Saturday, May 22, 2010

Advanced Old School

I was away for a good portion of today, owing to a family obligation, but I brought along with me as reading material the three rulebooks that make up the second edition of Chivalry & Sorcery, which I have on indefinite loan from a long-time correspondent. I'd read select portions of the rules before, but I'd never read them all cover to cover until today. In doing so, a few thoughts occurred to me.

As I've noted before, "old school" is not, despite the preferences of a great many old school bloggers, the equivalent of "rules light." Plenty of old school games -- the entire FGU catalog, to cite just a few examples -- were quite complex. Now, it's perfectly understandable that, in the face of monstrously exhaustive modern RPGs, many of us have sought refuge in the comforting arms of simpler games. Simplicity is a common element of old school RPGs, but it's not, I think, a defining element and it does us all a disservice to imply that it is. Reading C&S reminded me once again that complexity is not anathema to old school gaming and indeed many complex games better illustrate other characteristics of the Old Ways better than do simpler ones (the preference for multiple, distinct sub-systems rather than a unified mechanic, for example).

I also found myself more strongly compelled to give C&S a whirl than I ever have been in the past. I'm not entirely sure why, as, in many ways, it's a pretty bland, flavorless game. Its distinctive elements were its very involved character generation, combat, and magic systems and its "realistic" treatment of medieval society as a backdrop for fantasy adventuring. Yet, somehow, this mixture started to work for me and I began to imagine that it might even be fun to play a game like this. Perhaps I'm merely sleep deprived, I don't know.

In any case, between this experience and my recent inquiries into Gygax's Dangerous Journeys, I am starting to think that one of the things the old school renaissance has really yet to produce is a complex, even rules-heavy RPG. To date, the scene has been obsessed with "simplicity." Again, let me stress that there is great virtue in simplicity; it's definitely my preferred approach to rules design. But, that said, there is room -- perhaps even a need? -- for a game built on old school principles that bucks the notion that "old school = rules light," because that was never true.

42 comments:

  1. So, I just sat down with my .pdf'ed Metamorphosis Alpha today and my original maps and notes for the game assembled back when, and ran a session for the sons (and it was fun). If I understand this OS movement, the key feature would be an openness to extension and customization. Rules light would seem more likely to push in that direction than rules heavy.

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  2. I think Emprise!, when it is eventually published, might just fit that particular bill.

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  3. Then again, a lot of those very fiddly and "realistic" games (the entire FGU catalog is a good example) never found the enduring following that their simpler kin did in their prime and there has to be a reason that they're not the focus of the same kind of "renaissance" today.

    Maybe the interest is just not there at the requisite level. One has to consider that these sorts of "break out the graphing calculator every time you want your guy to shoot his gun" games may represent an evolutionary dead end in RPG design.

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  4. Well, my view is that just being old doesn’t make a game old school. Non-old school games have been around as long as old school games. I’m not convinced that complex can be old school.

    But that’s just my opinion, of course.

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  5. Gonna try Swords and Glory now, James? ;)

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  6. I've been posting about Rolemaster over at my blog, and I think that it qualifies as an older game with more complexity. Its system is more unified than, for example, AD&D but the subsystems (magic, combat, character crreation, skills etc.) are independent of each other and easy to houserule or drop out altogether. One important element in both C&S and Rolemaster is that they were explicitly trying to "fix" things they felt that D&D didn't do right. That often meant that they were looking for a more "realistic" set of rules. This meant that the rule would also be a bit heavier than before.

    I'm more sympathetic to games that are more complex now than when I was younger, and so I'm also curious to see an OSR game with a little more "heft" to it than previous efforts.

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  7. Maybe it's that the OSR culture is mostly a rulings over rules culture.

    Maybe the folks who prefer complexity are participating in other online/offline communities. Maybe they're happily playing games that have gone through a couple iterations of play testing via editions, so they're not really invited to the old school party. Or if they are, they have to do it by talking about D&D. Let's face it -- D&D is basically the only game in town in OSR- land. It's tha common denominator. It's the game with all the players, current and former.

    Maybe it's a matter of man-hours. A rules light game or clone is more doable as a one man show (most OSR publishers) than a complex game. Complexity requires more play testing tonsure that all the moving parts are working together without unplanned weirdness developing.

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  8. I am starting to think that one of the things the old school renaissance has really yet to produce is a complex, even rules-heavy RPG.

    *wince*

    No disrespect, but I really hope that doesn't happen.

