Back in July, renner complimented us, rubbed the Gnome, and posted this on the Suggestion Pot.

I’ve been playing/GMing a rules-heavy RPG system (Gurps), and now I’m moving towards FATE RPG, which is a very rules-light system.
So, my suggestions for articles are:
1 — How can a rules-heavy GM adapt to a rules-light game?
2 — How do you handle a narrative combat?

Since we always respond to compliments, Gnome rubs (and for future reference, renner: bribes), Martin handled the narrative side of the equation, and I’ll tackle the “adapt to a rules-light game” side. 

Long before Gnome Stew, I ran a D&D 3.5 game, with most of the options open. The experience (especially the hours spent poring over spell lists for NPCs with about six rounds of ‘screen time’ before expiring) left me looking for a simpler system. I test-drove a few systems before settling on Savage Worlds. (Other finalists were True20, Castles & Crusades, and Unisystem.) D&D 3.5 and Savage Worlds will be my examples, although the concepts apply to almost any rules-heavy/rules-light comparison.

In making the jump from a two-foot-high stack of gaming books to two small books and a campaign website, I’ve realized a few things…

Learn to Adjudicate on the Fly

One of the unexpected results of jumping to a rules-light system is that the GM has to answer many of the questions that come up in play. Another way to put it: Actions still have consequences; there just aren’t tons of rules explaining those consequences, so your workload may increase. In the long run, this is a good thing because of the flexibility it brings to the game, but for there is some on-the-job training.

I was fortunate to have cut my teeth on first edition AD&D. AD&D is definitely not rules-light, but its vague and conflicting rules require GM interpretation. For instance, in AD&D, the effects of a Polymorph Self spell is pretty vague (an owl’s ability to fly is granted, but its low-light vision is not; the rationale is unclear), while in D&D 3.5, the effects of Polymorph are very specific (a troll’s Rend is granted, but not its Regeneration; both are Extraordinary abilities, but only attacks are gained).

Regardless, when jumping to a rules-light system, be prepared to adjudicate on the fly, and revisit your decisions later, if need be. Make sure that your players recognize that there will be more GM interpretation (and reinterpretation).

Let Go of the Past

Many GMs and players will unconsciously carry old patterns of behavior into a new game. This is never a good idea, but in a rules-light game, it can be doubly frustrating; not only are you ‘doing it wrong’, but you’re doing it just like the game you left behind!

When deciding how a game mechanic should work, try to find one that reflects both the game and the setting. Resist the temptation to borrow mechanics from other games, especially your last one, unless it fits what you’re looking for. This was a hard-fought lesson for me.

As an example: In D&D 3.5, a trap either makes an ‘attack’ or allows a ‘save’ to avoid/resist its effects; even the most deadly traps almost always have that 5% chance of ‘no effect’. I had to force myself to rethink traps in Savage Worlds; many are avoided with a simple Agility check (some at a penalty), although needle traps, razor wire, etc. simply do damage if not noticed.

Chances are, someone else is running the same system and genre.  There’s no reason to recreate the wheel when Google is right there…

Common Sense Trumps Rules Lawyers

One of the advantages of the rules-light system is that the GM does not have to spend hours poring over the details of spells, classes, monsters, and rules to avoid any pitfalls.  Simply put, because of the more free-form nature of the game, there are less chances for rules lawyers to entangle the GM in loopholes. This does not mean that players won’t try to grab every advantage they can, but they can’t rely on the rules to back them up.

Most GMs do this to some extent, but in a rules-light game, the GM will need to rely on common sense instead of hard-and-fast rules. This may take some adjustment on both sides of the screen, but once everyone’s on the same page, the rules fade into the background and the characters and story come more alive.

Have you made the jump to a rules-light (or less-heavy) system? Got any advice or stories to share? Sound off in the comments and let us know!