While writing this follow up on examples of subtractive design, I encountered Marcia B's reflections on Trophy Gold, in response to Jared Sinclair's proposition that rules elide; both interesting frontmatter for my topic today. Here are some exemplars for when fewer rules may enrich play. Apologies for the wealth of violence that follows - the roleplaying apple has sadly not fallen far from the wargaming tree.
Attack & damage rolls
Why roll twice when you could roll but once? Chris McDowall went down this road not taken with his influential Into the Odd, removing the traditional d20 attack roll to determine if an attack hits, and cutting straight to rolling a polyhedra (d4 to d12) for damage. Though restricting the design space for escalating attack and defence modifiers from levelling up, the result for "low level" play (where the glut of table time is spent anyway) is minimally affected. Advancement can instead be represented by special weapons and armour with fantastical properties (not just a +1 sword). It is faster to resolve, and more decisive, than the two step method; rolling a natural 1 is practically a miss anyway.
Conversely, we can do the opposite and only roll to-hit and use either static damage (Monte Cook's Numenera) or have it a function of the degree-of-success of the attack roll (Nate Treme's Tunnel Goons). This approach more readily affords incremental advancement of attack and defence values, but can easily feel too 'swingy' depending on the dice mechanics at play.
Early Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) did not codify specific actions in combat like shoving, tripping, or disarming; while recent editions provide specific mechanics for each. The most troublesome tends to be grappling: I am certainly not alone in having never experienced a satisfying application of these rules in actual play. This can all feel overly prescriptive in the face of putative tactical infinity and rulings over rules. Attempts to promote cinematic combat with special techniques (like Feng Shui) can easily stall out at the table as players start swotting.
Goodman Game's Dungeon Crawl Classics permits warrior types to attempt more freeform maneuvers using a mighty deed die, and indeed many more 'storygames' encourage freeform description and adjudication of actions in violent encounters. Removing all the specific rules for combat maneuvers, or at least confining them to one easily learnt procedure, is likely to actually increase the frequency of interesting and cinematic combat.
A highly conserved feature of old-fashioned adventure games is generating character statistics by rolling 3d6 down the line, now famously these six: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma.
It was not always this way. Early stabs at roleplaying games tried various methods for quantifying and characterising the player avatars. It remains a perennial favourite for homebrewers and professional designers alike, to wring their hands over the number and naming of these traits.Yet it's worth challenging the base assumption: do we need this mechanic at all?
Original D&D places very little mechanical significance on ability scores, and they primarily serve to prompt players to choose a suitable Class, and it was this Class that almost entirely defined the mechanics of play. Successive editions would increase the mechanical weight placed on the ability scores, up to Dungeons & Dragons 5E (D&D5E) where they numerically outstrip the impact of Class at lower levels (the usual best ability modifier is +3, compared to +2 for being proficient in a skill or saving throw or weapon attack). The original position of Nurture over Nature has not just eroded, but become inverted.
D&D5E promotes selecting a Class that pairs well with a particular spread of Ability Scores, and is exacerbated by the technically optional but near ubiquitous Feats. Fighters need Strength to hit and deal damage, Rogues need Dexterity to pass skill checks, and Wizards need Intelligence to make their spells harder to resist. Character optimisation is rooted in finagling these scores: there are few good choices, many poor, and this variance does not meaningfully widen the field of play.
The CRPG Pillars of Eternity tried injecting multiplicativity by giving each statistic some relevance to every Class, so even a Barbarian could feasibly benefit from a high Intelligence. Outside of the lonely fun of character building (a topic I plan to discuss more soon), this doesn't advance the situation.
Modern designs like Into the Odd and Ben Milton's Knave 1E double-down on the significance of Ability Scores and rolling for them at character generation. They are used as the basis for all rolls, and by eschewing character Classes, this completes the ascension of Nature over Nurture.
These are all differences of degree and not of kind: a high Dexterity or low Wisdom changes the odds of a dice roll, but doesn't fundamentally change your options like a specific magic item or spell would. This contrasts to the immersive sim genre of video games, where character traits are often used to gate access to certain actions and paths with a binary threshold (a recent popular representative being Cyberpunk 2077).
Returning to the motivation for character statistics in the first place, we can envisage alternatives for limiting character capabilities. Knave 2E essentially re-purposes the Ability Scores as Classes with levels unto themselves (a Wizard is just a character who keeps their Intelligence bonus high as they level up). Really any game with Skills or Classes could subsume its Ability Scores into that system. The delicate balance of combining Ability modifiers and Skill ratings is a proud nail in many games.
If we instead want Ability Scores to be representational, games like Fate or Cortex Prime allow free-form Aspects. Many games provide leading questions, pick lists, or random tables of character traits that are more likely to influence play. Consider having a Strength of 12 or Charisma of 7, compared to knowing your character is hard of hearing or an Epicurean.
Spells & magic items
Another simplification Into the Odd makes is removing conventional spellcasting and leaning into magic items. This tends to be quicker to learn, easy to implement as diegetic advancement (foreground character growth), and minimally reduces the design space.
Another approach exemplified by Maze Rats and The Wildsea is stripping spells down to just keywords with fairly open interpretation, and leaving final adjudication to the table.
Unsurprisingly, magic and spells in roleplaying games are one of the least conserved areas of game design, given they have no real-world analogue and are being cut from whole cloth!
This inexhaustive tour should ignite the appetite for subtractive design in the games we play and design. Let us ask ourselves first whether it can be improved by removing something, and resort last to eliding by adding rules.