Wingin’ It: Going Lite

Like many things in life, improvisational theatre has rules; “yes, and…” is one them. Others include: don’t ask questions, don’t have arguments, no transaction scenes, etc. These rules exist to guide players into creating engaging scenes on stage, by helping them avoid the traps and pitfalls that can cause a scene to falter. By that same token, roleplaying games have rules, giving concrete instructions for resolving conflicts, so as to prevent a game of Dungeons and Dragons from devolving into a game of Cowboys and Indians (“I shot you!” “No, you didn’t!” “Yes, I did!”).

All in all, these rules (both for improv and RPGs) work well, doing what they need to do in order to keep things smooth and orderly. But with improv, in the big scheme of things, the rules are really more like guidelines. In fact, experienced players often throw the rules out completely, or have them so ingrained in their play-style that they no longer have to think about them. Newer players hold on to the rules, keep them in their heads while they play, and it shows. You can tell when a player is thinking about his next move, deciding what the “correct” response would be in a given situation. The rules become a crutch, and the sooner a player learns to move past them, the sooner he can progress.

I posit that the same is true for roleplaying games: too many rules just get in the way of rolling dice, having fun, and telling really good stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I really do enjoy games like Dungeons and Dragons, with books upon books of neat items and crazy powers, but I’m also the type of person to prefer 4th edition to 3rd, based primarily on the fact that they condensed much of the rule-set into the wonderful (and admittedly controversial) page 42. For those of you who don’t know, page 42 of the 4th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide contains a chart of generic target numbers and damage values for challenges appropriate to any specific character level. This page, in my opinion (and to each their own), has just enough in the way of rules for me to handle pretty much everything outside of the structured combat mechanics. Rather than dealing with a glut of specific rules for every conceivable situation, I only have to consult one chart. The challenges are more consistent, the game can move faster, and I can get down to playing rather than flipping through pages.

Unfortunately, Dungeons and Dragons, no matter the edition, is fairly rules-heavy and clunky, and sometimes that just gets in the way. Keeping track of initiative and hit points, remembering combat modifiers, creating balanced encounters, etc., all end up slowing down play. Even worse is when a system actively constrains what a character can and can’t do, both in character creation and in play. D&D-like class systems can be fun to play with when you’re killing monsters and taking their stuff, but they can feel quite restrictive if you’re trying to tell other kinds of stories.

When I really just want to tell a story with my friends, I look for a system that is light on rules, in which character creation takes minutes and in which we can adjudicate conflicts in seconds. I want a game I can memorize, that can become second nature to me the first time I play it. I don’t need two dozen different skills, or stats for 150 different kinds of pistols (I’m looking at you, d20 Modern Weapons Locker). I just need something that lets me roll dice and have fun.

One of my favourite rules-lite systems has always been Risus, by S. John Ross. The (freely available) PDF consists of only six pages, half of which are examples, art, and optional rules. The game itself is fairly traditional — roll dice, compare to target number set by the gamemaster, move on — but the system is quick, elegant, and most importantly, it stays out of the way.

For something even lighter, and definitely less traditional, take a look at the Otherkind Dice mechanic, created by indie-games rock star Vincent Baker. To see it in the context of a game, check out John Harper’s GHOST/ECHO, one of my favourite things ever. Go ahead, take a look. It’ll only take a few minutes. Come back here when you’re done.

Done? Good. Otherkind Dice represents the kind of gaming system that makes me giddy. It’s incredibly simple, taking only a few minutes to learn and use. The system has other points in its favour, such as essentially having “yes, and…/no, but…” built in, as well allowing players to set the stakes of a conflict. Most importantly, it does exactly what RPG mechanics need to do: resolve conflicts and add challenges to the story. Nothing else. It doesn’t compare characters’ relative strengths, it doesn’t apply modifiers for environmental effects, and it sure as hell doesn’t calculate the percentile advantages of armour-piercing titanium bullets vs. garlic-laced silver bullets when shooting at the non-Euclidean hides of Lovecraftian horrors-from-beyond. With Otherkind Dice, characters don’t even need to have stats. That kind of detail in rule-sets can be fun to play with, but it’s all fluff. It just isn’t required in order to have fun playing a roleplaying game. All that you need is a way to decide which outcome occurs out of many possibilities.

When it comes down to it, roleplaying games are about sitting around with your friends and making stuff up. Anything else is unnecessary fluff. Why not try a rule-set that’s light and simple, and see where it takes you?

Wingin’ It is a series of articles that touch on improvisation, and how improv skills and philosophies can enhance your gaming. Have any questions, comments, or criticisms? Topics you’d like me to cover? Comment below and let me know.

[tags]improv, roleplaying games, rules-lite, wingin’ it[/tags]

What improvisers are doing, in essence, is getting up on stage and making stuff up.

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