Monday, August 17, 2009

Howard Thompson Letter

Al over at Beyond the Black Gate has posted a link to a very interesting letter written by Howard Thompson of Metagaming. I've reproduced it below:

The letter is interesting for numerous reasons, chief among them being Thompson's comments about the rules of The Fantasy Trip and, by extension, his thoughts about rules complexity generally. Unsurprisingly, I rather agree with Thompson's points and it's telling that, as early as 1980, the date of this letter, there was already a growing sense that RPGs were getting needlessly complex -- "longer instead of better" in Thompson's words. That's a problem that continues to this day and about which I'll have more to say in an upcoming post.

30 comments:

  1. What struck me was the line that he was working on publishing a "game the market wants".

    That's telling, because I think he's dead wrong there.

    Looking at the progression from TFT to GURPs, and from OD&D to AD&D (and even AD&D to 3e) it seems clear that the market generally wants MORE complicated games, not less.

    That doesn't mean you and I need to agree naturally, but it does seem that, looking at the best selling games out there (4e, GURPs, World of Darkness, Hero) that they are all realllllly complex.

    Enough people have published rules light games that, if the market really wanted that (as a whole), one would have caught on you'd think, no?

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  2. When designing games for the mass market, I would imagine more complex and comprehensive rules are better, as they minimize the role of and cater to a weaker Game Master; a good, experienced GM is hard to find, and a GM with limited skills results in a less enjoyable gaming experience.

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  3. I have been told more than once in my writing career not to write for "good GMs".

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  4. My agreement was with the statement that RPGs are needlessly complex, not that complexity isn't what the mysterious "market" wants. My feeling is that the RPG market is increasingly driven by a hardcore of gamers who do want extra complexity. I don't think that's a good thing for the hobby, ultimately, but that's a separate issue.

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  5. I do think complexity is part of the appeal with most gamers.

    But I do see your point as well, if I'm understanding you correctly.

    There is a danger of listening to the hardcore fans, who ALWAYS want more, and alienating that silent majority in the process.

    Still, I think D&D might be the simplest mainstream game* around these days how crazy is that?

    By mainstream I mean GURPs or better sales numbers.

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  6. Yeah, I recently picked up GURPS 4th ed. and read through the rules to get an understanding of the system. It turns out that the system, at its core, is quite simple. However, with all of the Advantages, Disadvantages, and Skills you have to choose from to build a character, it gets completely overwhelming. A tightly-focused game would probably be a joy to run and play, but the amount of work to cut the options down to that point, at least for someone who doesn't have a PhD in the system, is very intimidating and puts me of the mind to not even bother trying. But what do I know? GURPS still sells well, so somebody loves this stuff. Maybe I'm just getting old...

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  7. The thing about GURPS, at least to me (and I do like the system overall) is that it evolved from a simple point but became weird, and in some sense tries to do something the skeleton wasn't constructed to do. As an example, take a look at early monster books. You have a rough core system, then add some advantages or disadvantages to flesh out a monster. The same is true for a character. But now look at the way monsters and characters are designed. It has grown to where ads and disads are not "additional" stuff but are now primary tools of creation. An attempt to sort of be a "baby HERO" system, where you have to construct or define everything you can possibly think of.

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  8. I think the letter is interesting in that it sheds a different light on the story of Thompson refusing to sell the rights to TFT to Jackson at less than exorbitant rates. Maybe he was trying to protect us all?

    It also makes me feel better about my TFT retroclone that stripped out the minis-based combat and the spell/talent lists.

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  9. I liked the sentence "More spells and weapons fine, more detail of combat, no."

    I'm very much of the opinion that attempting to enhance the "realism" of simulated combat quickly spirals out of control. Each new rule easily spawns a host of sub-rules (see d20 grappling for instance, and how many other rules, such as attacks of opportunity, need to be employed just to accomplish this one action). Each of these rules added, imo at least, takes you a bit further away from the immersion and narrative of the game, and farther into the realm of referencing, and cross-referencing, an ever-expanding web of clauses and conditionals that can never truly accomplish its goal as well as one simple roll of the die and the imagination needed to justify said result.

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  10. Thanks for posting this, James.

