Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Is Rules Bloat Integral to the Rpg Hobby?

One point that Lewis Pulsipher brought up recently deserves a little more comment:

We may be forgetting a most practical matter here, that is, “money talks”. RPGs are in a sense prisoners of capitalism. Simple RPGs, ones that are intended to stay simple, don’t make much money. People buy the simple rules, and there aren’t additional rule supplements. Complex RPGs keep providing income by increasing complexity. So we’re more or less “doomed” to commercial complexity in RPGs. Old/New School doesn’t come into it.

Lew is of course speaking from the perspective of the Industry Insider. Though I guess I have to clarify what I mean by that now as that is a term that no longer means what it used to mean. Lew is… well… I guess you could say that he is an old school Industry Insider. By that I mean that he’s created a top 100 classic board game, written countless articles for gaming magazines, has material that is incorporated into the “official” first edition AD&D rules, and so on. Nowadays the term “Industry Insider” can refer to indie tabletop publishers, indie LARP designers, event organizers, activists, critics, academics, and community managers. But that’s not what I mean at all when I talk about Lew’s frame of reference.

(I can almost hear Gandalf now…. “What a lot of things you do use old school for!” Indeed we do. It’s quite handy. If I say to my friends, “Lew Pulsipher is old school, y’all” that’s a pretty high accolade. It conveys a certain amount of verve and accomplishment. It implies that you’re talking about someone that made the grade back when standards were higher.)

Now… I come at this at a necessarily different perspective. In fact… you could quite reasonably say that I am an Industry Outsider. Like I’ve said before, my hobby is not about making sure that anyone stays in business. It is the difference between these two ways of looking at things that is the root cause of why Dr. Pulsipher and I end up butting heads when we dig into these sorts of topics. (That time we argued over what the definition of an rpg was is a good example of that.)

Now I don’t like disagreeing with Lew and I try not to do it unless I’m sure I think I know what I’m talking about. But in this case, I think “Old/New School” really does come into this. And rpgs is far from the only scene where this sort of thing plays out like this.

So here’s one more example for you:

UNIX is old school.

Microsoft is new school.

It’s very nearly the same sort of issues involved in that particular culture split as what we’re talking about here.

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25 responses to “Is Rules Bloat Integral to the Rpg Hobby?

  1. jlv61560 June 23, 2016 at 11:30 pm

    That last analogy is actually pretty apt in terms of the actual discussion you’re trying to have. Of course, that may not be the discussion that LEW is trying to have…

  2. Hooc Ott June 24, 2016 at 1:02 am

    I love this.

    “UNIX is old school.

    Microsoft is new school.”

    This would be one of those “pretty lights and explosions” that I mentioned in a previous comment…and yes I still do not know what they mean.

    That said and extending your metaphor: Android is Linux and it is clobbering Microsoft.

    So in the UNIX, Windows, Linux time line that would put us at about 2001 and 5e is XP Google is still in beta and everyone is pissed at Gnome for when it broke everyone’s stuff the first time…..it will only be like 6 more years before we get our iPhone and get the best version of Windows/AD&D ever made 7e….

    • Cirsova June 24, 2016 at 9:19 am

      5e wishes it was XP. 5e is more like ME.

      • Cirsova June 25, 2016 at 12:18 am

        I don’t see WotC being forced to support 5e for nearly a decade after its original sunset date on account of how beloved it is and how it continued to meet and surpass the vast majority of its owners’ needs long after newer more ‘advanced’ products have been made available.

        On the bright side, if 5e is ME, we have something nice to look forward to.

  3. jddyalblog June 24, 2016 at 7:53 am

    Although they intersect a lot, I think there’s a completely different discussion to be had about “the hobby” and “the industry.” In terms of the industry, more product is a necessity. In terms of the hobby, the original product is all you need. But, of course, also in terms of the hobby, what you need and what you may like or be interested in, could be two completely different things.

