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Jumping to a Rules-Light System

Back in July, renner complimented us, rubbed the Gnome, and posted this [1] on the Suggestion Pot.

I’ve been playing/GMing a rules-heavy RPG system (Gurps), and now I’m moving towards FATE RPG, which is a very rules-light system.
So, my suggestions for articles are:
1 – How can a rules-heavy GM adapt to a rules-light game?
2 – How do you handle a narrative combat?

Since we always respond to compliments, Gnome rubs (and for future reference, renner: bribes), Martin handled the narrative side of the equation [2], and I’ll tackle the “adapt to a rules-light game” side. 

Long before Gnome Stew, I ran a D&D 3.5 game, with most of the options open. The experience (especially the hours spent poring over spell lists for NPCs with about six rounds of ‘screen time’ before expiring) left me looking for a simpler system. I test-drove a few systems before settling on Savage Worlds. (Other finalists were True20, Castles & Crusades, and Unisystem.) D&D 3.5 and Savage Worlds will be my examples, although the concepts apply to almost any rules-heavy/rules-light comparison.

In making the jump from a two-foot-high stack of gaming books to two small books and a campaign website, I’ve realized a few things…

Learn to Adjudicate on the Fly

One of the unexpected results of jumping to a rules-light system is that the GM has to answer many of the questions that come up in play. Another way to put it: Actions still have consequences; there just aren’t tons of rules explaining those consequences, so your workload may increase. In the long run, this is a good thing because of the flexibility it brings to the game, but for there is some on-the-job training.

I was fortunate to have cut my teeth on first edition AD&D. AD&D is definitely not rules-light, but its vague and conflicting rules require GM interpretation. For instance, in AD&D, the effects of a Polymorph Self spell is pretty vague (an owl’s ability to fly is granted, but its low-light vision is not; the rationale is unclear), while in D&D 3.5, the effects of Polymorph are very specific (a troll’s Rend is granted, but not its Regeneration; both are Extraordinary abilities, but only attacks are gained).

Regardless, when jumping to a rules-light system, be prepared to adjudicate on the fly, and revisit your decisions later, if need be. Make sure that your players recognize that there will be more GM interpretation (and reinterpretation).

Let Go of the Past

Many GMs and players will unconsciously carry old patterns of behavior into a new game. This is never a good idea, but in a rules-light game, it can be doubly frustrating; not only are you ‘doing it wrong’, but you’re doing it just like the game you left behind!

When deciding how a game mechanic should work, try to find one that reflects both the game and the setting. Resist the temptation to borrow mechanics from other games, especially your last one, unless it fits what you’re looking for. This was a hard-fought lesson for me.

As an example: In D&D 3.5, a trap either makes an ‘attack’ or allows a ‘save’ to avoid/resist its effects; even the most deadly traps almost always have that 5% chance of ‘no effect’. I had to force myself to rethink traps in Savage Worlds; many are avoided with a simple Agility check (some at a penalty), although needle traps, razor wire, etc. simply do damage if not noticed.

Chances are, someone else is running the same system and genre.  There’s no reason to recreate the wheel when Google is right there…

Common Sense Trumps Rules Lawyers

One of the advantages of the rules-light system is that the GM does not have to spend hours poring over the details of spells, classes, monsters, and rules to avoid any pitfalls.  Simply put, because of the more free-form nature of the game, there are less chances for rules lawyers to entangle the GM in loopholes. This does not mean that players won’t try to grab every advantage they can, but they can’t rely on the rules to back them up.

Most GMs do this to some extent, but in a rules-light game, the GM will need to rely on common sense instead of hard-and-fast rules. This may take some adjustment on both sides of the screen, but once everyone’s on the same page, the rules fade into the background and the characters and story come more alive.

