What systems nicely handle more in depth, "complex" rules?

So a lot of the discussion here is around PbtA type games (though there are of course lots of others), which in my opinion sit at a fairly high level of abstraction. This is not a bad thing – abstracting things lets the game focus on the drama of the plot vs the specifics of tracking particular details. That said, sometimes having a bit more detail can be a lot of fun! For example, I was in a dungeon world game for a bit…it was a lot of fun (largely due to a DM who really got the sort of games that worked in the system), but I felt that the level of abstraction took a lot of feeling out of the game. Roll 2d6, check your results against a set band…over and over and over again. Add some special abilities. It got to feel a bit same-y. Of course, a good DM can introduce other fun elements, but often those exist outside of the game system – I’m interested in game systems which have a bit more meat to them.

On the flip side, meaty systems can often be a lot harder to run in my experience. A great example is Burning Wheel. I love the Burning Wheel rule book, but trying to run it, I found it a bit overwhelming…especially the specificity in skills and whatnot. I know this game can be excellent with an experienced DM, but still, I think that this is the downside of less abstraction…the rules matter a lot more, and if you hit a gap you don’t quite understand, it can be harder to deal with.

Another system that I have a love/hate relationship with Ars Magica. I think it just has such an awesome take on magic! But you read the rules and there is a ton of stuff about spell piercing and +10 modifiers and +20 modifiers and min(this modifier, that modifier) type stuff…it just felt a bit finicky. But I still love the take on magic.

I guess my holy grail would be a game which sort of takes the soul of burning wheel and ars magica, adds a touch more abstraction, and goes from there. But I digress!

I guess I’m curious to see what other people’s experience with heavier games have been. Do you agree with what I said above? Have you had different experiences? Are there any systems that you think are particularly good – or bad? (Shadowrun is notorious for just absolutely falling apart in play)

And I guess to push it one level further, what do you think are the tools games designers can use to give a system the sort of…investment and reward of a complex system, but while keeping it manageable in play?


I think you can add more details magic or equipment system to dungeon world or monster of the week, and still keep most of the game the same.

Thanks to nostalgia I have a fondness for mage ascension and mage awakening, but in reality the task resolution and casting is clunky, and takes up a great deal of time and energy. The settings/factions/concept can easily be used in other games however.

To some extent any game can be made easy by being familiar with it. Knowing when to do what and how. I look the a stakes setting in BitD and cringe, but i’ve seen people casually discuss it and keep rolling.


It’s interesting to me that you talk about Burning Wheel as being less abstract than Dungeon Word. It has systems that model more things, but they’re pretty abstract systems. In Dungeon World, to do it, you do it. It’s very concrete. In a fight, you describe what you do, and roll dice to resolve that. To buy something, you spend coin. Obviously, there’s some abstraction there, but fundamentally, the relationship between what you say happens and what happens is direct. In BW, there are these very abstract systems for Fight! and resources. And the whole game works like that. Yes, you have a large number of skills, but the way they come into play is, in large part, at a very high level of abstraction.


Hrm, maybe abstraction isn’t the right word? But in DW, actions feel very very samey. The fact that all resolution is the same – 2d6+modifier – makes things feel bit less interesting to me. Other systems model more, and in different ways. In the case of burning wheel…I suppose resolution is more direct in the case of DW, in the sense you said, but BW models more things in more complex ways. You mention fight – fight is a pretty complex minigame to resolve fights. Then there are the ranged fights. The ranged fights are a good example of maybe why abstract wasn’t the right rule. It’s a whole subsystem to deal with ranged fights in a specific way, but it does sort of abstract the whole interaction. So while abstraction isn’t the right story, i still think there’s something there…maybe more simulationist? In DW you declare the attack, roll with modifier, and resolve. The action is very concrete, but the mechanic used to resolve it is very general – basically everything in the game use it.

I do think the magic system in ars magica is a good example though. The magic system is super cool, a sort of linguistically driven way or allowing for a huge breadth of magic but…with constraints.

@BlakeRyan I agree that complexity is in the eye of the beholder. I’m actually very ok with complex rule sets, I enjoy a bit of crunch. I think the key to me is how much effort does it take to actually execute. Shadowrun is a great example of a game where even experienced players can get bogged down looking for tables or will sort of ignore whole subsystems. In the case of burning wheel, I found the skill system, while really fun during character creation, a bit hard to apply in a way I found satisfying during play. I think more experienced players don’t struggle with this though.


Trying to clarify my own thoughts further, I think the abstraction I’m talking about isn’t distance from the action per se, but how much space there is for customization, variety, and difference. It’s about the resolution of the decision space…the growth potential etc.

