I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Single-digit Monsters

I already wrote some stuff about single-digit weapons (although I'm thinking of making them even simpler) and single-digit characters.

Now, let us talk about single-digit monsters, i.e., those monsters that are describe by little more than their HD. I already wrote about this here, and now I'll take it a little further.

Take a look at that last link, if you will; it extrapolates quotes from Gygax and rules in the RC to find out a monsters' BAB, damage, AC and saves, using nothing but their HD.

But what if you want monsters to have skills? Does the dragon have a better chance of noticing you sneaking around than a dog or lion? Can it sneak on you, somehow?

There are a few solutions to that.

The easiest one - and probably the best if you want something simple and straightforward - is ignoring the problem. You already have a rule for heroes sneaking around, you don't need another rule for monsters finding them.

Another good solution is the one used in The Black Hack. Monsters with more HD are better overall. This fits with the whole meaning of levels and HD. Still, giving the 20 HD Tyrannosaurus a +20 bonus to sneak around sounds a bit strange; in this case, I guess you would use the previous idea.

Fifth edition mostly uses a formula based on CR; so though monsters, again, are better overall, although a little less so. 4e takes a similar approach IIRC, while adding its own interesting ideas on bear lore.

3.x edition gives monsters skill bonuses, instead. This just complicates things. The Triceratops from the SRD seem to have "Listen +13, Spot +12". Not only it makes me wonder what would one accomplish with this little +13/+12 difference, but also it makes the Triceratops a better guard than a dog for some reason. Although I'm sure that there is a rule somewhere that says bigger enemies have a penalty finding you - what is the point of giving them a bonus and them a penalty then?

If the rule accomplishes nothing interesting, I would prefer not having it in the first place.

This is not a criticism of 3.x D&D; the RC is one of my favorite versions of D&D and has a lot of redundancy, IMO. For example, why do all monsters need an "save as" trait if, most of the time, they just save as a Fighter with the same HD or something very close to it? Also, do we really need to have movement listed twice for each monster, with the second number being the first one divided by three?

So, if we rule out not having a rule, having a bonus based on HD, and adding more details to the monsters, what is left?

Well, when you think of it, there aren't that many types of monsters. There are the big, though ones, of course, and then the sneaky ones, the quick ones, the magic ones... and the special ones, I guess.

This means we could have a few monster classes, somewhat similar to character classes; not to make monsters more complicated, but to make them simpler.

Dare I say fourth edition got the right idea about this?

Just divide monsters in a few classes, and somewhat equivalent - or even identical - to character classes.

- Arcanist: BAB = HD/3, AC bonus = HD/4, Saves and spells as MU HD.
- Assassin: Damage = HD/2, AC bonus  = HD/3, Saves, sneak and back-stab as Thief HD.
- Brute: BAB = HD, Damage = HD, AC = 10+HD/2, Saves as Fighter HD.
...and so on.

A dungeon room thus could be described like that:

"In the middle of the room, there are two Red Ogres (Brute 7) discussing what to with their three prisoners (the previous group of adventures; Fighter 4, Thief 3 and Cleric 5)..."

Some people might prefer to have a complete stat-block, with the Charisma and skills of each guard dog calculated beforehand. If that is the case, there is plenty of monster manuals that do something similar.

Still, it is nice to have some abbreviations to write adventures, settings and even describe monsters on those times when things like "Listen +13, Spot +12" has no relevance for the thing you're trying to describe.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Single-digit charachters and fractional skills (an alternative to NWP, skill points, etc)

Overall, I like the idea of skills points, NWPs and even feats. It's nice to choose how your character progresses, to customize it to your own tastes, to use his adventures as inspirations on which skills to improve, etc. When I started playing RPGs, I was told I could create any character I wanted, and I did. This affected my whole gaming experience.

On the other hand, I really liked those old school modules when you could just say the NPC was a "Fighter 8" and that was enough information about his stats. One of the things I dislike about 3.x and Pathfinder (and WotC D&D in general) is the huge stat blocks, with unending powers, feats, and so on.

For my games, I prefer "single digit characters", like that Fighter 8; they're even simpler than my single digit weapons.

So, a Fighter 8 usually has 8d8 HP and a +8 attack bonus (or something similar). It's pretty much all you need to know for combat. But what if you're using skills?

