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Sticking to the Core

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On July 28, 2010 @ 12:01 am In GMing Advice | 12 Comments

One problem that usually comes with GMing any successful RPG line  is rules bloat. Unless you’re running Call of Cthulhu (and I’m certain there are others), your successful RPG probably has several splatbooks that increase player character options. While many of these options are inspiring and help flesh out characters, they also tend to create headaches in terms of game balance, especially when you forget that Encounter #17 can be easily defeated by Advantage #32 in the Complete Guide to GM-Screwing III.

A solution that works for me is to stick to the core rules.

The core rules of any well-designed game have been extensively balanced and playtested. The PCs generated are designed to overcome the challenges that the game offers and there are usually more than enough options for the players to choose from so that no two PCs are alike or stepping on each other’s toes.

The flip side, of course, is that players love options and if you don’t allow character options from the Unbalanced Third Party Product that Nonetheless has Really Kewl Powerz then you’re likely to get some resistance. Sometimes the player begs, grovels, or holds your puppy hostage until you allow such a product into the game, opening the floodgates to more such options.

Here are a few reasons I’ve collected over the years in support of sticking to the core:

Adventures are generally written with the core books in mind.

Sure your favorite game line might have over 30 books, but chances are that the adventures are written so that you only need the core rules to play. This is intentional, as the publishers want to cast as wide a net as possible for GMs to buy their adventures. Requiring that new GMs (and even old ones) purchase 6 or 7 books before they can make use of an adventure is a good way to not sell a lot of adventures.

Coupled with this is balance. If the adventure designer is limited to the core books, then she usually isn’t worried about the crunch in other supplements when plotting her adventure. This increases the probability that a party of splatbook empowered PCs can run roughshod over what were meant to be intense encounters.

Supplements usually introduce power creep.

The more crunch that is produced, the more niche the crunch becomes, usually with a corresponding increase in power. In D&D 3.x, making a decent fighter/wizard combination required lots of trade-offs and the resulting character was nowhere near as good as a regular fighter or wizard. Enter the splatbooks and suddenly there are dozens of fighter/wizard combos in which this is no longer true. Maybe the fighter/wizard doesn’t have proficiency in the breadth of weapons a normal fighter does and maybe his spell list is a bit more limited than a true wizard, but does it matter mechanically if he still has the same attack bonus and caster level as his single-classed counterparts?

I said it above but it’s worth repeating; by sticking to the core you are using the most balanced set of rules. PCs will have less of a tendency to step into others’ niches or cause headaches when they unleash over-powered abilities.

Allowing Supplements may actually limit player options and creativity.

I once ran a 7th Sea campaign not long after the rules and the first few splatbooks had come out. I had a policy of allowing splatbooks at the time and I noticed that my players wouldn’t make characters of a particular nationality or secret society unless the supplement was available (indeed, I had some players pestering me on when I was going to be able to get particular supplements so they could play those characters). I remember a similar experience back when the AD&D 2e class handbooks (the ones with the “kits”) came out.

In addition, having the players “make do” with the core rules usually results in less “cookie-cutter” characters. To pick on D&D again, back in the “basic” days the “fighter” class represented all characters with a martial bent, whether you wanted to portray her as a barbarian, noble knight, roguish swashbuckler, mercenary soldier, or wilderness hunter. Once you start allowing classes that are tailored to some of those niches, players tend to look for appropriate classes in other splatbooks or abandon their concepts rather than use one that is a “poor fit.”

Too much crunch may result in too many specialists

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a party get stumped because the PC they relied on in a particular field lacked the skill/feat/power/class feature they needed because he was using a “substitute” version of an archetype that was tailored to a particular niche. This can certainly cause problems in published adventures if the “substitute” PCs are too easily exploited because they have weaknesses that weren’t taken into account.

Too many options slows the game down.

There’s nothing that’ll slow a game down more than if you need to reference and cross-reference seven rulebooks in a game session, especially when splatbooks conflict with each other (which is common after a game is launched and several splatbooks are being drafted at the same time). Similarly, a player that needs to create a character will spend far more time building her if she can flip through twelve books in order to do so.

Practical Reasons

Finally, there are practical reasons to keep the core books down. The first of these is cash. By limiting yourself to the core, you and your players don’t have to spend a lot of money to keep up with the game. The second of these is the floodgate. Once you allow a player to use one splatbook, you lose your moral high ground to prevent the next player from introducing another.

Also, if you don’t run the game out of your home then you’ll only need to lug a few books to the game. While advances in technology are making portabilitiy less of an issue, it’s always good to have a hard copy with you if the power goes out or you’re the only one with a laptop in front of you.

So those are a few of my reasons; how about you? Have you ever run a “core only” campaign using an RPG with splatbooks? If so, did you find it helpful or limiting? What other reasons do you have for sticking to the core or, on the flip side, allowing extra crunch?

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Sticking to the Core"

#1 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 28, 2010 @ 8:21 am

I can really appreciate your desire for simplicity. Just keeping the gaming table from looking like the Library of Alexandria is worth aiming for.

I think the hard thing about “core only” games is having to say “no,” especially after a player has paid hard-won cash for the newest supplement or, in the case of 4E, a DDI subscription.

As a GM, I don’t hold myself to just the core rules. I grab from wherever and whatever to make a compelling encounter. Is it fair to deny the same to the players?

I generally say “core plus one.” Each player gets to select an additional supplement. I’ve found that keeps the power creep, rules bloat and other factors you’ve mentioned from ballooning out of control, while still aiming for many of the same things you’re aspiring to in trying to “stick to the core.”

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On July 28, 2010 @ 9:14 am

@Troy – Good points!

