Rules? Huh! What are they good for?

I was reading one of my friends comments of Google+ and he was opining his confusion on how many games (trading card, rpg’s etc.) have complicated rules systems and remain popular.  I read it last night while watching Man of Steel (alternate title Pile of Poo but that is a whole different post) and made a note to reply to it this morning.  I did my response but I alwasy need to curtail myself when it is just a comment in G+ as I feel it is not the place for a massive long winded response.  I realised I had a lot more to say about it so I am offering up todays post as a bit of an explanation of my point of view on this subject.

This dodgy bugger made me

First of all I think it only right that I include the detail of +Cameron Corniuk‘s post here so you can see exactly what I am responding to.  By the way this is long too 🙂

The Internet can be an interesting and frightening place. This morning, while my body decides to show me who’s boss, I stumbled across something. That would be the MegaMan Kickstarter. Interesting. I never played the video games, although I always wanted to, and never heard anything but good about them from people who had played.

That led me to learn more about the licensee and producer of the board game, Jasco Games. This led to the discovery that what started as a gaming store morphed into a bigger gaming store and then even a game publisher. Interesting.

So, these guys have acquired the rights to the Universal Fighting System card game. I saw it on the shelves. I never picked any up. Then, I saw it start to flutter away. Not unusual in the TCG/CCG space. I had considered trying it, but I never saw any of the cards on display or singles for sale or any of the supporting fanfare I’m used to seeing from popular card games. I couldn’t find anyone who played. I did talk to someone at a store in AZ who had played it (he worked at the store, it was kind of his job) and didn’t offering the most flattering of reviews. In his opinion, it was a neat idea (I was thinking the same thing!), however, it was overly complex for what it was. “Imagine if the XBOX had a hundred different buttons,” he said to me.

So, I end up reading up on UFS a bit, see how the rules work. It’s even billed as a game for expert/adult players due to the level of complexity, because each card has its own special powers–read: each card provides an exception to an established rules set. +Mark Knights  and others know what I think about this.

So, here in NEOH, my dad owns a comic/sports card/gaming shop. Heroclix is all the rage right now. (No, I never saw that one coming either). However, you have all these players who have been playing and buying product for years. A number of them are looking to get out. There’s too many sets. Each new set has bigger badder characters, so the ability to play with anyone in anything other than a sealed pack game becomes a matter of who has more disposable income. But, more importantly, the rules keep changing. They keep adding exceptions, slight modifications here and there.

While this is going on, I have worked a bit with my younger children on creating a simplified version of the rules that would be fun for them to play. They would be able to understand the rules and make decisions in the game rather than someone telling them how to play every step along the way and they would ignore all that extra stuff. I’ve had some help from the experienced HeroClix players with this. Note: I don’t play HeroClix. The interesting thing is a number of these players want to come over and play the “kids game” because it’s easier. It flows faster. They feel that they could just sit back and have a good time with it.

I know Magic: The Gathering had problems years ago with too many new rules, making the game more complex. But, they’re still around today. I don’t know if they kind of tapered off that kick or if it’s still going on.

But, it is interesting when I see the publisher–who should know best what players want–hanging their hat on being more advanced or complex. Yet, as a retailer, I see customers asking for the exact opposite.


But a selection of the Pathfinder Core rules

OK, so as you can see this discussion covered a lot of different material starting at computer games, crossing collectible card games and Hero Clix.  What he is discussing hough has one common point of reference and that is they are games.  As my blog largely talks about Role Playing Games (RPG) I thought it important to relate it to these as well. I have played the collectible card games mentioned here but never Hero Clix so I cannot comment too much on this.  However, this is a trend that tends to flow through all games and is an important consideration when you are building a game system.  It is one of the things that I talk at length to in my course on game design at college (for Americans, Tasmanian College is your Senior High School.

So what is going on here.  Is there actual proof of this?  Yes there is, but it is not conclusive any more thanks to Evil Hats FATE Core addition to the gaming scene and I think that this makes for an important counterpoint to the argument.  I saw an industry discussion recently that puts Pathfinder as the number one selling game of RPG’s in the world currently.  I am not going to talk about the effects of marketing and the like as that is a different kettle of fish, but some of this success would have to be because of how professional and targeted they are in this regard.  But we must look at the game.  No amount of marketing is going to turn a poorly designed pile of rubbish into a number one hit (so many examples, not enough ink for the internet).

Pathfinder is a complex game.  It’s core rules span around 10 books.  You can play the game with one of those ten but I would say at a minimum you need at least four of those 10.  In those books there is a multitude of rules that cover social conflicts, disarming traps, use of magic, damage, healing, combat, archetypes, character customisation via feats and traits, poisons and on and on and on.  There are simply too many rules for any one individual to know them by rote so that there is never a time that there is some uncertainty to the game.  In my opinion, this is what people that play the games call a crunchy game.  That is, there are a lot of rules for the game.

