Bradford C. Walker on Excessive Mechanics in RPGs

Tuesday , 11, April 2017 32 Comments

Over at Walker’s Retreat, Bradford Walker calls out a trend away from role-playing towards a more rules-oriented style of play he characterizes as “piloting the mech”:

As this phenomenon accelerated, more and more people abandoned TRPGs for videogame counterparts because videogames did all of the mechanical operations better, faster, and with better visualization…. Meanwhile, the real strength and flexibility of the tabletop RPG medium gets lost because more and more gamers find mech-operation to be the norm and so acclimate to it- a thing old-timers like Mike “Old Geezer” Monard has complained about now and again. Playing with a human referee, making spot-rulings as necessary, and relying on natural language over game jargon and mechanics is increasingly an alien thing….

“I make a Charge move and attack the Over-Specific Monster Mob #1 with a full Power Attack.” is mechanical operation. “Homsar charges the Black Knight with his sword in hand.” is natural language interaction. “I’ve got a +30 to my Persuade Check, and I rolled a 15. That’s a 45. Even at his best resist, I still got a Worship result.” is mechanical operation. “I introduce myself as ‘Homsar Delgana, Hero of the Screeching Spire Saga. How might this humble hero help Your Grace in this matter?'” is the use of natural language interaction. Starting to catch the difference? One relies on rules mastery; the other does not.

For a medium of entertainment meant to be one where you can just show up, be given a 3×5 card and a summary like “You’ve read the Mars books? He’s like John Carter.”, and be playing as effectively as the long-timers this is not just an erection of a clear barrier to entry socially, but also ludologically- you can’t enjoy play until you master the damned mechanics, and (as I said previously) most people will not work for their entertainment.

Mechanical complexity in tabletop RPGs is the Literary Realism of Gaming. It must stop for the same reason: it KILLS the fun that the common man seeks.

Read the whole thing!

Now this is a familiar argument to fans of Basic D&D, Tunnels & Trolls, and even ACKS. Lewis Pulsipher famously made many of the same points in his piece RPGs are prisoners of capitalism.

But designer of Adventurer Conqueror King System Alexander Macris begs to differ:

I think he’s missing an important point. Tabletop RPGs have more-or-less divided into two types of games at this point:

1) Cumulative-character campaign games, which are played over months and years in the same world with the same characters; and

2) Story games, which are played as one-offs or in short campaigns then left behind.
The “value” gained from each of these is very different. In the first, the value arises from the agency in a world over time. In the second, from sense of participation in a story.

If you are participating in the first type of game, then mechanical complexity is not a frustration, it’s a necessity. Objective rules are necessary to maintain the agency of the players. Where these rules are made On-the-Spot, the ongoing nature of play means they need to be codified or they risk becoming subjective and unfair (like common law – once the on the spot ruling is made, it becomes precedent and if not the result is chaos). In addition, richer character builds provide more opportunity for customization, which reinforces the sense of agency in the world.

This is why all rules-light games of this type eventually become rules-heavy games (OD&D -> AD&D -> 3.5). Yes, sometimes cruft builds up and needs to be cleared away. But you show me a long-running rules-light game and I’ll show you a game that’s become rules-heavy.

Now that is a good point. In fact, you can see people that tried to go back to OD&D on principle have (in a couple of infamous examples anyway) recapitulated whole swaths of rpg design history fairly quickly. And I have to admit, I don’t think I have ever felt like the rpg equivalent of a supreme court justice while running Alexander Macris’s ACKS. The clarity of the rules and the overall design eliminate a major headache that tends to go along with the wild and wooly classic games.

But there are a few points of my own I’d like to add to this.

  1. There is a middle ground on game length with, I think, the vast majority of campaigns running from about three to eight sessions on average.
  2. High mortality rates for the player characters combined with dungeon restocking and frequent use of wandering monsters allow Dungeon Masters to really stretch out the length of time that the simpler rule sets and modules last.
  3. It is far easier to develop your own adventures and monsters and so forth with the simpler game engines like Tunnels & Trolls and Basic D&D, which makes it easier to improvise the precise sort of adventure or campaign scenario the players want when things go completely off the rails.