One solution is creating a simple formula for those skills, like the one we use for attack bonuses (BAB / THAC0 / etc). For example, B/X uses a 2/3 progression for Fighters, 2/4 for clerics and thieves, and 2/5 for magic-users. In Microlite games, you just add your level to your skills "if the character is attempting something directly related to their class" ("primary skill roll"), 1/2 if attempting something loosely related, and 1/3 if not related at all. This progression (1, 1/2, 1/3) is also what I use for Fighter. Cleric/Thief and Magic-User (MU) attack progression as well.

This works quite well if you're using d20 skills, of course; not so much with the 2d6 skills I use. Also, it is very "level-centric", leaving little room for ability modifiers.

So, here is my formula: only use "primary" skills for d20 rolls and Turn Undead (since the cleric is supposed to be able to turn monsters with the same HD as their level - although, to be honest, I might prefer the LotFP approach of using it as a spell instead of having a whole sub-sytem for this purpose). Everything else gets taken down a notch: thieves skills are based in level/2, for example.

Level/2 is also a good fit with any roll that takes spell level into account; for example, a 8th level MU can cast 4th level spells. Clerics would use Level/3 (they would become a little weaker but, hey, they are a bit overpowered anyway -  or you can use 2/5, like BX does to MU BAB, instead). Rangers, bards, elves, etc, can do the same. Thieves use level/4. Always round to the nearest number (round 0.5 down).

Let us say you either choose a one primary skill (defined by your class), two secondary skills, and three tertiary skills, and you're ready to go. Spell-casting "counts" as one type higher (as it includes not only the bonus but also the ability to do what others simply cannot).

For example, we could have:

- Fighter: Combat (+L), Athletics (+L/2).
- Cleric: Turn Undead (+L), Combat (+L/2), Spell-casting* (+L/3), Lore (+L/3).
- Thief: Backstabbing (+L), Combat (+L/2), Thievery (+L/2), Spell-casting* (+L/4).
- MU: Spell-casting* (+L/2), Lore (+L/2), Combat (+L/3).
* Spell-casting counts as one type higher.

And for each of those, choose a few more skills to complete the set. A fighter could either have Nature, Riding or Leadership, depending on his traits and background.

The coolest thing about this system after some fleshing out a little while is how easy it would be to create your own class or sub-class by simply trading one skill for another. Paladins, Mountebanks, Cavaliers, Assassins... they would all fit nicely. You could even play with the numbers a little bit, combining two Tertiary skills to create a 2/3 skill, allowing for 3/4 fractions and so on. As long as all the fractions add up to 3, for example. I wouldn't use this for NPCs, though, since the whole point is making things simpler.

(If you're asking yourself why I don't use a bunch of charts instead, well, I am not a fan of charts to be honest; I prefer simple formulas most of the time; I find that they are easier to grasp and to play with. If you dislike fractions, well... I bet you'll skip this one anyway).

Enough about skills. What about ability bonuses? Shouldn't NPCs have those?

Well, if you use 3d6 in order, you don't really need to give any bonuses to NPCs, since PCs get few of those anyway. If you use 4d6 (or something) and want to level the playing fiel, you might give NPCs a few bonuses (distribute +6 around the six abilities).

In my case, I prefer to increase abilities as the PCs level up, which makes things a bit trickier. But I have a simple formula for that too. I use 60+level as the total for PC ability scores, but that is still too fiddly when creating an NPC on the fly. Instead, just add a total of modifiers equal to L/2.

This means that the level 8 Fighter has a total of +4 to distribute among modifiers. Let us say +2 Strength, +2 Constitution, +1 Dexterity and -1 Wisdom, for example. But +3 Strength, +2 Constitution, +1 Dexterity and -2 Charisma would also work.

A level 12 thief would have something like +3 Dexterity, +2 Intelligence, +1 Constitution and Strength, and -1 Charisma. And so on. If you want a particular NPC to have some special power, it "costs" one ability point. In any case, barring special circumstances, the biggest bonus should go to Strength for fighters, Dexterity for thieves, etc. All very intuitive.

In a nutshell, I think saying someone is a "Fighter 8" or "Cleric 5" is all you need to know about most NPCs. Even if I have to choose some numbers on the fly.

Next: single-digit monsters.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Alternate Backstabbing for old school D&D

In BX/RC D&D, a thief gets a +4 bonus and double damage when attacking a victim that is unaware. This is called "backstabbing" in the RC.

This classic rule has several problems.

First, it doesn't scale with level. Easy to house rule, but then you'd probably need a table, and I don't like tables. AD&D progression follows a simple formula, but I think mine is easier, although the results are similar.