Have you made the jump to a rules-light (or less-heavy) system? Got any advice or stories to share? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Jumping to a Rules-Light System"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On September 13, 2010 @ 11:29 am

We got shaken up a bit when we made the leap to a much lighter system– in our case, [3]. While I’ve played several “lighter rules” systems before, the extreme streamlining and additional narration were quite a challenge to our group.

Part of it was wandering around without defined limits– often in lighter rules systems your powers are more vaguely defined. This can be great– you can get the comic book “stretching” of powers into new domains when the hero develops their trick– but without a solid grounding, it can be hard to get on exactly the same page. (This feeds right back into adjudicating on the fly in the article above.)

Figuring out the bounds of the characters, in typical conditions, is important to get right to start. Knowing what characters can get away with in ordinary circumstances gets everyone aligned. If some people think a 10′ drop means sprained ankles, while other players expect heroic 50′ drops with a tumble and pop-up, someone’s going to be disappointed– or very surprised– the first time they jump.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 13, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

[4] – Excellent point! Because the parameters aren’t built in, rules-light systems have a greater need for getting on the same page.

In other words, the game charter / social contract conversation is more important in rules-light systems.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On September 13, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

I am just reading the rulebook for The Dresden Files RPG, for about the third time (it’s difficult to be precise because each re-reading has fuzzed into the same hellish morass of – whoda thunkit – RULES).

Anyone who tells me “FATE” is rules-lite is going to get thrashed with the anti-mendacity stick by yours truly. DFRPG is built on FATE and its rulebook reads like the tax code.

Savage Worlds is also hardly “rules lite”. Admittedly, there are less *lists* than in D20 because everything is squished into a few generic headings. BFD. The magic system is less entry-heavy for the same reason. But lists ain’t rules because (and this is the important bit) the DM doesn’t need to memorize ’em to make the game work. They are mostly the players’ responsibility.

As a DM whose first choice of rules-set is neither D20 nor Savage Worlds let me point out that the mechanics of the game itself, the stuff the GM *has* to have at his/her fingertips is no less intense with Savage Worlds than with D20, both of which I recently took the trouble to learn – with a 55 year-old brain that is misfiring on at least two cylinders I might add.

I’d say that SW combat is quicker than D20, except it ain’t. Hitting each other is actually a bit more complex in SW due to Aces and Bennies (a constant source of confusion to new-to-FTF-RPG players of my acquaintance).

What is quicker is spellcasting, but not the mechanics of spellcasting or the apportioning of effects of spells. Just the bit where the druid doesn’t know what the hell a spell he/she has does or how it works and so has to learn at the table when they want to deploy it. SW *does* reduce this factor, though I might say this isn’t really “too many rules” as much as “poor play habits”. The same players will still stall play in SW in the same way, just not for as long.

I’ll give you that SW makes running NPCs a doddle, mostly because it strips them down in the same way any GM with sense has been doing whatever system he/she uses all along. You seriously generate every skill and feat for your NPCs?

FATE (as embodied in DFRPG) isn’t about being “rules lite”, it’s about shifting the emphasis of the game away from a “traditional” RPG format in which the GM sets up the world and the players play inside it to a more consensual, group-mediated model. The rules (okay, “binding guidlines”) that have to be established for that make for some intense learning on a precipitous curve, and Gods below, is it boring. What’s more, now the time suck isn’t the druid and his/her unread spellbook, it’s the endless negotiating for every damned facet of a scene.

You truly want rules lite, run Call of Cthulhu from edition 3 or so. It took me 10 minutes to learn all I needed to know to run this game the first time I was asked. Really. I’m not kidding. Unfortunately the new rulebook makes the game look so complex I doubt anyone would believe me after reading it, but I swear it’s true.

But I have to admit, after one outing with GURPS I can’t argue with you that anything you do afterward would seem “rules lite”. A fantastic achievement. A work of art. Most unenjoyable combat rounds I’ve ever played in any game. I bought the Vorkosigan Saga book with an idea to running that milieu, but after playing a different GURPS game from the other side of the screen for a few weeks I’m completely done with the system.

