Why is Roleplay Becoming Dumber?

I remember a time when Roleplay was for Nerds, because Nerds were smart. I was reading about the new Pathfinder 2.0, and it mentioned that one of the key things they set out to do was to reduce the amount of mathematics required to resolve an action. That really got me thinking about systems, and how more modern systems seem to be increasingly dumbed down. I just wanted to talk about whether or not this is a good thing or not. It’s obviously popular, but at what cost and is the price worth it?

The Advantages of a Simple System

There are a great deal of positive things to be said about a simple gaming system. For one thing, it creates a very low entry level for newer players who can easily pick up the basic rules and get playing. Simplicity makes the transition from computer RP to tabletop RP much easier.

Combat tends to be the core of any RP system and a simple system means simple action resolution, which makes combat fast flowing. Fast resolution makes for a freer flowing narrative and less time for players to sit waiting for their turn.

All up, the attraction of an easy system is easy to see, because it seems that it’s more inclusive with greater fluidity to story telling, giving everyone more time in the spotlight to shine.

At What Point is a System ‘Easy’

I read a lot of articles, so I cannot recall what article I was originally reading about Pathfinder 2.0, otherwise I would link it. It might have even been a YouTube clip. The important point made which I want to convey is that Piazo was trying to make sure players never had to add more than four numbers in order to resolve a test. From memory the four numbers were the die roll, ability mod, skill mod and variable situational mod. That sounds pretty reasonable to me, as that’s something you can easily do in your head. Or is it…

Casting my memory back about fifteen years, I recall teaching a young man how to play Warmachine. This fellow was in senior High School and apparently tutored other students in maths. It therefore came as a real shock to me when he pulled out a calculator to tally the results of three six sided dice. Apparently, at the top of his class as he was, it was expected that adding three single digit figures required a calculator.

Now, Australia does have a declining education system, even though we were once near top in the world. This seemed a real low to me though, and one that really made me rethink my entire perception of what being functionally capable in maths might mean.

I recall doing XP for old school D&D where, as each encounter was overcome, you’d write the XP value onto a piece of paper to be tallied at the end. Often I’d have columns of numbers up to four or more characters long. I consider myself to be at best, average, at mathematics, yet I found zero challenge in adding those numbers in moments using pencil and paper. This is my normal, and not a calculator in sight, and for me that was my easy.

The Failings of Simple Systems

While you can easily tell stories on a grand scale with a simple system, there is one thing a simple system has always lacked for me, and that’s individualisation. Any system allows you to create a unique and interesting personality, but only a more complex system can allow you to find ways to give a character unique twists that make them stand out from the crowd.

I know many people consider having a fighter with low strength, or a thief who doesn’t steal, makes those characters special derivations on the gaming systems, but ideas like that are pretty basic really. What about a fighter with only one arm? Or a thief with a fear of the dark? If you add things like that into your D&D game then you’re crippling your character for no gain.

More complex systems allows for give and take, so all things maintain a balance. In return for an opium addition, my Dark Paladin gains greater command of demonic entities. In return for her tiny stature, my gothic Lolita, wielding a two handed axe, gains supernatural strength enough to allow her to use the weapon. Of course a GM can always add checks and balances into a simpler system, but has it been playtested to be fair for all involved? All too often a player is left feeling their character is underwhelming, or the GM is forced to retcon things to balance them.

Systems tend to be either hardwired or modular. Hardwired systems like D&D say a particular class can only ever do certain things and not others. Modular systems like Rolemaster say that yes, a fighter is best at fighting, but nothing is stopping him from learning some magic if he wants.

Then there is the basic issue of mechanics. Simple systems usually have to fall back on ‘catch all’ methods to resolve many actions, such as making an Ability check to outrun someone. It fails to reflect many realities, such as having two people with the same basic fitness (Con), yet one just eats well and goes to the gym, while the other regularly runs marathons. Obviously the runner should be able to outrun the other person, but that’s just not reflected in the rules. Now, take the same situation and have them running in the rain on a slick surface? The only fix for a simple system is for the GM to make up some arbitrary numbers to modify the rolls, while the complex system just shifts the readily available variables.

Do you have to have rules for all the possible situations which might arise? Of course not, it just wouldn’t be possible. However, the more scaffolding you have in place the firmer you can build around it.

Are Complex Systems Actually Harder to Play?

Here’s the real difference between a simple and a complex system: familiarity. D&D is easy to learn the basics for, so it’s easy to become familiar with the basic rules. Rolemaster at first look seems dazzlingly unapproachable at first look, so it’s potentially even scary for people to become familiar with it. I am familiar with both systems, and making a character for me takes only slightly longer in Rolemaster because I have more things to fill in.

Similarly in our recent Anima games, I pretty much made all the characters for the group, because I was familiar enough with the system that making a character was a trivial task. Do I have some special power that allows me to do this? I don’t think so, I just read the rules cover to cover and retained the information.

In fact, I often find I take longer to make a character I like in a simple system, because it’s just harder to find the ‘hook’ that will make the character fun to play. For example one of my last D&D characters was a dwarven Bard/Wizard(Conjurer) who inspired people by swearing at them and could pull almost anything from out of his prodigious beard. It was fun, but it took a lot of time, work and negotiation with the GM to get the character down.

When it comes to down time for players, such as when it isn’t their turn in combat, I find this issue generally comes from players who are not investing their time properly. If you are familiar with Rolemaster a combat turn takes about twice what it takes in D&D, maybe more if there are a lot of lesser enemies to be calculated. That can mean a player in a group of four might have as much as ten minutes between turns. If all they do is sit idle in that time waiting to roll dice, then you need to do more as a GM to engage your players. They should be keen to throw those dice, but they should also be on the edge of their seat listening to how the fight is playing out and how they might change their intended action to provide the most they can when their turn comes around. The same goes for most systems, but is also where ‘easier’ systems fail, because they lack the scope of character actions to let them do anything other than just roll their dice on their turn.

In Conclusion

Of course the best system for any GM is the one they like the most. However, I challenge GM’s to think more about what limits they put on themselves. If you’re constantly ‘making do’, then maybe there’s a better system out there for you. Don’t let the numbers scare you, and especially do not listen to other people’s prejudices. Explore and find out for yourself.

As for my personal recommendations, I’d suggest TORG or old school D&D for teaching people how to roleplay as both have a very low bar for entry, especially OD&D which is even easier to teach than 5e D&D. For more experienced play, go with whatever system best suits the story you want to tell. I’ve already provided my list of go to games elsewhere, but if it’s a fantasy world of my own making, it has always been Rolemaster or my own system.

My last point is that no matter the system you choose, just make sure it’s fun to play.