Second is, well, it actually gets worse with levels, since the thief's attack progression is likely to fall behind the monsters the party will have to fight (although AC changes slower than BAB, usually). The thief will often lose his opportunity, which might be frustrating.

Third, it begs an additional rule for other characters that might want to backstab. Or will it be forbidden to other classes? This goes against my philosophy that "you can do anything" while playing D&D.

Fourth, it makes swords the best weapons to backstab with. Since damage is multiplied, soon the knife becomes a useless weapon for the purpose of assassination.

Each of this problems has a few simple solutions. What I want is to find ONE solution that solves all of them.

Fortunately, it is an easy one (and surely mentioned by other people before me): anyone can backstab an unsuspecting victim - this grants advantage (as in 5e) and double damage - but the thief adds his level to damage AND attacks like a fighter of similar level while doing so.

So, if you use Fighter level as his attack bonus, as I do, a 5th level thief would get a +5 bonus to his attack and +5 to damage, after double damage (2d4+5 when attacking with a knife, for example, or 2d6+5 with a short sword, etc).

Of course, in order to backstab, one has to get an unsuspecting victim. This is far easier when hiding in the shadows or moving silently. So, even at first level, the thief is way better at it. On the other hand, the unsuspecting victim may be sleeping or involved a friendly chat with you, so anyone can attempt it.

By the way, in my games people can backstab with missile weapons... but I would give no additional damage bonus for that unless they get close enough (i.ei, hide in shadows etc).

And, to be honest, I enjoy the 5e thief backstabbing people in the middle of combat. I bet allowing them to hide during battle (maybe using up an action to do so) wouldn't break old school D&D either.

This will work well for any version of old school D&D. It fits some of my other house rules perfectly - single digit weapons might mean a knife is actually better than a sword for the job sometimes.

Mathematically, the damage is bonus is quite close to AD&D anyway; +1 per level instead of +1d6 every four levels.

The attack bonus makes thieves a bit more powerful than the norm, but I reckon they can use the boost anyway.

Friday, June 17, 2016


I spend a significant amount of time "fixing" the stuff I dislike in D&D. From time to time, I find something that reminds me that there is nothing new under the sun. It seems that most of the possible variations were created in the few years that followed the publication of D&D, and subsequent editions just adopted one or another without really innovating that much.

Case in  point: the PrinceCon 1978 D&D variant rules. I heard about it from Jeffro Johnson, here; he pointed me to the rest of the books (here).

The book includes things like:

- An elegant "bell curve" of sorts for STR over 18, without using percentages.

- An efficient solution for ignoring level limits to demihumans - "At any level after a character would normally be pinned, the increase in experience for the next level is doubled". Os, as I would like to put it, they suffer a 50% tax to XP after reaching maximum level.

- Bonuses to abilities based on race/class.

- An alternate combat system, using the d%, and a formula for grappling I will not try to decipher.

- An alternate magic system that uses energy points.

- Three saving throws: basically, Body / Mind / Spirit.

- "Designer notes" of some sort:

- The cool art that illustrates this post (credited to Joan Smith and Wanda Lee).

- Lots of magic items.

Its well worth checking out.

The interesting thing (other than the whole concept of the Con, which looks awesome) is how many cool alternate rules they had in 1978; not for publishing their own RPG, but for playing D&D in that particular weekend. Of course, they would use something similar for other conventions and the rest of the year, but I found it impressive nonetheless.

I am very fond of old school house rules such as these, the Perrin Conventions, etc. Reading them makes me feel like house ruled games where the norm in the first days of the hobbyhere is a great post about the subject.

I kinda regret taking so long to realize that games are meant to be house-ruled; many of the gripes I had with my favorite games could be easily fixed if I knew fixing the game was a necessity.

Granted, I played GURPS for a long time, and although it seemed really perfect and complete on the outside, combat was quite boring and skills were too fiddly. Easily fixable with a d20 and the "Bang! skills" it eventually adopted. But I got bored before fixing it. Which was good, I guess, because it brought me back to old school D&D - in my GURPS days, believe or not, I thought D&D had became too complex and unrealistic (it was 3e at the time).

The funny thing is that when played simpler systems, it was quite obvious that more rules would make the game better (for my tastes anyway), but maybe I forgot the fact after moving on to "crunchier" stuff.

