Drowning in Options


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.

The Player

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!

The GM

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?

9 thoughts on “Drowning in Options

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  1. Completely agree.

    As the game rules matured and became more byzantine another unfortunate design side effect is that they became more and more dependent upon one another. Late 2nd – and most especially 3rd and 4th editions – lacked much of the ability of previous editions of ignore rules that did not suit your own game table. If you decided to drop one rule, it meant something else did not work or needed to be re-designed.

    Couple this with the modern mindset of “we have to play the game as it is written or it’s not right” that permeates among players (no doubt re-enforced by the realities of public organized play) and we have the recipe for what is supposedly happening to D&D 5e today: a return to simpler and modular rules.

    Well, we’ll see.


    1. Oh – the “we have to play the game as it is written or it’s not right” mindset. I generally like rules/routines and such, but the rules in RPGs are definitely subject to interpretation in many cases. I dislike sessions that turn into one’s that sound more like an intro level law class. Make a quick ruling and move on with having fun!

      I am not sure if D&D Next can pull off what they want or not. I am certainly watching with interest though.


      1. Well, in fairness, some games’ rules do interlock in ways that aren’t apparent at first. There are also some really interesting play experiences that arise from following rules that “tell you how to role play.”


  2. This is a direct result of the ‘player class’ business model. D&D and its imitators hit on the brilliant idea of selling rules directly to players, which vastly increases the amount of money that a gaming group is likely to spend.

    On the one hand, it’s good for the vendor, but it’s also good for the players. This sort of gaming frees players from being reliant on their partnership with the GM to produce their awesome coming of age story. Players can shop for the coming of age story they want, and (barring death), it occurs irrespective of what happens in play.

    This is a really good thing if you have a GM who’s ignorant of the conventions of coming-of-age stories, if the story he dishes up is uninspiring or just not especially related to your character’s personal arc. You still collect your XP and presto: followers, new miracles and spells, mastery of chain fighting, whatever.

    The downside of this is cohesion and conceptual weight. With everyone shopping for their favourite character stereotype, when do you say no? With all these glossy supplements staring at you, telling everyone to be a Ventrue, or a musketeer seems like a downer – whereas, with a slightly subtler hand you can still develop fantastic characters and tell an awesome story in a tight genre.


    1. Agreed with the conceptual weight and also a good explanation as to why we see so many rules supplements and the target shifted to players instead of GMs. Bigger market!

      Of course, even with a multitude of rules there will still be poor GMs in the hobby.


  3. A lot of what you’re feeling is market driven to be sure, however the controlling factor is still participant perception. Chess is a game with an accepted set of rules, however there are many variants that COULD be included in a chess game. Similarly, many sports also have alternate rules, yet 99% of the time it is the standard rules that are used. In roleplaying games we feel a pressure to be current and inclusive with respect to optional rules. We still have the choice though. Your concern re: a negative start to a game is semi-valid, yet again we dealing with a matter of perception. The belief that any unused rules are a negative withholding stems from the perception that all the available rules should be used. Lastly, why not present which rules and options you ARE using, instead of focusing on those which you are not. Turn the base assumption upsidedown for both you and the players and I think you will greatly lessen that pressured feeling from expanding rulesets.


    1. Perception is certainly a factor. I think as rule bases grow more and more starts to become assumed core though and it turns into the perceived factor of cutting rules from this assumed core than simply allowing newer rules into play.

      In my later 3.5 D&D games I used to present in a similar manner to what you suggested. I would make an administrivia post or email that listed the sources we would be using for the campaign. I tried to keep it positive, but there was always some feature or bit someone would want from a source that I had not listed.

      In either case – I am certainly not saying there is a right way or wrong way. I know there are lots of people out there that like lots of options and such in their games. I just have noticed the trend that my tastes start to wander when I start to feel option overload. Luckily we have lots of systems to choose from and we can all find one that fits our play style.

      Thanks for the comments!


  4. I have never gone in for tons of extra rules myself. When I buy into a new system, I get the bare minimum for rules. Setting stuff I may buy more of if it interests me, but I don’t like to have an overabundance of rules. If my plays want to play a character class listed in an extra source book, as long as they are willing to buy the book and let me check it out, I got no problems. I will not go buy Excellent Fighter Book XVI just because a player wants to run a Maori warrior.


  5. Good post, and I feel your pain. You put your finger on something that has always irked me about the never-ending parade of supplements. There is only so much a human can keep up with.

    My solution has been to say “I use these core sourcebooks (xyz). If you want to run a character type that’s not in there, talk to me about it and we can probably work something up that fits your concept. But be aware that whatever resource you want to use for that I’ll treat only as a guideline, not a hard and fast rulebook. I’ll let you know special abilities and limitations for your character that fit in my game after we’ve worked him up.”

    That way players can rummage through their add-on books to their heart’s content, I only need to look at a limited reference source, and I’ve established that my decisions re the character class will trump what’s in the book being used. I’ve never had a problem with that. No major gnashing of teeth, tearing of hair.

    I think it’s largely in how you present it, and if players get that rules are arbitrated by you, not “what the book says”, it is an easier transition to make.


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