Now, a lot of people are constitutionally unable to embrace high death rates for player characters. If you reject that (and people did that in large numbers in the early eighties), I think you are creating an entirely new genre of role-playing that classic style D&D is simply not compatible with. I believe that part of the pressure driving things on the trajectory of OD&D->AD&D->3.5 has more to do with that transition in play styles than it does any sort of inherent instability of rules-light games. Certainly it takes more rules and more modules and more everything to keep a game going when everyone is not only surviving, but also leveling up and gaining new powers every week. (Talk about a treadmill!)

One thing is clear, however. Increasing starting spells for magic-users, giving clerics spells at first level, increasing the hit-dice of the thief, and changing attribute rolls to 4d6-drop-lowest-and-arrange-to-suit was a terrible idea. That is exactly the sort of mentality that drove third edition into the ground and it was tacky even in the seventies when people didn’t know it yet. Why is it so obviously wrong? It increases the amount of rules mastery required to get a game or a new player going by a couple orders of magnitude. It is also an example of the cheap trick of releasing splat books with more powerful classes that alpha nerds will insist on getting as a substitute for learning how to play well, both individually and as part of their group.

That sort of thing is clunky and transparent, even in the case of something like classic Traveller advanced character generation. Yeah, capitalism practically requires that that sort of thing plays out the way that it does– with the major game franchises, anyway. But anywhere that game design and gameplay is paramount, it really is irrelevant.

For the complete discussion on this, please see my Google+ thread.

  • deuce says:

    When Magic: The Gathering and video games started obviously cutting into the RPG-player population, I told a buddy, “Well, there go all the power gamers and those who hated role-playing.”

  • Brian T Renninger says:

    There’s a few of other advantages of high mortality rate.

    If a character does reach high level ut truly is a wonder to behold — the sheer statistical improbability of it.

    But, on a practical level, for onging campaigns a party with a mix of levels makes it easier of the low level characters to level up. So, high low level mortality is mitigated in the long run. Plus, it lessens GM workload as he only has to plan for a small number of higher power characters at the time.

    In some ways the balanced pregen characters in modules don’t represent how the game plays organically. In oneone extended game (about three years) I played in we had 6-8 players each with two characters. At any one time, we tended to have characters from 1 — 8 level all on the board at the same time.

  • Aaron B. says:

    I haven’t kept up on how TRPGs have changed since about 1988, so I didn’t realize they’d become more like computer games, where you level up so often. In BECMI, I think there’s a suggestion somewhere that it should take about three playing sessions to gain a level. That’s very different from most computer games, where you may gain several levels in a session, even gaining them (and the HP boost) in the middle of battle. No doubt that makes for a very different game.

    I’m not sure why you say minor tweaks of OD&D like giving the thief a couple more HP raises the need for rules mastery so much, though. Is it because stronger characters will try to do more and need to know more to do it, when what they need to be doing at level 1 is learning to sneak, look first, and run away a lot?

    • Jeffro says:

      The thief is a flash point for the D&D culture war. Just giving him that extra hit point or two is the difference between turning him from a sneak into a swashbuckler.

      The move to d6 hit dice is a tell– the GM is giving in to whiners that are incapable of thinking outside of the box. And the reasoning is always bogus when they justify the change. The reality is that sneaky d4 hit die thieves have a way longer life expectancy than d6 “rogues”. Requirements of actual play is not driving this… but something else entirely.

      • Aaron B. says:

        Yeah, I can see how d6 would really skew things, especially over time. One idea I’ve seen is to give each character the max HP for level 1 (so 4 for a thief), and after that roll normally, basically so they’re not quite as fragile right at first. But really, whether you start with 1 or 4, you’re always one decent hit by pretty much anything away from death, so the real solution is to get the players to understand that and act accordingly.

        I’m going to have to read and think some more about how high PC death rates can be a good thing. I always thought of it as something that would discourage the players (maybe because I had a player burst into tears over it one time), but I could have been wrong.