    I find this very interesting. I do agree with RGPGO_Chuck that the market has rewarded complex over simplified.

    However, what I really find interesting about this letter is this statement: "More spells and weapons, fine, more detail of combat, no."

    Time and time again, I hear old schoolers poo-pooing lengthy books or supplements. Coincidentally, the same folk churn out reams of home-brewed creatures, classes, spells, etc.

    It seems to me that gamers always want more material. However, new material doesn't have to mean added complexity.

    As a gamer, I can't get enough of new creatures, new spells, items, settings, etc. However, what I do not want are new officially sanctioned mechanics that substantially alter the game system, and/or add to its complexity.

    There is complexity and then there is abundance. A 500 page book of rules is tiresome. A 500 page book of ideas is a treasure trove.

    EDIT: Just read Al's post. Agreed.

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  11. Thanks for posting this, James!

    You know, it is interesting that AD&D and GURPS did better in the market than less complex games. Especially considering that, when I played both, most people I played with didn’t really get into or use the full complexity of either.

    Though, a few did. Moreso in the later time when I played GURPS than in the earlier time when I played AD&D.

    On the other hand, I don’t think you can really measure the success of a simpler system and a complex system the same way.

    Unfortunately, since Thompson got out of the business, we’ll never know if his understanding of the market was correct.

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  12. I believe Thompson eventually published his vision of a simplified TFT as 'Lords of the Underearth' and 'Dragons of Underearth'.

    Word verification: mingstab (no explanation required, is there?

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  13. @Jimmy Swill:

    "There is complexity and then there is abundance. A 500 page book of rules is tiresome. A 500 page book of ideas is a treasure trove."

    Yes. I dislike the list approach to spells and talents if that's the game's base system. If, on the other hand, there are guidelines for creating spells and talents, then a list of examples for inspiration, I'm fine with that. Publish supplements on weird new cultures and magics. Don't publish supplements that describe yet more details on lockpicking or trivial modifications of existing spells.

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  14. To my mind there are two distinct markets. One is heavily catered to and the other is like the lonely stepchild of RPGs. Can you guess which is which? Of course that is not to say that the right rules light game might not open up a door to the forgotten market, but it would be difficult I suspect. As for why games that became more complicated sold well and give the appearance of market dominance, I'm going to posit a disreputable theory: it was in the interests of TSR and then WotC to sell more books, and therefore create more complex rules systems (more books). And the market obliged their marketing teams by believing that new = better. And yes, they added more stuff to play with and some of that was neato enough to merit a purchase. Plus they got better and better artwork in the rules books, and made them glossy and slick. Oh boy! Eye candy! It was an inevitable consequence of the business model.

    Has all of this improved Gaming in a general sense? Not in my opinion. I tend to think that there's a general feeling that RPGs are *supposed* to be complex. Sure, for gamist types that's fine. But for story-oriented Role Players the complexity just gets in the way. I don't have a problem trusting the GM to adjudicate a rules light system, so long as I have a sense that the GM is doing so fairly.

    Personally, I stuck with my original homebrew from 1978. It's simple. I'm happy with it. And my players seem to have liked it too. So simple can be successful. But is it marketable? Hmmm... maybe...

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  15. WotC needs new products. So it makes complex products that can be sold in thick books. To sell them they have expensive marketing campaigns. These campaigns keep D&D alive. If it weren't for the millions spent on these campaigns over time, D&D would fade from public awareness.

    I think I see a presumption in the part of old school type gamers, which is that there would have been continual interest in D&D without the constant decade after decade media blaring of whoever sells D&D.

    If it weren't for this relentless marketing awareness paid for by others, then you wouldn't be able to lie in the lee of it and declare yourselves the true spirit of D&D. If it weren't for that decades and decades of ads, conventions, and such, you wouldn't have the luxury of pointing the finger at the people who pay to keep the game alive, while insulting them for their efforts.

    WotC may produce a bad product, but they have kept the profile high. If it weren't for them, D&D would have fallen to a public awareness of Arduin Grimoire.

    It's like the scene in "Pirates Of Silicon Valley" where Steve Jobs says 'We make better stuff." And Bill Gates says, "You don't get it Steve: That doesn't matter."

