Under the Hood – A Sea of Words


A Sea of Words
By The Warden

may13I’m a big fan of words. They may not get me as giddy as a schoolboy like dice, but there’s no denying their power. Don’t get me started on sentences either. Put a string of them together into a paragraph and you have something wonderful to behold. Or long winded. That’s the curse of words, sentence, and paragraphs: too much of a good thing can make it really bad.

Looking over at my bookshelf, there’s a lot of words up there. None of them have been chosen lightly and every page crafts its own piece of the larger puzzle that is the game. In my youth, I used to think that RPGs demanded a high page count and a thick core rulebook was a sign of a truly magnificent game. I don’t feel that way anymore, but recent events have given me cause to wonder about the role and impact of words when it comes to the part that matters above all other pieces of this puzzle: the core mechanics.

I’ve just completed the Backer’s Guide to my upcoming Kickstarter, as well as an open and free preview edition of the game’s rules. One chapter for the rules – the core mechanics – and it runs in at just over 18,000 words, or 43 pages with a crude layout. In its defence, that count includes endless example texts to explain the rules in action, quotes, charts, images from the previous edition, sample play, and character creation guidelines, but it’s still a large chunk of the total volume to come. With an expected weight of 250 pages, 43 is dangerously close to 20% of the rulebook. Is it excessive? Perhaps, but I’ve gone through it all and cleaned up as much as possible without losing vital information and maintaining the book’s presentation and tone (it’s told from the POV of a secretive character rather than written plainly from designer to player). In my mind, a game’s mechanics should take up the bulk of the book and the remainder provide all the options, provisions, and possibilities awaiting your next step.

Simultaneously, I’ve been working on a couple other side projects with much smaller goals and page counts. For EN World’s 7-Day RPG Design Contest, my submission – Asylum – ran in at a total of 23 pages. Total. There were original plans to include more, but everything possibly needed to explain, describe, and guide the game into existence is complete within those pages. So it’s made me ponder on the necessity of words in any game’s mechanics and it brings us to this week’s thought.


You have to admit, core rulebooks can be intimidating figures to potentially new players. If the kids at my local library were to see the actual rulebook I used to learn D&D, their jaws would drop. It’s a common belief that the size of these books are the cause of questions such as “Can I do this…?” instead of asking how they can do something. Page count tends to present a game of such complexity as to suggest every potential action and outcome are provided sectionally with appendices. The funny thing is that’s not the case at all. The majority of books with these counts have essay and guidelines for Gamemasters, character options, setting material, and adventures to fill it out and make the purchase a worthy investment. It’s not all rules, but it sure looks that way to newcomers.

Taking a look at Fate Core, for example, and we’re looking at a total of 312 pages. Lamentations of the Flame Princess Grindhouse Edition is 360 pages. And let’s top it off with Pathfinder‘s 576 pages, we’re talking whopping totals here. Of these three, it may be safe to say Fate Core is the simplest and cleanest of the bunch – many character options are designed by players at the table – leaving the remainder of the book to explain the construction of your own individual game and the main characters. It’s also a universal rulebook as it’s designed to allow all types of campaigns and characters, a broader application of the material than Pathfinder, which can also be used for any generic fantasy system you want (though many have adapted the same rules for science fiction or modern times). Because of their opposing standpoints on page count and complexity, let’s use Fate Core and Pathfinder as our examples for this week.

For the purpose of this discussion, I want to focus solely on a game’s mechanics. Not just its core mechanics, resolution system, and anything else that may be the ignition to the game’s success, but what the design team involved considered to be the collective rules commonly assembled into its own chapter. However it’s provided, these rules I’m concerned with have been blocked and set aside within particular pages as everything you need to know to play the game. Anything else beyond that point is learned during play or provided as optional material for experienced and interested players.

“Chapter 1: The Basics” of Fate Core gives you everything you need to know for a basic understanding (including the infamous What Is A Roleplaying Game? Section). This chapter is 15 pages long, including artwork, sidebars, and diagrams to help explain the game’s concepts and fundamentals. However, it’s crucial for anyone playing to understand how “Chapter 6: Action and Outcomes” works in order to play the game as intended with the required dice and targets. Aside from some additional expansions and extended details on the mechanics, everything new players need to know lies within these 29 pages. That’s roughly 10% of the game’s core rulebook.

