How Free is Too Free


For most RPGers, rules are a necessity. They guide the creation of a character, influence the shape of a story, and generally set the tone for the entire world. However, there are different levels of freedom depending on the particular RPG you're playing.

For most RPGers, rules are a necessity. They guide the creation of a character, influence the shape of a story, and generally set the tone for the entire world. However, there are different levels of freedom depending on the particular RPG you're playing.

For instance, BESM (Big Eye, Small Mouth) by Guardians of Order, Inc. is a very open system, allowing the creation of virtually any type of character imaginable. There are rules governing space exploits, magic, combat, stunts, and even Pokemon-like gaming scenarios, yet they are all very general. Most of the rule-lawyering is left up to the GM.

On the other hand, you have games like Dungeons & Dragons by TSR, a more mainstream and traditional game. D&D has more rules than any gaming system I've seen, but the rules create a more diverse, realistic gaming experience. The rule books contain helpful hints and suggestions for DMs dealing with problems not covered in the books, though almost every situation is related somehow to at least one rule in either the Dungeon Master's Guide or Player's Handbook (or Psionics Handbook for those of you who don't fear a brave, new world of adventure). While the rules of D&D are not the absolute law of the universe, it's assumed you will play with at least the basics, if not the more advanced rules.

These two games are very different, yet equally palatable as role-playing systems. In the end, it merely comes down to what the GM/DM/Storyteller and the players want.

In my experience, there are three types of gamers: power gamers, adventurers, and weekend warriors. Each of the three represents a different mindset when dealing with RPGs, and each has different needs as far as a game goes. Power gamers want to have ultra-powerful characters who virtually can't be killed and can do just about everything; these people tend to favor game systems that are very open, allowing them to perform whatever crazy, insane maneuvers and diabolical schemes they desire. Adventurers tend to be focused more on the storyline and how their characters relate to the world around them. These players, like me, tend to need rules in order to create characters effectively and function well in the gaming world; without the rules, there's no basic structure everyone has to follow, and so the story seems to be far too much based on the DM's whim. The last group, the weekend warriors, is into having fun first and foremost; power, wealth, storyline - a weekend warrior craves not these things. They just want to have some laughs at the expense of each other, themselves, and the hilarious world they're thrown into. Obviously this is my own view of the world, and I'm sure many people would disagree with my drawing the lines where I have; my only response would be to ignore this section and keep reading.

Based on the above observations, freedom in a gaming system can be both good and bad. A good GM/DM/Storyteller will tailor his or her world to the desires of the players, if only because bored or upset players really make running a game difficult and often annoying. A game with many rules will almost always require more time and effort when creating a game world and its adventures, though many players will be able to see the time spent in creating the scenario and appreciate the work done for their enjoyment. A game with a very loose system will enable those running the game the ultimate chance to do whatever he or she wants, though this also translates into the player's abilities to do whatever they want. Of course, rules can always be set down by the GM/DM/Storyteller, but without a set standard for character creation and interaction with the game world, it often becomes very difficult to get everyone on the same page. The best GM/DM/Storytellers do whatever it takes to make the system work for them.

I admit I'm not one of the best. I often get lazy and don't write an adventure until an hour before the game starts, but only when I'm dealing with my BESM or Aberrant campaigns. Their loose systems allow me to be lazy because everything goes with the rules, for the most part. When it comes to my D&D campaign, I have to work hard to build an adventure that works. The NPCs and monsters generally need to have hit points and stats already written down if not memorized or easily researched, and the dungeons have to be well-planned or contradictions might destroy the flow of the story. The rules in D&D force me to be a better DM, to plan ahead and prepare for the unexpected. From what I've seen in other's games, the same is true for many others.

What I'm trying to say is: rules are good, freedom is good, but a balance between the two is best. Too much freedom leads to chaos, and too many rules lead to confinement and boredom. It's the GM/DM/Storyteller's job to create the world, but it's also the player's job to let whoever is running the game know their game sucks or at least needs a little work. A little criticism is a good thing; it helps people grow and learn, become better at what they do. If no one speaks up, everyone loses.

A more open system does not lead to lazy GMs. I've run
game systems both open and less flexible. Both require
significant amounts of work, if in different ways. It
is true that making a D&D adventure contains more tedious
work, such as rolling up monster stats, creating and
populating dungeons, etc. However, a more open and
flexible system, such as Mage: the Ascension, requires
a whole different method of preparation.