    First, I disagree with the characterization that "monstrously complex" designs are a modern trend. Crunch-fests like GURPS, Champions and Rolemaster are all long-standing systems arguably within the late-OS range.

    Second, obtuse avalanches of complex rules were for many years seen as a defining trait of old style games, not light-ness. One of the things that made Vampire noteworthy (arguably the big marker between new and old) upon its debut was how comparatively non-crunchy it was compared to existing games.

    Third, and most important to me, calling for a new wave of rules-heavy systems unpleasantly recalls the many forgettable "fantasy-heartbreakers" produced in the 80's and 90's in emulation of D&D, multi-hundred page tomes of meticulously expansive skill charts, hit-location tables and multi-hued spell lists, trying to achieve absolute "realism."

    I appreciate in both the Indie and OSR design scenes the informed rejection of the old idea that a game isn't complete unless its at least 300 pages long (and includes modifiers for different rates of falling), a renewed appreciation of elegance and brevity over expansiveness. I would be disappointed if that old attitude made a resurgence.

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  9. I think a good example of an old school feel game that is rules heavy is basically anything from Kenzer with Hack in the name. Hackmaster basic reads very much like the Holmes and Mentzer editions of Basic (major expanded admittedly) and there is quite a bit of crunch, but it is still pretty much a rulings rather than rules book, at least to me

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  10. If I understand this OS movement, the key feature would be an openness to extension and customization. Rules light would seem more likely to push in that direction than rules heavy.

    You're right about the openness to extension and customization. I also agree that rules-heavy games often work against this sort of openness, but they don't have to do so.

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  11. One has to consider that these sorts of "break out the graphing calculator every time you want your guy to shoot his gun" games may represent an evolutionary dead end in RPG design.

    I agree, although those aren't the kinds of games I'm talking about. Bushido, for example, is a much "heavier" game than, say, OD&D or Traveller, but it doesn't demand too much math in play.

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  12. Well, my view is that just being old doesn’t make a game old school. Non-old school games have been around as long as old school games. I’m not convinced that complex can be old school.

    I agree that age alone isn't sufficient for a game to be considered old school by any reasonable definition. That said, I see no reason why a complex game should be excluded from the old school camp solely on the basis of its complexity. I generally consider RoleMaster, at least in its original form, old school and it's pretty complex.

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  13. Gonna try Swords and Glory now, James? ;)

    I did not all that long ago (late 90s) and my problem with it was not its complexity but the fact that it just didn't work very well. The combat system in particular was a mess.

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  14. Holy crap James ;), if you going to play this style of RPG play something good like Harnmaster. The core rules are fairly cheap although the add-ons of Religion and Magic are more at a premium prices (but they are full color too).

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  15. I've been posting about Rolemaster over at my blog, and I think that it qualifies as an older game with more complexity. Its system is more unified than, for example, AD&D but the subsystems (magic, combat, character crreation, skills etc.) are independent of each other and easy to houserule or drop out altogether.

    I am inclined to agree, as I noted in an earlier comment here. I think RoleMaster is a plausible candidate for a complex old school system.

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  16. Maybe it's that the OSR culture is mostly a rulings over rules culture.

    You're definitely on to something with this comment. I think one of the things we all need to come to grips with is that the culture of the OSR is often quite different than the culture of "old school gaming" more broadly defined. That's not a knock against our little community at all, just an acknowledgment that our own interests and preferences are most definitely not co-extensive with those of old schoolers, either today or (especially) in the past.

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  17. Note there are good and useful bits in Chivalry & Sorcery my point is that there are better RPGs that do what it trying to do overall better. It is better to take what you like from C&S and merge with a better character, combat, magic system.

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  18. I appreciate in both the Indie and OSR design scenes the informed rejection of the old idea that a game isn't complete unless its at least 300 pages long (and includes modifiers for different rates of falling), a renewed appreciation of elegance and brevity over expansiveness. I would be disappointed if that old attitude made a resurgence.

    I think you misunderstand me. I'm not advocating the creation of 300+ page rulebooks. I, for one, would have no interest in a game that requires one. All I'm saying is that I think it's an error to assume that only games that can fit in 64 pages or less qualify as "old school." There is a venerable tradition of games that are beefy rules-wise and yet retain many other philosophical similarities with their leaner cousins. It'd be a shame if the old school renaissance didn't recognize this fact.

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  19. Holy crap James ;), if you going to play this style of RPG play something good like Harnmaster.

    Hârnmaster is a game that has long intrigued me as well, but, from an outsider's point of view, it looks even more complex than C&S. I take it that's not true?

