Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Dreaded Rules of the House

I have had a whole host of experiences with house rules and their impact on various games. Some of these experiences have been good some have been bad. The most common place where I have encountered house rules have been in the world of table top RPGs. Systems of themed rules established to allow players to control characters to interact in some kind of fictional settings have room for any number of changes. For a long time I just saw house rules as a way to either "fix" or "improve" upon the gaming experience. I never thought of classifying these various types of house rules or what each aimed to accomplish but I think now would be as good a time as any to list and classify various types of house rules and their purpose as I have encountered over time.

Skinning can be classified as a thematic change to an existing rule or object in a role-playing game. This is a common of house rule and it's use is so widely practiced many don't even consider this a house rule. By itself the of 'skinning' something in an RPG is harmless and many role-playing games have room built into the rules to allow for such changes. Most common these will apply to a campaign setting or to something related to a character. If a player wanted to have their character use a unique weapon that doesn't exist in the game the GM might just skin an existing weapon and give it a different name and maybe change one or two attributes of the weapon but mechanically it would function much the same as the weapon it was based on. Another example of a skin might be if the GM had a evil character using some kind of holy magic. It might make more sense for the GM to skin the powers so that they more accurately reflect the evil character's nature and instead of holy magic they use an evil or necrotic magic.
If a rule or character in a game is modified for thematic purposes with no mechanical changes behind it then it is considered skinning.

The Restriction
Another common house rule is the act of restricting certain content. In almost ever case this is a house rule initiated by the GM it is used to remove certain options or possibilities from the player characters. The most common reason for this is thematic based on whatever campaign is being used in the game but sometimes the restriction can be a result of some kind of mechanical exploit. Regardless of the reasoning however the result is often the same. Said rule or option is not available to the player characters. If restrictions are made known in advance most players have little argument with them. If a foolish GM decides to introduce new restrictions in the middle of a game it can often lead to resentment from the players. In extreme cases it can cause a group to break up.
GM's who incorporate the restriction should strongly consider their reasons for restricting certain material from a role-playing game. Regardless of the GM's reasoning they should make sure to keep all players informed of any possible restrictions to the game ahead of time so that none of the players feel like the choices made by their character are being personally attacked. Even if as a GM you have pre-established restrictions you should always take the time to listen to any players who are interested in choosing a rule that has been restricted. Perhaps their reasoning for choosing the restricted option is so novel that it fits into the campaign. Or if the player has no good reason for choosing the restricted option the GM can at least explain to the player why the rule is restricted. Ultimately the final decision falls onto the shoulders of the GM but keep in mind that frivolous restrictions to certain rules can quickly end a gaming group.

The Creation
The creation is less common than skinning and restricting rules but is still fairly common among most GMs I've known in my time. The creation can be at the initiative of either the GM or the players and can have all kinds of effects on game play. The more serious side effects of creating a rule can occur when coupled with 'the redesign' house rule. The creation by itself however is generally harmless to the overall running of a game. Most often the creation house rule is used to add some kind rule that was originally not in place in the game to make the overall game play more enjoyable. This is probably most prevalent in the something like D&D 4th edition with the 'critical fumble' rule for attacks. Most role playing games that I have come across don't usually have a critical fumble rule although almost all games have the concept of a critical hit. Many people like the idea of extremes on both ends of the die rolling spectrum so a critical fumble is often an added house rule that is created to make things more random and in theory more exciting.

The Substitution
The only subtle difference between the substitution and the redesign house rules is that the substitution tends to only change mechanics of a rule without really changing the intended design of a rule. An example of this is in a lot of RPGs that focus on unique character creation process often these is a option for a character to have some kind of background history about them that may separate them from similarly built characters. In D&D 4th edition a character might have a background of hailing from a large city and perhaps has the option of getting a bonus to in games skills related to a city environement like Streetwise, Diplomacy or Theivery. Now perhaps the player wants their character to be a smooth talking thief but is normally limisted to only picking one of the listed skills to get a bonus to as a result of their background. As a subsitiution to this existing rule the DM could allow the player to choose two or all three of those skills but get less of a bonus to each of those skills compared to if they had choosen only a single skill. The design behind awarding the bonus to a character because of their background is still in tact but the specfic mechanics behind what options are avaliable to a character as a result of their background selection has been subsituted for an alternative that better fits the player's character concept. From what I have seen this kind of house rule most often comes at the request of the player because it usually requires indepth knowledge of how a certain rule works and coming up with an alternaive for it that doesn't change the intended design. Most DMs won't put in the time to do this due to the large volume of rules a DM must know to run the game.