I tried something similar in my last D&D 3.5 game (using the Freeport setting). It started off with “just core but Green Ronin’s Corsair is okay.” Soon the “Complete” books crept in, followed by any class put out by Green Ronin, followed by PHB II…you get the idea!

A potential problem with allowing each player to choose a book is the cross-pollination, as well as the book staying in the game with a character switch and new book added.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 28, 2010 @ 10:54 am

Well, if I was in your game, and I had to pick a Green Ronin title, it would be The Witch’s Handbook by Steve Kenson. But I confess, it would be to look at the artwork by Stehpanie Pui-Mun Law rather than any of the game mechanics stuff inside. (Though I might be tempted by all the herbal remedies, plant toxins and poisons) :)

#4 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On July 28, 2010 @ 11:03 am

@Troy- I love that one…the Shaman’s Handbook is also flavorful…heck, I like them all but I think the standout is the Psychic’s Handbook.

#5 Comment By Razjah On July 28, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

I generally allow books that I have read through and approved. I don’t usually have problems with allowing a couple splat books. Besides if the players gripe about what they aren’t allowed they are free to find another game with a GM who knows more about the system. I am not keeping them from joining another game or even leaving mine. I do not encourage players to leave, but I will not bend my game to something that I am not comfortable with.

#6 Comment By evil On July 29, 2010 @ 9:11 am

My games do tend to stick to the core books due to the simple fact that it’s cheap. I don’t mind allowing extra materials, but they have to be approved before the adventure even comes close to beginning. If I find a character is relying too heavily on splatbooks or is trying to nerf up thanks to all that extra stuff, usually I pull them aside and ask about the reasons they’re using them. If the player can give a better reason than “I want to” I often let it continue. If not, sometimes they stumble upon a debilitating in-game encounter which causes them to lose some abilities.

#7 Comment By outrider11 On July 29, 2010 @ 11:35 am

What I did was after reading the splatbooks, I would decide on which of the classes would be allowed in and possibly where it could have come from within my setting. I also did the same thing with the prestige classes. As for the races, I just didn’t allow them. They didn’t fit within the history of the world.

As for the feats and spells. The feats that were not in the core book, required the player to find a mentor to teach them the technique or some other reason to be able to get them. As for the spells, the core was all there. Additional Arcane spells could be found through adventuring, interaction with Npcs and other means. Divine spells were a little more difficult. Usually it meant that the cleric would have to have done something unique or special. His deity could grant him special ability to cast that spell. I also just allowed certain Divine spells to be added to the basic lists.

I felt that this helped to control the power creep and tended to make each player character a little more unique.

I know that many will groan about the stifling of their character creativity but its worked for me.

#8 Comment By GiacomoArt On July 29, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

I heavily favor games that have tons of character-creation flexibility built right into the core rules. Generally speaking, that means I go for classless, point-build systems like HERO, FUDGE, or d6. When you’ve already got a flexible character-design toolkit at your fingertips, you don’t need splat book after splat book just to keep things fresh. When splat books do come up, I usually handle them by ignoring their existence.

D&D 4E is a guilty pleasure that’s the exception to the rule, because it’s the most enjoyable tactical miniatures game I’ve encountered. (Cool Tip: try using the 4E rules to run a role-playing campaign! Sounds crazy, but with a little effort and imagination, it can be fun.) I view the Player’s Handbook 2 as “the stuff that should have gone into the original PHB, but it was just getting way too big”, so I treat it like core rules. Other than that, I’m looking at new 4E books on a strictly case-by-case basis, and may allow some additions but not others, even in the same book (e.g.: while I like the concept from PHB3 for picking powers from alternating classes, I have no intention of ever allowing a “psionic” character in my 4E games.)

Bottom line: it’s your game, and you should never allow the publisher to hold you hostage with unwelcome additions or rules changes just because they’re “official”.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On July 29, 2010 @ 11:00 pm

It all depends on the campaign concept. I’m pretty happy keeping the books we use constant– if we start with core, there’s no need to add new as we go along.

“Pick one” works well for an established game– though it’s still a lot more overhead for the GM to master. (In a 5 player group it increases the “books known” from 3 to 8.)

Every once in a while though, it’s fun to go crazy and allow it all. I did this in my farewell to 3.5 campaign. It had many of the “too many supplements” problems mentioned above, but it was a fun last hurrah.

#10 Comment By Katana_Geldar On August 1, 2010 @ 10:20 pm

What books to use can depend on the system.

Take Star Wars Saga, for instance. I would consider three books to be core (Core rules, Starships and Threats), but aside from the splat books (Galaxy at War, Scum and Villainy) there are a variety of era books that need to be used during the campaign to get that feel for the time.

I always say it’s a GM’s perogative as to what books are allowed in the campaign as they represent what the GM knows how to use and/or what the GM is willing to use.

Of course, 4E with DDI makes this a hell of a lot easier.

#11 Comment By BryanB On August 2, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

I’ve actually been told that I’m a “lazy DM” for not allowing everything plus the kitchen sink. What? Really?

There are some books that are just plain unbalancing to a campaign. Book of Exalted Cheese, I am looking at YOU. There are third party products that just don’t fit in with every setting, let alone mesh well mechanically with the core rules.

I’ve never had an issue with a DM placing limits on the classes or races being allowed in a particular campaign setting, be it a homebrew or otherwise.

Sticking to the Core is fine with me. The more you add, the more that you have to remember. And remembering things is tough enough these days without extra stuff overloading the circuit breaker. :D

#12 Comment By Katana_Geldar On August 2, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

@BryanB – Agreed, Brian. That’s why I limit things and avoid Dragon magazine, too much to remember!


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