[New Column] Playing God - Houseruling & System Hacking




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    [New Column] Playing God - Houseruling & System Hacking



    Welcome to the first installment of Playing God. The purpose of this column is to discuss approaches, thoughts and pitfalls of house rules, the making of major changes to systems and fine tuning any rules or flavor issues in a game. This is a home for the frustrated game designer in all of us; I play a lot of HERO, one of the most customizable RPGs around, and I still house-rule it all over the place. Some of the ideas discussed may seem fairly basic to someone with a history of tweaking his own game, but I know I would have loved some advice back when I started doing this sort of thing. D20/3.x/Pathfinder will be used for many examples, but the ideas are for just about any system.

    As an example, let's start with a high level overview of a not uncommon standard house-rule for d20/D&D based games. A basic decision that seems simple, but can have many secondary and tertiary effects. In this case the GM decides to toss out alignment. What all does this mean for the GM, and how much work will this necessitate? Lets take a look at just some highlights.

    First we look at possible campaign and world effects; what cosmology does this universe have? Is the GM planning to use published cosmology such as the great wheel of D&D? If so then removing alignment kills much of the underpinning of this outer planar structure and will require great work to include setting material based on the wheel and alignment, such as Planescape. If the GM has no clear expectation of his cosmology, this decision could save work if the GM runs with the “I'll fill it in later when it becomes important” approach. Or one where the details of a specific cosmology is not as important - a city based E6* type of game where the characters will never visit the outer planes, for instance. Or removing alignment could create a lot of work for the GM, if planar adventures are a future campaign element. Of course the GM could very well chose to get rid of alignment because he has a particular cosmology he wants that is incompatible with the standard alignment structure.

    What effect will the absence of alignment have on the gods of the world? As with the Great Wheel cosmology, if the GM is planning to use published gods, he will have to decide on how it affects the Deity’s relationships with each other. It also brings to question similar relationships with PCs. What is done with alignment restrictions of Clerics/Priests of gods? Are there no more alignment based Clerics? Do they instead all worship a god, an idea, or a pantheon? Like cosmology, this could be one of the things the GM desires to do himself, but if the reason for removal of alignment is simply a tonal one for the game, these are things that should also be examined.

    What is to be done for the Paladin. Is he excised from the game? This is a not uncommon practice for those that have seen a few too many Lawful Arrogant Paladins. If they remain in the game without alignment are there Paladins of different codes, or do they follow the standard Paladin code, without alignment? One of the default backgrounds for a Paladin is that the character serves an alignment ideal. With no alignment in the game the question is much like that of the Cleric - what does the Paladin serve? Is it A God, a specific moral code, a religious order or something else?

    Often alignment is discarded is to keep the game from having absolutes of moral conduct. The GM wants more shades of gray for his campaign tone. But doing so asks the question where does the moral code for characters come from? Do they come from normalized laws in the region, from the church or from tradition? Does each church have it's own moral code and if so how is the common man to know which one might be right? It could very well be that the GM wants it to be none of them. This same moral uncertainty could also lead into questions of what kind of creature it is okay for adventurers to kill without worry. This could lead to the following kind of situation - did some orc they kill have a baby? What are the character's going to do about it? Is it right to kill the orc baby, or do they take care of it, or turn it over to an orphanage? This may be exactly the result that is wanted by removing alignment, but not realizing the ripples of the choice can lead to uncomfortable situations in later sessions when these issues come up and the GM didn't plan for them.

    Then on to mechanics: Detect Evil and Good, Protection from Same- the question here as for the Paladin- are they thrown out, or modified? If they are modified, does the GM have a particular global change, or is he going on a case by case basis? Protection from “X” stops summoned creatures in 3.x - if those spells are removed, is that aspect of the spells gone from the game, or is there a Protection from Summoned Creatures to replace it? If a Paladin is a class still available in the campaign, how does the character's Smite work - how is the target of the Smite decided? More cases of potential work for the GM later in the game.

    Then we can look at extra-planer creatures - Demons and Devils for example. Are they as supernaturally evil as they are with a traditional alignment setup? If so, what tools do the player's have to be able to deal with that evil? That could very well be another purpose of removing alignment - have evil in the game be the “evil that men do” and ignore the supernatural evil elements. Again, this is something that a GM should be aware of when he decides to make the rule change.

    So that is just a quick overview at possible issues from a simple, oft used rule change. There are ripples of the decision that follow through into the world and play.

    The questions raised this time are going to be the kind addressed in this column. In this first article I wanted to give an idea of the kinds of things that could be discussed, and showing the scope of the changes that one house-rule can make, and how much work it could mean for the GM. Of course if the GM is one who enjoys creating the world and tone, and like me, a frustrated game designer, these things can make the difference between running a game, and breathing life into it.


    * E6 is a popular variant of D&D that caps standard advancement at 6th level. It was created by Ryan Stoughton.





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    This could be an interesting read. I mean, who doesn't house rule? The first installment was an interesting read. Good job. I'm looking forward to more.


    I'm looking for players. Check it out here!