    Old schoolers may be the keepers of the spirit of quality. Perhaps... But realize that you are in a symbiotic relationship with a corporation. Without them, you are nothing.

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  16. "Without them, you are nothing."

    Kudos on such bold words, but not words I can agree with. I think the constant changing of hands of ownership for games like Traveller and Runequest is a good indicator that D&D in some incarnation would still be kicking around even if it wasn't in the hands of a big company like WotC.

    D&D grew to its height of popularity largely via a series of homemade copies of the LBBs being circulated among college students. The popularity ruleset, in particular, was a much a product of the literary inclinations of the period as anything else.

    And while its arguable whether people(ie customers) "want" rules-heavy systems, WotCs own folks will admit that no run of modern books, 3E or 4E, has approached the sales of B/X or 1E AD&D, or is likely to. Frankly, I'm surprised that theres been no (reported) marketing research done by WotC into just what made those sets sell so much better.

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  17. Curse my inept typing! That was supposed to read "the popularity of that ruleset", not the popularity ruleset. Didn't mean to reference any questionable Otus-illustrated high school rpgs there...;)

    Word Verification: Chrong!

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  18. My take from the letter feels more like Thompson venting more about Steve J. than about TFT. While it's true that AM/AW/ITL feel bloated in places, I think the problem is more one of organization than of mass of content. Even long rules can "play short" if they're well-written and well-organized.

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  19. Interestingly enough, one of the flashpoints between Steve Jackson and Howard Thompson's Metagaming was "One Page Bulge" - a wargame to "simulate" the Battle of the Bulge with a single A4 set of rules.

    So how about a one page - or sheet (2pages) - Role Playing Game, something that strips away all the b/s and produces a viable role playing system published on a single sheet of A4 paper. Could it be done? Is it possible?

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  20. One page RPGs?

    Star Cadet might have been a joke, but it seems perfectly usable to me.

    I think I’ve seen Microlite20 on one page.

    Didn’t 1KM1KT do a “the character sheet is the rules” contest?

    Bet you could fit Risus on one page.

    Those were the first ones that came to mind.

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  21. So how about a one page - or sheet (2pages) - Role Playing Game, something that strips away all the b/s and produces a viable role playing system published on a single sheet of A4 paper. Could it be done? Is it possible?

    I created this atrocity in 2 pages. :)

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  22. I can imagine why new editions add new layers of rules. They marketing guys show the RPG to the focus group, try playing a session and the probably nbew players sit around like stunned mullets. If you add some skills and "special moves" to the rules they act as cues for new players in how to play in various situations. And doubtless the focus groups respond well to that.

    But after you've played a few games etc, surely you no longer need these cues and you are making up your own "moves" for your characters etc. Hopefully you become "immersed" more easily and you can think more outside the categories defined by the rules.

    Jimmy Swill:
    As a gamer, I can't get enough of new creatures, new spells, items, settings, etc.

    This stuff is great too. Developing more adventures is also something publishers should focus on perhaps, if only to give players and GMs some inspiration and help with prep.

    But then again sharing stuff via blogs and fora is another way to get inspired.

    I'm getting the feeling that maybe RPGs, like music, are moving away from becoming commodity based experiences and more focussed on "live" experiences with the `net acting as facilitator.

    James' two new Barsoom classes below are particularly good examples of how easy it is to be creative with OSR and how easily that creativity can be shared.

    Sorry for the long response.

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  23. Is more complex a game with 20 pages of incoherent rules, exception and differents mechanics to cover differents microsystems or a game with 300 pages of coherent rules with the same mechanics to cover all the aspects of the game?
    IMHO often it confuses "more pages", or "more options" with rules complexity.
    Conversely, for example, one of the most frequently rised concern about D&D 4e is that seems too simple and too much standardized...

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  24. RE: Brasspen
    ---WotC needs new products. So it makes complex products that can be sold in thick books.---

    It's no much that as developing discreet parts of a game that can be expanded ad infinitum, like an accordion.

    If you look at attempts to expand AD&D mechanically, you that new classes were a key component.

    Many of these new classes inhabited the same "game space" as existing classes. Thus the Cavalier envelops the Paladin and so forth.