Disclaimer: I started (as a player) with White Box D&D. Everything was pretty much the GM making an on-the-fly ruling. Much fun. And it didn’t take over 300 pages to tell us how it worked either.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On September 13, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

Which wasn’t what you asked. Sorry for claiming I’m a burglar and then selling you encyclopedias. This “rules lite” fallacy is a hot button.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 13, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

[5] – I’m a huge Fudge fan which is what FATE is based upon. The tome that is DFRPG is one reason why I have not purchased the books despite liking both FATE and Harry Dresden books.

But going by just the SRD for FATE and the Savage Worlds Explorer Edition I disagree with your point that they are not rules-lite. I think that they are compare dot other games out there.

But that is the real problem here with either of our statements, because rules-lite is something you achieve through comparison. If I have an RPG with ten rules tops it is rules-lite compared to 4e. It is ten times too large compared to an RPG with a single rule.

Just my 2 bits.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 13, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

[6] – Tell us what you really think! 😉

I understand where you’re coming from, but I’m still going with what I know – that SWEX defines less of the world, and requires less rule prep and rule consultation than d20. I was hesitant to call SWEX ‘rules-light’, because it does have some rules complexity – the learning curve for shaken-wounded-soaked-unshaken is a major point here. However, it’s still a simplER system than d20, so the two work for purposes of comparison.

Love your GURPS comparison – “GURPS: Making every other game seem much more playable since 1986!” (I’ve only played GURPS once, and that was enough. I’m sure it has its strong points, and I do like the quality of the supplements, but it’s definitely not my style.)

#7 Comment By Dunx On September 13, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

@Roxysteve – I was going to mention CoC as a rules-light system, and there you are again, thinking my thoughts for me. Oh well. Good to be specific about the edition, though.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On September 14, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

[7] – This is contrary to my experience.

I maintain, as someone who has just in the last year picked up *both* d20 and SW as core engines upon which to load games (D20 used for Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green and SW used for Realms of Cthulhu and Deadlands Reloaded), that D20 (as opposed to D&D which should properly be looked at as a game supplement built on the D20 engine, in the same way that Deadlands Reloaded bolts onto SW) is no more complex or rules heavy than the non-list parts of Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition.

In fact, most of the non-list parts of SW that don’t have to do with crowds of people or armies on the move seem almost to have been lifted wholesale from D20 as a quick study of two weapon usage in each system will illustrate (always a good place to start since almost every player will ask about it sooner rather than later).

Savage Worlds simply points out the obvious (or what would be obvious if people wouldn’t fixate on what does or does not constitute “real D&D”): namely that the GM gets an easy ride if he/she lets the players do some of the non-consequential world-building. But then, I class such stuff as mostly lists that don’t contribute weight to the rules so much as the setting, and by the time you’ve absorbed whatever SW bolt-on floats your boat you are back up to “fairly heavy” list-type stuff.

I use D20 when I want the players to have a fine grained tactical experience on the grid and to maintain gravitas in small doses. It is difficult to build atmosphere in Realms of Cthulhu sometimes because at the first sign of trouble someone’s “flee” dice are going to explode like they were soaked in nitroglycerin and nothing reduces the whole thing to farce faster than a player character zooming across the landscape at a pace of 37 while using a free action to yell “beep-beep!”

Yes, D20 has list after list of stuff that modify the rules for a given player, but those things have two major features people tend to forget: a) Lists don’t have to be memorized to run the game because you can look up the entries when you need ’em and 2) 99% of lists are stuff the player needs to know. Good rule of thumb: If a player picks a skill or feat it ain’t the GM’s responsibility to remember they have it or to tell them how it works when they want to use it.

