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Ian O'Rourke
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The Only Criteria is Rules Manageable

There is a debate on RPGNet at the moment about whether the FATE rules are rules lite or not. It's a question that comes up every so often. I'm not exactly sure why people seem keen to see FATE put into the rules lite category or ejected from it, but based on the fact it's a recurring debate some people are interested in the topic. Personally, I've moved a bit beyond the rules lite and heavy debate. I no longer think it serves a purpose. A bit like the conflict resolution argument, things have moved on, it's all a bit richer.

Rules lite and heavy aren't really important, all that matters is whether you find the rules manageable or not, and this is related to the rules lite and heavy debate, but not directly.

The main issue is the lite or heavy rating applied to a role-playing game set of rules isn't an empirical measure, it involves a significant amount of personal opinion and feel. This personal opinion and feel is essentially a qualitative measure of whether the rules are personally manageable. We find it easy to assign the lite and heavy categories to the outlying rule sets, but everything else falls into a murky area. As an example, you will find people who think 4E isn't rules heavy? I think it is. What really differs is 4E was perfectly manageable by the GM of the 4E Campaign, but I freely admit it is not personally manageable by me. What's important to realise is this isn't necessarily directly correlated to the detail or complexity of the rules but also the intent of the rules and the ratio of rules to actual play application.

You look at FATE implementations like Spirit of the Century, Starblazer Adventures and Strands of Fate and the rulebooks are quite large. In the case of Starblazer Adventures it counts as an offensive weapon. There is every outward indication I'd not find the rules manageable, just like 4E. But, this is where the differences come in.

Despite the thickness of the rulebook there isn't really a vast amount of rules at the core. The majority of FATE is handled by the same set of core rules and these extend out through the system. As an example, Starship combat is essentially the same as character combat, as a starship has the same elements. The space in the rulebook taken up by skills aren't really rules, just examples of what skills cover. The major element that has exception-based rules that create extra rules volume beyond the core are stunts, but this brings me to my second observation.

Each and every rules set has a ratio of rules in the book to rules used in actual play. It's my view that FATE, at least in the implementations mentioned above, has big difference between rules in the book compared to rules used at the table. The optimised core of the rules isn't complex (though some people find it complex which is covered in my third point), it's the exceptions that make it fiddly (such as stunts). The issue is though, only a very small subset of these stunts are ever used at the table and they are easy to remember. The unflappable butler can use resolve as a defence skill, simple to remember and it's largely the players responsibility. It's often simple to remember as the stunts are often character defining, the fact the butler can use resolve for defence is part of his narrative signature. The majority of rules, like 80%+ of them are the optimised core which work on a simple set of principles. Now, other games with large rule sets use a higher proportion of their rules in actual play, I'd argue 4E is a case in point and this is why I don't find that rules manageable.

So, if 80%+ of FATE at the table is an optimised core of simple rules why is it an issue? Well, this is when you have to realise that not all rules have the same intent and design choices behind them. In short, all rules sets are 'rules different'. As an example, FATE is very much based on delivering narrative outcomes, either things that happen because of narrative importance or because it is cool. They are not based on simulative reality, say like GURPS, or providing a structured tactical and challenging experience like 4E (in part). This rules difference impacts the manageability. If the rules have an intent that goes against the grain they will be less manageable to one degree or another by default. It's also true that some individuals make this worse by wrestling with the rules difference rather than just picking a set of rules that match their personal intent. This is why compels, tags and aspects are complex for some people, because they are dealing with narrative importance and flow, not necessarily a simulation of a reality of physical things. It's only dark in this warehouse when I tag the scene aspect? No, it's only narratively important it's dark when you tag the aspect, otherwise it's a zero sum game (as the alternative is +2 for everyone all of the time), etc. It's also why some people describe aspects as a 'rules heavy way' of applying circumstantial bonuses, when in truth that's a minority 'aspect' (haha) of what's going on. They miss the fact fate points are a flow of narrative, and character defining narrative at that.

So, I know why 4E doesn't fall into my rules manageable range. It has an intent in its design that I love playing but isn't for me when it comes to GM'ing. It also uses a higher proportion of its rules at the table and, more importantly, a vastly high proportion of rules interactions. In turn, FATE hits a sweet spot in terms of actual complexity, the ratio of rules used at the table and the intent of the rules matches what I like to deliver so it supports rather than detracts. As a result, it's rules manageable. Where FATE exists on any empirical scale of lite to heavy is related, but almost irrelevant.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/12/2010 Bookmark and Share
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