An example of the opposite is dnd 4th edition where every class started with some sort of “can always use” 1d8+mod style attack.

1 Like

I really enjoy systems that provide harder mechanical crunch, to keep riding this metaphor, they feel much less “airy” than more narrative focused games.

I think the ideal is for the game mechanics to be crunchy but adaptive. Your DnDs and Shadowruns are mechanically dense, but not mechanically consistent (although DnD is better than this than Shadowrun). Shooting guns has different mechanics than hacking which is different than magic which is different than spying, but I think a better design would be the act of doing all uses the same, finely polished machine, but allows it to take all those disparate inputs and be able to process them. I think this is why Burning Wheel is so loved, because it feels like the perfect post-DnD-breakup game that lets you apply mechanical significance to character traits that aren’t related to murdering things, and the act of using them gives them narrative significance equivalent to swinging a sword. For me, the ideal system would be one that can use the same resolution mechanics to act out a “fight” in which one character is sword-fighting, one is trying to talk down the villain, one is trying to disarm his doomsday device, and it all gets physically resolved with the same narrative weight.

I mentally went over the games I know and I surprised myself by how I can’t really think of any that fit this description! I wish I could say more than BW, but it’s all I’ve played that feels like it’s designed in this direction.


This is very, very well put of Burning Wheel


I’m an absolute diehard PbtA fan and can’t seem to get into pretty much any other system, so that’s where my sensibilities lie =P

BUT I’ll avoid trying to write a whole essay about why it’s actually the best and answer the topic of the thread by saying~~~ a system I’ve been interested in that seems a bit more trad or rules-heavy is the Genesys System, originally the system for the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPG.

It has a fairly large set of skills and characters progress down perk/skill trees, so it reminds me of a pretty classic D&D-type RPG in that way, but I like the resolution mechanic in particular. You roll a bunch of dice that can come up with Success/Failure and Advantage/Threat, so you could get like “overall success but two complications” or “failure, but an advantage.” Each roll can drive the fiction in more interesting ways than just ‘pass/fail’. It feels like a slightly more involved way to get at that “results with narrative prompts” thing that I like about PbtA moves.


I see. Good example. D&D 4e did suffer from this problem. I would say Fate suffers from this for me as well, although, this is only based on a read through and viewing of some play throughs. Fate for me seems like no matter what tag you are using, it effects play exactly the same.

Curiously for me and my friends, Monster of the Week suffered badly from this feeling of sameness for action resolution but Dungeon World does not. I think it is due to the number of moves and how the moves interact with the fiction in my cases.

In my case I understand your issue with most rpgs regarding this point but maybe I have found my sweet spot easier with about half of the PbtA games I have read through or tried.



It’s a great example of a system which uses the same basic dice mechanic and applies it to several different situations in interesting ways. You have skills, which may include both combat and courtly skills, as well as attributes and qualities.

Qualities are like personality skills in a way. They tell you more about hwo your character views the world than they do what kinds of things your character can do.

There are also Passions, which are things you can invoke to gain benefits on your rolls. Forexample, if King Arthur is your passion, you’d get a bonus when invoking that passion to protect him or do something he directly ordered you to do.

The magic system in Pendragon is a bit cumbersome, but that’s because magic isn’t to be taken lightly. It’s Merlin-levels of powerful and is honestly best left for NPCs. That does make it feel more mystical though, so when your characters are bestowed with magic enchantments or gifts, it feels really satisfying.

The game also has some in-depth subsystems for being a landed noble and taking care of an estate, for generational play, and for tournaments and revalry. It has basically everything you’d want for running a game based on Arthurian myth.

With that said, it’s also a pretty easy hack for any relatively low-magic (at least low in the hands of PCs) fantasy campaign, and it’s a great example of a system that is well built with a balance between crunch and fluff.


I always find it a little perplexing when people talk about things “feeling the same” in their games. I mean, doesn’t D&D all feel the same, because you roll a d20 and add some modifiers? Because that sounds like what people are complaining about with Fate/PbtA.

I mean, yes, you can put together a subsystem for things that feel important if you want – D&D does this for killing stuff and using magic – but… I dunno. Something doesn’t quite add up in my brain.


I would bet it’s less the mechanical overhead of what you’re describing and more the physical act of rolling dice. If you’re rolling the same die/dice every different check, no matter what you do with that result it’s going to give you the same subconscious impression. This is mainly why I wish there were more games that used playing cards, there’s so many different ways you can “play cards” to generate random results.

1 Like

I think it comes down to either whether the game has enough subsystems and the variety of ways the systems support fictional positioning.

