to be some inconsistencies when I miss sections.

    That first sentence should be deleted. It was from an early form of the argument. Obviously, rules negotiated during play are “rules” in the sense I discuss. They are also playing pieces or “units”, since the negotiation of them is part of the game and alters the game state. That sort of deep gaming theory, though, is probably more than is needed here.

  7. @Chris

    Any mechanism you decide that has agency and authority is a rule. Negotiations about rules are negotiations about rules, not rules themselves.

    Badwrongfun I’ve heard it both ways.

    4e is “rules” lite. it is character info expansive. And you don’t have to memorize it, you have it printed out.

    But the key point is this: the concept that on one side we have structure and on the other side we have “A GM reaching for greatness” is complete nonsense. Both sides have structure. If anything one is collaborative and egalitarian and the other is Abrahamic story decider. There is nothing wrong or unstructured on either side.

  8. @Josh

    On 4E: I’m looking at the 4E combat system right now. It makes the GURPS combat system look simple. It is not rules light, in any way. The combat chapter of the PH alone is 32 pages, which is longer than some entire old school and story games, and still doesn’t cover everything involved (which is spread into the DMG, and maybe even the PH2, PH3, DMG2, DMG3, and so on).

    You said: “4e is “rules” lite. it is character info expansive.”

    Even if the rest of the game were super-simple, presented in one page, character info is rules. Exceptions are rules. I used to (mistakenly) make the same argument you are making here about GURPS, which really has only one page of “rules”, but so many exceptions and cases that one can hardly call the game “rules light”.

    You said: “And you don’t have to memorize it, you have it printed out.”

    This is my “are you kidding me?” face.

    A 0E or Bridge System character fits easily on a 3×5 card, and takes maybe 60 seconds to completely generate, from blank paper, pen/cil, and idea or dice to finished character. Some people prefer to play a game where the characters have piles of powers “printed out” (why can’t I make a character without a printer? If I can, then those powers won’t be printed out, and I have to memorize them or look them up) on the character sheet, and more power to them.

    On the last paragraph, you mischaracterize my argument. I am saying that some games prefer increased structure (by either increasing the written rules structures or creating new structures that increase the input of the other players into basic situational issues) to cut down on the problems created by bad GMs, while other games prefer to minimize those structures to increase the freedom of all GMs to be as bad or good as they can. Each has its benefits, and though I have my preferences, I am not here particularly advocating for either.

    Also, there are different ways to understand the exact responsibilities of a GM in games that have them. On the one hand, you could have an “Abrahamic story decider” (the Storyteller model), on the other you could have a disinterested scenario presenter/rules interpreter (the Referee model), and variations in between. Of late, I prefer the Referee model, but games since Vampire: The Masquerade have advocated for the more “Abrahamic” model you discuss.

    We could also go around about how the GM/Player divide is a particular structure and so on, but I think that it is a natural and basic one, as it doesn’t require the extended discussion that other structures require to develop the idea (I mean, look at how difficult Capes is for many people to get the hang of – some people don’t get it enough that they have trouble understanding it as even being the same type of game as those we normally call “rpgs”, and a case could be made for that but that’s really a discussion for a different time and place).

    To be clear, collaborative, narrative, gamist, structured, freeform, immersive, story, whatever – there is no “badwrongfun” (and I have never heard that specific term used to describe the sorts of abusive fun you worry about, so I don’t use it in that meaning, and I think that using it in that meaning reduces the utility of the term).

  9. Blackbloc: SR keeps dragging me in, sometimes against my better judgement. I love the setting, and it was one of the first games I ever played. So I’ve got piles of nostalgia for it. But the system pisses me off on multiple levels. I’ve loved D&D4e, though. I want to hate it. It runs contrary to many of the things I find fun about roleplaying. And yet I have stupid amounts of fun with it.

    Mickey: Spelljammer 4e could be neat. I’m not sure how I would do it, since there are some problematic elements to it. (The same sort of problems you might run into with a seafaring based roleplaying game, including: What do you do when the players manage to destroy their ship?) It will be interesting to see if they re-publish it with their resurrection of all their old lines. They’d probably want to wait for DragonLance to get put out again too, since a corner stone of Spelljammer were the tinker gnomes of Krynn.

    My impression with 4e is that the appeal is really the combat. It has a lot more dynamic flow than just two dudes standing next to each other and hammering on one another. I normally hate miniatures and combat, but it’s been a lot of fun in that regard. I know Dawn hates combat in any roleplaying game, so she suffers along through games just to spend time with friends. So it’s really not for people who hate combat combat in any form. I also get the impression that people into hard core combat simulation don’t like it either.

  10. @Chris

    4e is as the origional poster indicated, in a way rules lite. Your guide is the character sheet. Your insturctions as a player are quite simple. Roll d20 beat target number.

    The point is that DnD 4e is easy to play, thus meeting the “why” of rules lite anyway.


    “I am saying that some games prefer increased structure (by either increasing the written rules structures or creating new structures that increase the input of the other players into basic situational issues) to cut down on the problems created by bad GMs, while other games prefer to minimize those structures to increase the freedom of all GMs to be as bad or good as they can.”

    Right. At best low structure games are just as good as high structure games. They can be no better.

  11. “At best low structure games are just as good as high structure games. They can be no better.”

    That’s a matter of opinion, and one I don’t (due to experience) share.

  12. “That’s a matter of opinion, and one I don’t (due to experience) share.”

    Your personal experience is not a useful guide, sorry. no ones personal experience is.

    High structure egalitarian games are designed to meet goals. Low structure abrhamic games must meet these goals with the ad hoc skill of the GM.

    So obviously, it’s not opinion.

    You may like them more, no one can take that away. But don’t shit in other peoples pools. I realize that this is a case of identity politics, but get over it. People that you don’t know play differently then you do. They can play just as well or better. And have just as much fun, or even more.

  13. “Your personal experience is not a useful guide”

    Wait a minute. You’re wrong here. The situation is not one of “most games are better under one or the other”, but rather about the outliers, that games under one are capable of being better than games under the other, no matter how many people say that one type or the other is badwrongfun. I personally believe that high structure games tend toward the middle, while low structure games tend toward the extremes, but that is an opinion, and one that I have never made out to be anything else. Unlike some people, I wouldn’t presume to claim an objective truth about an aesthetic issue.

    However, what I’ve been saying is that each has its advantages, not that either is better. You are apparently attempting to raise one over the other as “objectively” better (as you claim, “So obviously, it’s not opinion”). That means that you should take your own advice not to “shit in other peoples pools”. I’m saying that either can be good (and I’m saying that despite my own preferences), you’re the one denigrating one in favor of the other. So, to quote someone, “People that you don’t know play differently then you do. They can play just as well or better. And have just as much fun, or even more.” In other words, don’t tell me that I’m having badwrongfun. I wouldn’t presume to tell you that the way you play is wrong, even though it isn’t the way I’d prefer to play.

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