Survey Says!

The RPG Rule System Preference Survey Results (a non-scientific study)

Twenty days ago I was having a conversation with friends over game complexity. The specifics of the conversation are unimportant, but the arguments were mainly whether people prefer a robust complex system with lots of options despite the complexity, or whether people would rather have a simpler system, even if that means fewer choices in mechanics, but that is easier to pick up and play. I had a feeling that while complex systems have their hardcore fans and familiarity lowers the difficulty to pick up newer versions of games even if they increase in complexity, when given the choice people choose simple over complex. So to get a feeling about the opinions of other role-players out there, I created a survey online and shared it on Facebook and Twitter to find out!

Michael was kind enough to write a post about it, and many of my friends and acquaintances shared the link on social media. To all of you, a hearty thanks! The survey was shirt, just one question, with three choices. The question and answers were as follows:

Question: What type of tabletop role-playing rule system do you prefer? The definitions are of course subjective, and you may disagree with some classifications, but based on the options given please select your preference. Thank you!

Option 1: Rules Light – Microlite20, Barbarians of Lemuria, The Black Hack and some other Old School Renaissance games

Option 2: Rules Medium – Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, World of Darkness (White Wolf), Savage Worlds, Basic Role Playing system (Chaosium)

Option 3: Rules Heavy – D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, GURPS, Rolemaster, Hero System

The comments on the survey clearly showed the some respondents disagreed on the classification. Two respondents defended Rolemaster: “This is interesting as you put Rolemaster in the “Rules Heavy” category but the core rule concepts are very rules light and its modular design means you can play a very rules light version AND play ‘by the book’ rather than a house ruled version.” and “Your understanding of Rolemaster as rules heavy is a common misconception.”

In my granted limited contact with Rolemaster I found it to be far more complex than that, could be the people I played it with and the style they preferred, but to each and everyone his or her own. Here is the tricky spot, and where surveys like this muddy the waters, because whatever system we like the most, or learned to play with, often has a familiarity and ease of use for us others may not get. At least no one argues the Hero System or GURPS are rules light!

Incredibly there were also some people who confessed to playing D&D 5th edition, but missing D&D 3rd edition. Truly D&D 3rd edition, 3.5 and Pathfinder really have marked a style of play, with increasing complexity and choice, that grant the dedicated player the ability to customize characters but also brings great complexity to the table. In my opinion as much as I like the game, said complexity is a barrier of entry for new gamers, and D&D 5th edition dies offer a simpler play experience. But with a rule set that’s survived for 16 years (D&D 3rd edition, then 3.5 and now Pathfinder) the familiarity is there and I think it can keep on going as long as they have a big enough base. But I digress, what did the survey say?

Despite some respondents disagreeing with some classifications, with little over one hundred participants the results were as follows:

Rules Light: 22%

Rules Medium: 62%

Ruled Heavy: 16%

Survey Results 2

That’s and interesting divide. I expected far more people to be in the Rules Light category. Even if I myself would consider myself squarely between Rules-Medium and Heavy! I guess people can be on the fence! They want their options, not to simple, but not any complex trigonometry to go with character generation!

Showing my bias, there were some interesting categories of games I left off my defections. Someone left the following message (and I have a feeling I know who this person is): “My general preferred system is any kind of Powered by the Apocalypse game; I guess I’d classify those as Rules Medium.” Games Powered by the Apocalypse have a different paradigm. What about the Star wars games by FFG? Where do they fit? Burning Wheel? There is a growing diversity in game rules and styles of play, and that’s good. Of course more esoteric games have a more limited market.

Some of the other comments in the survey were:

