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The Rules-lite Push

More gaming, less work.

Back in the early aughts (c. 2002), I tinkered with many (many) die mechanics to power Chimera's Action Roll system. One of them, dubbed "Roll 11," sticks with me today. The part of me devoid of humility asserts that it's the best I idea I never used, principally because it had all sorts of flexibility baked into a single 3d6 roll: static target number, success or failure, degree of success or failure, useful for any kind of action, "to-hit" and damage all in one, saving throw and effect all in one, open-ended options, critical results, super-critical results. The more I tinkered with it, the more elegant and useful it became.

Unfortunately, it worked best on an "abstraction" layer of play—more of a rules-lite construct than something the d20 or even the B/X crowd would have felt comfortable with. Which was fine—at the time, Chimera was much crunchier than it is now, so it wasn't a good fit, and I set it aside.

Why That Was Dumb

I bludgeon myself (softly) every day for my lack of foresight. Or the dearth of stones that prevented me from promoting "rules-lite" at a time when "rules-hefty" was all the rage.

Since then, "rules-lite" as a qualifier is tilting far away from the pejorative, and games are growing into simpler forms. With my finger ever-so-lightly on the pulse of the RPG Blogosphere, and a growing number of friends and fellow gamers suffering from limited playing time, the "resurgence" of rules-lite is not surprising—it's nothing more than RPG elasticity. Rules-lite is where the hobby started, and after steadily stretching those boundaries to (what seems like) the breaking point, it appears that the rubber band is finally getting a little less taut. For all my ranting about OSR, the movement has one thing in its favour: old-schoolers instinctively know how to play pretty much every OSR title out there, and that means less time studying rules and more time rolling dice. Few would argue the benefit.

The question of "why" is near-moot, inasmuch as I believe there are several paths to the same conclusion: rules-lite games are no longer seen as simple constructs, but as flexible engines to drive a smooth roleplaying experience (whatever that is—shared storytelling, poker night with funny dice, or a tension-breaking game of Destroy All Monsters). In my experience, agreeable and (generally) mature playing groups who espouse roleplaying over "roll-playing" seek out RPGs described as "fast," "flexible," and "easy." Imaginative interpretation—as opposed to the canon set forth by charts and rulebooks—is regaining lost ground at the gaming table.

Rules-lite Options

Several examples of this trend come to mind. First and foremost, there's Microlite20, by Greywulf, which pares down the SRD into a bite-sized chunk, provides a simple die mechanic, then offers easily digested, modular rules to reflect variations in class, race, spell-casting (and spell effect), character advancement, and monsters. It's an elegant approach to rules-lite, and it's compatible with all the "standard" d20 material out there. One speculates whether Microlite20 is what TSR/WotC should have devised on its own all those times it attempted to lure in new gamers with pared-down versions of D&D...

There's also Risus, the construct of S. John Ross, which is about as lite on rules as any RPG can be. Take ten points, assign them to stereotypes (called cliches) you devise for your character, then start rolling dice. Touted as the "Anything RPG," Risus treads very far into the territory of imaginative interpretation, giving players complete freedom to run the characters they want and make them do whatever they like. The die mechanic is extraordinarily flexible, and there's no reason you couldn't run a complete campaign with the six-page rules provided.

A more structured example of rules-lite is the innovative and appropriately praised Barbarians of Lemuria, by Simon Washbourne (affiliate link). BoL is a refreshing read, with rules well outside the box that effectively contained the RPG hobby since the advent of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and whose sides pressed even closer since the fall of TSR. What I like most about BoL is its career system, whereby PCs choose sparsely defined vocations, then decide—by mutual agreement amongst themselves and the GM—exactly what they can do as a result. There are no character classes, or even a skill system, to bog down play or complicate the players' intuition. The game requires that players and game master invent and adhere to a "shared consistency" of what makes sense within the setting, then constantly evolve that consistency as new game situations arise.

Each of the above represents a brilliant approach, on several levels to rules-lite gaming. Most significantly, each affirms the imaginative element of roleplaying games. Relies on it, in fact. Once again, it's OK for a rule system to be vague on specifics, to let the GM invent outside of the rulebook, and to encourage players to decide—based on backgrounds—what their characters can do. The approach is a throwback to the spirit prevalent during the Dim Ages of the hobby, when the rules were acknowledged to be wanting for particulars and demanded interpretation as a result.

I'll throw Chimera into the ring, too. It's based on a single mechanic from which spring completely customisable characters and a modular trait system that lets you inject pretty much anything you can imagine without affecting game balance. The core concept is about guidelines along which players can create, instead of rules to which players must adhere. The 20-page Chimera Quick Start provides what amounts to four pages of rules; the rest builds on this foundation with modular bits that show you how to create other stuff. In my biased opinion, certainly there's enough there to conjure up a complete campaign.

