Recently I’ve noticed an increasing tendency in myself that, when thinking about which games to run, I tend to ‘home in’ on indie games and other one-book-complete systems as opposed to heavily supported product lines. Give me a core book, a sample adventure and some example antagonists and then leave it the hell alone.
For a while I thought this might be because I have become that most dreaded of creatures: a gaming hipster, always playing obscure games that you’ve probably never heard of and rejecting the mainstream on the grounds that popular = bad. *shudder*
But then I started dissecting this attitude. Why did I dislike 3.5 so much but like retro-clones? Why did I like Pathfinder when it was virtually identical? What is it about Exalted 2e that makes me slump with despair whenever it’s mooted as a system?
The answer to all the above is this: the vast and sprawling ‘game space’.
And by ‘game space’ I mean the total mechanical content of the game. D&D comes in about eleventy-billion books, most of which I do not own and have never read. The content for Exalted is spread across 20 books, half a dozen websites and two blogs. I have neither the time nor the patience to keep up with all of this.
The issue I have with an expanding game space is that every new release adds more mechanically distinct options for the players to solve problems. In D&D it’s spells and class features (and entirely new systems, like skill tricks or psionics or incarnum). In Exalted it’s charms, sorcery and artefacts. As the GM you have to track all of this to make sure that nothing in there invalidates the upcoming challenges you have planned.*
The important thing is ‘mechanically distinct’. I don’t mean power creep, where a new power is just flat-out better than an old power – that’s a separate problem – I mean that a new power provides a win button for a specific scenario that was previously tricky but possible to navigate, or that a new power makes a previously impassable obstacle passable. To pull an example from D&D, when a wizard hits level 9 and gains teleport a whole class of encounters becomes irrelevant. The new mechanical option invalidates those challenges. When a level 9 wizard’s player picks up the Spell Compendium… it’s all over.
Compare and contrast with 4e D&D, where all the extra races, powers and magic items really only amount to new ways to win in combat** (leaving non-combat challenges intact), or FATE, where you have an almost-infinite range of possible characters but new mechanical ways to solve problems are limited to stunts or powers (depending on which version of FATE you’re using).
So that’s why D&D 3.5 and Exalted are off the list of games I’d be willing to run these days, and why the aggressive proliferation of supplements for Pathfinder is increasingly driving me away. I have better things to do with my time than spend it tracking game spaces.
*Or you can ban all these new sources, but I find that problematic for a couple of reasons. First is the battle of wills that you must undergo with the player who wants something from the new source. Much like corporate law, ‘my game, my rules’ is a very straightforward concept with less than straightforward execution. Second is when the new material is actually a good thing – if it’s rich in flavour and cool stuff, for example, or if it fixes problems with the game as it stands. It’s good to let this stuff in, but it might still screw with your planned challenges.
**With a few notable exceptions, like that warlock utility power (level 2) that grants an at-will one-square teleport. In combat it’s underwhelming but out of combat it makes the warlock a challenge-dodging machine. The only thing that can stop him going where he pleases is a wall at least five feet thick.