      • Gaiseric says:

        There’s another axis there to that too, though. The “thief” archetype doesn’t do much for me, but the swashbuckler is one of the most iconic archetypes in all of adventure fiction, regardless of genre. Sometimes the thief is getting pushed into being a swashbuckler because guys just prefer swashbucklers to thieves, and the thief CLASS is the closest thing to the swashbuckler ARCHETYPE and therefore the most obvious place to start.

        • cirsova says:

          A swashbuckler would just be a high-dex fighting man who wore light armor.

          Sneaking, disarming traps, and stealing stuff stealthily don’t really seem to be in the swashbuckler’s wheelhouse. The thief isn’t a good starting place for a swashbuckler build without having to significantly rewrite and retool the class from the ground up (which is pretty much what they did, so…)

          • Gaiseric says:

            The problem with that approach is that a lightly armored fighter in most versions of D&D is equivalent to a low intelligence magic-user. AC is a primary stat for fighters.

            Plus, it comes to prime attribute. Do you see the swashbuckler’s prime attribute as DEX or STR? If it’s the latter, then yes, you’re approach makes the most sense. If it’s the former, then it doesn’t.

          • cirsova says:

            But Thieves can’t use shields, so they have no bucklers to swash with!

          • Gaiseric says:


            Well, you got me there.

      • RickStump says:

        “The move to d6 hit dice is a tell– the GM is giving in to whiners that are incapable of thinking outside of the box.”
        Jeffro, you really make me laugh.
        What if I see the thief as more akin to the Grey Mouser than Cugel? Different ideas does not demand moral cowardice.

  • Scott Cole says:

    Great post and observation. This relates to online games versus a board games in a few ways though what is missed is not natural language but natural interaction

  • Gaiseric says:

    Macris makes a serious category error in his claim. The length of a campaign in play has nothing whatsoever to do with the length of a game in print. And he’s attributing a condition that arises from the latter to the former. And then, making this category error, he spends the rest of the comment trying to rationalize the conclusion that he reached.

    You DON’T need all of that structure to have a long-running campaign—unless it’s your taste to prefer a game that has more rather than less structure.

    • Jeffro says:

      Having the domain rules nailed down a la ACKS does feed back into a whole range of intangibles back at the meatgrinder stage of play.

      It answers a LOT of questions. Removes things I would have to rule on off the cuff from the equation so that I can focus more on being an adjudicator.

      • Gaiseric says:

        I don’t know what you mean for sure by “the meatgrinder stage” or why domain rules is a necessity rather than merely one option for long-term campaigns. Another equally valid approach to have long campaigns is slow down the leveling. To give one off the cuff example.

        The BECMI progression in many ways made this very explicit; as you go through the levels you quite literally CHANGE THE GAME THAT YOU ARE PLAYING. But a game designed without such fat, discrete levels that fundamentally changed the nature of the game could go on indefinitely without needing rules to adjudicate all of the problems that arise because your character is too high a level to play the same game that you were playing before.

        In short, changing the game through tiers, or whatever you want to call them, is a patch over en element of game design that doesn’t work very well. It’s nothing special, and its nothing inevitable, and it’s a category error. I’ve long and often taken the opposite approach and simply avoided the problem by avoiding it; if you stretch out the portion of the game that isn’t broken, you don’t need to reach a point where you switch playing B and E and start playing C, M and I.

        • Gaiseric says:

          Another equally valid approach is to not have levels at all and have a different mechanism for player change and evolution, a la GURPS or Call of Cthulhu. To use another off the cuff example.

          • Jeffro says:

            Call of Cthulhu is (at least as I understand it) not really focused on sprawling multi-year monster campaigns in quite the same way as classic D&D. Yes there are exceptions, but most PC’s go crazy or die in short order. Total Party Kill is even more an accepted part of the oeuvre.

            GURPS tends to be a different genre of gaming altogether. Yes people use it differently, but its impetus was to provide a more mature alternative to the senseless hack and slash of D&D. In practice, this tends to be what I call “situation” oriented play… which requires a lot of work on the part of the referee to maintain the campaign state.

            Much of the ethos of D&D culture that is mocked or thrown out has to do with relieving the burden on gms in this particular area.