But my ruminations aside, these games are sufficient proof of the appetite for open-ended and rules-lite RPGs. And it's not a bad guess to assume that the hunger is sizable.

Signs of Rules-lite

Rules-lite systems share certain characteristics. You might be playing a rules-lite system if you're seeing some (or all) of the following qualities around your gaming table:

  • All-encompassing mechanic: A single die mechanic is used to arbitrate actions across the game. As a corollary, the rules include few (if any) exceptions to this mechanic, so you'll use the same method for skill checks, combat, saving throws, spell-casting, etc.
    [Joseph of Greyhawk Grognard correctly points out consistent mechanics in D&D is a relatively new thing, so the early versions normally associated with rules-lite (like Oe and B/X) really don't possess this quality, while newer versions (which are not at all rules-lite) do. Thanks for the clarification. -EDS]
  • Vague rules: Using an all-encompassing mechanic means that some game situations are afforded less detail than others (e.g., a simple d20 roll may be describe a skill check, but it won't capture the nuances of attacking with a sword). As a result, where particulars are lacking, the players are required to interpret the spirit of the rules rather than follow the letter.
  • Highly individualised playing groups: Because rule interpretation varies, no two groups play a given game exactly the same way. This is great for an individual group who customises the system to their style. This is bad for rules lawyers, because the printed rules aren't likely to help them win many arguments.
  • Short descriptions: Character classes, monsters, spells, and skills are described with minimum detail required to convey the concept; again, the spirit is more important than the letter. The author is basically telling you: This is what I have in mind, and these are all the details you need for 80% of game situations. The other 20% is up to you, but at least you have a foundation to build on. Have fun.
  • Modular: Vague and flexible rules beg to be tinkered with; enter the other 20%. Modular bits are add-ons you can use or discard to suit your group's style or creative needs, and they usually take the form of new classes, spells, equipment, skills, or monsters. The key here is that you're not creating exceptions to the rules—you're using your imagination to expand the game within the rules provided.
  • Short stat blocks: Smale's Second Law of RPGs states that The size of the stat block is directly proportional to the weight of the rules. Short stat blocks are a hallmark of rules-lite games. Look at Al's stat block for an S&W mentalist. Not only does it save space, but you can create it quickly and still have all the info you need to run the character. Ever see a 4E stat block? That's worth, like, eleven of Al's stat blocks.

Final Words

The rules-lite system is characterised by a lack of specifics that requires player/GM interpretation, making the game automatically customisable. In turn, the qualities of rules-lite games translate to near-infinite expandability—provided, of course, the players can deal with their open-ended nature. But theory aside, the practical benefit is that, for players with limited gaming time, rules-lite games let you get busy playin'.

So tell me: What are your favourite rules-lite games and why do they float your RPG boat?

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  1. June 16th, 2010 at 15:21 | #1

    I’m not sure I’d include your first indicator of a rules-lite system (3E had an “all-encompassing mechanic” and was hardly rules lite, while 0E didn’t have one and was probably the definition of rules lite for quite a few years).

    But in terms of which games would qualify today, I’d have to point to games like Labyrinth Lord, Swords and Wizardry, Barbarians of Lemuria (which you mentioned), and Dragons at Dawn (which I don’t think I’ll ever play, but it’s a hoot to read as a “mirror universe” version of what D&D might have been).

  2. deimos3428
    June 16th, 2010 at 15:31 | #2

    Chimera actually tops my list, largely because it is evolutionary — it builds upon the RPGs that came before it rather than merely replicating them. It is particularly refreshing in the current sea of retro gaming. I also like that it is rules-lite is by design, rather than merely by necessity as were the early RPGs. (4E simply could not have sprung full-fledged from Gary’s head in 1974.) As for the rest of the list:

    1. Fighting Fantasy: Just plain simple. Everything you wanted to know about a creature explained by Skill and Stamina.
    2. The aforementioned Barbarians of Lemuria, for all the reasons you stated.
    3. Lejendary Adventure and Perilous Journeys: Take a single d% mechanic for nearly everything; sprinkle generously with GM fiat.
    4. Basic “red box” D&D. As good as a class-based game can get, I think — and modular if you consider “Expert”, “Companion”, etc. to be modules.

  3. deimos3428
    June 16th, 2010 at 17:19 | #3

    In my desperate urgency to comment, I forgot to add a couple of my favorite RPGs of all time. Both are extremely lite, and rely on “attitude” to qualify as roleplaying at all.

    1. “Chatitorial Arena Combat”: http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=42&t=21963&p=397174

    I co-wrote this one with a friend in a matter of hours. There were a few later enhancements as noted in the thread. (Mounts, advancement, new weaponry options.)