Neither system is particularly “rules lite” in my view, but I think harping on about how un-lite the rules are is a bum steer. It isn’t how “heavy” the rules are but how well you can maneuver with them that counts. I use both and enjoy them each for what they bring to my gaming table, but I wouldn’t recommend either on the grounds of being “rules-lite” (though I have recommended SWEE to many folks for other reasons).

And if we are talking about /confusing/ rules, just read the poorly worded “explanation” or auto fire in SWEE. I never saw such a pig’s ear made of what is in fact a simple concept once you get past the woeful composition.

Which is a slightly different topic.

Rules Lite? Go with D&D White Box edition without the Greyhawk, Blackmore, Eldrich Wizardry or Gods, Demigods and Heroes supplements added in.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On September 14, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

[8] – Can’t comment on 4e other than it seems that you either love it or hate it for “what it has done to D&D”.

Another strike for the Dresden Files RPG designers is that they launch a game based on a system for which there are precisely no dice available. Yes you can use D6, but the system is based on and the explanations and examples illustrated using Fudge Dice. You would have thought that the DFRPG team would have liaised with Chessex or someone to have DFRPG-themed Fudge Dice available for the game launch, but apparently this little detail slipped past them.

Not a show-stopper (the “Your Story” rulebook is likely to fulfill that function) but one more reason to walk on by.

I predict people will do what I’ve been contemplating since about page 50 of YS: Using the material in the “Our World” sourcebook to run in the “Dresdenverse”.

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On September 14, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

And to post something ON-topic, the single piece of advice I’d give someone going “rules-lite” is to point out to the players what you are doing by moving away from a rules system in which stuff is nailed down tight and to get their understanding that you aren’t going to be writing down decisions you make one day so the same decision two weeks later will be the same.

If you do, all you are doing is writing your own “rules heavy” system as you go, which isn’t wrong but is a great and unnecessary time suck since there are already so many game systems you can choose from where that stuff has been done for you.

Or you could, you know, move to Call of Cthulhu using Third edition rules and save yourself the bother. Ten minute learning curve guys.

#11 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 15, 2010 @ 9:19 am

Their only two manufacturers of Fudge dice that I know of. Q-Workshop which are custom and expensive, and Grey Ghost Press. I know that Ann Dupuis (GGP) and Fred Hicks of Evil Hat are friends and that Ann has tried to keep up with the demand from DFRPG. The problem is that she is working on new color dice and I think molds with her supplier in China right now.

Regardless, here is what I suggest to people who are just starting to play Fudge (or derivatives like FATE):


That link teaches you how to turn D6s with pips into Fudge dice. Works fine IMO, and it is what I used for a couple of years until I finally bought some Fudge dice.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 15, 2010 @ 9:33 am

And to be clear – Chessex re-sells the Grey Ghost Pres Fudge dice. I think KaPlow used to make the dice for Ann, so perhaps they still make them or will plan on producing more themselves. I know that when I talked to the Game Science guys at Gen Con this year that they said that they were considering making Fudge dice as well.

#13 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 15, 2010 @ 9:40 am

Another thing that is interesting about this topic is that all of these game systems that have been mentioned all have simple core mechanics. D20 games use a target number and you roll a d20 with or without modifiers to determine success. SW uses a similar approach, only your PC’s skill determines the size of the die and there is the exploding die rule. Fudge, and therefore FATE, use four dice to generate a result between -4 and +4 that favors 0 and you use that roll to adjust your skill/trait rank compared to a ladder.

These are really simple yet some games become so complicated because of all the rules that people create to deal with “unexpected situations” in the game IMO.

Maybe the secret to using a rules-lite system is to try and stick to the core mechanic as much as possible? To avoid the temptation of creating new rules in order to address what you perceive to be a problem with the rules addressing an unforeseen in-game event?

Just a thought.

#14 Comment By Roxysteve On September 15, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

[10] – Yah, though anyone who needs advice on how to make Fudge Dice really shouldn’t pick up DFRPG – or any other game IMO. My point was that not only is the DFRPG expensive in terms of TCO (it breasts the cost tape slightly ahead of GURPS Basic Set at around a c-note after taxes) but it does itself no favors by talking in terms of dice that are for all intents and purposes unobtainable.

