Creating a RPG – Mechanics – Rules Light or Heavy

by | Apr 18, 2016 | Notes From the Dungeon Master

Hi i’m Tondi

I can’t remember the edition but the first table top RPG I ever played was ShadowRun.  I have a lot of trouble remembering peoples names.  My favourite edition of Dungeons and Dragons is 4th Edition.  The longest character backstory i’ve ever written was about 2 A4 pages.  I think a rules light game has a loose structure and relies on collaboration between game runner and players and a rules heavy game has enough structure to provide different rules for most situations.

What the Dice Heroes have to Say

I asked my gaming group (the Dice Heroes) to give some comments about rules heavy and rules light games and got some interesting responses.  Basically it turns out most of the group likes rules heavy games including myself so that’s probably going to influence some things.  The crux of it comes down to two things, structure and longevity.  Our group finds that the lack of structure in rules light games puts players and game runners into positions where they aren’t sure what to do.  Although you might think, “just come up with an agreement and move on”, if a game constantly puts you in this position it can be really difficult for things to flow and can require a different type of cognition that I think is quite sapping.  Also we’ve never played a rules light game for an extended period of time, the character development doesn’t feel as worthwhile or important.  Character growth and improvement is something that our group does find important, it’s something to strive and plan for and is very rewarding for the player.

Of interest a lot of the talk kept going to story.  I found this very interesting as the question being asked was focused on mechanics.  I’ve always thought that mechanics and story are intrinsically linked but having our more power gamer focused players saying similar things was enlightening and made me realise how important the decision for rules heavy and rules light will be.

Rules Light

I love the idea of rules light games but have never been able to get them to sing.  I class anything that is small in length and heavy in specifically asking the players and game runner to collaborate on story telling to move the game forward as rules light.  What I mean by that last part is instead of providing a specific ruleset for an occasion or action the rules have some type of generic system to use story telling or character info as ways of justification for action.

I think that the focus on story and characters as more than a sack of numbers is fantastic.  However I find that when you have character mechanics that can gives bonuses or effect gameplay that thing that started as a defining part of your character becomes a crutch or meaningless as players start forcing it into every situation.  What i’d like to do is have something that helps define player characters, let it have meaning but not let it be something that can be abused.

Decision: Characters shouldn't just be a sack of numbers

I also think that rules light games try to focus on the action.  By removing a lot of the minutia rules the story and players can focus on big important actions.  One of these common rules that every game needs to deal with is movement.  One thing i’ve always hated is when a game uses real measurements for movement.  Often when running a game you have to create terrain on the fly and having to base that terrain around actual real world measurements can be restricting and annoying.  I like grid based movement more but understand the criticism around that being restrictive as well.

Decision: Movement should not be unit (meters,feet,squares,hex) based

Rules Heavy

Rules heavy games are easy to spot.  They are tomes, and quite often have multiple accompaniments with even more rules and options for specific features.  As a player you will have specific rules for a lot of the actions you want to perform and be presented with options, determined by the game, for courses of action to take.  You’ll find very specific rules and processes that in some cases you’ll never actually use due to the setting or character you decide to play.  As indicated previously this intricate framework of rules creates structure for players to play in.  I’d like to create a framework that provides that structure but isn’t restrictive to story telling.

Decision: Create a framework of rules so players know which process to follow when acting but not restrict story telling

Sometime these rulesets can be quite interesting to read but often though they can be dense and frustrating.  The amount of times we’ve played a game and found multiple rules that apply to the same thing that contradict or confuse is high.  These often cause “rules breaks” in gameplay which can be jarring to story telling.

Decision: Rules should be stated clearly and only once

This was a very brief post about rules in role playing games but it’s enough to start getting things out there for further pondering.  If you have an opinion on anything in the post leave a comment.  Apologies for the lateness, illness has kept me down.