    2. CardMaster. http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=26&t=19828

    This is not an RPG at all, but a tool to create random dungeons for 2E AD&D. At least, until you put a few overly-creative wackos in a chat room…hours of fun.

  4. June 16th, 2010 at 17:32 | #4

    @Joseph : The thought occurred to me, though it seemed to me that 3E had a lot of situational exceptions. You’re right about 0E, though, even through B/X – combat and saves were 1d20 (roll high), turn undead was 2d6, ability checks were 1d20 (roll low). I’m thinking the other indicators trump inconsistent mechanics, though, and return 0E back to the rules-lite fold. And thanks for the tip – I’ll check out Dragons at Dawn.

    @deimos3428 : Thanks for the vote of confidence – any interest in MicroChimera?

    I recall Lejendary Adventure (had an autographed copy from Gary), but never got a chance to play it. I’m not familiar with Fighting Fantasy, but I’m all sorts of excited about 2-stat monsters.

    And, I have to give a deep nod to Moldvay/Cook. But when I first played it, it seemed fairly complex. Looking back, it only seems to be rules-lite when compared with later editions of D&D.

  5. June 16th, 2010 at 20:59 | #5

    @deimos3428 : Chatitorial Arena looks great for a pick-up. I like the mounts particularly (carrion crawler…whoot!).

    CardMaster has an interesting bit: different classes roll different die and hit on different results. Very easy.

    It reminds me of a super-simple RPG we invented one night after 1) losing a players handbook and 2) having a few too many beverages. Basically there were 4 types of rolls: combat, saving throw, spell-casting, and general. The target number was always 4, but different classes rolled different die. A fighter rolled Combat d8, Save d6, Spell d4; a mage rolled Combat d4, Save d6, Spell d8; etc. Everyone rolled a d6 for general, which was stuff like leaping a chasm, busting down a door, remembering something, etc. If your class had some skill in the “general” thing, you got a +1 (e.g., mage got +1 for translating a language, cleric got +1 for turning undead, thief got +1 to pick locks). Quality equipment could modify rolls, as could magic items.

    Combat damage was equal to the number of points equal to or greater than required (if you got a 4, you did 1 point; a 5 did 2, 6 did 3, etc.). Monsters had one hit per combat die (e.g., a fighter used d8, so he had 8 hits).

    At the end of every adventure, you got 1 point. You could hold on to it and use it to modify a roll by +1, or you could add it to your number of hits, or you could save them up and trade in for better die (e.g., a d6 cost 6 points, a d8 cost 8, a d10 cost 10). Quick and dirty.

    Maybe I’ll write it up and post it. Or maybe I just did?

  6. Crose87420
    June 16th, 2010 at 21:43 | #6

    Interesting piece, I enjoyed reading it. As for rules-lite games I enjoy in no particular order…

    1. Microlite20 (Check out the M20 website for a compilation of M20 driven games by genre that will leave you breathless. It’s called the Spring Mircolite20 collection or something close to that.)
    2. Basic Action Superheroes (I play 1e, before the Ultimate Edition came out, love it)
    3. Star Frontiers Basic Rules (Like 8 total pages of Space Opera goodness before the Advanced Game, well, added rules.)
    4. Risus (6 pages of rules that make playing any game/genre/crazy idea on the fly possible.)
    4. BX D&D (If it counts as rules-lite. IMHO one of the most complete RPG’s ever.

  7. June 16th, 2010 at 22:11 | #7

    @Crose87420 : Thanks for reading. I hear you on M20 and Risus. And, yes, B/X definitely counts as rules-lite in my book–128 combined pages that give you everything you need to run campaign after campaign after campaign. And totally flexible. Rocks.

    It’s been a looooong time since I heard tell of SF Basic. Back in the day (late ’80s), I wrote a 100-page expansion for SF, based on a combination of Starship Troopers, Aliens, and Humanx Commonwealth. Sadly, the hard copy was lost in a move, and the 5.25″ floppy it was stored on was lost to the earth’s magnetic field…

  8. deimos3428
    June 16th, 2010 at 22:19 | #8

    @Erin: Very interested in hearing more about MicroChimera.

  9. June 16th, 2010 at 23:03 | #9

    @deimos3428 : I have 2 pages of notes, which is about half of what MicroChimera should end up at. Still plugging away at Swords of Telm but MicroChimera will come after that, be free, and be even leaner than the Quick Start. More of a beer and pretzels game. In fact, the working title is “Chimera B&P.” Open to suggestions there…

    But (and this is important), the mechanics will be fully compatible with the Core Rules, so you can mix-and-match whatever elements you want from the full canon.

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