    Another dimension which I think is also overlooked is that many hobbyists, especially older hobbyists who used to play a lot in middle school or high school in the early 80s or whatever, probably spend more time buying and reading products than they do playing and using them. I think that’s another dimension of hobby participation that the Founding Fathers would never have really anticipated, but it can drive demand towards a totally different kind of product than one that is designed specifically for lean and mean practical use.

    I think maybe my taste/preference is applicable here, although I try to avoid solipsistically inserting myself too much into these kinds of discussions that aren’t about me, but rather about perception of trends: I like buying settings. I couldn’t possibly use a setting as written, but I find them entertaining to read, and I get inspired by bits and pieces of them to think about, “hey, how could I use THAT specific bit in a game?” And then I hack them apart and kitbash my own material out of stuff that I’ve read in other people’s settings. Ergo; having this kind of product is useful, even if I don’t use it in the way that maybe people think that I use it, or perhaps how it was intended to be used. And I suspect, although I have absolutely no data whatsoever to back this up, that more people do that kind of thing than not.

    Then again, maybe not. I’m fond of the expression that I’m not old school, but I am old fashioned. The point being that some of these theoretical lines in the sand that we draw are just that: theoretical (platonic, even), and when we look at how people play in actual practice, maybe we find that the lines in the sand don’t mean as much as we think that they do.

    • jddyalblog June 24, 2016 at 8:06 am

      And maybe more to the point, even if I DON’T ever actually use the product, I still buy stuff just to read, because that is now an important dimension of participation in the hobby for me. I know very few gamers of any seriousness who don’t do exactly the same thing.

      And products that I like to buy and read are not necessarily the same as products that I intend to use. Heck; for the most part, products that I intend to actually use are usually available as free pdfs these days. But that’s kinda the point, right? If the Industry only made products that I could use, the Industry would cease to exist overnight.

      • Sky June 24, 2016 at 8:53 am

        I am right there with you. I love settings and modules but I never run them outright in any game. But they are great fun to browse and pick up bits and pieces, grist for the mill.

  4. Brooser Bear June 24, 2016 at 8:35 am

    I don’t understand the fuss about rule complexity. I run an extremely complex game for tactical realism and character development and integration into my setting, but my players are innocent of it. Half of them never read a D&D book. I explain their choices, etc. when they create their characters, then run them through adventures. I present complex material with situations from the real world and tell them to react to the situation they are in, as opposed to anything else. Powergamers and Roll-Players are my pet peeve. I created a unique setting to throw off balance, those who read every published D&D Module. I undid the power-players and munchkins by making the infamously linear AD&D combat system non-linear, by making it realistically lethal. The rules model is pretty good, I use weapons vs armor modifiers and are story telling oriented. A 1d6 arrow can do, at most 18 damage on a critical hit, but if a player rolls two natural 20’s, the opponent is out of the fight, mind, I didn’t say dead, but out of the fight, Blinded, knocked out, a vampire, whom the player couldn’t hit with a non-magical weapon, decided that it had a more pressing business, turned into gaseous form, and flew away. Of course, a mere mortal high level character can get an arrow through the skull. Kinda dead, 18 points of damage or not… I am using some pretty advanced mathematics to model spell complexity and the arrow hazard for the players crossing a field pelted by arrows from grouped massed archers.

    Again, players see none of it, I explain game mechanics to players when they ask, or when their trust of my impartiality as a DM is in question. Then I tell them what and how I am rolling and get their consensus. None of them want to know the details. Everyone enjoys the setting and the immersion. I had a player question my story, and he would have been great for the game, but he had to move, and I had a player quit over the realistic portrayal of combat, and he reacted negatively to a historically accurate portrayal of an NPC shield maiden. I guess he had issues with feminism. Another player got in a huff, was actually upset and didn’t join the game when I told him about the inherent racist/colonialist thinking in Tolkien’s portrayal of Orcs and in D&D’s portrayal of humanoids, namely the Goblinoid race.

