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…

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