Software makes all game rules transparent

One of the nice things about including the subject of games on this site is, when I’m at a loss in other subjects, I can always rant about gaming pilpul and hairsplitting.

Anyway, one of the endless unsettled disputes among role-playing gamers is the subject of realistic rules versus easy rules. On the one end, you have rule systems so transparent as to be nonexistent, like Amber Diceless. One the other end you have rule systems so complex and flexible as to be able to model nearly anything, like GURPS or Champions. The way I like to look at this is to think of Amber as a Macintosh before OSX and to think Champions as a bash prompt on a cluster of blade servers.

And before anyone starts ranking on me about dissin’ Macs or Amber, let me make plain that Macs before OSX can do nearly anything serious you want but you really have understand them deeply and hack things in clever ways before you can. The Mac is designed intentionally to hide a lot of the irrelevant details from people who really don’t care. The slogan is “It’s just supposed to work and get out of your way.” The same applies to Amber, Tunnels and Trolls and their ilk. “Keep it simple and let’s just play!”

The thing about a bash prompt is that you immediately forced to understand some pretty obscure and petty stuff before you can do anything. The various unices, especially the open sourced ones, are among the most powerful operating systems there are and will cheerfully do nearly anything you want including shoot you in the foot in ways so complicated it makes you weep. This also applies to GURPS, Champions and their ilk. They let you do or model nearly anything you want but you have to sweat a bit before you can. Some gamers don’t like this. “Why do I have to memorize all these impinging factors on my die roll just to jump across that chasm of churning lava?”

The d20 rules of D&D straddle the middle ground in this continuum. Think of them as a Windows NT flavor, utterly ubiquitous, driven by a large corporation and often reviled gamers and game designers everywhere for one reason or another. Trying please everyone often ends in pleasing nearly no-one. So the WoTC division of Hasbro tells the marketing people to say soothing words, spend a bit of its profits to hire good writers to generate good background material and then it movess mountains to bury the world in d20 variants to swamp and control the RPG industry. I think the analogy is chillingly accurate. TSR was bought by WoTC which, in turn, was bought by Hasbro. Hasbro is now the Microsoft of RPGs.

But that’s beside the point I wanted to explore when I first started this. With GURPS, Champions and such all the physics goes as smooth as silk among the weenies who’ve memorized and analyzed the systems. The systems are flexible enough to model any genre of fiction, setting or literary character in the hands of veterans. The rest of us, especially casual gamers, get frustrated by all the minutiae. They get frustrated having to constantly ask their rules-lawyer comrade about fine points that will ensure them the best odds. They just want to shoot something or persuade the NPC and look cool.

This has been a dilemma that has persisted for many years. If you want realistic physics in your gaming, you’ve got to pay for it with complexity. If you want flexibility to model any genre be prepared to pay for it with complexity.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Logic and mathematics do a disturbingly good job at modeling the physics of the real world. Behind the spinning turbulence and spontaneous order of dust devils lie equations that are stunning in their eloquence. The problem is the mathematical beauty behind the obvious beauty of dust devils is often inaccessible to many people without training in physics and mathematics. But let’s be clear: Many people can appreciate how neat dust devils are without knowing the math behind them.

The point is the more accurate and flexible your rules system becomes, the more it begins to resemble real physics. Many people don’t want to study a bunch of arithmetic just to play your game.

But in the last twenty years, there have emerged solutions to this problem: software. And I still don’t think this has been exploited well enough for paper-based role-playing games. You should be able to emulate any rule system into software and then just let people to point and drool their way to easy combats and easy skill resolutions. GURPS and Champions would finally be as approachable as Tunnels and Trolls.

Obviously there are lots software RPGs and persistent worlds online now–Everquest, Asheron’s Call, Neverwinter Nights, World of Warcraft and on and on. These games have finally made RPGs much more accessible to people who’d otherwise never play. These games have made big money out of a subculture that only a decade ago was still witheringly square.

But I think something has been lost in the translation from paper to software: gamemaster control. And this, as I’ll explain in another essay, places some severe limits on MORPGs.

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