C Series • #7
Over the past several issues we have been looking at different systems and their rules’ treatment of various aspects of the game. As you play different systems and get a chance to experience these rules sets, you’ll likely find yourself thinking about how you like one rule aspect in a certain system and dislike another aspect of the same system. You more specifically may have a thought along the lines of “Why can’t the initiative system in D&D be like the initiative system in Savage Worlds?” To which the reply should be … why not change the rules?
Most role playing game systems point out in their introductions that the rules-as-written can be changed as the group sees fit. House rules abound in campaigns with minor (and sometimes not so minor) adjustments to the published rules that a group finds makes the game more fun or better fits their style of playing. A number of these house rules are born from playing another system that “did it better.” Tweaking the game to make it fit the agreed-on style of play makes the overall game more enjoyable for a group and adds a level of flavor to the campaign to make it unique. Published campaign settings tend to have “house rules” implemented in them. Dark Sun, Eberron, Greyhawk (yes, I went old-school again) all have unique rules to the setting that are different from the published rules.
So what makes for a successful rules-tweak? Minor ones are usually straightforward and if they apply equally to all characters they don’t tend to unbalance the game. An example can be “for hit point advancement at a level increase roll twice and take the better dice.” This gives a big advantage to the characters and removes the whining from the Fighter who rolled a one on her hit point increase as she moves to 2nd Level but it doesn’t break the game.
I find it can be harder when you are trying to switch out elements of rule systems but not impossible. Sometimes rule systems are compatible and parts can be dropped from one set to another without doing a lot of work. For example, back in the days of AD&D and D&D when there were two separate systems, the D&D Masters set introduced Weapon Mastery proficiencies which greatly increased what a character could do with a weapon. Advanced training with a weapon granted additional damage, the ability to increase AC when wielding a weapon, and special attack or defensive capabilities with a weapon. The system was much more comprehensive than the weapon proficiencies in AD&D, but since the rules for attacking were essentially the same in these two systems, my group was able to easily drop in the rule set from D&D Master set into our AD&D campaign. Fighter characters suddenly became way more dangerous, especially when highly specialized, and the Weapon Mastery system brought a lot more fun and strategic play to the game.
Other changes can require a bit more effort to keep the game balanced while adding in a new element or revising a rule. D&D used to the have the “fire and forget” spell system, where characters had to select and memorize specific spells and once they were cast, the spells were gone from memory and could not be cast until they were memorized once more. The poor 1st Level Magic-User, after having cast their one spell for the day (usually Magic Missile or Sleep), hid behind the rest of the group and might sometimes throw a dart at a foe. Not much fun. My group liked the Spell Point casting system from Role-Master so we adapted that system to AD&D. Now the Magic-User regained the ability to re-cast their single Level 1 spell after about an hour of walking around. This created a new problem in the rule balance as Magic-Users now could re-cast spells more quickly and it caused them to become too powerful. In order to impose some of limits on spell-casters, we enforced the material components rules, so the Magic-User had to track the number of castings of components they carried with them. This unintentionally added a fun aspect to the game where, suddenly, the cost of acquiring these components, or even finding the components, became another aspect that players had to contend with. One player refused to cast Spider Climb because the material component for the spell was a live spider that had to be eaten by the caster and the player could not stomach (pun intended) having his character do that. We even had an entire campaign that was designed around finding a large enough gem to cast a Trap the Soul spell on a powerful outer plane creature. All of this led to our group’s continual phrase “wizards are weird” when the Magic-User stated that he had to find a pound of bat-poop (the component for the Fireball spell) before we were heading to face off against the bandit encampment.
Sometimes you won’t be able to simply drop a rule set into a game but must come up with a means of implementing the concept adapted to the rule set that you are using. As an example, one aspect of combat that Role-Master used which I have always liked is that you could shift a portion of your attack bonus to defense, essentially reducing your offense to bolster your defense. This same idea could be translated into a d20 game system by allowing players to reduce their Basic Attack Bonus and increase their Armor Class by the same amount. A character that is not very combat-oriented (like a Wizard) could fight more defensively (without having to take the Total Defense action) and increase their AC and still gets a +0 attack if they so desire. Such a rule may not fit the style of play of some groups but for others this is an attractive rule modification.
There are a lot of different games out there, all with variations on rules and how they play out. Everyone who plays in and tries different systems finds certain ways of playing out aspects of the game they find more enjoyable and those choices depend on a preferred style of play and feel for the game. There is no “right” way or perfect system. Tweaking rules, using alternate rule sets, or even creating your own, can add spice and refresh a game system. Maintaining game balance and a challenge for the players is always important, but equally as important is having a system that the players and Game Master all enjoy using. Just remember that every game system out there was created and played before ever being published, so tweaking and improving a system is nothing to be afraid of.