One of the things that has been interesting to me over the last year has been reviewing older versions of D&D to see them with fresh eyes. I’m currently playing in my best friend’s 4th edition campaign, and one of the players at my table is a RPG newbie. Teaching him the nuances of 4th edition have been easier, from what I have experienced, than teaching similar levels of experience in 3rd edition, but it seems to me that the whole idea of teaching the later versions of D&D to a player new to role-playing games is a much bigger leap than teaching new players the rules of the game when I first started.
Some of this is because so much of the rules mastery portion of older versions of D&D was distributed differently. In Ye Olden Days, the DM was the only one who had to master much of the rules structure—though there were always older players who had learned things as well, often because they were DMs, too (but sometimes because they were just rules lawyers.) This was also because there was less in the way of choice for players in developing characters in the rules. The limited customization options and rules-opaqueness were good for hopping right in.
However, the down side was often a period when new players for whom the restrictions and tropes of the game were not central conceits, became frustrated with the arbitrary limits of the game. (“Why can’t my wizard learn to fight with a sword? Can’t he just take some fencing lessons? Why can’t I increase my strength? Can’t I just start exercising?”) That’s where limited options become a challenge to overcome for new players.
So I understand why over time different RPGs began to include more options to customize characters. I’m all for players having choice, and I’m supportive of customizing characters to help players feel that their characters are different from the next player’s. But choice often leads to complexity, which leads to puzzled new players who start to look panicked as you tell them to start making choices about their characters when they don’t know the impact of them.
As I put together my house rules, I want to make sure the game stays in a shape that allows play with minimal rules mastery, focusing instead on smart play that involves players mastering their interaction with the game world. However, I want players to feel that their characters have some depth and are different from each other, which is harder to do in an environment of limited class options and limited rules elements to distinguish characters. Yes, it’s good to make your character’s personality his or her difference, but my experience is that players want their characters to have something in game play that distinguishes them, too. That’s a major reason for the proposed skill system I have been working on, though I also want to encourage the kind of specialization (personality, play style) that I find actually is more enduring in play.