In order to stay true to the spirit of open games, a GM
must allow for a flexible storyline. After all, in Mage,
a starting character can practically be a demigod in
power (turning vampires into lawnchairs, anyone?).
Instead of populating one dungeon at a time, a GM of
such a flexible storyline must allow for deviation and
must be willing to watch his story take new paths. In
a typical White Wolf game, this means populating the
entire city with characters and locations before the
game even begins because few players will find overuse
of stock characters acceptable. In D&D terms, imagine
having to make every dungeon and bad guy before the
first adventure.

Just because almost anything goes in certain games
doesn't mean it should. Taking the most flexible game
system in existance, GURPS, as an example, a gaming
group could create characters from a wide variety of
settings for a single game. However, without the all-
important story component, the novelty would quickly
wear off and the game would devolve into little more
than silly antics. It is the job of the GM to take the
massive flexibility and either restrict it to fit her
story ideas (limiting TL and establishing character point
values) or develop a storyline that allows for the
openness of the system.

In essence, while D&D does force the DM to do a lot of
tedious work, any good open and flexible game will
require a lot of work for the GM in the planning stages
if he wants his game to be any good. Finally, never
forget Rule #0 in _any_ RPG -- the GM is always right.
It is the only rule that is ultimately needed by a
good GM.

I'm not quite shure what the theme of this thread is, but I have two things to say anyway:

1) I can't speak for anyone else, but I have never had fun playing BESM, and I have been coerced into playing it on my fair share of occasions. It is virtually impossible to avoid playing a god, and it's virtually impossible to have fun if you don't. imagine a universe where every joe, dick, and tom can blow up a planet, now imagine playing the one guy that can't, all the while knowing that you avoided 3/4 of the abilities you could have taken precicely because you thought they were too powerfull.

2) I agree wholeheartedly with The GM of One Too Many Games's post, I have had a lot of fun by running a flexible storyline (even though it didn't necessarily start that way). If you want to try this, there are a few things to remember: You don't actually have to BUILD every NPC, all you have to do is think of their existance, figure out how they interact with the rest of the world, what their attitude towords the charachters would be, and have a little insight into their personallity. Same goes for organisations etc. It is VERY helpfull to put togather a map of the world, make it detailed, fill as much of it up as you can, so that wherever the PCs happen to be, there is at least ONE interesting person/thing/detail etc. As you are running it, try to think fast, focus on the repricussions of the PCs actions, and keep in mind the all-important question "who are they pissing off now?" (remember, in this kind of game you can afford to wait a while before deciding who/what the antagonist is). A word to the wise, however, unless you are playing with an experianced group, be shure to provide a good push at the beggining: the first time i tried this I made the mistake of setting up an intracite world, full of plot hooks, then depositing my players in it with a little individual back-story that explained why they were togather, and then said "do whatever you want." Nothing worse than a game with no purpouse.

This article seems amazingly naive to me, and also more built on a few narrow perceptions rather than a thoughtful look at what gaming actually involves for many people.

As an example, the three distinct types of gamer is very naive, the issue is much more complicated than that and in many ways the three types are just talking about three grades of one type of gamer - the type the writer understands (going from the content of the article).

As for BESM2 - like any system it is easy to create characters that are relatively weak and ones that are very powerful. It is true that the system is not very granular, so given long enough, everyone will end up very powerful - but this is because BESM2 is not designed to be a system that develops character power over a long period of time like D&D. There are many systems like this, which tend to more focused on designing the characters for the story in question, playing it out, and having relatively little 'character experience' added to the characters over the course of the campaign. After all, character development is not just about getting the widgets, indeed, that should be a small part of it.

And I am complete fascinated by equation of rules equaling the ability to create sound characters. The creation of a good character should involve 80% effort on stuff that does not involve touching the rules.

You know what? The group in question should use whatever system works for them.

As this was my first article, I expected a lot of backlash. I admit, I'm not the most experienced gamer, nor do I play as often as some, nor do I play as maturely as some, nor do I play with as mature players as some. I agree with all of you, to some extent, and since my article was based on my own experiences it would appear I have a lot to learn. Then again, it seems to me that I'm quite a different in terms of style than you all are; while I enjoy an open RPG ocasionally, it doesn't provide the support for my stories that I find in D&D. Sure, the DM is always right; however, after running several hours of a game, it becomes a lot harder (for me anyway) to keep track of what goes on and pulling out the trump card, "I'm the DM here", just isn't my style.

Anyway, thanks for the input.

In response to Ian O'Rourke:
I'm not saying that BESM is a bad game, I was relating the bad experiences I've had with it. Regarding your 80%, I have too agree with you, but I tend to use the rules as a starting point for the charachter concept, I get ideas while browsing through sourcebooks, and I have a problem with any system where every other ability you can take says "I win."