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    Quote Originally Posted by john112364 View Post
    This could be an interesting read. I mean, who doesn't house rule? The first installment was an interesting read. Good job. I'm looking forward to more.
    Thanks.
    I'm one of the lucky ones. I married a "gamer-girl."
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    Good idea for a column/thread!

    If I can propose one topic, a piece of advice I could have used very early on was "first of all, look around for a system that does (most of) what you want already". It's easy to assume one specific "one size fits all" system and merrily start hacking it, when there is actually already a system that starts off far closer to what you are trying to achieve than the one you are starting with. In other words, look around at what's available first, before you put lots of work into a volume of houserules. Once you have a system that's about as close as you can get, unmodified, then start tweaking it at the edges to get exactly what you want. This way, you might even get time to do more than one system, to cover different play agendas that you might have from time to time, and to get some mastery of different systems that will give you perspective and breadth of vision over many styles of play.
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    Grrr - sorry, double post.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Balesir View Post
    If I can propose one topic, a piece of advice I could have used very early on was "first of all, look around for a system that does (most of) what you want already".
    I was planning to address the topic early on - but not with quite the clarity and detail you describe. I'll look over my notes - it's a good idea to look into.
    I'm one of the lucky ones. I married a "gamer-girl."
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    one of the things I houserule is armor as DR.

    AC rules are fine and perfectly functional, but to me armor is Damage Reduction. It doesnt stop you from getting hit, it stops you from being hurt.

    One of the side effects i found was that low damage weapons lost effectiveness. Especially as you level up and a +5 platemail goes from AC 23 (phesh who cares?) to DR 13.

    So to make up for that I implemented a rule where for every 2 points by which you exceeded your targets AC you do 1 extra point of damage. It helped people actually have a shot with lesser damage weapons and made opposed attack rolls (our to hit rolls) VERY meaningful.

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    Quote Originally Posted by timASW View Post
    one of the things I houserule is armor as DR.
    I'll assume you are talking about D&D, here, since many other systems treat armour as either damage blocking or a mix of deflection and damage reduction (probably the best approach).

    One thing I haven't seen handled well, though, is the role of armour (or a shield) in offence. Just as a simple and obvious example, a warrior in plate harness can make forceful disarming moves with the arms or even legs that would be hazardous in the extreme for an unarmoured man. Recent work on viking shieldwork suggests that, for the foot warrior, the shield was at least as important for attack as for defence (see video here for a good explanation).

    All this, of course, assumes that what is important to you in the combat system is that it mimics "real life" rather than some other trope, such as heroic fantasy comics and films...
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    Quote Originally Posted by Balesir View Post
    I'll assume you are talking about D&D, here, since many other systems treat armour as either damage blocking or a mix of deflection and damage reduction (probably the best approach).

    One thing I haven't seen handled well, though, is the role of armour (or a shield) in offence. Just as a simple and obvious example, a warrior in plate harness can make forceful disarming moves with the arms or even legs that would be hazardous in the extreme for an unarmoured man. Recent work on viking shieldwork suggests that, for the foot warrior, the shield was at least as important for attack as for defence (see video here for a good explanation).

    All this, of course, assumes that what is important to you in the combat system is that it mimics "real life" rather than some other trope, such as heroic fantasy comics and films...
    Yeah pathfinder most recently. I've been doing armor as DR since AD&D for D&D.

    Definately agree about the shields, I've never seen a good implementation of realistic shield rules anywhere though.

    A fighter could put together a decent shield style by using a crapton of feats for 2 weapon fighting and some of the shield bashing style feats in 3e but the investment in feats and time wouldnt be a nearly equal payoff to the mechanical result.

    I came up with a weapon style merit chain for sword and board for a alternate setting Hunter game in NWoD that was pretty good IMO but I never got to see it in actual play enough to judge because I wound up moving and ending that campaign.

    How would you model it?

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    Quote Originally Posted by timASW View Post
    A fighter could put together a decent shield style by using a crapton of feats for 2 weapon fighting and some of the shield bashing style feats in 3e but the investment in feats and time wouldnt be a nearly equal payoff to the mechanical result.
    In 4e you can do some "shoving about" and defensive stuff with the right power selection, but it really only covers part of the ground. In general, though, I haven't seen a system that really does justice to the usefulness of a shield.

    Quote Originally Posted by timASW View Post
    How would you model it?
    Good question. In D&D the answer is that I wouldn't; D&D for me is not about combat simulation, it's about a fun and interesting game that evokes the feel of heroic/fantasy/movie action and effects. As long as the evoked images aren't totally cheesy and the decisions to be made in-game are real and interesting, job done as far as I'm concerned.

    For systems that set out to evoke strong "realistic" vibes it's more tricky. I would probably start with something like GURPS or HârnMaster and make use of the HM "tactical advantage" concept - basically, success in one move can retain initiative and give the attacker a "free move"; conversely failure can give the defender a "free move". The system is still a bit too "you go - I go" and doesn't handle "tempo" all that well, but it's a better starting point than effectively non-simulationist mechanisms, I think. Part of the trick might be abstracting the detailed action - systems to account for the position of each limb tend to just add mess without real payback - and formulate the skill check levels appropriately.

    Short answer - I dunno!
    Balesir
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