Nowadays, of course, I think everything (D&D or not) is basically just someone else's house rules. Even Greyhawk might be viewed this way (it is a "Supplement" after all) , which might explain why each new retro-clone or neo-clone that comes around has its own version of the Thief.

And why I want to write my own version, of course. So stay tuned if you want to read about a new  skill system and alternatives to your current saving throws and magic spells! If you like house rules as much as I do, there might never be enough.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ability Scores: making each point matter

One thing that bothered me about D&D when I was younger was the fact that some abilities would give no extra bonuses, so there seemed to be no difference between, say, Strength 9 and Strength 12 in most of TSR D&D. 

WotC D&D makes it better in some ways - now at least there is a difference for each TWO points in an ability - but sometimes it makes it even worse, because now abilities mean so little that they might be ditched for the modifiers instead, but you still have to pick and choose where to put your ability points.

This things don't bother me as much today, since I realize the emphasis on levels over "attributes" is one of the things that make D&D stand out from other RPGs. And old school D&D made you roll your abilities, sparing us of many meaningless choices.

Still, I like the idea that each ability point grants some advantage; I DO like a balanced approach between level and abilities in my D&D games. And I let players get ability points as they level up, so I would like most ability increases to have some effect.

One way to do it is just using the whole ability for some purpose. "Roll under your Strength to climb that wall", for example. Other more creative solutions would be "your unarmored AC is equal to your Dexterity (or Charisma if you're naked)", "You get a number of MP or skill points equal to you Intelligent score", "Your starting HP is equal to Constitution", etc. This automatically solves most of my problems.

I don't like all of these solutions, for various reasons, but I prefer them to absolute limitations such as "you can't multi-class unless you have Dexterity 13", or "you can only take this feat with Strength 15", etc. Most "prerequisites" are useless, the way I see it.

In any case, here are some ideas on how to make the most of the ability scores.

Strength: use it for encumbrance (here is an idea).

Constitution: I like level 1 characters to have little HP but still be able to survive a ten foot fall, so I use Constitution damage (more about that here).

Intelligence: using Intelligence scores as number of extra skill points works well in a number of editions. You can also use it for spell-casting, languages, etc.

Dexterity: this is trickier. I used to let players act in order of Dexterity, but nowadays I just use group initiative. Maybe let PCs double their AC bonus, but the resulting AC cannot be greater than Dexterity. This assumes a specific kind of ascending armor class, however.

Charisma: number of retainers, maybe? King Arthur might have more than a dozen of loyal knights. Maybe use half Charisma, instead (see below). I also like to use charisma as luck and divine favor, so I might roll under it when you need to check for that.

Wisdom: another a tricky one. Maybe skills, maybe something else.

One alternate idea is using a secondary set of bonuses that would apply in some circumstances. Since memorizing a new chart is not my cup of tea, let us use a simple formula instead: this secondary bonus is equal to half ability, round UP.

The cool thing is that each ability increase gives you something useful, with a few exceptions. These exceptions don't bother me too much. "Average" scores don't matter much anyway, and encouraging a score of 13 makes characters a little more balanced (which is why WotC D&D often uses that number as a prerequisite for some feats, prestige classes, etc).
AbilityBonus 1Bonus 2

The first bonus is the traditional one, from B/X D&D. Use it for extra HP, a bonus to damage or saving throws, etc, as usual.

This second bonus is more or less equivalent to WotC era modifiers, and it might actually have a few interesting uses. 

For ability contests, it fits well with the 2d6 resolution system that I enjoy; someone with Strength 18 will beat someone with average (10) strength more than 90% of the time (both sides roll 2d6, highest roll wins), which is better than most D&D resolution systems. It works well for skills too, for the same reasons.

It also fits well with the d20 when using saving throws. Subtract this bonus from 20, and your get your saving throw for each ability. You also get to add half level to your roll. So, if you have Constitution 17, you would need to roll 11 or more using 1d20+half level. Even at level 20, you would still have some chance of failure. The numbers are well-suited for BX and RC D&D, my favorite editions.

In fact, you could just do 20-(Ability + Level)/2 to calculate your saving throws, thus making every ability point useful, at least in half of the levels. For example, a Constitution 17 character gets a Saving throw of 11 in the first level, 10 in the third level, and so on.

What's the point?

My idea is to reduce the number of sub-systems needed to play D&D, while still maintaining the flavor I like. I'm not too fond of different traits for saving throws, so I prefer using some kind of formula based on abilities and level, like 5e.