          • Gaiseric says:

            In my experience, CoC comes in three “modes”: 1) one-shots or convention games, which are basically parodies, in which at least half of the party is expected to either die or go insane, and it’s largely done for laughs, 2) Arkham Country Tour Guide where the game is more an esoteric in-joke or name-checking exercise—these types of games tend to be boring and don’t fare well after a few sessions, and 3) long-running campaigns where character turnover isn’t any more extreme than it is in a D&D campaign, and the focus is on investigation and mounting suspense rather than constant jump scenes and devastating combat.

            But if it makes the example any clearer, then substitute Cthulhu for RuneQuest, which uses essentially the same system for a setting more like D&D.

          • John E. Boyle says:

            In my experience also.

        • Jeffro says:

          NOTE: I did not say Domain rules are a *necessity*. I made a point about how they feed back into the implied setting in a useful way even when they are not fully in play.

          “Meatgrinder stage” is when the majority of the party is level one and there is typically one to three pc deaths per session.

          • Gaiseric says:

            Well, fair enough. I’ve not read ACKS, so I can’t comment on the specifics there. But it is still a category error to say (and naturally I’m paraphrasing), “You can’t have long-running campaigns with rules-light games because games that are in print for a long time tend to acquire rules bloat and complexity.” The cause and effect have literally nothing to do with each other. They’re entirely and completely unrelated.

            But, on making this category error, he then simply tries to justify/rationalize it with allusions to common law or whatever, but after he’s already made the original category error, the entirety of the rest of his post (at least the portion you’ve quoted) is a non sequitur because it doesn’t support anything other than a conclusion that is a category error.

          • Aaron B. says:

            Okay, that frequency of deaths is new to me, so I’m intrigued. I really like this idea of not seeing a new character as a hero with a destiny that the player is immediately attached to. As a practical matter, though, what do you do when it happens? Roll a new character, who….pops out of the bushes and suddenly offers to take Deadmeat’s place?

          • Gaiseric says:

            Usually… yeah, it’s not much more than that. I mean, GM’s usually offer up some kind of fig leaf in-game explanation for it, but for the most part, everyone kind of forgives the obviously meta-game consideration that this is just what you have to do to get Dave back in the game.

        • Jeffro says:

          His allusions to common law are not a joke.

          It’s like every time I pick up Moldvay Basic I find something else I’ve never seen before. I realize I’ve interpolated my own rule here or there. Actual play forces me to make these involved interpretations fairly often. The early D&D designers really struggled to explain how it worked in a clear, repeatable way.

          ACKS addresses that without going the route of gratuitous complexity. “Basic” is still in there if you want it. The additions clear up more confusion than they cause. That’s unusual in this medium!

          • Gaiseric says:

            Yes, but his allusions to two types of game modes and what rules type system each requires is a just-so story.

  • Brian T Renninger says:

    Actually Call of Cthulhu has had many famous long campaign adventures right from the very start. And, many of these aresorts quite revered in the CoC community. Though, while characters evolve and gain skill over time they don’t become supermen like they can in D&D. Of course the sanity mechanic helps as a negative feedback loop in this regard.

    And Call of Cthulhu as a game has been remarkably resistent to accumulating the cruft like D&D and many other games have as described by AM. I’m not sure why this is but, it does bear further analysis.

  • There’s neither category error or “just so” story at work here.

    If you are running an RPG then you will inevitably face situations that are outside the rules, which you must rule upon.

    If you are running an RPG repeatedly over time, those situation will eventually repeat themselves.

    If you apply similar rulings to similar situations, then you’ve de facto created house rules for how those situations are handled. Those will accumulate over time, more and more, the longer you play.

    If you don’t apply similar rulings to similar situations, then your rulings are (by definition) inconsistent. Inconsistent rulings mean the players cannot form a reliable understanding of how the rules of the game-world work in order to make decisions about how to act within it.

    This is crippling to the players if they want to enjoy a game with reliable rules or experience a simulation of a fantasy world. If the players want to be part of a story, then decisions can be made on a case-by-case basis of what’s exciting or narratively interesting, and consistency is irrelevant.