In response to Potter:
Well...yeah As long as it dosn't stop you from trying new systems, repeating what has worked before is fine and dandy (I can't beleive I just used the phrase "fine and dandy"). My group tends to rotate systems that we enjoy and those that we havn't tried yet, as well as the GM's seat. I personally run mainly D&D (3rd ed.), but I run the gambit as a player.

As for Sir Darius:
We have something in common: I hate Pulling the "GM is allways right" card as well, I try to only use it at charachter creation. It's important to remember though, that this decision makes it a lot harder to keep a party along a linear path two roads diverging in the woods and whatnot. The amount of Overt power the GM uses is inversly proportional to the amount of time he has to prepare. (with one noatable exception)

Rules and freedom do not always trade off. Social scientists refer to rules which increase freedom as "enabling constraints."

An analogy is probably the best way to show what these are. In chess, the rules are enabling constraints. It would be impossible to become a chess grandmaster if the rules of chess were not absolute, or your opponents casually disregarded them. If on your opponents first turn he used a pawn to take your queen, it would be impossible to have a game of anything we would call "chess."

Rules in a game system are frequently enabling constraints. To use 3rd edition D&D as an example, it is very difficult to create a really great rogue character if the game system does not clearly delineate how the abilities of a rogue function. If every other action involves DM discretion instead of an appeal to the rules, your character can never be truly "good" at his tasks. He would then only be as good as the DM wanted him to be.

Sir Darius:

Since you seem to be open to suggestion, allow me to offer
a piece of advice which I use myself: use note cards and
manila folders to keep track of everything. In my Mage games,
I have a folder for each character, a folder for allies,
one for foes, one for locations, etc. It really helps me
keep track of things.

Of course, who says the DM has to keep track of everything?
My players catch me up on other events I may miss. I trust
them not to cheat and lie, and they repay that trust by helping
the story to move along. Bear in mind that with the more open
games, both the GM and the players are working together to tell
a story. It is not in the players' interest to cheat, because
they'd be cheating themselves. Then again, I'm assuming that you
are playing with mature people.

Hope this advice will make your next open a little more fun, and
can also help your D&D games. Don't overwork yourself by using
good organization. Don't do all the work -- get your players
involved! ^_^


...sorry... anyway, the manila folder thing is a bit much for me, but you'r right amout the players taking on a part of the burden, I can't count how many times I've heard "aaah: you shouldn't have done that, because now x and y will happen!!!" (something I hadn't thought of, but immediately used some variation of). Listening to your players hopes/fears is an integral part of improvising a campaign. Yes... I said improvising, the players do it all the time, that's their job. But be forewarned DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS unless you are very confident in your abilities as a GM. Sometimes you have to improvise in the middle of a campaign because the players do something that you hadn't prepared for, but running an entier campaign off the top of your head is REALLY FRIKKEN HARD. And if you F. up, it isn't fun for anyone involved. When it goes well, however, some of the most memorable capaigns are born.

Absolutely right about powergamers. I had a friend who was into World of Darkness who apparently had a troll character with a penchant for /THROWING/ his redcap friend into combat.


Well, I've never found I have to pull the 'DM is always right card' because I don't play with gaming groups that have an adverserial relationship between a DM and the players.

I only play with groups that are working towards the same goal, and as a result it is a group experience - so I never have to pull rank as we generally agree what is best for the goal we have.

All the extra D&D rules just get in the way :)

Ian O'Rourke, I have a question for you: What is the goal you and your players work togather towards?

to tell as story? to defeat the bad guy? or simply to have fun?

I find it kind of hard to argue with you when I don't know where you're coming from.

To create a story - it's the overriding goal.

But I'm not sure why you have to argue with me - chances are we are both right - it'st just gets down to why your game. If everyone in the group is happy, then no one is wrong.

I only raise issue when groups are dysfunctional - and the adverserial relationship between DM and player is not what everyone wants - they just see it as part of role-playing.

If everyone is happy though, any mode of play is as good as another.

the thing that irked me about your post was your last sentance
"All the extra D&D rules just get in the way"

if your purpouse is to create a story, you have to realize that not all stories have happy endings, sometimes the party dosn't succseed in their task, sometimes someone dies, sometimes everyone dies. If every story ends well, it takes much of the excitement out of the game. So, sometimes the charachters fail, but what player want's his charachter to lose? (with a few exceptions, no player should want his charachter to die) should you, as a GM, simply decide every once in a while that this story will end badly? How could you make that desision? and how could you convince your players that it was a fair decision, in the interest of the story? This, when you boil everything down, is what the rules are for. they are an impartial system for deciding the sucsess or failure of a players actions. like Cadfan mentioned, without the rules, victory is meaningless. How much satisfaction do you think you will derive from saying "my noble warrior cuts the dragons head off" then looking to the GM who thinks about it for a while and then says "ok, your vorpal blade goes snicker snack..." (if this is what you're after, just freeform, but I don't suggest it).

