Controversial Opinion: Rules Light vs Rules Heavy

On one end of the spectrum we have freeform roleplaying and the other end of the spectrum we have GURPS. I’ve roleplayed with both and many other systems in between. Based on that experience I want to push back against a recent trend that portrays rules heavy systems as innately negative. Some people have claimed that rules heavy systems are inherently ‘gatekeeping’ and that the fewer rules a system has the more accessible an experience it provides. Yet, as someone with extensive experience with freeform roleplaying, I feel the need to push back against this kind of ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Here’s my central argument…

Rules Light rewards expressiveness and spontaneity while Rules Heavy rewards study and planning. Rules Heavy is friendly to a certain type of new player and Rules Light is friendly to a certain type of new player.

  • Rules Light systems are friendlier to players who are spontaneous, confident, and outgoing. Players who have a strong force of personality can often dominate these and the Game Master, if there is one, has extreme influence over how the game flows.
  • Rules Heavy systems are friendlier to players who are calculating, who like to know the risks before acting, and who enjoy mastery through effort. Players who have strong grasp of mechanics can often dominate these and the Game Master has more checks and balances on their influence.

Instead of labeling one system approach as ‘bad wrong fun’, we should be celebrating the rich diversity of roleplaying systems available to us and encourage people to experiment. Personally, I enjoy both Fate Core, a generic setting rules lite system, as well as GURPS, a generic setting rules heavy system, because of the different experiences they offer. I still enjoy freeform roleplaying as well but I’ve learned that it really needs the right group of people to work well.

Beyond player preference, the narrative experience that the group is going for might benefit from one end of the spectrum versus the other end of the spectrum.

For example…

  • If I was running a heist RP which relied heavily on player improvisation and player narrative input, I’d want to run the rules light Fate Core. Personally, I would want to keep the narrative fluid and accessible, so that players can provide dramatic solutions to challenges that mirror the kind of narratives seen in heist movies.
  • If I was running an in-depth post apocalyptic survival RP with a heavy emphasis on inventory management and colony building I’d want a system with a stronger framework. Personally, I wouldn’t want to rely on GM fiat to rule about inventory management and colony building, but would prefer to have an accessible framework that participants could access and plan around.

The wonderful thing about tabletop roleplaying games, as compared to other mediums, is that they can be customized to the people at the table and to provide the experience that they want. The judgement call that ‘rules are bad wrong fun’ limit the diversity of roleplaying games and that’s a shame given that it unnaturally limits the options for each group.

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