Players of role-playing adventure games love simple game rules these days. I think that's a good thing, and it's likely to make the hobby easier to enter for newcomers.
But what counts as simple?
B/X D&D and other early varieties of D&D, and their many, many clones, are often praised for the simplicity of the stats and character features if we compare with later editions of D&D.
Yet if we just consider the player-facing matter of the character sheet and the numbers that players need to track, there are a lot of numbers, and the use of those numbers is often opaque. What do you roll for this stat or that stat, if at all, and which die?
Some stats are "primary," in the sense that you roll for them or they are determined without reference to other numbers.
Some of them are "secondary," in the sense that they are derived from primary numbers by a formula or by consulting a chart.
After trying to introduce a few novices to B/X D&D, I realized that these "simple" D&D stats were not so simple as I had claimed.
Here's a list of things that a new B/X D&D player needs to track. I call all of these "stats," including the ones that are not numerical (like Alignment).
I put an *asterisk by the secondary stats.
- Class (descriptive but essential stat)
- Experience Points
- damage bonus*
- AC and missile adjustment*
- HP adjustment*
- Languages known*
- Save vs magic bonus*
- Retainers one can have*
- Loyalty adjustment*
- Experience bonus for prime requisites*
- Hit Points
- Armor Class
- THAC0 (or attack bonus)
- vs Death Ray/Poison*
- vs Wands*
- vs "Stone"*
- vs Dragon Breath*
- vs Staves & Spells*
- Damage done (per weapon)
Then there are modular stats according to character class, such as "Spells/Levels of spells," a chart of numbers for Turning Undead, and a chart of numbers for Thief abilities.
A starting D&D character has well over twenty stats.
D&D characters are also highly uniform in these stats. Everybody has the same ones. The main variation comes in restrictions on weapons and armor, hit dice, and class abilities.
New players also have to figure out d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, and d100. As a player who started in 1981, I find these distinctions as obvious to me as my native language. But I have recently seen new players stall at the table, unable to recognize which die's shape is which on the spur of the moment, and others have to select dice for them to roll. It's not fun at the table to feel you can't spot which die to roll.
A comparison with GURPS
Let's compare the unnoticed complexity of D&D with another game that has a reputation for complexity: GURPS.
If a player wants to custom-design a character in GURPS, it can take a very long time without the presence of someone who has encyclopedic familiarity with the rules. Still, take a look at the stat system.
- Basic Speed*
- Thrust damage*
- Swing damage *
- Passive Defense*
- Active Defense*
- Skills, MODULAR
- OTHER POSSIBLE MODULAR TRAITS (advantages, disadvantages, quirks)
The GURPS character-facing rules are actually really simple. The resolution system is also very easy. The game uses d6 only. It's 3d6, roll equal-to-or-under. (Only reaction rolls and damage rolls work differently.)
What makes GURPS seem complex is its modularity. That is, you just use the rules for character features that you have. After decades of GURPS supplements, there are modular features for characters for practically any genre. It's vast.
Still, the core GURPS rules are far simpler and more streamlined than those for D&D. In GURPS, there are no useless stats. There are no numbers that sit there most of the time without being used (like D&D stats, which often play zero role in actual play).
If you wanted to use GURPS Lite (which is free!), you get an easy and universal resolution system without much fuss.
The drawbacks in GURPS for "rules-lite" game fans are basically just two, both related to character generation.
(1) It has a point-buy system, and there is such a big menu of things you can buy, that it can be overwhelming. Character generation for a new player can last hours, as prospective players leaf through a catalogue of items that might fit a new character.
(2) There has definitely been a huge "point creep" in GURPS gaming culture. When the system first game out, characters were ideally based on 100 points. It was a nice round number for low-power fantasy games. Now they are more typically 250 points, meaning that there's just a lot more shopping and counting to do in character generation. Even when character templates are used to simplify things for beginners, a 250-point template is a lot of data and fidgety numbers.
I think that point bloat is the single biggest reason there aren't more players of GURPS games.
GURPS would probably win new players if it could lower this hurdle considerably. Here are some ideas:
1. Back to basics: 100-point characters, with correspondingly lower stats, so that one point of a core stat makes a difference, as it used to be in the late '80s.
2. Random characters (not point-buy!). Make a table of character features used in your setting, and let players roll for them. Never mind that PCs will have different point values! Players accept that some will roll better than others.
4. Alternatively, have simple lists of advantages and disadvantages of the same point value, with a list of acceptable swaps. Players pick from lists. "Pick one advantage from Box A. You can take an advantage from Box B, but then you have to take one disadvantage from Box C." "If you want to raise your Magery by 1, lower ST or HT by one." That kind of thing will be more legible to players than adding up points.
5. Combine low-point templates with random rolls for modular features.
6. Institute a slot-based encumbrance system instead of counting pounds or kilograms. (Slots = ST. New Advantage: bonus item slots, 4 pts/level up to a limit set by the GM.)
I could see a low-hurdle, easy-character-generation version of GURPS being quite successful.
Steve Jackson Games has published its Dungeon Fantasy rules, which seems to emulate later editions of D&D more, with higher power levels and templates in place of character classes. That's where they invested to tap into the OSR scence (that, and the republished deluxe edition of The Fantasy Trip).
But I'd like see GURPS Basic Fantasy instead, with a system for making characters randomly that didn't require any knowledge of the point-system. The points would be at a smaller scale and can be kept entirely "under the hood" except when used for XP.
Starting templates could be printed on cards. To make a character in GURPS, draw a card from the stack for your template, then roll some d66s to get a few advantages and disadvantages. Then just play without counting any points at all during character generation.
The point value of characters could just be something the GM tracks behind the screen--if that's even necessary.
People who play video games don't need to know the code underlying it. The same goes for GURPS character points. You can play without them.
There's one more thing. Steve Jackson Games just has to start not using such bad art in every single book. I'd rather have no art than the stuff they use most of the time. (This goes especially for art that depicts images of Kickstarter patrons as adventurers, nearly ruining some products for me.) I don't like the role that art plays in the success and failure of games, but there's no denying it: new players are sparked by cool art.
Okay, this post has turned out to be a lot more about GURPS than I had intended, but I think the initial point is still true:
D&D characters have a lot of stats!
There's a lot to keep track of for a brand-new D&D player, with confusing and nearly useless stuff all over the character sheet, and it's not nearly as simple as fans of the good old days sometimes think.
Sure, early D&D rules are much simpler than a lot of later systems, but, then again, complexity in a character sheet is of two kinds.
(1) There's mandatory complexity, the stuff every single player has to keep track of.
(2) Then there's modular complexity, the stuff that only matters to the players who have those modular features in their characters.
D&D is more complex than GURPS when it comes to mandatory complexity: numbers for odd things that every player must track. (A separate number for "Save versus Wands"?) GURPS is more complex than old editions of D&D when it comes to modular complexity: things that players track only to distinguish their individual character.
Players have their strong preferences, but I bet I could explain a simple GURPS character sheet and basic GURPS mechanics to a new player more simply than I could explain how a B/X D&D character sheet works.