-C, talking about the problem with rules over at Hack & Slash said:
Comprehensive robust rule sets lead players to think that the only performable actions are ones that the rules cover. Play ceases to become about 'what can I think of to get myself out of this situation' and instead becomes about 'did I place my points correctly at character creation or level up'.
My experiences running weekly sessions at my FLGS confirm this observation. Players are more likely to look at their character sheets to determine what they can and cannot do, than to propose an action to the GM, and react to the result.
Further development of this discussion in related blog posts puts the blame on the character generation system itself. The requirements of abbreviated chargen systems are contrasted with those of other (usually more modern) systems:
The first [character generation method] has a new player rolling dice in seconds, and a complete character in about 5 minutes, and then playing, using their own life experiences and skill for success.
What I find myself disagreeing with is the idea that the character generation systems, or the rule systems, are the primary fault. At what point did players adopt the tendency to self-limit their actions in the game based on their character stats? Is this a result of the modern idea of character builds, or do players self limit for some other reason? It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum.
Playing from the character sheet, and describing actions in terms of game mechanics, can lessen the sense of immersion in the game. It becomes less a role-playing game, and more of a cards/dice/miniatures board game ruled by strategies and tactics designed to maximize performance within the context of those rules. As Runeslinger said in a recent blog post:
a few players – particularly those with a disproportionate amount of experience in “the one true game” – tended to make and announce rolls rather than describe intentions and actions. In Call of Cthulhu this would manifest as an interruption of a setting description with the announcement of “I roll Spot Hidden and get a… *dice clatter* 24,” or “My character has a Track of 25%… who has a higher Track score?”
But, are such examples of play the result of the rules or the players? In Runeslinger’s “The Skill of Immersion” post I linked above, he outlines several methods that players and GMs can use to move away from this metagame level of play. These are play skills that can be encouraged, and practiced at the table. Play skills that, like characters leveling up that some systems include, are the result of experience. Time and experimentation are the keys.
As a GM, when my players drop a foe I often ask them to describe the killing blow. “What happens to the goblin when your Orb of Force hits it?” or, “You swing your axe at the bloodied Beholder, what happens when it connects?” When they tell me, “I want to use Intimidate on him.” I ask, “What do you say and/or do that might be considered intimidating?” Players want to imagine successful actions, and to perform tasks in heroic ways. If it serves the story, I let them perform tasks free of game-mechanical interference, using what Phil, the Chatty DM promoted: The Rule of Cool.
If it serves the story, you don’t need to rely on game mechanics to resolve it. Weaning players from over-reliance on game mechanics can help get their heads up from the character sheet, and focused on the players and action around them. While it is true that extensive rules will tend to encourage usage of the same, role-playing games are still about stories, characters, and the people who play them.
On the chargen front, what this translates to is the idea that there are no “bad” character builds, or character concepts. Players and GMs should focus on developing characters through the run of play. This gets players into the game more quickly, and encourages them to experiment with options they might not otherwise try.