    This told me long time ago, that there is something much deeper going on with D&D and role playing, and that mainstream commercial WOTC and D&D is written by hack writers, who are NOT up to the task. In other words, the quality of historical and social scholarship today, the quality of the cutting edge literature written today, is way over their heads. The quality of fantasy in D&D and most derived games will never match the sophistication of Neil Gayman’s writing ot of Terry Pratchett’s satire, which runs deeper than D&D canon.

    I was enamored with indie games, when they first came out, Dust Devils, etc. These games introduced new game mechanics and new ways of gaming. WOTC and D&D brand acted like the Standard Oil of the role playing games, and stifled these developments, by presenting D&D as the only game, literally, to the outsiders, and by sticking to the 1970’s conceptualizations of game play. That and WOTC’s concept of planned obsolescence with all its editions. At this point I am not sure if it’s the deliberate marketing strategy or an institutional feature of the organization developing its ideas and producing its literature.

  5. ashley858 June 24, 2016 at 9:18 am

    Bloat is a product of the needs of the industry rather than the needs of the hobby.

  6. ashley858 June 24, 2016 at 9:19 am

    Though arguably, the hobby needs nothing, because it’s a thing. People, hobbyists, need things and the industry supplies the need.

  7. Chris Mata June 24, 2016 at 10:46 am

    Rules bloat can also simply be a product of want. More than a few gamers are of the tactical war game slant and like rules to cover every situation. I hear all the time, why not just have a rule for that? then you don’t have to wonder how to resolve the outcome. It’s not even anti-ruling as much as it is piece of mind sitting down at the table. Some folks are just wired different.

  8. Cambias June 24, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    Rules bloat also stems from *that* guy in your gaming group. The one who is determined to “win” and wants as much player power as possible. He’s going to gravitate toward games which give players power via lots and lots of rules — which can then be used “against” the gamemaster.

    I think that the ad-hoc nature of early roleplaying games gave birth to, and nurtured this tendency. When D&D books were, essentially, compendiums of “case law” and codified spur-of-the-moment rulings by DMs in Wisconsin, it encouraged players to master the obscure and arcane material which their own DMs might be unfamiliar with, as a way of staking out player agency and power.

    Clear, mechanically logical rules work against that tendency. When everyone can understand the underlying logic of the rules (e.g. “you roll d20 and add your skill and attribute modifiers to do stuff”) it makes it harder for *that* guy to dig into a rulebook and find an exception.

    Notably, the greater mechanical consistency of modern RPGs (and by modern I mean roughly post-Greg Costikyan’s Star Wars rules) has steered *that* guy to memorizing trivia and arcana from obscure *setting* sourcebooks rather than the game rules. But that’s a weaker tactical position for *that* guy because just about any RPG gives gamemasters carte blanche to alter details.

    • jlv61560 June 24, 2016 at 4:24 pm

      But as GMs we always had the power to add details, even change rules, with total freedom. It’s right there in every single edition of D&D from the beginning, and in most other RPGs as well.

      “Don’t like a rule? Change it!”

      More importantly, if I think I have a better way that works for my group, I don’t actually need their permission to do whatever I want with the game even without that statement being in the rules. At the end of the day, we all have free-will, and slavishly following the “one twue way” by riding the rules down in flames seems … counterproductive … to this old-school player.

      I also don’t actually “need” anyone to publish the 84th version of anything in order to clarify that left-handed people must strike the right side of the opponent’s body or anything equally silly… Nor do I need their support in order to tell *that* guy to grow up and stop being a dick, or, failing that, to not bother coming over next week.

      Just sayin’.

  9. lewpuls June 25, 2016 at 11:06 am

    I wonder if “Old School” types rarely buy new RPG material, while “New School” types usually do?

