Live gaming! vs Rules Light

20Sep12

Live Gaming, a web app to support tabletop gaming, is in development. The project sprung out of the difficulty that many new players have with RPGs: the rules are so complicated that just creating a character can take hours. Even experienced RPGers frequently have to interrupt play to flip through books and look up a rule or a chart.  Many, many people have expressed interest in an app that can handle the rules and speed playing; some, however, have pointed out that players can avoid complications simply by using a ‘rules light’ system.  Rules light systems are a great choice for people who are creative, focused on story telling more than rules, and need little structure.  However, Appify and many of the RPGers we talk to still feel that there is a place for more developed systems, despite their additional rules and complications.

Avoiding complication with rules light systems

One way that people deal with the complex rules is simply to avoid them by playing ‘rules light’ systems.  In rules light systems, a player character may be summed up in as few as 4-6 stats, with many non-player characters summed up by a single attribute.  Fewer charts, fewer rolls, fewer game mechanics to memorize or look up.  This way, play focuses a lot more on how a player describes what they do than on rolling dice.

Rules light can mean little supportive structure for new RPGers

Rules light systems have their own challenges.  In a system with a comprehensive set of attributes, skills, and equipment, a player knows exactly what skills are at their disposal. Simply by looking at a character sheet, players can get an idea of what a character’s options are and what the character can do best. When characters are defined very broadly with only a few stats, new players may have a hard time understand when a skill applies.  For example, Gary has a character with Private Investigator +2.  Does that plus to apply to interrogation, observation, firearms?  Does it over lap with Ex-cop +1?  When interrogation, observation, and firearms are all independent skills, a character’s abilities are much clearer.  When characters only have a few, non-comprehensive stats, new players may also simply forget that they can take actions or use skills not listed.

Rules light and simulation

Many experienced players, even those who dislike looking up charts, may have reasons to prefer normal RPGs to rules light systems. A well-developed system can create a fun simulation of the game world. For example, simulating magical or super powers can be more fun in a fleshed out system—the additional rules add flavor and limitations to how powers are used, creating a sort of physics that makes the game world more real (for some players).  For example, does casting a spell cost mana or physically tire the wizard?  Does it have a higher chance of backfiring the more a wizard deviates from reality?  Does it require memorizing spells in advance?  Each of those would require a system of support that would make a game more complicated, but each also tangibly changes the meaning of what magic is and how it works in the world.

In the same vein, more developed RPGs with all their stats and rules also help to differentiate characters.  The player doesn’t just narrate their actions differently; differences are expressed in what kinds of rolls they make and their chances for success.  For example, one system might have one attack roll that reflects both the chance to hit and damage: any success beyond that required to hit is damage.  In this kind of system, a heavy, inaccurate bruiser and dextrous lightweight may narrate their actions differently (“I throw a haymaker” or “I do a flying jump kick”), but their die roll may be the same, and they might do the same damage.  In a system with 2 rolls (1 to hit, 1 for damage), not only would the players describe their characters differently, but those differences are actually simulated in the game.  The bruiser might not succeed very often on the hit roll, but will do a lot of damage when he does; the small, dextrous martial artist may hit frequently for low damage.  One die roll is simpler and ‘lighter’, but the additional roll can make for a more interesting simulation of the game world, where differences between characters have more impact.

Live Gaming and the best of both worlds

We don’t feel like rules light systems by themselves are better or worse than the more typical RPG like Dungeons & Dragons.  Rules light is simpler, faster, and more narrative but less structured and weaker at simulation.  Appify simply noticed that an web app might help typical RPGs attain the best both worlds.  When an app handles the rules and rolls (or at the very least, delivers the relevant rules at the touch of a button instead of several minutes of page turning), an RPG can have the ease and speed of a rules light system, while providing a structured environment for new players (almost like a video game), and simulate a complex and compelling world in which characters have meaningful differences.

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2 Responses to “Live gaming! vs Rules Light”

  1. I appreciate the thoughts. In my experience, GURPS has been the epitome of the “well developed system”.

    In one session, a player suddenly lacked a heart due to a magical effect. There were rules for that. In another, a player cast “force dome” followed by “destroy air” to expose a foe to raw vacuum. There were rules for that. In a third, a player tried to jump into the mouth of a prone dragon to stab him through the roof of his mouth, where the scales were thinner and there was better access to the brain. There were rules for that, too.

    The bruiser and the agile fighter had plethoras of mechanical support to differentiate them. Casters had books full of highly developed spells. Skills were granular down to differentiating between theoretical mathematics and applied mathematics.

    Combat took nearly ten minutes per full rotation.

    I appreciate what you’re trying to do more than most. Combat in a rules-heavy system takes forever, and computational assistance would be a blessing! But as a long time DM, I must question how feasible it is to electronically model all the possible actions a player could take. In rules-heavy settings, such as seen in the GURPS martial arts supplement, the number of edge cases, optional house rules, and possible actions make a computer implementation unwieldy, if not unfeasible. Instead, you end up with something like 4E, in which options are limited, the mechanics between all classes are similar, and classes end up mostly being a flavor-text for your damage calculation formula.(Wizards of the coast invented 4E with computational assistance in mind, hoping that their ill-fated virtual tabletop would take the RPG world by storm.)

    How will you, as a developer, support the “crunch heavy” settings? Do you truly feel it’s possible to computationally model a system like GURPS?

    • 2 ansorensen

      GURPS is definitely a beast. Here are the beginning of my approach:

      1) Attributes will have to be a lot more than a name and a number. They will need to know what other attributes they depend on (if you raise strength, with Melee weapons skills rise too?), specialties (if available), what are bonuses/penalties are currently affecting the skill, what a default roll using that attribute would look like, hover-over tooltip help, and an in-depth help screen for that attribute (that could be expanded as additional content is downloaded), and how much the attributes costs to increase.

      2) And attribute, skill, power, spell, item would have a default roll associated it… but there are advanced options that the player could click on before hitting ‘roll.’ These would be the place to enter modifiers for specific rolls, which could be selected just as a number, or from a list of relevant, present modifiers. Common, custom rolls could be macroed (Fantasy Grounds actually does this last one, which is probably one of it’s most helpful features).

      3) Combat would definitely have an auto roll element and a custom roll. If you selected a target and clicked auto roll, it would take the characters to hit chance (minus target’s default defense) and then roll damage (minus target’s default armor), and then subtract the damage from their hit points. Custom roll would allow the GM (most likely) to set the armor and defense and other conditions (such as range / cover penalties). Again, like a regular roll, he could just manually change the number… or choose from a list of prepopulated armors and defense for that person or creature. For example, the GM creates a dragon (or has it downloaded as part of a ‘dragons’ module). The default armor would include the tough hide, but another armor rating might be given for the mouth, or eyes, or belly, which could then be selected for a custom roll. Again, this roll could be macroed, or maybe even characters will have a ‘roll history’ that they can selected from if the have already entered the same custom roll before.

      In the best case scenario, the roll is handled with a couple of clicks (target and attack mehtod). But even with custom rolls, hopefully features like the armor select / defense select / other modifier select would allow players and GMs to customize the roll without having to lookup in a book what the exact modifier was for shooting while driving.

      RPGs are not all about combat, but combat will certainly be a test of the effectiveness of Live Gaming, as it tends to be complex, rules-heavy, and slow to play.


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