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.
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.
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.