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  20. I agree with you James. Chivalry & Sorcery is an excellent game that generally seems more complex than it actually is in play. Although it's easier to see with 1st Ed (and I'd probably look at the 4th Ed, especially the Chivalry & Sorcery Light version put out by Britannia Games for actual modern play).

    Both it and the notoriously incomplete and misprint laden Space Opera definitely belong more to the Old School than the new. It's not a matter of rules, but of style. Both of them have heavy wargaming elements contained within them that are more suitable for a sandbox campaign. The feel of a Space Opera campaign is quite different from that of a Traveller campaign, especially once the Third Imperium set in.

    It is possible to have a complex rule system and still run Old School games. Take Bushido for example. An excellent set of rules designed for campaign play, rather than adventure play. It appears to contain a lot of crunch, but that is mostly illusionary.

    [Although in counterpoint, games like Lee Gold's Lands of Adventure took mechanical complexity several steps too far.]

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  21. Note there are good and useful bits in Chivalry & Sorcery my point is that there are better RPGs that do what it trying to do overall better. It is better to take what you like from C&S and merge with a better character, combat, magic system

    Oh, I knew what you meant :) Believe me, I am well aware of C&S's flaws. Its combat system in particular (based on my reading today at any rate) seems to be more complex than it needs to be. I suspect, in the end, I probably wouldn't enjoy a game whose combat system is more complex than, say, RQ or Stormbringer, but that's something I may need to test out for myself.

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  22. Hârnmaster is a game that has long intrigued me as well, but, from an outsider's point of view, it looks even more complex than C&S. I take it that's not true?

    No. They implement some clever design decisions which simplifies things enormously especially during play.

    Basically Harnmaster is front loaded where you calculate a bunch of stuff before the game starts. The game itself plays very fast and rather brutal in combat. In fact you play it full on with all the rule is rather brutal out of combat.

    They use a handful of charts that make the realism as smooth as silk. Better than even my beloved GURPS.

    If you want a taste then buy Field of Daisies which comes with a subset of the Harnmaster Rules.

    I guess I am going to have to do a blogpost on Harnmaster now. ;)

    Oh I forgot here is a GREAT! Apples to Apples comparsion between d20 and Harnmaster.

    The main website is here
    http://www.warflail.com/harn/index.html

    The comparision can be downloaded here

    http://www.warflail.com/downloads/HMCvsD20.zip

    The main Harn fansite is http://www.lythia.com which an excellent resource for medieval roleplaying.

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  23. The key combat chart can be found in this download

    http://www.columbiagames.com/resources/4001/harnmaster-combattables.pdf

    The core rules only are $10 from Columbia Games. There is no magic or religion rules in them. However you can generate the basics for those type of characters.

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  24. I'd like to second James' point that a complex system doesn't mean a massive rulebook. There's maybe only 100 pages of text in Rolemaster if you ignore the charts, and I'd say that 20-30 of those 100 pages is optional. The combat system has something like 11 pages of text (the rest being charts).

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  25. Not completely on topic, but...: Perhaps it would be insightful one day to directly contrast and compare a classic old-school RPG to a modern RPG? I don't really have to gumption to do so myself, but I'd like someone insightful to contrast and compare, say, Traveller to Starblazer Adventures or maybe Gamma World to Atomic Highway... stuff like that.

    I'd certainly be interested in reading such an article, so if if it's already been done, somebody please drop me a link! :)

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  26. I suppose it comes down to how you define "Rules Heavy". Just about anything could be counted as "Rules Heavy" if you compare it to OD&D since that's a pretty sparse ruleset. By that criteria, even AD&D would have to be considered rules heavy if you consider it as written with weapon vs armor type charts, weapon speed and so on, not the stripped down versions that actually get played. If you compare a game to OD&D, most games are going to be "Rules Heavy".

    HarnMaster certainly counts as rules heavy in that regard, but on the flip side I ran a session of HarnMaster for one of my gaming groups a couple of years ago when we didn't have enough people for our regular game and the consensus opinion was that the rules may look very complex in the book, but the game is actually very easy to play in practice. That said, we're not an OSR group by any stretch. We primarily play D&D 3.0, Pathfinder and Call of Cthulhu right now. Combat was considered to be easier and far faster than D&D 3.0. I realize that's damning with faint praise to a OSR audience, but I thought I'd put it out there.

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  27. Rolemaster explicitly supports a wide range of play styles. I have a hard time calling it old school unconditionally.

    Perhaps it would be insightful one day to directly contrast and compare a classic old-school RPG to a modern RPG?