    I used to buy RPG material (settings, modules) just to read it, but that’s a long time ago. Now there’s so much free stuff, and stuff I bought but haven’t read, that I don’t buy anything new. Except the core rules for each new edition of D&D.

    The GMT (wargame publisher) acquisitions guy doesn’t like RPGs because the rules are “loosey goosey”. He wants to be able to know what he can do. A proliferation of rules can be for that sort of person.

    Brooser: remember, if WotC or any other publisher wants their game to spread as widely as possible, they need to make refereeing easier so that there are more referees. Hence simpler (but comprehensive) rules rule. (Yet comprehensive tends to oppose simple.) (Except, that goes contrary to the influence of capitalism . . . (wanting to sell more add-on rules). Dilemmas, dilemmas.

    The quality of (fiction) writing in games can never match the quality in novels, because games keep messing with the stories. Novels offer authors much greater control.

    • jlv61560 June 26, 2016 at 11:27 am

      Personally, I’d say that’s a matter of individual taste. I started playing back in 1975 and I still buy new things from time to time (though quite often, I also buy “old” things when I can get them for a reasonable price…). To a large degree, for me anyway, it depends on what the subject is and how likely the author is to produce something I’m interested in.

      I’ve been playing wargames since 1967, and it’s a real pity that the GMT folks feel that way about it. Not because they are inherently incorrect, but simply because they are making the mistake of looking at the hobby through the wrong lens. It’s not about how the rules are written for a particular genre of games, but what the purpose of the game is and do the rules support or interfere with that purpose. “RPG-style” rules being used to set up a wargame about the Eastern Front in World War II would drive me to drink in short order. Similarly, wargame style rules written for RPGs don’t work as well IMHO as the looser format usually adopted for those games. It’s one reason why DragonQuest never did as well as it could have, in my opinion — the rules format was too structured and created a wall to comprehension for the casual gamer looking for an RPG system back then.

      As for the last part, I think there are always trade-offs in ANYTHING people do that’s more complex than tiddly-winks. And naturally the author has more control over his world than the GM does — after all, he or she doesn’t have to put up with those pesky players introducing their OWN ideas into his (or her) world… ;-)

      Oddly, The Fantasy Trip did a surprisingly good job of bridging the gap between wargame “style” rules and RPGs — probably because Steve Jackson had enough sense to use the wargame style where it needed to be used, and went with a less restrictive rule structure for the purely RPG aspects. That, plus his writing style didn’t read like a pre-nuptial contract; something the old SPI never really mastered…

      So, while I understand the personal position of the GMT guy, it’s something that actually unnecessarily limits them in terms of potential products when a major figure in the company (the “acquisitions guy”) allows a personal prejudice to limit the types of games the company will at least explore. Of course, GMT IS primarily a wargame company, and despite the miserable execution of their computer version of Twilight Struggle Kickstarter, still do some of the best purely wargame work in the market today.

      • jlv61560 June 26, 2016 at 11:30 am

        That’s weird — the system apparently shifted my “Fantasy Trip” paragraph a paragraph down in the text…

      • lewpuls June 26, 2016 at 11:51 am

        EVERY publisher has preferences in what games they want to publish. They have to. In this case, it’s a hobby not a livelihood for Andy Lewis, why would he go against his own interests? And it extends to board games: he doesn’t like Britannia, he says because he doesn’t want to play a long game where he screws up early on and knows he has no chance to win. Anyone who’s played Britannia much knows that isn’t true, you have opportunities to recover from early game problems. I think the real reason is that he dislikes planner’s games, preferring improvisor games. Which is a reason why I haven’t had a game published by GMT, I like planner’s games.

      • jlv61560 June 26, 2016 at 12:00 pm

        You might note that in my comment, I said pretty much the exact same thing about companies in general and GMT specifically. As for “going against his own interests,” when you work for a company (the “GMT acquisitions guy,” remember?) part of your JOB is to avoid letting your own personal prejudices interfere with the company’s ability to make a profit.

