Tobold's Blog
Friday, January 27, 2012
Minimalist vs. Maximalist in pen & paper roleplaying rules

It didn't take long after me mentioning Dungeons & Dragons until the first commenter popped up saying that this wasn't the best system to roleplay with. Specifically Inquisitor said: "4e doesn't *stop* you running an actual story, but it really doesn't help you, either". Which brings us back to a debate which is over 30 years old: What is the role of a rule system in a pen & paper roleplaying game?

Basically there are two extreme positions, and lots of shades of grey in between. The two extremes can be called minimalist and maximalist. The minimalist point of view is that the rules only get into the way when roleplaying, thus ideally you'd have as little rules as possible. Rules are there to solve situations that can't be solved by talking, e.g. the old problem of children playing cops and robbers: "Peng, peng, you're dead!" - "No, I'm not, you missed!". While Dungeons & Dragons produced hundreds of rule books, the basic rules of the game have always been on the minimalist side. Thus Inquisitor's comment that these rules "don't help you roleplay". He is right, they aren't designed to. They are rules for a tactical squad based combat game, initially made by a company that shortened it's names from "Tactical Studies Rules" to TSR. The story content between combat is a lot less regulated in D&D, and has far more degrees of liberty. Including the option to not do very much at all, and basically run just a miniature wargame in a fantasy setting.

The other extreme of rule sets, the maximalist one, thinks that the rules should aid and encourage roleplay. To achieve that, they are often a lot more elaborate. Their proponents often praise them at being "more realistic", as far as that makes sense when you are roleplaying a wizard. For example maximalist rule sets don't simply reduce your health by X points when you are damaged, but use tables with hit locations telling you how those X points that landed on your right upper leg is affecting your movement speed. Maximalist rule systems also tend to have more rules on the non-combat interaction between players and non-player characters. If a character wants to haggle over the price of a sword with the NPC merchant, a minimalist Dungeon Master has to invent the reaction of the NPC on the spot; a maximalist Dungeon Master gets "help to roleplay" in form of a table in the rule book where based on a dice roll, some stat, and some skill the exact rebate from the merchant can be calculated.

Personally I much prefer the minimalist approach. Of course it requires a more creative Dungeon Master, but then it gives that creativity a wider range of freedom. The last thing you want your pen & paper campaign to become is an exercise in rules lawyering and endless looking up of tables. Roleplay is better than rollplay, we used to say. But the debate is certainly still alive, and not everybody has the same preferences.
Is "peng" the sound of a gun in Belgium? I know that in France it's "pan".

In England we say "bang".

Interesting stuff...
Just like with MMORPGs, there are enough pen and paper RPGs that ideally you can find the one correct for you, and your group of friends. Each game does certain things better than others.

If you are looking for a medium weight fantasy tactical combat game, DnD handles that job beautifully--and it's still one of my favorites for that sort of experience.

On the other hand, if you want other things, you can go with other games. Want a more 'maximalist' experience? Burning Wheel offers a rich (and complex) combat system, but also offers its own combat system for debating a person rather than hacking them to bits.

Want one of the most minimalist experiences out there? Try PDQ (Prose Descriptive Qualities), or In A Wicked Age. These games strip the role mechanics play in the RPG down to extremely simple levels, so they get out of the way, and you can just roleplay.
My favourite systems were always the exception-light ones, but where characters had enough skill variety to partially guide non-combat bits - Cyberpunk, Call of Cthulhu, and Vampire: The masquerade did this well - lots of character granularity, but everything functioned in the same way. Dungeons and Dragons, especially later editions, went too far in the 'combat skills only' direction, leaving everything else up to the game master, while GURPS has a table for every ridiculous scenario, and suffers for it.
I don't play P&P RPGs any more, but my main cause of irritation regarding D&D specifically was that it was so illogical. AC vs Thac0 and hit points which increase with levels. It's pretty much the same as the modern MMO games, level based system or skill based system.

Our group used to play a RPG that was skill based. Translated to english it was called Dragons & Demons ( <a href="></a> ) and was in a similar setting as Dungeons & Dragons but skill based. It felt more realistic (if you can all a game where you can throw fireballs around that). It had hit points but since there were no levels you didn't gain any more HP, unless there was some very specific circumstance. I guess there was a few more rolls made than in Dungeons & Dragons but I don't think it was much more.
"and not everybody has the same preferences"

End of debate!
I would say which tendency supports roleplaying is the reverse of your paradigm. The more rules and combat veracity there is, the less flexibility there is for storytelling and personality which is the foundation of real roleplaying.

In that sense I think 4e is really a system that drifts into maximalist territory, at least sufficiently to get in the way of pure imagination. Yet at the same time produces little that's "realistic." It's just a bad imitation of diku mechanics.

Might I suggest BRP or if you want the ultimate in minimalism Heroquest which has the advantage of being oriented towards Glorantha, the greatest pen and paper gaming world ever created.
I know this not a popular sentiment, but I'd say 4e is the best fantasy role-playing game yet designed, and I think you'll agree based on this post. Probably the best thing about it is completely throwing realism out the window as a goal (diagonal distances being equal to horizontal distances is the very essence of non-realistic, but it only makes the game better unless your favourite thing is counting squares).