    2e addressed this problem with kits, which was the first time that I can recall D&D adopting the "accordion" structure.

    3e took this idea and ran with it. It's positively LOADED with discreet fiddly bits that can be expanded ad infinitum (prestige classes, feats, skills), without mucking about with the foundations of the system (the core classes).

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  25. I think I see a presumption in the part of old school type gamers, which is that there would have been continual interest in D&D without the constant decade after decade media blaring of whoever sells D&D.

    Some might, but most of the people heavily involved in the OSR these days have expressed considerable gratitude to guys like Ryan Dancey, whose championing of the idea of Open Gaming gave us the tools we needed to legally continue old school D&D in perpetuity. As far as I'm concerned, the OGL is the most important thing to have happened in the hobby since its foundation and, whatever I think of what WotC has done with D&D since 2000, we're deeply in their debt for make the OSR possible.

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  26. I think I see a presumption in the part of old school type gamers, which is that there would have been continual interest in D&D without the constant decade after decade media blaring of whoever sells D&D.

    You know, considering that TFT—a game I hadn’t even heard of until a few years ago—still has an active community, I’m not so sure about this. Would D&D not have fared better than TFT?

    If it weren't for the millions spent on these campaigns over time, D&D would fade from public awareness.

    And how, exactly, am I benefitting from this “public awareness”?

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  27. HT (in this letter) was likely talking out both sides of his mouth. If taken in context of things he'd written about TFT in The Space Gamer prior to this period, in Interplay magazine afterwards, and the resulting abomination that was "Dragons of Underearth", it seems more likely that it was a lot of sour grapes.

    Bob (above) is right. The problem with what he got from SJ was one of organization more than bloat, not to mention it had run really, really late. AM and AW pretty much required their microgame predecessors to be of use, and it probably forced HT to make some poor packaging/marketing choices he didn't want to make. It was either that or tack on another 6 months to get it together, and declining business at Metagaming probably didn't leave that as an option.

    If complexity was what the market wanted at the time, there was always SPI's DragonQuest. Even with TFT's bloat, there really was (is) a great, non-complex scalable FRPG tucked away in it, and it's not GURPS. I keep wondering if the OSR could revive what was very good about TFT make it better. For the moment, though, I'm more than happy with Swords & Wizardry and not sure what a TFTclone would bring to a market that generally seems to abhor tactics, hexes and miniatures.

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  28. Do people just not know about Dark City Games, or do they not consider their stuff an adequate substitute for TFT?

    I thought Warrior & Wizard was supposed to be a TFT clone too.

    Seems like I’ve seen others.

    (For myself, yes, I’m not big on miniatures, so TFT or a clone isn’t likely to get much use by me. That said, though, if/when I do decide I want something like that, TFT looks much more my speed than other games of that stripe I’ve tried. And I’m not sure that better organization would make me feel that AM+AW+ITL isn’t still more complicated than I’d like.)

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  29. I'm a big fan of DCG and have all their Legends releases. They're like Melee, Wizard and solo microquests, but it's not the whole of TFT. Which is fine for me, I have TFT, and now I have some fine quality microquests from DCG. But I do like the expanded talents, the economic system, magic spell and item creation, etc. Additions like those are what helped push TFT into a FRPG, IMO.

    But I don't think Dark City are widely known, probably because (like the Metgaming originals) they stride that line between RPG and boardgame in such a way that it doesn't penetrate deeply into either community. I'm sure DCG does moderately well, but Legends doesn't get anywhere near the traction that OSR games do. I think that says something about the market, which is why I don't really see much demand for a clone of AM+AW+ITL "done right". However, I didn't know about W&W! Thanks for that.

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  30. So how about a one page - or sheet (2pages) - Role Playing Game, something that strips away all the b/s and produces a viable role playing system published on a single sheet of A4 paper. Could it be done? Is it possible?

    I'm fairly certain you can put all the crucial rules for Sprit of the Century/FATE on one page. I know we were able to play using one copy of the rulebook, and some one-page summary sheets. The Gamemaster would need to do some creative work to get the game ready for his setting, but he's probably going to do that anyway.

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