the rules arn't extra parts of the game, they ARE the game, and roleplaying happens within the context of the game. If you don't like the rules (which is understandable) change them! or find a game with rules you preffer.

as for the adverserial GM/player relationship, it is a fine line that the GM must walk: I've seen GM's get out of hand to the point that they were activly trying to kill the players every session, I've also see GM's go out of their way to make shure every player was fine. both are detrimental to the story. It is the GM's job to CHALLENGE the players, to create situations in which, depending on the players ingenuity, prowess, and luck, can succseed OR fail. the GM needs to provide appropreate enemies for the players, but also enough resources that will enable the charachters to sucseed, but not guaranty their sucsess. In short, the GM must be both ally and adversary, if he/she is one and not the other, no fun will come of it.

It's really funny that the group consensus so far is that D&D makes for linear storylines and WhiteWolf games are more open. While I would say this is true in general, this idea went out the window at my college gaming sessions at the end of the school year.

OK, here's the situation: in the D&D game, our group had to find these artifacts to defeat a lich. This was pretty straightforward until the necromancer of the group decides to go raise an army of undead and orcs. He neglects to mention that the last artifact we need is actually not where we think it is. This leaves the rest of us sitting around in the mountains wondering what to do.

The Vampire game was run by the guy who was playing the necromancer. For a while it was fairly open ended until a demon-like thing starts to literally raise Hell in our city. Now we have to help our Mage friends get revenge because it killed an NPC important to us.

*sigh* I can't wait till next year.

the openness (did I just make up a word?) of a game, in my opinion, is almost exclusivly a part of the GM's style, and how he/she interacts with his/her players, as opposed to it being a factor of what game is being played (I could be wrong)


I don't really have time to discuss it, the way of things half the time, but I'll add the following:

(1) Working towards a good story does not have anything to do with success and failure - failure is often the better story.

(2) Working towards story does not involve 'having a story come out by accident'.

(3) D&D is designed to create a competitive game, that is why all spells have exact ranges, and combat is very tactical. And most things are an excercise in resource management. You can play D&D another way, but you end up ingoring rules, playing loose with rules (which is all fine) - but why not play something else?

(4) It's all about having a group on the same page (one not playing jazz while someone else is playing Rock mustic) - and choosing the right tool for the job (your play style). IF you not interested in all the detail, and tactical richness (in return you want rules freedom and a focus on the rules enhancing story not tactical choices) why play D&D (in my case). In short, if I'm digging a garden I use a spade, not a fork.

I have no problems with D&D, I like D&D, but for most of our groups goals other games serve us better.

Have to go.

I tend to find that D&D works just fine for allowing a very "open" plotline. (By open I mean the characters roleplaying choices affect the plotline and outcome of the game.)

I guess its just because I don't expect much in the way of plot determination once the proverbial (and literal) die is thrown, and combat ensues.

With my DMing style, there tends to be one, maybe 2 battles per session, with everything else being skill or social interaction related planning and negotiating. I also have players who were willing to accept my low magic world, where skills and ability scores matter more than magical items. Since the pcs all have many skills and good social graces, I am able to run a more plan based game than normal.

I'm actually thinking of writing up an informal guide to running a low magic D&D game. It would just be a quick description of which prestige classes I allow, and how I limit spellcaster classes and treasure. Maybe someday I'll get around to completing it.

Ian O'Rourke:

1) I agree, my point was that a good roleplayer generally dosn't want his/her charachter to fail.

2) I don't quite understand what you mean, are you suggesting that a good story must be planned beforehand? If so, I disagree entirely, the best stories in my games have genaerally been the results of the PC's surprising me.

3) I agree completely. perhaps there has been a misunderstanding, I was under the impression that you were playing D&D, but were ignoring "All the extra D&D rules." If your point is that you don't like the D&D system, I can disagree, but I can't relly argue because it's a matter of taste after all.

4) "if I'm digging a garden I use a spade, not a fork." Yup, that was the point I was trying to make.

you write it, I'll read it. I've never come up with a satisfactory answer to how to run such a campaign withought unbalancing the classes.

I started work on it last night. Right now its just a big list of notes, but I'll finish it soon. The gist of it is that you simply cannot do it without unbalancing certain classes, which is why you have to forbid those classes, and that it is important to remember that low-magic and no-magic are not the same thing.