        Personally, I love me a good planner’s game — if you aren’t planning ahead, then you aren’t doing it right in the real world which most board games at least pay lip service to “simulating.” Besides, it’s fun to lay the ground work and watch your beautiful plan come to fruition turns later (or to scramble and try to repair the damage from a plan gone astray). But tell me this; if he dislikes “planner’s games” why in the world does he refuse to embrace RPGs? Pretty much by definition they are improvisational (with some minor planning elements in the form of resource management — but nothing on the scale of say, Europa, or even Proud Monster/Death and Destruction). Seems to me he is riding a pretty narrow rail — improvisational games with lawyer- like rules…

      • lewpuls June 26, 2016 at 12:13 pm

        He is into what I call “virtual avatars” rather than “real” ones. That is, he role-plays by thinking he’s in charge of a battle or war, even if there’s no piece for “him”, nor is “he” at risk (as opposed to RPGs where your avatar is the origin of all your actions, and if the avatar dies, you’re dead). “You’re in command” is how Avalon Hill used to put it. So another dislike of Britannia is that there is no virtual avatar, the game covers a thousand years and each player has at least four nations, so there cannot be even the virtual “me”. It makes a difference.

        I have a lot of experience talking with publishers. Many say they’ll publish “any good game”, but that’s almost never true. None of them truly know what games will sell, so they have to rely on their own preferences. And as I said, it’s a hobby, not a JOB, for many. Perhaps you overestimate the hobby nature of the larger part of game publishing. Even Chris Peterson (Fantasy Flight) published the second edition of Britannia, not because it fit his line (it did NOT), but because he liked the game. And made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

      • jlv61560 June 26, 2016 at 12:38 pm

        I think our only disagreement here is the place where work ethics intersect with personality in an employee.

        The way I see it, if I agree to accept an employment check from you, part of my ethical responsibility is to do the best possible job for you, regardless of what my personal preferences are. At least up until the point where you cross an ethical line I cannot accept — and at that point my job is to tell you you have done so and that I can no longer work for you unless you back away from that line. But if you refuse to do so, then I should quit and move on.

        So to my mind, his job is to look at what’s offered and then determine if it matches the standards set by his employer — not his personal preferences. It’s entirely possible that an RPG won’t match those standards by definition (GMT, for example, IS a wargame company, after all), and that’s just fine…but if the boss isn’t seeing a great game that WOULD otherwise pass those standards, simply because the “acquisitions guy” doesn’t “like” it, then he’s failing his boss and the company. The only person who has a right to override those standards and accept something different is the company boss (you know, the guy that published the second edition of Britannia, not the flunky in the office with him).

        Other than that, I think we’re in violent agreement…

      • lewpuls June 26, 2016 at 12:47 pm

        But he IS the standard, jlv. That, and the game has to successfully go through P500 pre-orders (because when they deviated from that it bit them very badly), which is something he has to judge before he can accept a game. It is a four(?) person partnership, he’s in charge of acquisition and has been for many years.

        It might help to think of many board game publishers as more like clubs, than corporations.

      • jlv61560 June 26, 2016 at 1:34 pm

        And, if that’s the case, then so be it — though I would argue the P500 system has more to do with what games actually see the light of day…

        But I still say allowing your personal pet peeve to interfere in what gets selected is perhaps not the best way to go…

  10. Gordon July 1, 2016 at 1:18 am

    Clarification: It is necessary to distinguish between Microsoft/DOS and Microsoft/Windows in this Unix/Microsoft example. In the old days, it was important that an Apple II, a TRS80, and a PCjr were all “Personal Computers”, united in their hobby-spirit against both “Workstations” and “Mainframes”.

    (Oh man, they ARE the same issues – some might draw the line at Windows 3.11. Others will scream “What about DR DOS? Where are you saying that fits?” And that’s just scratching the surface …)

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