The Shifting Tides of RPG System Insight

Lately I began to notice that my taste in RPG rules systems is shifting – that is, my taste in what I want or need in a system, and what I think works elegantly and what does not.  And it’s shifting in an unexpected direction. 

Like many gamers, I’ve house-ruled many a system and written a few of my own over the years.  And I have pretty much always been in the mindset that “more granularity is better.”  That is, the more detail and specificity, the better.  My own early game designs had something on the order of 12 primary attributes, with a half dozen of secondary attributes that were calculated using varying percentages (!) of the primary ones.  I wanted every armour type to be detailed, with different ratings against different types of attack… body hit diagrams… five ratings for each weapon… mmmm.  Yes.  Good stuff.

When I reviewed Spycraft 2.0… a surprisingly long time ago now (!!)… I gushed over its completeness and precision and detail and granularity.

So I’ve loved all that.

And maybe I still do, on some level.  But now – very recently, really, within the past few months – I’m coming to a new place, a new view on things:  detail only if it makes a meaningful and palatable difference in the experience of play.

And as a not-fan of so-called “rules light” systems, that’s… a surprise to me.  I think it may have been bubbling internally for a while, as we’ve been bringing a more effects-based mindset to our 4e game (and my experience with HERO, which is fully effects-based), and some game houserules, and just becoming more aware of the effect of rules on play.  For example, if a system has well defined silos (this race is the best at this, only this class can do this, etc) but has ways of breaking those silos (character customization!) then… are the silos real, or an illusion?  If the silo is for flavour, then is it really required mechanically, or something better handled by the GM (rather than mechanically punishing a player)?  If it’s for balance, then is it perhaps just a flaw in the system?  Similarly, if the game has hundreds of options, but some just prerequisites for the option you really want, or are almost necessary, then are all these options actually interesting options?   When we get into differentiation of damage, or equipment, how many things need to change to make them feel different/unique and flavourful?  I’m starting to think only one or two things… not a half page listing for each.

I don’t know exactly where my granularity meter will finally come to rest — I don’t know if I’m keen for an über-light system, really – but my middle ground has certainly swung.  And it’s gotten me thinking again of quasi-writing my own new RPG system.  I’ve got some ideas already flowing and written down (starting with what I think is a nifty bit on attributes), and I’ll start posting those every now and again to this blog.

As always, let’s get playing.

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