4e actually facilitates role playing much better than nearly any other system I've played. The rules have an enormous amount of flexibility to deal with all kinds of situations - especially in combat, but in other situations as well.

I think one of the reasons that people feel this is not the case is because it gives players so many real options in combat (not just walk next to a guy and attack) that they feel those are their only options.
I find your statement that Dungeons and Dragons is a minimalist rules set.... odd... If you compare it to Hero Quest by Moon Design Publications or the Amber Diceless system you find that dungeons and dragons is a maximalist rule set completely focused on tactical combat.
Is "peng" the sound of a gun in Belgium?

I think that was my native German, although I'm not sure if it isn't the same in Flemish, the version of Dutch spoken in the north of Belgium.
While I agree in your broad classification of rpgs, I think it does not adress the question raised by your reader.
4th edition is a not really a minimalist rpg, and it doesnt help in roleplay. While for instance Fate is a minimalist, storyteller oriented rpg that has inherent mechanics to encourage roleplay.
Sadly among the various iterations of Dnd, the 4th is the more combat and minis oriented game, much more similar to a skirmish minis game like Warhammer than a real rpg.
Just my opinion on the infamous DnD edition war.
There are actually rules sets that literally help you tell a story (as opposed to help you simulate events in the story).

For example, the "interlude" system in savage worlds requires the players to draw cards. The outcome creates a requirement to engage in a certain kind of dialog with the other players or NPCs.

Dark Heresy has a social interaction type of combat that requires role playing.

The Fiasco set of rules only includes a mechanic for role playing -- the simulation aspects are omitted from the game completely.
I think that RPG systems can shape the way people play, no matter what the rules actually are. And the absense of rules guides a game as much and the rules that are printed.

With D&D, I've found that games tend to revolved around combat encounters because that's what the rules are about. All of the role playing stuff gets done, but the combat core always seems to be the center of games that I run.

If you just want to role play without respect to what the rules tell you, there is no need for the RPG at all. (For instance, role players in an MMO. They'd probably be happier without all of the rule restrictions, but the MMO provides some nice costumes and settings.)

Take all of this with a grain of salt. I do tend to view PnP RPGs from a very gamist mindset.
-For me, my main desire out of a rules system is a reliable and thought-out way to resolve conflict. Conflict between the players, npcs, and also the GameMaster. Anything else is tertiary to this main focus. It also helps having a decent GM that has the time and motivation to put into the game and players invested in the game.

4th edition, as stated in previous comments, seemed to move the conflict resolution to skew towards a certain style and presentation of conflict, namely minis and wargaming. My personal experience with the HERO system also seemed similarly-skewed.

Other games, such as Savage Worlds and Dogs in the Vineyard, look to present a more basic set of conflict resolution rules that allow the GM and group more flexibility.

I won't go into my gripes of 4th edition here, and I hope you have fun with it, but for a more open roleplay experience i personally prefer other systems.

Happy hunting.

I gave up pen/paper a long time ago. So, I am always curious when people talk about playing D&D or any other char sheet driven game these days.

One thing that would be of interest is what your take is on Rules vs Content.

That is we are discussing now Rule Set etc... but what about the adventure, setting, visualization aids (pics etc) that you wish to play with?

I personally always loved a more picture driven dungeons like the classic "Expedition to Barrier Peaks" type.

One of the things I liked about the minimalist approach was that it encouraged people to use role-playing instead of dice. So haggling, the player might start out by praising the merchant's camel and admiring how well he's doing which gives the GM the cue to say "no no sahib, I am a poor merchant with 10 starving children and an aged mother to support".

Much better than rolling. And often much easier.
Just to throw in my vote on Tobold's final question in his post. I still have a deep interest in P&P RPGs. I'm glad to hear that you will be posting on this as well.
I'd divide pen&paper RPGs in two groups - narrative and simulation.

The main question is not "how much rules there is", but "what rules are ultimately used for".

Simulation RPGs employ rules to create a some kind of world model (and it doesn't have to be realistic world at all) which can be played with. The players interact with the world, and from this interactions story (hopefully) emerges.
Examples are D&D, GURPS, D20, Fuzion.

Narrative RPGs rules are aimed at the story, not at the system. Mechanics are often pretty meta-gamey and don't have any meaning inside of game's simluated world/system, but have a huge meaning for the story flow. The players can often directly interact with a story, from which world changes emerge (you see, this is completely antagonistic to D&D mindset).
The examples are Fudge, Fate, Fiasco, Joe in Ten Persons.

You should definitely take a look at them.
First, I don't think there is any "right" system. But as a player in a system that I think is fairly maximalist on your scale (Rolemaster), one of the things I love about it is the way it incorporates a small chance for a different outcome than the likely one, out of control of either the players or the GM. In your example with combat: Determining where you hit gives the oportunity for an extremely lucky shot, like a lvl 1 piercing the eye of a lvl 30 and killing him/her. In my RPG group, those rare moments become stories we come back to, as a "do you remember when..." kind of thing.
Random Phobois - How did you get so close to describing GNS theory without including the gamist perspective, which is the axis I am closest to? :-)
oh, that's probably because my group uses boardgames to satisfy their "solve the game to win" hunger, and looks for something else in rpgs.
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