How many players do your (as in anyone who wants to respond) groups have? I started a D&D campaign last summer with 7 people, and I'm continuing it this summer. It's really good, and I get along well with all fo the players, but they're all at different levels of experience, so it's very hard to make the game palatable for every player. This is basically the way I've played for the past 4-5 years, the time when I actually began to understand and manipulate the rules of the game.

6 not including myself. I've done bigger and smaller, but right now it's 6.

4 players. And I reward experience to the group as a whole, regardless of participation. I just withhold gear from players who aren't present. That way I maintain at least a minimum of equality amongst player strength.

It works well because in my low magic world, the only magical items available to the players are frequently personal gifts of some sort. There is little in the way of random magical items laying about.

I have 4 players and that's my max. Above that, the game moves too slowly.

I award experience equally to those who are at the game. Gear is divided up to those who are at the game.

Usually, the number of x.p. is some made-up guess; I don't actually calculate it. Unfortunately, during slow times, PCs seem to get stuck a certain levels forever and, at other faster times, levels whiz by. But ... if I had it to do all over again, my x.p. rule would be: "If you attend a game, you get 25% of the x.p. required to get you to next level." That way, a player that attends the game every week gains a level about once a month. If he starts a PC at 1st level and attends every game during an entire year, his PC would be 14th level. A nice even progression with significant time spent at each level and low overhead.

4 players, sometimes 5 - but usually 4.

We use 3e so XP is easy to calculate, and it counts. We divide it equally among all characters present for each encounter. If a character dies, then the replacement character's XP is set to the beginning of the average level of the party. This slows the party advancement rate down somewhat as we go through character churn, but that's ok because it allows us to do more adventures of each level. The players think there should be some kind of game penalty for dying as well.

In the story- the party is a 'chartered company' actually larger than the 4 players. This gives us a game reason to transfer some gear and treasure from dead characters to replacement characters. This ensures that replacement characters come into the game not only at a playable XP level, but also with equipment that is appropriate to their level.

That's a pretty good variety of styles. I usually play with about 7 players of different amounts of gaming experience. They level up when I want them to because calculating XP is a hassale, and it's really hard for new players to compete with experienced gamers for roleplaying xp and story bonuses. Still, it all seems to work pretty well.

I also like keeping characters at as low levels as I can without making them bored; I've found lower level adventures to be more thought-provoking and easier to run since the players have less powerful options (like they can't fly around the world or disintegrate my evil warlords). Right now people are at 4th level or so, but I have a lot of other things to keep them from thinking abotu getting to the next level, like some random psionic powers and their first truly powerful magical items.

In our games, the DM tracks XP, and does so on an Excel spreadsheet. Since 3e encounters generally have their XP calculated already, it's just a matter of slotting the XP points from each encounter into the sheet and dividing by the characters present. Couldn't be easier, and players don't have to fuss over it.

I should note that in close to 20 years of gaming we never bothered to track XP because it was too difficult. It really added a new factor to the game when we did in the easier system. Levelling up seemed far less arbitrary somehow.

My Unknown Armies campaign will have 8, which I'm not thrilled about, but I know I can handle it. I just finished a very successful Hunter campaign that started as 8 and ended up as 6. Most of my players are either very experienced or moderately experienced...I only have one newbie. However, my ideal number is between 4 and 6. The best game I ever played in was also the one with the smallest group (4 players)...I don't think that's a coincidence.

My current TFT campaign has 9, it is a little unweildy, but 8 of us have gamed together for 25 yrs now so everything goes pretty smoothly, Just slowly sometimes. On the plus side, the players know each others tendencies quite well, so combats always move fast, with little or no OOC table talk.

Everyone started with a begining character, and I calculate experience by individual, so advancement may not always be exactly even, so far it has not been an issue (nothing like mature experienced gamers to help a campaign run smoothly).

Gamerchick said:

my ideal number is between 4 and 6. The best game I ever played in was also the one with the smallest group (4 players)...I don't think that's a coincidence.

I agree, and my favorite campaign had 4 players as well.

The BESM game design is ment for more role-playing and less dice rolling. Of course every tom, dick, and harry has godlike powers that can annialate a planet, it's based off of anime which has those things in it. And giving the party about 20-25 character points works out pretty well for my campaignes and we almost always have alotta fun and laughs throughout the night.
A note on fighting in this game: it goes very quickly so if you don't want the game to end up being short, have lots of NPC and character interaction. If you make the players roleplay they will eventually.

It's a fairly easy system to use and I have had even newbies at rpgs picking up on it on game1.

also try to keep the group small when playing BESM.
Around 2-4 players.