Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Unsolicited Advice

With the news that yet another game company has decided to produce an introductory version of their flagship game, I found myself reflecting on the one thing I think is essential to any introductory (or "basic") game, namely, it should be a simplified sub-set of the game to which it is an introduction rather than a different game that's kinda-sorta-almost like it. In my opinion, an introductory game can be simple but it must also be completely compatible with the "full" game. So, a character created using the introductory rules should be a fully viable character under the full rules, even if the character creation options made available in the introductory game are more limited. Likewise, the rules of the introduction can eliminate certain complexities present in the full game but they ought not to be different enough in order to confuse new players when they finally acquire the full game.

Part of the difficulty in create genuinely introductory versions of existing games nowadays is that a lot of contemporary RPGs are simply too complex mechanically to easily pare down into something that could reasonably be called basic. I don't think there's anything wrong with rules complexity. Indeed, I suspect that many gamers, after they've played a game for a long enough time, crave a certain degree of rules complexity, since it can be a way to reinvigorate one's interest in a game one has already played extensively. That's why, for all the grousing I do about AD&D compared to OD&D, my feeling remains that AD&D is not so complex a game that it can't be pared down into something simpler that is nevertheless a good reflection of what the full game is like.

Of course, in my ideal world, Dungeons & Dragons would have, at some point, exist as a three-tiered RPG:
  • Basic: A simple, straightforward and complete dungeon-focused game.
  • Expert: An expansion to Basic that expands the scope of the game, adding wilderness and "otherworldly" exploration rules, as well as more stuff in general. Together, Basic and Expert give you everything you need to play almost any kind of fantasy campaign, from dungeon delving to wilderness exploration to mass combats to domain rulership.
  • Advanced: Another expansion that adds further detail for those who desire it but is wholly optional and modular, adding to but not replacing the rules in Basic and Expert. Advanced books are geared toward a "hardcore," experienced audience who crave novelty and depth
Now, even though the three tiers I present are aimed specifically at D&D, I think the general principles behind them are broadly applicable to most RPGs. In short, complexity is fine so long as it's "back loaded." Indeed a certain amount of this kind of complexity is probably necessary to keep some people engaged, but it cannot come at the cost of incompatibility with the basic/core game rules, which should be as simple, straightforward, and complete -- that last one can't be stressed enough.

That's where the real trick lies, from what I can see. Too many "intro" games are little more than elaborate advertisements for the "real" game and that strikes me as counterproductive in the long run. So, Paizo, if you really want to make a good intro version of Pathfinder, make sure it's actually compatible with your core rulebook. Simplify it by all means. Eliminate a lot of options. But, for the love of Gygax, don't make people who buy it have to rebuild their characters when they move on to the big rulebook. Better yet, make that if they move on to the big rulebook. Find a way to do that and I'll be mightily impressed (and not just because you'll be listening to me).


  1. I totally agree. I started with the Black Box, and moved onto the Rules Cyclopedia. It made perfect sense to do it that way. Also GW is doing the same thing with their intro boxes. You get the full rules (in a nice mini-rule book), with about 150 some miniatures. However, to REALLY play you still need to get two more books and a bunch more minis. It would seem to me that the intro game should wet your whistle, but be complete in and of themselves.

    That is what I would love to see in a D&D intro box. A nice dungeon, a set of dice, a full copy of the rules in paperback form, and some monster tiles. Then a full color ad for the big books and the minis line.

  2. "So, Paizo, if you really want to make a good intro version of Pathfinder, make sure it's actually compatible with your core rulebook. Simplify it by all means. Eliminate a lot of options. But, for the love of Gygax, don't make people who buy it have to rebuild their characters when they move on to the big rulebook."

    I have a feeling Paizo is very much in line with this. I think this is a core design goal of the "intro" game.

    Oh, and nice to see you keeping tabs on what Paizo is doing even though they are a bunch of people with "little imagination, creativity, or patience" as one of your loyal posters pointed out about those whom enjoy Adventure Paths. ;)

  3. GURPS Lite for 3rd edition was a free version of GURPS to get people into the game. It lacked many of the advanced rules but characters could be made and run in fairly complete form and were fully compatible with the full game. They changed this approach with 4E, probably because a knowledgeable GM could give his players the 3E lite PDF and they could all play just fine as long as the GM was willing to adjudicate on a few advanced situations. I suspect it helped a lot of people get into GURPS 3E.