Compare that to the opposite end of the spectrum, Pathfinder, and we’re looking at a total of… well, that really depends on what type of character you’re playing. At the very least, everyone should know how combat works (29 pages) and if you have a spellcaster, you’ll need to comprehend magic (18 pages) and any spells in your repertoire (rounding it to 5 pages for argument’s sake), then your race (let’s just say 1 page), and finally your class (anywhere from 2-6 pages if you have deities or animal companions to choose) due to the sheer composition of the game. Add those up and we’re theoretically looking at around 9% of the game’s core rulebook.

Not that far apart, are they? The true question becomes the confidence of any GM to run these games with only that 9-10% at hand. Can a Fate GM and a Pathfinder GM both keep to only those pages mentioned in their respective paragraphs above without skipping a beat and with no experience whatsoever? The answer may be interpretive, but I think Fate has Pathfinder down in that regard for one sole reason: trust.


Playing any roleplaying game is an exercise in trust between the Gamemaster and the players. It’s also an exercise in trust between everyone at the table (or hovered around scattered monitors around the world) and the game itself. Everyone playing the game has to trust the rules will guide them through the process, not leaving them stumped to interpret or roll themselves into a corner, and the game has to trust the players will stick to the values and purpose of the game. It’s something games like Fate require to play for the sheer reason that Fate and other story-based games rely on thorough use of individual creativity.

Take the role of Fate aspects and Pathfinder classes, for example. Both of these represent the intrinsic nature of the main characters and offer up a quick description of what’s to come by name alone. You have an idea of what to expect when you adventure with a Pathfinder ranger and it’s easier to expect a harsh reactions from someone who’s aspect is Avenge the Fallen. The ranger, however, is quite specific as to what it offers the game (with a few options and selections thrown in for variety) and must be researched in the rulebook, while Avenge the Fallen was made up by the player to suit their creation. In this way, Fate trusts the player to make effective use of that aspect within the confines of the game by presenting loose and interpretive guidelines over rules. In other words, Avenge the Fallen is not found in Fate Core, just the recommendations for using it.

On the surface, it certainly sounds as if I’m stating Pathfinder and other big book games don’t trust their players, which is overstating things. So let’s try another angle. Can you run the same house rule over and over again from table to table, convention to convention, without someone asking why you’re doing it? If you suddenly decided a certain attack roll allowed the hero to toss the monster back 10 feet arbitrarily, no one would make a fuss or question your decision? Attacks of opportunity are another – and possibly best – example for this point as the elimination of this rule can have a huge effect on how the game plays out and doing so requires some character restructuring. Certain classes and feats are deeply affected by the elimination of this rule and something must be provided to keep those characters fair and balanced against all others in the game. Trust in RPGs relates in its ability to translate from game to game without effort or question to reflect the style of play at hand. Because of its incredibly structured design and attention to balance and function across the board, Pathfinder is a very difficult game to tweak and twist at its core.

The correlation between a game’s word count and its trust in the players to handle the mechanics and craft a game is unmistakable. Small games place more trust in their players and work off a general principle that everyone gathered knows and accepts they are there to have a good time and play the game’s spirit. Matters like how fast everyone travels by foot, the range of a good rifle, how far a spell’s power reaches and how many enemies it affects are not as important as the rush of adrenaline the player feels when they race to the aid of a fallen victim, pop off a Nazi robot from hundreds of yards away, and wipe out the approaching horde with a vanquishing spell. It doesn’t have to tell you how to calculate the effectiveness of the action because the game entrusts the players to fill in those gaps themselves to the situation at hand.

Writing a game is like the stairs of a house. Do you trust your players not to fall over the side or do you feel they need something to hold onto while they play, much like the railing on a set of stairs should they possibly stumble and fall? There’s no one right answer because, much like stairs, it all depends on the individual design of the house. A larger house needs more stairs and more stairs requires more safety measures to allow players full access to the house that is their game, while a smaller house only needs a few steps to reach that gorgeous yard out back. Me? I like a big house and I’d rather no one falls while exploring.

What about you?

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