They are damned pretty books though!

So what do these rules achieve?  Pathfinder seeks to create a game where many of the questions or actions (the common ones) that players will ask or do has a basis in the rules.  What are rules for?  Well, they are the things that offer the mechanic to handle that situation.  That also means that every judgement based on that situation is handled in the same way, regardless of the character attempting it.  That means consistency to a situation and with that consistency we are talking about a perceived fairness to the game.  Players love fairness and nothing screams imbalance like a game that does not clearly spell out the mechanic to be used.  If a rule does not exist and the Games Master must make a rule up on the spot, you can almost guarantee there will be arguments if the rule is not later reviewed and put in place as a house rule.

As players tend to make up a lot of the group there is another focus that Pathfinder takes.  Customisation of characters.  Players love to have characters that they build around a concept.  Why have a fighter when you can have a two weapon master who is resistant to magic?  Well, a load of the rules are made for the players to do just that.  The feats, traits, archetypes and optional rules in the optional core books (I love that “optional core books”) are all in place so a player can do just that.  Customise.  But more importantly, they can customise with consistency because the rule is in place and therefore when one person decides they are fast in combat someone else that takes the same concept improves their speed in a consistent amount.

A typical scene at my Pathfinder game!

The ability to have a consistent rules set is important in an RPG, especially when there are beginner players involved.  It is necessary to show them that whilst the game occurs within the bounds of their imagination that there are constraints that are required to manage that.  Otherwise a player could say that the “Dragon dies as I blast it with the power of my mind” even though they have no mind power.  “But I can because I imagined it!” is the response and it is a hard response to argue against if we are dealing with a game of imagination.  As an RPG is a game of shared imagination it needs these rules to show how things operate and to make sure they operate in the same way for everyone.

There have been crunchy games before that have fallen flat on their face though.  So what does it need to focus on to be a success.  My idea for this is that it would have to add the right level of crunch to the game.  That is you do not want to refer to three charts just to swing a sword in a game.  That is a simple idea or concept and so should be covered by simple and easy to remember rules.  But to cast a high powered spell it is not too harsh to consider that you might need to refer to the precise rules at the time of the casting and all of the players would see that as an important thing to do.  Those games that have fallen down and been criticised for their use of crunch generally have been because the crunch has been focussed on areas that are so rare as to never likely to occur or there has been too much crunch applied to rules that occur all the time.  A point in context of this are the Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 versions of an attack of opportunity.  When I ran that system we almost always had to look those rules up because there was far too much crunch involved.

The new paradigm in role playing games.

A year ago the above would have held true to me as a flat truth.  And in fact, everything that I write there is in my opinion the truth as it stands for Pathfinder.  But a newcomer has entered the field of play that does bring in the question of how crunchy a game needs to be to be successful.  That of course is FATE Core that exploded on the scene this year.  It also landed itself in a top five position for sales in the games industry but it is notoriously lighter in the rules department.

So what about FATE has the gaming community so excited?  Well I have to say that it is its adaptability and universal nature.  Universal games are not new but FATE essentially offers you everything you need in one book that is well written and professionally presented.  It gives you all the tools that you need to create any setting you want!  In most universal games the core book gives you the bare bones of the system and you buy additional books to flesh it out.

New paradigm, new dice!  I do love these.

I think that this games popularity though stems from a different effect and is actually well placed to take on a new style of gamer.  Many gamers in this type of game are in the older age brackets.  They have families, work commitments, mortgages and basically a whole heap of responsibility.  A lot of these gamers do not have the time to learn a crunchy rule set that pretty much guarantees that you will be playing in the one setting for an extended period.  Then if they want to try a different setting they need to learn a new set of rules etc.  I find that these older gamers are keen to play a lot of different settings in shorter games and they want a simple rule set to learn.  With FATE that has been used in a lot of setting specific games to much less success they added the ability to easily slot in your setting.  Now that is in place this style of gamer has only one rule set to learn and as many settings as they can imagine to play in!

FATE is not without its own problems though.  I have played in quite a few games of FATE and in every game I have played there is a good deal of time that is spent “down” talking about the rules.  “Should that be a trait? Can anyone invoke it?  Are their free compels?”  FATE uses a new paradigm in games asking the player to shape the game as much as the GM does and it always seems to add a little bit of confusion to the mix and players seem to either really get it or always feel a little bit lost in the mechanics.  Perhaps familiarity will win out but we will have to see how that actually plays out over the next six months or so.

So, I think I have typed enough and I am now keen to hear your opinions on the matter.  Do you agree with me?  Is it that the crunchier games can offer a more consistent game even though they are generally tied to one system and have a lot of rules?  What style of game is the best for a newbie to play in?  There are a lot of comments and opinions I hope to spark from this blog so go crazy and keep rolling!

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