I’ve been interested in rules-light games almost ever since I first ran a game. I’ve tried basically all of them, and I think I’ve found the ultimate one.
Let’s roll it back for a second. If you search “rules-light RPG” using your favorite non-Google search engine you’ll likely run across a few usual suspects: FATE/FUDGE, Risus, Tinyd6, TWERPS…
All these games can proudly say they have lighter rules than the most popular fantasy roleplaying game, but their definition of “light” can leave a lot to be desired.
Let’s start with FATE. The core gameplay is very simple, yes - you roll fudge
dice, those funny
- d6s, and get a number between -4 and +4. But what
gives these rolls context? Your character sheet is one, and the interaction
between funny concepts like Aspects, Invoking, FATE Points, etc. (none of which
have any meaning outside of FATE) are another kettle of fish. I’ve played in a
FATE game for quite a while, but I’ve never gotten the hang of these
interactions; they’re considerably more complicated than those of M:TG, and
that’s a competitive card game! Furthermore, a bugbear of mine crops up - things
are given meaning via arbitrary numbers. For example, “you need to beat a 1 with
this roll to be succesful.” What is the difference between a 1 and say a 2? Are
those numbers different for someone else - if so, why? Under what criteria do I
as a referee - or whoever is running the game - decide these numbers? Usually
this is done by a gut feeling, but when the numbers are granular or the rolls
“swingy” it’s easy to feel like you might’ve set the wrong number, as highly
numeric games have to be “balanced” - whatever that means.
Let’s move onto a game I like much better. Risus, the Anything RPG, uses only the simple mechanic of clichés (which are instantly understandable) and dice pools (which are not hard to learn). However, it has a much higher reliance on those pesky arbitrary numbers. A pack of goblins (2) is less of a threat than a pack of goblins (3) - the latter can roll higher and has a larger pool, thus absorbing more “hits”. How are these numbers assigned? What do they mean in in-fiction terms? It’s not always clear.
Continuing onto TWERPS. It’s almost unfair to dunk on TWERPS, since it’s closer to a comedy game or a parody of RPGs than a serious game. Still, people take it seriously and will bash games that they see as having “more complex” rules than TWERPS (I’ve seen this done to Tinyd6). If you’re not familiar, the base mechanic is opposed rolls + Strength score, where Strength, numbered 1-10, is the only stat a TWERPS character has. This is very very simple, to the point of uninteresting-ness, but a good referee could (in the same way she does in an FKR game) make this more interesting, although (with RAW) this takes the place of a to-hit roll in D&D. The complexity comes in the various setting books. These state classes (ranks in TWERPS Twek) that give various buffs, special cases, etc. My thoughts upon reading these for the first time was: “Feats. These are feats.” Yup, the alleged “world’s simplest roleplaying game”, RAW, replicates features from Third Edition D&D, the powergamer’s wet dream. Playing TWERPS RAW involves reading and understanding a bunch of mechanics and interactions, and the simplicity will quickly fade away. Oh and of course, it has saving rolls where you roll 1d10 against an arbitrary 1-10 scale. Go figure.
An aside - I’ve started to think that powergaming (or spiking, to use the M:TG term) is not a behavioral issue, but rather a system issue. A player who sees 500 pages of combat rules and complex interactions will almost inevitably be drawn to optimize the combat effectiveness of their character; the rules encourage it. Only a game that has no such potential for optimization will ever be free from at least one person trying it. Complaints about powergaming seem to be a post-3e phenomenom, because in earlier editions of D&D, the simpler old-school character generation (3d6/4d6kh3 in order, pick a class) ruled. To fix powergaming, play a game that does not support it.
The final game I’d like to talk about is Tinyd6. It gets so, so close to doing it correctly. Instead of rolling on an arbitrary numerical scale, you look for 5s and 6s in a d6 pool - 2d6 normally, 1d6 unlikely, 3d6 likely - for success. However, I’m reluctant to run or play it, because it too has feats/point buy, thus skirting way too close to “I look at my character sheet” problem-solving and lengthy, optimized character builds.
So what do all these games have in common? One or more of:
FKR, the Free Kriegsspiel Revolution, is so far our best hope of solving this conundrum. With a plain-text character description, you can’t run into powergaming. With a fixed target number, pure 2d6-opposed, or Tinyd6’s dice rolls re-adapted, arbitrary number scales are done away with. Most importantly, there’s no specialised gaming words and no system to master.
After 50 years of finagling, perhaps the secret to rules-light bliss was there from the very start, back where it all began - in the dungeons beneath Blackmoor.