I figured out three minutes into a search for Fudge Dice how to get around the issue in the demo game I shall be running at a small store event, but it would all go so much smoother with the actual Fudge Dice for people to see and feel.

Now, on top of a game with a four hundred page rulebook (can we say “intimidating”?) and a system I can safely bet real cashmoney that no-one will have played before, I have to add arithmetic into the equation – pretty much a non-starter with RPG players these days. If I get out the Sharpie I’ll be brought up on charges of attempting to weight the dice by some nitwit. None of these factors will help with the actual goal of the demo – to generate sales of the game.

Chessex make custom dice to order, which was were I was going with that bit of namedropping. I don’t care what the licensing ramifications are, printing a game for which the primary accessory is unobtainable is a marketing “own goal” of classic proportions and someone should be shouted at for bad thinking. I mean, in all the months this thing was in production, did no-one ask “are dice actually available for the game, and if not, who do we talk to about a joint venture?”

I refuse to believe there were adequate dice supplies that have been gobbled up by some shadowy Fudge Dice speculator attempting to corner the market. :o)

#15 Comment By Roxysteve On September 15, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

[11] – “Maybe the secret to using a rules-lite system is to try and stick to the core mechanic as much as possible? To avoid the temptation of creating new rules in order to address what you perceive to be a problem with the rules addressing an unforeseen in-game event?”

I would heartily agree, though I’ve not come across rampant rules adding in all the years I’ve been playing D20 to be honest. People often take rules out of the system and thereby have the wheels come off at some point (Massive Damage springs to mind here), but adding new rules? I’m sure it can happen but I’m not convinced it’s as widespread as you suggest.

#16 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 15, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

[12] – Really? Are you talking from the point-pf-view of players/GMs? I made my comment from the pooint-of-view of a game designer. I’m knee deep in finalizing my own system and there is always the great temptation of adding rules.

Mounted combat needs rules! Diplomacy needs rules! Bartering for goods and services needs rules! And very rarely are any of those statements true.

I think that when these systems are play tested the designers add rules based on customers saying “What? You don’t have rules for X?” and that continues all the way to when the game is released and people start making house rules for it. Perhaps good game design is the art of creating a simple core mechanic and then knowing when to expand upon it and when to let it stand as is?

#17 Comment By Roxysteve On September 15, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

[13] – I’m speaking as a player/GM. I thought that was clear from my context. Sorry for the confusion.

Perhaps the better way for a designer would be to forgo the ease of using an established game engine and to start by defining exactly what is “wrong” with all the game systems you aren’t happy with.

That’s pretty much how every RPG with the exception of Empire of the Petal Throne came about after Gygax & Arneson showed what was possible. Hate character classes and all that alignment nonsense (Law, Neutral and Chaos only in them days)? Wait 12 months or so and Runequest will make of them a distant memory. Want to play in space instead of fighting silly dragons? Traveller will be along in a moment, *and* you don’t need all those stupid, hard-to-get poly dice either. And so on. And so on.

(As an aside I’m greatly amused by how much influence D20 has on current game systems, especially the ones that froth loudest on the subject of lightness of rules – this observer can’t help but see the obvious cribbing that has taken place on key concepts).

I wish you great good luck with your game design.

#18 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 16, 2010 @ 10:12 am

[14] – Two Fisted was an Edge in Deadlands original, back in the pre-d20 days of 1996. Pinnacle did break it out into Ambidextrous and Two-Fisted in Savage Worlds, but many Edges were split in the jump from Deadlands. SWEX does borrow from other systems (White Wolf among them), but the wheel needn’t be reinvented with every game.

