Why I prefer rules-light games

In a comment on one of my post someone told me that I am overanalyzing things. I have to admit he’s totally right. It’s something I noticed a while ago. Heck, I even do this with pretty straightforward rules-light systems and even games I’ve designed myself. It’s how my brain works. The fact that I have a full-time job and sometimes struggle with depressions haven’t made things easier. When I was younger I ran games like Shadowrun and D&D 3.5 which are not known for being particularly rules-light, but nowadays just reading through the rules cause me headaches. Often it’s just easier for me to make up rules on the spot or make a quick ruling instead of having to remember the rules from a 500 page rulebook.

But first let’s talk about what a rules-light game actually is. Alas there are no clear guidelines to determine how rules-light or rules-heavy a game actually is. People often refer to “crunchiness” but this term isn’t properly defined either. We actually use these terms to describe something about roleplaying games but we can’t be sure that my definition of rules-light fits yours. In my definition a rules-light game usually has one (or a couple) simple core mechanics that cover most standard situations. Non-standard situations are usually solved by the GM making a ruling on the spot. Rules-heavy games usually have either a different mechanic for each subsystem and tend to come with rules for every conceivable situation. One example is Shadowrun’s infamous water-treading rule.

Things can get a bit fuzzy if a game has a simple core rule set but countless options. Even the simplest game can leave the “realm of rules-light” quickly if you give the GM and players countless options to choose from. That’s why I consider Fate Core more rules-light than the version of Fate used in Spirits of the Century. For me, a simple rule that shows me how to create my own stunts feels “lighter” than having to wade through a long list of precreated ones. I don’t know if that actually makes sense, but it’s just how my brain works.

Ok, we now should have a good approximation of what I’d call rules-light. So why do I prefer these games over the more complex (and sometimes even more complete) ones? As I mentioned before I just don’t have the time and patience to read 500 pages of rules before I can run a game. If I had sticked to the same game for the last twenty years or so, I probably wouldn’t have minded  using a rather complex system. Back in the day, I still had the time and the motivation to learn pretty crunchy rules (by the way, crunchiness is another pretty vague term). But I never stick to one system for long. I like to try out new things. Alas I don’t get to play or run a game every week. There have been periods when we didn’t game for months. And in light of these facts it just doesn’t make much sense to me to put up with complex systems. It often takes quite a while to read the rules, prepare the game, and all this effort is wasted when you play perhaps once per month. Rules-light games also give me more time to focus on the things more important to me. Let’s say I have 3 weeks to prepare for a new game I want to try out. If I spend 2 weeks reading the rules, I am left with just 1 week to prepare the actual game. But if the rules can be read in an hour or so, I have almost the full three weeks left where I can ponder about what I can throw at my players.

I can fully understand that a lot of people love crunchy games where each new supplement comes with new options and new rules. But for me these games just don’t work anymore – at least most of the time. There are a couple of games I’d consider rules-heavy that have piqued my interest and I am actually tempted to put in some time and effort into those. Hero System looks very interesting, even though it feels extremely massive. I fear this game might put me into option paralysis pretty quickly, but some day I might give it a try. The latest edition of Shadowrun on the other hand just feels complex for the sake of complexity to me. And from what I’ve seen so far, I am not totally alone with that opinion.

So in a nutshell, I am old, lazy, and have the attention span of a squirrel on caffeine, and that’s why I love rules-light games. 😉

On the other hand: rules-heavy games might have their advantages…

Ultimate Game

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

9 thoughts on “Why I prefer rules-light games”

  1. I love both crunchy and lite. Sometimes I want to get deep into rules, sometimes I like to be delighted by a simple, elegant core mechanic. I think that the description of the rule is as important. If the core mechanic is simple but poorly described, it can seem really crunchy when it’s not. The other crunch I find is through the backdoor – for example the casting magic has a simple roll-to-complete but the spells themselves all have their own complexities and caveats that you need to remember. Where any evolutionary facet of a character (items/spells/skills) has its own rules, that is crunch by the backdoor. I don’t mind that, as long as the author understand that their lite system is not! 🙂

  2. I meant to post this yesterday, but have you considered running something through X-plorers? It’s a rules-light, scifi game that’s got plenty of room to build from. http://exonauts.blogspot.com/p/x-plorers-rpg.html

    Link goes to a page on my blog with lots of resources, as the publisher is Brave Halfling, but the products page there is currently under construction. You can still get the rules on RPG Drivethru though.

  3. Thanks for sharing the link to your blog with us, Jay. I agree, X-Plorers is a great rules-light game that combines the simple rules of early D&D with the SF genre especially the one from the so-called Golden Age. I’ve run X-Plorers back in the day when it was still published by the Author himself and we had a blast!

  4. You open up an interesting thought about games like Mutants and Masterminds. No one would claim M&M is a rules light game but at the same time, all of the rules to play are in the core rule book and the rules in supplemental books are pretty much all recipes… new characters, new powers, all using the rules system from the core book.

  5. “So in a nutshell, I am old, lazy, and have the attention span of a squirrel on caffeine, and that’s why I love rules-light games”

    I claim a general curmudgeoniness.

    Although my current is using padded out Mini Six.

  6. I’ve been tending towards more and more rules lite games these past few years myself. Mostly due to restrictions in time, Time for planning games and time for running games. So having a good set of rules-lite games has been a real boon.

    I mostly feel this with the games I run for the game club at the school I teach at. I only get about 50 minutes, at the most, once a week to run a game for some kids so having a 1 page set of rule is almost mandatory in order to run anything.

    I also enjoy tinkering with lite systems since they are easy to work with. The newest one I’ve been puttering around with is a Shadowrun system based on the Dime Stories game I found on Drive Thru rpg. (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4tvHtmMBgRqUmFFLUNsRWdJYzg/edit?usp=sharing)

  7. maybe it is an age thing. lazy reading.
    for me rules light has always been my choice, not through laziness but the fact is i find some games difficult to understand. a rules system has to fit all leveles. this is not fare on the system. it isn’t their problem that im dim or slow but i do want to enjoy the game like anyone else. so systems should have quick start rules then as you get to know the game you add or not.
    thus making all games rules light.

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