Also, balancing the importance of levels with the importance of abilities is, well... important to me. There are already plenty of experiments that go further one way or another (Searchers of the Unknown uses no abilities, while games such as The Black Hack use abilities instead of mostly everything else), but, to my tastes, the perfect system lies somewhere in between.

(illustrations by H. J. Ford, The Book of Romance)

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Frozen: The Snowbound Heart

And now for something completely different... Let us talk about Disney princesses.

This is just something that I have get out of my system, by the way. Don't expect it to make any sense.

Yeah, watching "Frozen" for the hundredth time makes funny things to your mind (most of my readers will probably understand my situation right away). I never thought I would say that, but if don't want to hear me rambling about Disney princesses, you might want to skip this post.

And if you LIKE Disney princesses, well, you might wanna skip it anyway... Although I have probably watched this movie for 50 hours I don't think I ever watched from beginning to end. Feel free to correct me if I get something wrong or just don't "get it" at all.

This movie might make a cool setting (pun not intended), I guess. First thought that comes to mind is an evil versions of Elsa, of course.

"Evil version"? Well, she already creates gigantic monsters (to drive her sister away!), destroys summer and almost kills the soldiers who attack her over this. This is probably the whole point of the movie, Elsa being a "subverted" version of the evil queen trope, she is just misunderstood yadda yadda...

You probably realized Anna is a lot more popular here at home. She has all the qualities of a good PC. Brave, foolhardy, impulsive, willing to fight against impossible odds, and with all the sense of responsibility a confused teenager.

In any case, when I heard this was based on a tale by Andersen, I knew the original would be far darker.

So see if you can use this is your games:

An evil troll, called "the devil",[2] has made a magic mirror that distorts the appearance of everything it reflects. It fails to reflect the good and beautiful aspects of people and things, while magnifying their bad and ugly aspects. The devil, who is headmaster at a troll school, takes the mirror and his pupils throughout the world, delighting in using it to distort everyone and everything; the mirror makes the loveliest landscapes look like "boiled spinach." They try to carry the mirror into heaven with the idea of making fools of the angels and God, but the higher they lift it, the more the mirror shakes with laughter, and it slips from their grasp and falls back to earth, shattering into billions of pieces, some no larger than a grain of sand.
These splinters are blown by the wind all over the Earth and got into people's hearts and eyes, freezing their hearts like blocks of ice and making their eyes like the troll-mirror itself, seeing only the bad and ugly in people and things.

Not bad, huh? The rest of the tale is about two young children (Kay and Gerda) in a large city, so I would prefer Anna and Elsa in my game.

Well, just Elsa. Anna, of course, is a frozen statue since Elsa's puberty. Elsa didn't want this, of course, but Anna was being so annoying at the time...

Now Elsa sits in the frozen throne of Arendelle, surrounded by ice zombies, murderous snowmen and the ghosts of the people she killed in her rage. Ice dragons and polar bears are also fair game, of course.

So there is how you insert Death Frost Doom after one the adventures from Daniel Bishop's FT series, if you ever needed a reason...


How would one defeat Elsa? It is not going to be easy. Andersen describes a few interesting powers:

Kay's grandmother tells the children about the Snow Queen, who is ruler over the "snow bees" — snowflakes that look like bees. As bees have a queen, so do the snow bees, and she is seen where the snowflakes cluster the most. 
Outside the city she reveals herself to Kay and kisses him twice: once to numb him from the cold, and a second time to make him forget about Gerda and his family; a third kiss would kill him.

Maybe the Queen of Summer can help?

Gerda next visits an old sorceress with a beautiful garden of eternal summer. The sorceress wants Gerda to stay with her forever, so she causes Gerda to forget all about Kay, and causes all the roses in her garden to sink beneath the earth, since she knows that the sight of them will remind Gerda of her friend.

Or maybe not...

In the end, it is all about the power of love.

Gerda finds Kay alone and almost immobile on a frozen lake, which the Snow Queen calls the "Mirror of Reason", on which her throne sits. [...] Gerda runs up to Kay and kisses him, and he is saved by the power of her love: Gerda weeps warm tears on him, melting his heart and burning away the troll-mirror splinter in it. As a result, Kay bursts into tears (which dislodge the splinter from his eye) and becomes cheerful and healthy again with sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks, and also recognizes Gerda.