  4. Yes, GURPS Lite for 3rd edition was a wonderful thing and I say that as someone who's none too keen on GURPS in general. It's a perfect example of exactly the kind of thing I'd like to see more of in intro games.

  5. Granted it was a wargame rather than an RPG, but FASA's three-tiered rules system for Battletech back in the day showed the value of a good intro rule set. First level rules were quick and easy to learn and meant anyone could grab a minature or two and join right in. Second level filled out the rules and was used for official tournaments and the third tier added all the fun complexities.

    It was much easier to find players when you could rely on a basic set of rules to get them playing right away and to keep them playing as they didn't have to relearn anything to go forward.

    Classic Battletech, owned by Catalyst now, has free PDFs of quick-start rules complete with maps and cutouts, so it seems they are keeping with this mentality.

  6. FWIW- I had started a thread over at ENworld in the PF forum asking if PAIZO would make such a product as I like the general *idea* of 3.x, but not the implementation (WAYYYY too rules laden for me).

    From the discussion there, it seems that Paizo is determined NOT to do a typical "starter set" like we have seen from TSR & WOTC in the past 15-20-ish years.

    The thread link is

  7. We haven't made many decisions yet on what the intro set will be, but we have looked at previous d20 starter sets as guides on what NOT to do.

    Marketing Manager

  8. Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

    "In short, complexity is fine so long as it's 'back loaded.'"

    Agree completely and would say the exact same words. Unfortunately, I think a 3E-based game is already sunk on that point -- the greatest number of spells, feats, and skill points are all awarded at 1st level (instead of the other way around which would be ideal).

    It would be best if choosing what level you start play at simultaneously set the complexity level for your game.

  9. The D&D nomenclature always seemed to confuse me. I'd assumed it went Basic, Advanced, Expert. Seemed like an "expert" would mean complete mastery.

    /just sayin'

  10. I feel I should point out that Games Workshop's Monty Haul dungeon crawl board game Warhammer Quest did exactly this three tiered setup with its rules. In fact, it did it so well that only one intro-level rule even slightly suffers under the weight of the Advanced. The intro rules covered dungeon generation, exploration, combat, treasure, random events, random adventures in 31 pages (the Adventures themselves at 13). The Intermediate rules covered advancement, shops, the monsters and spells aquired post-advancement, the campaign, and travel to distant regions (new rules ~50 pages, lists over 90). Lastly, the Advanced rules (50 pages) covered GM'd gaming, the game's lite roleplaying system, alternate character classes and provided the first pre-printed dungeon.

    Technically, the game's maligned Monty Haul nature comes from the fact that the Intermediate and Advanced rules never make up for the Basic rules' speed-gaming sized treasure hoards, which you'd think would be an easy fix. That aside, the rules introduction was all and all stellar and may even be unequalled in games I've seen since.

  11. I remember way back when, we used to play the Holmes boxed-game rules with the AD&D Monster Manual, and it worked out splendidly. We just left some of the stats out and played with those that were explained in the rules.

    Seems to me that it was the perfect example of cross rules compatibility, and something that could be easily replicated. Those guys at Paizo seem pretty bright, I have a feeling they could do this if they had half a mind to do so.

    Truth be told, this is exciting news. Personally, I'm fine w/ Labyrinth Lord and Swords and Wizardry, but something bright and shiny, from a well known, current company (no insult intended) would be a welcome addition, and might go a long ways toward attracting the younger generation.

  12. Yes, I was going to come and plug GURPS Lite as well. (I am curious about why someone said that the Fourth Edition of the Lite rules aren't enough to run the game – I've run lots of games using just those rules. In comparing the Tables of Contents, I think the only thing that seems "incomplete" about the Fourth Edition Lite rules (compared to the Third Edition) is the lack of a few spells, but I don't think that's a huge issue. Maybe someone who's had more experience with both can fill me in – I can certainly see about the possibility of making a "Lite Supplemental" available to address any inadequacies in the Fourth Edition compared to the Third!)

