Wednesday 11 May 2022


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I love rules-lite systems, but I'm recently moving toward rules that are light but strong

Rules like Graphene. 

Light systems are often praised for how they "get out of the way" once you hit the table. The players don't have to spend a lot of time and energy on the rules themselves, so they channel it into the other parts of the game instead: exploring the environment, making their characters memorable, and good old fashioned problem solving. 

This is something I've always strived for with my own games, but I've started to feel a dissatisfaction when the rules feel completely absent. 

It's a difficult balance to describe. I don't want the GM or players to have to think too much about the cogs and gears of the system, but I want those few mechanical parts to be a more solid presence on the game. 

Reaction and morale rolls in D&D are the classic example here. They don't really add much complexity that you need to hold in mind, but they have a major impact in the way your dungeon crawl plays. Now those Gnolls want to talk to you, and you've got to decide what to do when the Ghouls start to flee toward the dragon cave. Of course the GM could just make those things happen, but it feels different when it comes from a rule rather than a ruling. 

The best anti-example would be one of those systems where you have a dozen +1s and -1s to keep track of, but they usually balance out to some inconsequential modifier that doesn't even affect the majority of possible rolls. Similarly, there are those fiddly little rules that you sometimes forget to use in play... then realise that in forgetting them nothing was really lost. Those are always the most satisfying parts to chop out of a work-in-progress game.

But this desire for strong rules goes further than that. Maybe they're stronger even than the GM. Maybe Rule Zero is losing its shine for me. RULES NOT RULINGS!?

Well, no. I like games that empower the GM, but I want the game to have a power of its own. Just like how you obviously shouldn't fudge the dice, maybe the strength of the fiction and the agency of the players are both enhanced if the rules cannot be broken. 

I suppose this is all adjacent my thoughts on those 3 Tiers of Truth. I've had a lot of fun with loose games that hardly engage with the rules and are mostly improvised at the table, so perhaps I'm just craving something more solid as a contrast. The grounded, impartial, almost sim-like feel of a high-crunch game without the brain melting complexity. 

It might be a futile quest, but I'm going to keep searching for that Graphene. 


  1. The way I've been thinking about it, is that any rules (or setting, or prep, or whatever else) needs to be *better* than just whatever I can come up with off the top of my head. When people talk about the "rules getting out of the way", I feel like this is just a case of the rules explicitly or implicitly telling the DM "Just do whatever you want! Don't mind me!"

    The secret is, of course, that you *never* had to listen to *any* of the rules.

    But of course, we all spend so much damn time talking about the damn things. Why not have rules that you actively *want* to be involved in the fun shared imagination space? The DM is coming up with a cool setting, the players are cooking up with interesting plans and actions (and potentially adding setting ideas)... and the rules should also be *contributing*.

  2. I've always interpreted "Rules not Rulings" as "Don't expect to find a rule for every little thing", but not as "The Rules you DO find here are not important...just ignore them willy-nilly". I think it's valuable to remember what the G stands for in RPG. Games are made by their rules, and the best games have the best rules that are worth sticking to.

    1. I very much agree with this perspective. The point of "Rulings not rules" was that there were too many situations to come up with specific rules, plus, the Referee has a human brain. He could easily come up with a specific answer to "What happens if I have swallowed a tiny octopus that is eating my insides?"

      The point was not to replace hard rules with Referee fiat, but to keep the rules simple enough that the players don't have to dig through the books to try and figure out what happens when they cast "Electric Sphere" inside the belly of a giant octopus.

  3. I like that idea, rules that are strong. For me, rules that are both light and strong would be the core engine at the heart of Over the Edge, 2e. I used the game setting & background to give me examples of those rules in action, and then ran a whole lot of games not in that setting but using the core engine. The two next most light-ish/strong-ish games, for me at least, would be ‘Into the Odd’ and ‘Classic Traveller’.

    1. A ‘problem’ I have with Rules Light systems is that since I’ve played a few games now over the last several decades, if I need to handle something on the fly it sometimes comes from something I’ve seen done 20-30 years ago. Which sometimes can interfere with the apparent intent of whatever newer game I’m trying to run, especially if it is on the lighter side.

  4. One of the big 'aha!' moments for me was with powered by the apocalypse games. The framework of 'if X happens in the fiction, apply Y mechanic' in an almost GM-independent way is a very different approach, but once it clicks it works really well.

    One thing I've always thought is that the 'rules getting out of the way' school of thought is a symptom of playing games with *bad* mechanics that are detrimental to the game. Good mechanics are ones that people are excited to get to use in play.


  5. I used to like "rules lite", but I'm changing my mind. Often the rules are too light.

    Rules are not a problem to get out of the way, they are a way to structure player experience and provide anchor points for the GM to help him maintain consistency. They embed and embody setting flavor.

    Rules Lite games so often lack all of this. If you strip away the setting of an RPG like Mork Borg (to name just one), you're left with some very simple, very generic, somewhat D&D/D20 inspired mechanisms that really anyone could come up with in 10 minutes. Sure, there's the setting overlay, but it's still a massively missed opportunity.