I have noticed a trend in my gaming habits over the many years. As a system starts to release more rules supplements I slowly begin to lose interest in that system or at the very least begin to feel overwhelmed at the number of options. With the D&D genre as an example and a touch of Pathfinder thrown in my gaming pattern highlights this trend.
The Sea Grows Deeper
I stuck with 1st Edition D&D right up until the 2nd Edition of Advanced D&D came out. I played that during high school and early college and then the options increased with the release of numerous “splat” books. Some of them were actually pretty fun and did offer interesting options, but as time went on the sheer number of options became overwhelming. Coupled with other life events I took a break from RPG gaming.
I came back with the release of D&D 3.5, yes, I skipped D&D 3.0. D&D 3.5 was great fun. It scratched all the right itches. I really liked the flexibility and felt like I had the tools at my disposal with the class system, skill system, skill resolution and feats. The core books provided everything I needed. I even bought into some of the Complete series of books as well, though that did signal the start of option creep to me as well. Eventually as more option books and rule supplements were released I began to lose interest with D&D 3.5 as well.
I took a much shorter break from RPGs during the awkward 3.5 to 4e phase, made even easier as the 4e rule set just did not attract me to that release. When I sought to come back to the RPG table it was with Pathfinder. At the time there was only the core rulebook and Bestiary in the Pathfinder rule system. It was great – I was back to a core set of rules, there weren’t hundreds upon hundreds of options to choose from. It felt safe and the game felt less about the rules and options and more about playing the game. I really enjoyed my early days of Pathfinder gaming.
Next the Advanced Player’s Guide was released. I also enjoyed this book, it added just the right amount of options and choices in my opinion. A very solid product offering and I easily put it in with my core release assumption of the Pathfinder System.
Now it seems Paizo has started with the unrelenting release of rule supplements with the Ultimate series of books and the even more recently announced book with 30 new prestige classes due in the upcoming year. So once again I find myself trying to stay afloat in a sea of feats, classes, options, archetypes, spells and more. And once again I find myself intrigued by other systems as my life raft to regroup and refocus.
I think there are two seats at the table to look at the amount of options, that of the player and that of the GM. Let’s take a closer look from these two seats through the Pathfinder lense.
In my experience the player seems less put off by a wealth of options for their character. There are plenty of posts about various RPG forums and social media outlets of players consuming these options up with gusto. Not me. Even as a player I start to feel this option creep.
When I have a multitude of source books to draw from character creation becomes more cumbersome. I have to drag out more books or search through more PDFs for the feat or trait that suits my character. I have to wonder if I am missing something that might mechanically supplement my character. I find myself more focused on the rules and mechanics to fit my character than I do on the fluff about the character that makes him unique or interesting. It becomes an exercise in rules mastery.
I also find that as the system of rules options increases I more often find myself sitting at a table with a character that is far outside my realms of fantasy. This reason is very subjective as everyone’s idea of a fantasy world are different and admittedly mine tend to the more vanilla, just ask my friends! But as rule options increase I find myself sitting at tables with kobold PCs, characters with guns, synthesists and even birdmen!
From the GMs chair I like the multitude of rule options even less. Suddenly the gaming system becomes much more like homework, trying to keep up with the character classes available, feats, spells and such. Then moving beyond that trying to keep up with combinations that can be “broken” and keeping an eye out on them. Essentially I find myself spending more time studying rules and mechanics than simply thinking about cool ideas for stories and campaigns.
As GM I can control some of this by limiting sources of material for the campaign. This always seems to start things on a negative though as the opening framework for the campaign starts with “here are things you cannot do”, which is a turn off to players. My early Pathfinder games were much more fun with just the core rulebook and APG as I did not feel the need to restrict options as it was easy to keep up with the options.
The ability to run the system smoothly also slowly becomes hampered as the number of options increase, especially if running published modules or adventures. The more recent adventures will also begin to incorporate new rule options and such. Now that NPC has options that you are not completely familiar with adding time to game prep and again turning it into a game of rules mastery and mechanics than focusing on the characterization of the NPC and the story. I find myself spending more time making sure I am running the NPC mechanically correct than on the flow of the story.
Send Me the Life Raft!
Where is the life raft for all of this? Limiting sources is certainly an option, but that has some negative connotations to it as mentioned above. Getting the players to pitch in on rules knowledge can help, but that still seems to turn things into an exercise in mastering the rules as a play group than enjoying the stories together.
Unfortunately for me as I start to feel overwhelmed with the release of rule options from systems I previously enjoyed I find myself taking a closer look at other systems. It is a cycle that has repeated itself many times and appears ready to repeat itself again.
What are your thoughts on the amount of rule options and supplements for your given game system? Do you want a constant stream of mechanical options or would you rather see the stream slow down?