    This is a hard thing to do well. Pure textual comparison often seems to miss the mark. Wider analysis often depends upon conjecture and generalizing from limited experience.

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  28. As complicated as FGU games and Chivalry and Sorcery can be, I *still* think it is technically accurate to call it "rules lite".

    What's the page count on C&S core, as compared to 4th edition D&D core?

    I'd be willing to bet, as complex as it is, that C&S is 10% the page count of the three core 4e books.

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  29. One of the things that I found striking about the grognards that I gamed with in the mid-80s was how much they hated Grubb's Marvel system because it was "too simple."

    I have found the assertion that old school games were rules light to be one of the more baffling assertions. I would agree that more games were played "by the seat of the GMs pants," as gamers were just coming to understand what RPGs were and formulating ways of playing them.

    I played D&D with several groups in the early 80s, as the young kid playing with the older kids, and each group played differently. The only constant was a "sense of wonder" that is often lacking in modern gaming groups. I don't know if the rules are so much to blame for this or the changes in the way organized play has been done.

    I would love to see a discussion on how TSRs "Living City" which asked its participants to help create the world differs from the "tournament" modules of the 70s and early 80s and the RPGA adventures today.

    I think the emphasis on a formal, more uniform, play experience -- as opposed to a more free-form local groups are different melting posts experience -- has shaped the modern feel of gaming.

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  30. Third, and most important to me, calling for a new wave of rules-heavy systems unpleasantly recalls the many forgettable "fantasy-heartbreakers" produced in the 80's and 90's in emulation of D&D, multi-hundred page tomes of meticulously expansive skill charts, hit-location tables and multi-hued spell lists, trying to achieve absolute "realism."

    Which games are you talking about?
    Maybe Rolemaster, C&S, or others?

    I'm very curious to know, since what you describe with your phrases are the kind of games i'm looking for and the ones i am most interested in.

    I'd be grateful if you could provide the names of these games.

    Thanks

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  31. Vault keeper:

    Try Synnibarr...

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synnibarr

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  32. In the early 80s, I think the tendency was, indeed, to strongly simplify complex rules. AD&D was rarely played by the book, as far as I know -- weapon speed, weapon length, psionics, sometimes even casting time, etc., were jettisoned. The trend to attempt playing "by the book" is later, and largely fetishistic.

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  33. Weapons modifiers per armor class, grappling and unarmed combat, oh yes, there were a lot of AD&D1e rules that didn't get used in my group. Practically speaking that meant that the difference between D&D and AD&D to us was that we went from customizing the game by extension to customizing the game by deletion after we switched. I doubt that the game we actually played would have passed muster with the Gygaxian persona from the Dragon opining on the one true way of AD&D. The majority of my D&D/AD&D experience ran from early 1976 through about 1983-4, and I owned but didn't use late AD&D1e books such as Unearthed Arcana. Everything AD&D other than the first three books went in a purge around 1995; haven't missed any of that stuff yet.

    (Security word: dinga-- a female wild Australian dog?)

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  34. Ah, FGU and the good old days...

    C&S - The original "Red Book" rules benefited nobody apart from ophthalmologists. FGU should have handed out eyedrops with every sale.

    I remember the game itself as being mostly unplayable - although the wonderful fluff was raided by all and sundry. If you didn't have a GM who was totally "into it" you were doomed. (Good night, Rusty, wherever you are.)

    Bushido - wonderful stuff, although if I recall correctly it was bought wholesale from Phoenix Games and FGU did no development on it.

    Space Opera - ye gods, the infamous early printings! In the second book you could read the first twenty or so pages... and then relive those happy times because they were printed again in place of pages 21-40.

    Recommended: listen to Wagner while reading the Azuriach sourcebook.

    Aftermath - no comment. ;)

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  35. Vault keeper: Which games are you talking about?

    I'm very curious to know, since what you describe with your phrases are the kind of games i'm looking for and the ones i am most interested in.


    Honestly, I'm not sure I could; they were numerous but all pretty forgettable. The details I rattled off weren't from one specific game, but quick amalgamation of the sort of things that padded out high-crunch fringe fantasy games of the 80's and 90's. I don't mean games nearly so well known as even "Chivalry & Sorcery", but the amateur-press low print-run AD&D knockoffs that every local game scene seemed to produce, written by some bleary-eyed guy trying to sell folks on his self-perceived masterpiece "Blade Legend" (or Legendblade, or Blood Legend, or Legend of Blood Blades...) because, blast it, he finally got dwarves right. It was so common, it was a cliche.