So yeah, like in the movie, the PCs must find a way to melt the Snow Queen's heart. Kissing her is a specially bad idea, as her kisses are deadly and she doesn't appreciate being kissed against her will. Maybe some story or object from her past will do the trick, who knows.

If they succeed, Anna will be released from the ice. She is alive and well. Elsa will run to her and cry, abandoning all defenses. With the ice melting from her heart, filled with nothing but love and oblivious to anything but her sister, Elsa is finally free, and vulnerable.

For about one minute.

Good luck.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Old School Ramblings #4 - Stop looking at the character sheet

One popular distinction of old school RPGs is that it focuses on "Player Skill, not Character Abilities", as Matt Finch famously puts it:

Original D&D and Swords & Wizardry are games of skill in a few areas where modern
games just rely on the character sheet. You don’t have a “spot” check to let you notice
hidden traps and levers, you don’t have a “bluff” check to let you automatically fool a
suspicious city guardsman, and you don’t have a “sense motive” check to tell you when
someone’s lying to your character. You have to tell the referee where you’re looking for
traps and what buttons you’re pushing. You have to tell the referee whatever tall tale
you’re trying to get the city guardsman to believe. You have to decide for yourself if
someone’s lying to your character or telling the truth. In a 0e game, you are always
asking questions, telling the referee exactly what your character is looking at, and
experimenting with things. Die rolls are much less frequent than in modern games.

The explanation is clear and very useful (as the rest of the book), but the term "Player skill" is equivocal and a bit misleading. Most of my frustration with 3e and 4e D&D is that it requires a significant amount of player skills that I'm not interested in improving or acquiring.

In 4e, for example, it seemed that most of our choices were about what power to use, and at what time. A skilled 4e player would be able to use the right power at the right time, and there were lots of powers, specially at high levels (yes, I see a similar problem with old-school MUs, IF they get to choose their spells, which isn't necessarily the case).

3e, on the other hand, requires quite an effort in character building: there where too many options and combinations, some of them way better than the others. I never had the skill or the interest in building the perfect character, nor do I appreciate "player skill" being able to build an overpowered character (or the lack of it causing characters to be useless).

Now, I love choices. They might be my favorite thing about role-playing. But the choices I like are similar to "do we let the goblin go or imprison him", not "should I use a Burst 3 or Blast 2 spell"; “do we tell the king what happened or lie”, not “which feat is better”.

I don't like looking at these things for too long.
My favorite definition of this aspect of old school play come from Randall Stukey (here):

"System mastery is not required. Players do not need to know the rules to play (and play well). They can simply describe what their character is doing in plain language (not gamespeak) and the GM will tell them the results of their action or what they need to roll. [...] The system mechanics are not purposely designed to be interesting for players to manipulate but to get out of the way so the stuff going on in the campaign is the center of attention. It's not about what mechanical features a character gets as the campaign progresses but about what the character does in the campaign."

(Read this too; Randall has great insights about old school play and RPGs in general).

There is a lot of important knowledge on those lines.

The bit about system mastery is specially. As time goes by, I realized I'm into this "natural" or "spontaneous" form of role-playing, that seems to be instinctive to children or people who never played an RPG before. See the cases of Toby and Max, for example.

This has little to do with "player skill" or even "role-playing versus role playing"; instead, what interests me is the time we spend looking at the character sheet. Or engaging with dice, tokens, mechanics, etc.; this is not how I want to spend most of my session.

Okay, you can look at this one, it looks amazing (from Doomslakers).
Of course, a group of players that are very familiarized with the system and their characters can make things run smoothly even with "rules-heavy" games. But it seems obvious that games that can be easily and quickly  grasped by children or beginners have the upper hand on this matter.

In fact, this has little to do with rules-heavy or rules-light games. Fate RPG, for example, is quite simple, but you have to constantly engage with game mechanics in the form of tokens that are supposed to be passed around frequently. AD&D, on the other hand, is TOO complex for my tastes, and still considered "old school" by many people (maybe because so much of the complexity is in the GM's side).

The important bit, as Randall says, is that the mechanics are not purposely designed to be interesting for players to manipulate. They should be fast and get out of the way. It is a matter of FOCUS, like most things. When you have a challenge in the game, you don't focus on the character sheet. Instead, think of the situation being described.

This is why I avoid talking about "player skill" or "rules light" when explaining why I like this style of play; "I don't like spending too much time dealing with game mechanics" makes things clearer in my opinion.

Or, if I’m the GM, I will just advise players to stop looking at the character sheet.