  • I waffle between heavy and medium.
  • I like a different rules system for every game.
  • I play 5th now but I miss 3.5 so much.
  • I’m very much drawn to Rules Heavy, but when I DM I tend to ignore the crunch and wing it Rules Light style.
  • Old school world of darkness or even simpler
  • While I still consider myself preferring rules light, I’m running more rules medium systems. While I would default to Fate/Fudge our PDQ for some genres, I’ve moved to playing Savage Worlds, WEG Star Wars, Atlantis – the New Age, etc. more frequently.
  • Voted for D&D 3.5, but I really play D&D 3.0. I know it is a heavy system, but as with anything else, once the player’s read the rules and learn them to the best of their abilities, the game session sun’s smoothly. Otherwise, one combat round can take one hour to play! (translated)
  • Also like GURPS 3rd.
  • I like medium-light.
  • But lately with the correct group of player and under the right circumstances I can play anything and have fun. (Except anything White Wolf)
  • My preference is for streamlined rules. Rules that pack everything into a kernel which does everything, but in different ways. This is in comparison to a system with many distinct mechanics.
  • Fudge!
  • Recently my favourite game is Numenera which I would classify as rules-light – so that’s the category I would go for.
  • Not only rules light, but logical and comprehensive
  • This is a hard question! I want rules-meaningful games: games with rules and mechanics which are well designed to lead players (& GMs!) towards the structure for the kind of play – and the kind of stories and experiences – that the game is designed for.
  • The lighter the better, but only if the GM is fair.
  • I prefer games that provide concentric complexity. Two examples are the Apocalypse World engine games. The basic resolution (2d6+ability, 6 or less, 7-9, or 10+) provide a foundational and predictable system. The rules expand from there. Likewise, Burning Wheel has concentric design. If you focus on the basic system with versus tests, all is predictable. You may then add complicated subsystems as desired.
  • Savage Worlds hits the sweet spot for me – although I’d consider it rules-light, especially compared to the other rules-medium examples.
  • I lean somewhere between the crunch of generic systems such as GURPS and D20 and lighter ones such as FATE.
  • Medium to Light. Both are good. I no longer have patience for heavy systems that tend to get in the way.
  • Yes, I do disagree with some of the classifications 😉
  • Too complicated I don’t like 🙂
  • Roleplaying should be about fun while telling a story. To light a system could be used for intro games but eventually players would like to have more debt. On the other hand getting to rules heavy could be daunting to all involved.

From the data in the survey I think game designers should strive for games of medium complexity, perhaps with the built in ability to pick and choose options and scale the complexity to the user’s preference. With plenty of character options but ease of use for Game Masters; that’s my conclusion of this limited survey and my anecdotal experience. Am I right? Probably not 100%, but hey, it’s a start! What do you think?

PS – Don’t worry! I’m not writing this post from my honeymoon. Thanks to the magic of technology this post was written BEFORE I left and scheduled to go live today. We truly live in wonderful times.

Welcome reader, thanks for taking the time to find out just who I am! My name is Roberto, although in the Internet I usually go by the name of Sunglar. Long time pen & paper RPG player, mostly a GM for the better part of that time; some will say that’s because of my love of telling a good story, others because I’m a control freak, but that’s debatable… I was born, raised, and still live in Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean, with a small but active gaming community.

I’ve played RPGs for 30 years, and for most of that time I played D&D in all its various permutations, including Pathfinder and I'm currently playing D&D 5th edition. Other games my regular gaming group has played over the last few years include Mutants & Masterminds and Savage Worlds, but I have played many other games through the years, and plan to play many more. I am a compulsive homebrewer and rarely play a campaign I have not created myself.

You can follow me on Twitter as @Sunglar, and find me in Google+ also as Sunglar. I'm very active in Facebook where you can find me posting regularly in the Puerto Rico Role Players group. Looking forward to hearing from you!

8 thoughts on “Survey Says!”

  1. Looking at your conclusion, the problem of offering lots of options that scale the complexity is that you can end up fracturing the system. I have written and shared Rolemaster adventures and NPCs but they are almost unusable my other GMs because I play the rules as written. One of the optional rules in the core book is then used in other core works as standard, it pretty much gives spell casters 20%+ more spell lists. I don’t use that option so any NPC of mine will appear very under powered by comparison. Other optional rules have since their publication gained such popularity they in newer versions of the game they are the standard. Anything written before that change is almost unusable by GMs after that change.

    One of the things that RPGs thrive on is community but if sharing becomes increasingly difficult then what was intended be a help, by allowing GMs to pick and choose, becomes a hinderance until such time as the most popular options become de facto in which case are they options at all?

    I would love to know if there was a relationship between the rules weight and the age of the roleplayer. The older I get the lighter rules become more appealing. I used to have all the time in the world to read rulebooks but now time is much more limited.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the support… Interesting question about age and rules. I think that depends not only on age, but I also think it has to do with responsibilities.

  2. “Someone left the following message (and I have a feeling I know who this person is)”

    I doubt you do, as I don’t think we’ve communicated, and this was the first time I’ve commented on this blog, to boot. 🙂

    1. I’ve been geeking out on the system for the past couple of months and I’m about to run my first PbtA game on Monday, Dungeon World.

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