I do maintain that SW is more ‘rules light’ than any iteration of d20, with the exception of homebrews like Microlight d20. The core concept of d20 is simple, but it is bogged down with odd subsystems (Turn Undead, ‘stacking’ rules, the six types of actions, attacks of opportunity, etc).

Regardless of the examples used, the point of the article is that there are a few things that a GM should pay attention to when jumping to a rules-light system: learning to adjudicate on the fly, letting go of old patterns of gaming, using common sense (or story or setting) instead of rules, and the importance of getting everyone on the same page.

I’m sure there’s more, so any additional input is appreciated!

#19 Comment By Roxysteve On September 16, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

[15] – Which is my point: Turn Undead is a D&D addition to D20, not a core rule that must be remembered by the GM, what I class as a “list” item – something the player rather than the GM should know inside out. Once you plug in one of the setting books to Savage Worlds you are pretty much in the same boat.

Attacks of Opportunity are right there in Savage Worlds, they just aren’t as clearly laid out. This I don’t class as a positive, but then I never found the D20 AOO rules to be confusing in the first place – indeed, the confusion over them in places like the DMotR comment threads made me wonder seriously about the attention span of the modern gamer.

I’m on the periphery of a very active gaming group here on Long Island and what I’ve observed is that people here are not clamoring for lightness of rules in the way that seems to be the case with the Gnome Stewards.

What they want is consistency and vividness of game experience. D&D3.5, Conan D20, AD&D, Call of Cthulhu (both BRP and D20), World of Darkness, Pathfinder, Dark Heresy, Burning Wheel and Savage Worlds are all in constant rotation at the regular meeting place (a local game store). Heck, there’s even an occasional GURPS game for the asking. GMs don’t talk of wanting a simpler rulebook, at least, not round me.

Players don’t either, at least, I haven’t heard them doing so. The most recent “rules” comparison held by this crowd mainly involved the desire to try more Burning Wheel simply because it sounded intriguing.

There are also reservations being voiced as to whether Dresden Files (something I want to try out) will work in this crowd because the character generation seems to assume a mostly constant group composition that is rare in our group because we are all working stiffs and not full time college students; time is in short supply. Note that no-one but me (as the would-be GM) is at all concerned with rules complexity or strangeness, just the timing and the overall idea of the setting.

If a GM hasn’t already learned to adjudicate on the fly in whatever system they are using I have to wonder what sort of game they run. Turning off the rules when it suits them is a basic GM trick. Not having them to start with doesn’t seem to me to be a big stretch.

In my opinion it isn’t the lack of rules that are problematic anyway, it is the difference in the rules that do exist in game system B from those you’ve been used to in game system A. A good example is that I keep running into situations in my D20 Call of Cthulhu involving the player/character knowledge barrier when I want to say “roll your Know Roll” – a mechanism that simply doesn’t exist in D20 based games in that form (as the many discussion groups dedicated to how to handle this issue will show). Knowledge (General) would be a rough equivalent for about half the cases I need it (knowledge not specifically implied on the character sheet but possibly known to many in-game characters) but not in the rest (specialized knowledge the player has acquired but which the character may or may not have).

Switching to Savage Worlds doesn’t fix that kind of issue (though bolting-on Realms of Cthulhu might, via Defining Interests).

Interesting topic. Shame we can’t have this conversation in a pub over a few beers.

#20 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-09-17 On September 17, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

[…] Jumping to a Rules-Light System […]

#21 Comment By black campbell On March 6, 2011 @ 9:38 pm

I rather like the Cortex system that was put out for Serenity and Battlestar Galactica because it’s relatively rules light, but the way characters are constructed lent itself well to role-playing over roll-playing.

#22 Pingback By I.E. | Immediate Gratification: The Joy of Improvisational Creation On February 24, 2014 @ 6:18 pm

[…] occasion, but I have always preferred running by the seat of my pants. I prefer a relatively “light” rules set, one that is easy to bend to my will without getting bogged down in fiddly bits […]