A few wonderful options today, but none as attractive—in my opinion—as the main prompt: Simplicity.
Back when I started playing, the GM had a bunch of Word documents that contained all the rules we used to create characters and play. I remember photocopying them and putting the photocopies on a folder with clear sleeves for easier reference. All in all, they shouldn’t have been more than 30-40 pages max.
Later on, I discovered this was MERP (Middle-earth Role Playing), but to this day I haven’t been able to find those specific documents. It’s my white whale.
Then I was presented with the materials to run my first game of AD&D 2nd Edition (which I’ve commented a little about here), which turned out to be the polar opposite. A photocopied Player’s Handbook (without the Wizard Spells), a Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monstrous Compendium: Dragonlance Appendix, plus New Beginnings, an adventure booklet.
All in all, I think it was over 600 pages of material to read, digest and, most of all, try to use at the table.
As years passed by I met other games, such as Call of Cthulhu and the different offerings by White Wolf, including Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, among many others. Although they were only one-book games, they still required you to read 300+ Letter-size pages of material to run their games.
It goes without saying that as I grew older and found myself with less free time on my hands, I started to dread the prospect of having to basically spend days or weeks reading a book before feeling confident enough to run it and, what was worse, sometimes I found out after all that time invested that I didn’t like how the game ran at my table or, even worse, that my players preferred another system (this is what happened with my dear Stormbringer).
I think this is one of the main reasons why I retired from tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) for several years. I was burnt out by this deep investment which often resulted in less than stellar experiences.
And then I discovered Fate.
The Crux of Fate
Although I was officially retired from TTRPGs, I still was reading the news about it and even bought and read some games, but no longer with the intent to run them, no, but only to get inspired for my fiction writing.
But then I came across the Fate system by Evil Hat Productions and, more specifically, Fate Accelerated.
Imagine my surprise when I read that this game purported itself to be a complete gaming system in 48 A5 pages. At first I was suspicious, then I was curious, and by the end of it—maybe an hour or so later—I was in love. This was a game that you could actually run with little to no prep. Instead of tables upon tables, or long-ass convoluted explanations, it was all presented in a clear, straightforward language.
Characters were no longer collections of numbers, no: they were just self-explanatory phrases that defined who they were, what they did, and whatever special things or abilities they possessed. Who needs attributes or skills when 6 approaches can describe any attempt at action you could undertake?
But probably the best part of it—or at least the part that made me feel that I could run a game once again—was how to design the antagonist NPCs. It was so simple that you could create them on the fly.
I was ready to go back to playing and running TTRPGs.
Since then, years have passed and I’ve been reading and running both simple games—like Fate—as well as coming back to the proverbial D&D well with 5th Edition. But one thing has remained a constant: I’m now firmly in the simple games camp.
Now, every time I become interested in a new game, I look first at the page count and then at the character sheet. Both things tell me a lot about what kind of game is it and, if it’s too complex or fiddlesome, I just accept that I’ll never read or run them, no matter how attractive they may seem.
A recent example of this was Pathfinder 2nd Edition. I really like Paizo as a company, and their products are superb in quality in many different aspects. But there’s no way in hell I’m going to read 600+ Letter-size pages of rules and content to then have my friends fill a character sheet that looks more like a tax report than anything. So, no matter how much I may feel attracted by the prospect of a “better” (as in, better suited for my needs) fantasy game, I have to pass. I’d say that nowadays D&D 5th Edition is close to my limit when it comes to complexity; anything more complex than that and I’m out.
Of course that page count and character sheet design aren’t everything when it comes to TTRPG design but, at least in my mind, simplicity is queen. I think that complexity is only worth it when it adds a lot to the play experience. Otherwise, I’d much rather stick to simple games whenever possible.
“But what about meaningful alternatives?”, you ask.
I’m not much of a strategist, so I don’t care to have as many alternatives as some players claim to desire. For me, I can enjoy playing a character—even if it’s a one-note, mechanically speaking—for as long as there is drama and character growth to be had.
In that sense, I’m willing to put up with some complexity if it adds to any of these factors. If it doesn’t, I don’t care much for it.
Did you like what you just read? Awesome! Please help me by leaving a comment, sharing with a friend, or by joining my Patreon. I’m trying to support myself with my writing, and any help is appreciated.