    See my G+ post for additional links to my long form essays on how jurisprudence interacts with RPGs.

    • Gaiseric says:

      I’m not sure that this is worth responding to, as I’m starting to get suspicious that this conversation is evolving from “some guys talking about their mutual hobby” into something that’s a lot less fun for everyone. But I’m generally a high-trust guy, so I’ll give it one more go.

      What you just said here is NOT the same thing as what you said in the post quoted above. The post quoted above says clearly that OD&D evolved into AD&D into 3.5 because of the need for codification in campaign style games. The idea that long term games need codification, therefore OD&D evolved into more codified games in print is absolutely a category error. You’re using the wrong variable to reach your conclusion. What the games in print over years did was not driven by an inevitable situation AT THE TABLE (cf. Tim Kask’s Death of Old School post: Not to mention the fact that people played for years with OD&D before AD&D was published, and people have played for years more recently now with games like Swords & Wizardry White Box.

      In fact, your reply here supports exactly my statement, because now you mean codified in a completely different context. It has nothing to do with OD&D > AD&D > 3.5, and you are now using “codified” to refer to accumulated GM rulings and/or house rules. With that change, the category error goes away. But that is NOT what was written in the quote in the OP.

      And here is where it falls victim to just-so story. It is NOT true that long-term campaigns HAVE to have lots of rules and codification or they devolve into chaos. It is NOT true that long-term campaigns accumulate a long list of “common law” rulings that evolve into de facto rules. It is NOT true that similar rulings come up so often that players have confusion about how the world works through the rules because of arbitrariness or contradiction in GM rulings.

      Or at least it’s not necessarily true. Suggesting that it is is a just-so story.

      In a reasonably well designed game with a consistent task resolution system, whatever it may be, the instances in which DM rulings that are outside of the purview of what the rules specifically state will tend to be rather rare. As the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. If the only tool you have is a “roll under your attribute” then the solution to every problem looks like “roll under your attribute”. This can be collapsed to a nonsensical degree, of course, but hopefully my analogy makes sense. With fewer tools, and tools that are robust enough, the notion that there is the need for a lot of GM rulings is false. It does happen, but it doesn’t happen a lot, and it isn’t a frequently repeated problem. In my experience, if a situation comes up again that was ruled on in the past, it does NOT result in a reference to an informal referral to case precedent, or in confusion and “throw up your hands, I can’t deal with this crazy, inconsistent long-term game.” We sit around and say, “Hey, didn’t something like this happen several months ago? Remember; when we had to deal with the so-and-so and fight the whatsit?”

      “Yeah, I remember that. What did we do then?”

      “I don’t remember. Just make a ruling. No problem.”

      I think, the more I talk about games with other gamers, the more I perceive that the most fundamental divide in fandom is between people who prefer structure and generally don’t trust GM rulings as much, and those who dislike loads of structure and practice high-trust social relationships with their GM. While I can understand the situation that you describe—in theory—I don’t understand it actually being an issue in game. To me, that seems like a social issue, not a rules issue. If you have those kinds of problems, you’re not playing with the right game group or the right GM or are avoiding dealing with the issue socially, and you’re trying to patch up social issue with the rules. And then trying to suggest that everyone needs that, and that the issue that you’ve had at your table is an inevitability. At least, that’s what I hear you to be saying.

      This is why I think that this is the great divide between gamers. I see the responses and whatnot here, and they look like they’re written in English, but they literally make no sense to me at all. It might as well be written in ancient Etruscan for how comprehensible I find it. And I’m sure that the feeling in reverse is mutual.

      I can assure you that it is possible to run very long-term games without a lot of structure—either formal in the published rules, or informal in the form of accumulated GM rulings. I’ve done it for years. Which is why I characterize your description of what will happen as a just-so story. There’s no evidence to suggest that it’s true. It’s just a conclusion reached via your own assumptions about how things will work out. And granted, your assumptions probably are built on your experiences. But they are anecdotal only. They’re also built on your preferences, which are not absolute. But your conceptual framework is not as universal as you’re making it out to be. If I have different assumptions based on different preferences and difference experiences—and I do—then I’m going to reach equally valid conclusions that are very much of opposite of what you’ve reached. And for me and my groups, my conclusions are absolutely correct, as your probably are for you and your groups.