    Anyway, I note that the approach James suggests is roughly the path we've forged with GURPS in the past few years, although we did it a bit backwards. GURPS Lite is, of course, the "Basic" set. The full GURPS Basic Set is (ironically) the "Advanced" version – and it can be made more advanced than that with the introduction of additional rules and supplements!

    And, starting a couple of years ago, we've done more ready-to-go kits, starting with GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. These sets pare down the rules and ideas of the Basic Set to just what's needed for a specific genre (so far "dungeon crawling" or "action movies"). You still need the Basic Set to use those, but the supplemental rules tell you what's "important" to look at. (This is the equivalent of the "Expert" rules that James refers to.)

    And, as a fan, I like the fact that all the rules are – at its core – compatible. If I to want start with GURPS Lite or Dungeon Fantasy and add a bit more complexity from other books, I can do so with relative ease.

    I also agree that, as a gaming omnivore, I'd love it if this or a similar approach were used by other RPGs. :-)

  13. I wholeheartedly agree! I keep saying that the Moldvay/Cook boxes should be the model (in content). I especially like your three phased approach...

  14. I fully agree with the overall view put forward in this post.

    BRP does something like this with its (free as a PDF) 'quickstart' rules.

  15. I've never understood why anybody wants complicated rules for anything. More mechanics = less time to game = more boredom = less interesting settings and roleplaying. There's no element of chance in rpgs that you couldn't play out with a six-sider, if you really wanted to. I'm not saying you have to go that far, of course; but everybody knows it's true. But instead of just playing and imagining, every element of a game has to be propped up with ten thousand rules.

    I realize that most of the neuro-types that play rpgs are fascinated by the interplay of complicated systems and the fine line between ekeing out a win and rules-lawyering, but sheesh, stay home and write computer programs if you love rules that much. It gets on the nerves.

  16. Iron Crown has gone with a more modular approach with the Rolemaster Express releases. I have found this to be a much better implementation than their previous attempts (MERP, RM Basics, RMFRP).

  17. Great post! I had long thought that a two tiered approach would be interesting, with a Holmes-like "basic" set that took you to at least sixth though perhaps even up to ninth level with a solid set of core rules, and then an "advanced" or "expert" set that included additional spells, nasty monsters such as drow, demons and devils, etc., more magic items including artifacts, flying and underwater rules, advanced combat and other options, etc.

    In this fashion one could, if desired, more or less completely stick with the "basic" rules and add in as much or as little (even none!) of the advanced material, but still have a complete game. Quite unlike the Holmes basic set, which is pretty limited (and, yes, I know some folks do play that game just up to 3rd level and leave it at that, but that does not change that its still pretty limited)

  18. I totally agree with the Basic/Advanced/Expert approach. I wish Pathfinder had a standalone LITE version which was fully playable and self-contained in addition to the current 'Advanced/Expert" incarnation which I won't play (I simply don't have interest in that many rules).

  19. Unfortunately, I think a 3E-based game is already sunk on that point -- the greatest number of spells, feats, and skill points are all awarded at 1st level (instead of the other way around which would be ideal).

    Yeah, I'm skeptical that a 3e-based game can easily adopt the approach I'm talking about -- at least not any existing 3e-based game. I've read Pathfinder and it's a beast of a game. Finding a way to pare it down into something newbie-friendly and fully compatible with the core rules already in print strikes me as a nigh-impossible task.

  20. Those guys at Paizo seem pretty bright, I have a feeling they could do this if they had half a mind to do so.

    I agree that the Paizo folks are very clever and imaginative and I'd certainly be happy to see them come up with a genuinely newbie-friendly intro game that stands on its own merits as a complete (but fully compatible) game rather than a mere advertisement for the larger core rulebook. I'm just not convinced yet that it's possible.

  21. If only they had heeded this advice when it mattered.

  22. I think that 3e could be pared down to a more basic form but it would limit many of the options. You would have to basically preselect what skills, feats, and spells people get to a point of it being more of a choice of what class do you want. This would leave things like rolling your stats and other fun stuff in while taking a lot of the complication out of it. Cutting down on feats in and of it self would make early levels a lot simpler but because they still have them later on the players could get the "advanced" rules and just play them with no real difference till they have to level up.