The point on D&D really depends on the version. D&D 4e really suffered from this. I would also say that OSR systems where everything is only one resolution system and + or - to a roll is the only impact of weapons in the game, then those would get quite dull too.

1 Like

I def think there’s a lot of space for RPGs to utilize player aids like cards for all sorts of things. Randomness is definitely a good one, and these sorts of tools could help cut through the cruft and the monotony.

Can you go into what you mean by this a bit more? I think this is core to what I’m feeling out but want I make sure.

1 Like

I think dice randomness isn’t quite it. I keep thinking about ars magica and sort of…how special and real and powerful the magic feels. Then I think about dungeon world where everyone sort of levels up and adds some relevant ability and then you’re off to the races.

Complexity and cruft as it were are never the goal, they’re just byproducts of the real goal, which is a rules system which always for a interesting decisions in the context of the rules of the game. Like in a end game one can have a powerful wizard and sort of create a persona around it and talk about the spell learning process etc. But mechanically they level up, get spells, etc. In ars magica, that is the game. So it means you get a lot more variation, uniqueness, etc…but in the context of rules that seek to frame everything.

I think a lot of players get this out of their roleplaying games without the rules, it’s part of the gaming experience that lives on top of the rules. But for some reason I have always been trying to find games that effectively model things in the spirit of ars magica’s magic, where the rules give you a fairly open sandbox, but with the benefit of rules – balance, progression, constraints, etc. It’s not quite the same if it’s all just a story spun up, not supported by rules. Still need to figure out why it feels that way to me…


I’m completely on board with you, and I also think this kind of thing is not going to be super prevalent.

What it feels like your describing is taking the density of rules you see in heavy games, but instead of applying them to genre, apply them to , for lack of a better word, profession. A spy thriller game could be mechanically dense, but in order to encompass the entirety of that genre you’ll need rules for making gadgets, infiltrating buildings, shooting people, and gathering intel. If you made a game about “going undercover at a social event and then stealing something from the host” you could have the same mechanical density but a much more focused experience. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with designing in either of these directions, but I get the impression they exist along a spectrum such that you can’t maximize thematic focus and flexibility without creating a five pound book.


The classic example is the 16 hp Dragon - Sage Latorra -Dungeon World
The mechanical bits of Dungeon World in combat could be fairly bland taken by itself but treating the fictional positioning as rules makes this game really fun.


My opinion differs here: I don’t think Ars Magica has a unique feeling magic system because it has tons of rules around it.

I feel like Ars Magica has a unique feeling magic system because they purposely focused their game around it. Dungeon World is NOT a game about a specialized and fancy magic system, and therefore gives it only a little bit of attention.

So I think you have a good understanding of what you are missing, but that you might be looking for it in the wrong way.

1 Like

I think you are largely right :slight_smile: as I mentioned in the op, while I like the flavor of the ars magica system, I think the mechanical execution isn’t quite my speed. That said I don’t think it’s just that it’s built around it…that might be necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Lots of games develop tons of rules to have really intricate systems and end up flopping. Shadowrun is a prime example. I guess I’m interesting in trying to find that balance…I do think ars magica sort of nailed its description of magic, but I don’t think that’s just because they focused on magic.

I guess I’m curious if it’d be possible to roll back the rules complexity a little on some of these systems, but keep what makes them compelling. So the generally approach of ars magica, but just a touch more streamlined. I dunno!

Same with burning wheel. I’ve been thinking about a dungeon world philosophy style hack of burning wheel…mainly I think it’d be possible to streamline some of the clunkiness I felt around skills in how they actually played out. I def need to play more BW first though. But I do think these systems (I keep coming back to them because they have some elements I truly love) did sort of stumble onto something beautiful, and I guess I think that some of the clunkiness and complexity is not inherent to them (though some complexity likely is!), but also due to the execution. Especially for ars magica, I think it’d be possible to take the core of the magic system, but maybe rethink how it is actually resolved.

1 Like

HERO System does a very good job of this. The core rules tend to focus on combat with weapons and fists, but the mechanics of the system allow you to mechanize any sort of conflict, and the extended rules in the Advanced Player’s Guide II give a fully fleshed out system for social combat. I’ve used the same rules to mechanize a dance-off, intellectual debates, etc.

I absolutely love HERO, which is notoriously crunchy, simply because the rules are comprised of a excellent cinematic physics simulator, mechanical narrative elements that encourage player investment (i.e. the player can create their own archnemsis, beloved grandfather, mysterious patron, etc.), and a robust conflict resolution system that is very intuitive and flexible.

It’s hard for me to give any advice to would-be game designers though. “Make it like HERO, but even better” isn’t very good advice.

1 Like