    If I concentrate a bit ... there was "Legend Quest" which got a favorable review in Dragon magazine. There was "Fantasy Earth" which was unbelievably atrocious. More current examples would be "Runebearer" and "Dominion Rules," both for free online.

    I suggest you also read the "Fantasy Heartbreaker" essay, which focuses on several noteworthy examples of the type: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/9/

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  36. Most modern systems are thick with fluff for their built-in campaign settings ... which lead to piles and piles of books that detail those worlds and usually only expand the core mechanics with a myriad of options and more options. Older games could be complex. But, there was a point where character and world building expansion became the name of the game. It was no longer enough to have a player's manual but 2 or 3 and dozens of other sources to flesh out your character. Modern games reap well in profit from modern players' desire to customize or min/max.

    I hate to say it but the DM guides for 4e were interesting in that they decided to be a how-to guide with lots of in-game examples. They aren't actually bad. There aren't so many rules in them (compared to Gary's own DM guide which was a bewildering maze of additional rules and insight). But instead they outline different types of campaigns, keeping players interested, resolving conflicts in the rules and personalities, creating worlds, how to wing it based on player input, and so forth. I was actually impressed by them in terms of their approach. But, I also love thumbing through the old 1e DM guide. It's a book I can read over and over and find some piece I missed before.

    Page count doesn't equal complexity. And I think a lot of modern systems could easily be distilled down to slimmer versions.

    But, it was the drive of players that I think made games more sprawling over time. The late 80's saw growth of games with vast character generation systems. Even humble Marvel game got a face lift with Ultimate Powers book, even though it's Advance Box Set was perfect in many aspects and just enough.

    To combat this sprawl designers started moving toward single mechanic systems. The first games I saw this in were super hero genre games. They were trying to capture a vastly wide range of hero power levels but also trying to offer the rules to create everything from a spy to Superman. And slowly this crept into other systems in terms of character generation.

    Up to that point even the real complex systems before were just trying to add realism or introducing concepts that fleshed out the inner workings of their campaign worlds. Skill systems had been handled well in the old school without too much fuss. But, the new movement demanded that there be hundreds of skills. The advent of the feat really started to change the ways players made characters. Here was where things got really wacky. And then you had the whole Rifts debacle ... and at least GURPS tried to be optional in its building blocks but failed.

    Dunno, I have always been a DM/GM. For me once the game gets so complex that I need to build monsters and NPC's as if they were characters then I'm out. That doesn't fit my style. Because at that point the system is requiring me to plan too much or use pre-made modules as aids to overcome the bloat of rules.

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  37. thanks for all your input and information :)

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  38. “RPGObjects_chuck said...
    As complicated as FGU games and Chivalry and Sorcery can be, I *still* think it is technically accurate to call it "rules lite".

    What's the page count on C&S core, as compared to 4th edition D&D core?

    I'd be willing to bet, as complex as it is, that C&S is 10% the page count of the three core 4e books.”

    I think the focus on page count misses the point a bit, though a high page count is often symptomatic of a complex game. 4E has extremely simple core rules. Simpler than 1E AD&D by a long shot. The page count is padded out by options, particularly for character powers. Like the multitudinous and neverending lists of new spells for magic-users and clerics that TSR and fans constantly churned out through the 80s and 90s. The fact that there are 1001 spells doesn’t make the core system any more or less complex, generally.

    Complexity more often comes from a)individually complicated and math-intensive rules, and b) the game overall having a wife variety of unrelated sub-systems and non-unified mechanics. Which is the case in pretty much all the complicated games I’ve ever seen or played, from C&S to Rolemaster to Hero System to Champions to Synnibarr.

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  39. I think C&S might be one of the first "silver age" games - concerned with "realism," sometimes at the expense of fun. I understand why it's compared with heartbreakers. And you really felt the loss of your character, not least because you'd invested hours in him/her before play...

    On the topic of unbearable "heaviness" I'm finding Pokemon (on nintendo DS) revelatory - its "core" rules are brain- and memory-stretching, and then it has an enormous number of subsystems that all work together for the determined minimaxer's endless amusement/drudgery. And then in play, combat's all over in 5 or 6 rounds and there's only about 3 variables to juggle. And it's for 10 year olds. I've been thinking about working up a 1e/pokemon compare and contrast essay.

    veriword: batical. What RJD's gone on.

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  40. "the old school renaissance has really yet to produce is a complex, even rules-heavy RPG"

    ARDUIN ETERNAL

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