      The problem is when one of us tries to suggest that the conclusions that work for me and my groups are universal, and should inform game design overall. That’s how we end up with the situation that we ended up with following AD&D. Even BECMI drank deeply from the well of AD&D with its assumptions that what the game needed was more codification, more rules, more circumspection with regards to the DM and the possibility that groups out there are having wrongfun. And because D&D and AD&D both drank deeply from this well, over the years, gamers that had preferences more like mine wandered farther afield, looking for something else that wasn’t going the way TSR was going. And it’s also why when OSRIC cracked the OGL open to produce the first retroclone, and games like Sword & Wizardry that actually catered to the original D&D play paradigm, as opposed to the AD&D Big Rules paradigm came swarming back in and there was this huge movement there. There was a LOT of pent-up demand for a game that catered to this play-style and no easy access to a game that provided it.

      You also suggest that this paradigm only works for shorter “story games” rather than longer term campaign games. I suspect that you probably would not enjoy a long-term campaign without more structure, so for you that appears to be true. But, again, this is a just-so story. It’s true because of your tastes and preferences, not because it’s some objective truth that applies to all gamers everywhere.

      • Thank you for acknowledging it’s not a category error. As author of the post in question, I assure you that the codification that I mention in my first post is the same codification I mention in my second post, and in my third post on G+, and in my Escapist articles 3 years ago. You can find a complete essay there on how house rules equal common law, and game design equal statutory law, and more.

        My own consideration in my first post was specifically to respond to Walker’s essay in which he eschews complexity as unnecessary for RPGs. It assumed some familiarity with my own past work and writings.

        As far as “just so”, Darwinian Evolution sounds like a series of “just so” stories but if you accept adaptations as functional towards survival and reproduction then it’s not “just so”.

        My thoughts are similarly based on a conceptual framework, an evolutionary explanation that is embedded within a functional theory of RPGs. I offer up what I believe to be the function of RPGs within the transmedia universe (e.g. “what are RPGs best at compared to other entertainment”) and then assesses GMs and games based on that.

        From your comments above, you might find some agreement and some disagreement with my theory, but that is different from saying “just so”. In any case, I have put my money where my mouth is and designed a complete RPG set based on my own theories, which Jeffor has seen the effects of.

        Thanks again for your detailed response.

    • RickStump says:

      I typically fall back to ‘the dungeon master’s best friend’ – the +2/-2 modifier. Simple, consistent, I usually don’t even mention exactly what I am doing other than
      “The bow shot is pretty tricky”
      “With the wind and rain so heavy this is going to be harder”
      “You have the advantage of high ground”

  • RickStump says:

    Disclosure: I haven’t read the comments here yet.
    Bradford has a viable position, IMO. Hell, don’t get me started on how the ‘I do everything then you do everything’ combat mechanic of 3e looks more like old text-based computer action games instead of 1e/2e.
    And I think Alexander is way off base. there are more than those two styles of play (ask me how I know) and my personal experience with long-running games/campaigns is a tendency to *slim down* the rules to ease customization and the differentiation of characters through personality and play, not agglutinative mechanics. I think he mistakes ‘corporate development’ with ‘what happens at the table’ with his discussion of the OD&D->5e stuff.
    He wrote,
    ” But you show me a long-running rules-light game and I’ll show you a game that’s become rules-heavy.”
    My campaign, Seaward, is approaching 40 years real-world play using the AD&D 1e rules set. With no knowledge of my house rules you can sit down with a 1e character and play right now because the only real rules difference is my combat system is *simpler*. Do I have a custom henchman chart that is campaign specific? Sure! But that complexity is no more than the rule it replaces and the players never need see it. Do I have my own parasite/disease rules, different prices on armor, on and on? Yup – many changes. In the background to make the DM’s role easier, replacing rules that are often more complex, not less.
    “Customization” != “Added complexity”.
    OK – first blush over, on to these comments

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