The Redesign
The dreaded redesign is the most indepth and involved of all the house rules and can bring about a great deal of change to any RPG. Here the DM has true control of the game and is in effect becoming a devloper of the game rather than just a player of it. Abuse of the house rule will almost always result in the alienation of players and or the disilution of a gaming group. To sum it all up, when thinking about redesigning and existing rule it is always good to use caution. The redesign, just as it's name suggests, is the players attempt and completely redesigning an existing rule. An example of a redesign would be one I had personally come up regarding D&D 4th edition concerning attack powers of the ranger class.
In 4th edition the ranger has one of the strongest basic attack powers in the game called twin-strike but they also have one of the worst in the game called careful attack. The original design behind the two was that twin-strike was a high damage attack that offered multiple weaker attacks when compared to a normal attack and careful attack was a weaker attack with an increased chance to hit compared to a normal attack. The problem with the original design was that 99.9% of the time the chances of hitting with twin-strike was statisically higher than hitting with careful attack. The proposed design change I ended up making was to redesign careful attack so that it would have just as good of a chance to hit as twin-strike and would an amount of damage equal to a normal attack. This meant that if only only one of the two attacks granted by twin-strike hit, careful attack would have done more damage. The redesign effectively fixed the original flawed design of careful attack (making it a more accurate attack) but it also increased the damage of the attack. This change the design from just an accurate low damage attack to an accurate high damage attack. This also made the power more appealing to players as it was now more on par with twin-strike. The eventual problem with this change was that the original designers released new content based off of the original careful attack power further modifying it and adding to it. This in turn forced me to either restrict these new rules redesign them as well. The rapid sprial that ensured to keep pace with new content coming out eventually lead to the abolishment of all the existing house rules at the time. So when considering redesigning a rule make sure to ask yourself, 'What am I doing the original rule didn't accomplish?' Once you have that answer make sure your players are well aware of the poential change and that they are okay with it. Lastily, assuming you have everyone's approval, you'll want to make sure to establish how future rules might impact this redesigned house rule. Also stating what conditions would need to exist for you to remove the house if any.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Group makeup or group breakup?

Designing a game or a component for an already existing game is a creative process. It requires one to put forth something that is both realistic and fun within the constraint of the rules imposed by the game. However, in such a design process the designer cannot forgot or over look the importance of the makeup of the group. I think I personally experienced this lesson on it's most brutal level while working on a recent adventure plan for a D&D 4th edition group I was DMing.

The players had just finished up a big adventure that still had some loose ends and unanswered questions within the campaign. I gave the players a hook of what seemed like an obvious trap. Now for the adventure I planned out encounters rather than a true path so in theory anything they wanted to do was a viable option. In testing it out, the players would be able to walk into trap, leave town altogether, or try to investigate information in the town to thwart the trap. It seemed like the players could go anywhere and do anything and I would have something ready for them. It seemed almost perfect. However there was something beyond the design I had over looked, the group's expectations.

Now what might I mean when I say group's expectations? Well I see it as just that, what is the group expecting? What do they think they should do? It turns out that the majority of the players in my group saw the obvious trap for what it was and actually got angry that I was forcing them into such a predictably bad situation. They felt I was taking an Illusionist or Participationist approach to the game, on that I afforded them no options and no alternatives. However I was more closely modeling the adventure like a Bass Player. So what did this do to the group with such a simple misconception? Well the group felt genuinely jaded by my presumed pompous actions. They were ultimately so angry in fact that even the littlest of indiscretions could cause irrevocable harm.

When I mean little indiscretion, I mean little, like tiny, like minuscule. To make a long drawn out tiff short, basically a new player joining the existing group wanted to make a bow ranger when one of the existing players was already a bow ranger. That was the straw to break the proverbial camel's back and resulted in 4 of the 5 original players (after months of enjoyable gaming) to up and leave from the group. Even as I look over this I am still dumbfounded by it all. I guess it's true that Illusionism can disband a group but even if it doesn't apply to you as a designer or player on an abstract level it is something to think about. Not only does the design of the game matter, but so does what the players expect or think they should be expecting. If, as a designer of any game and particularly a DM in my case, you don't make sure you are aware of the player's expectations something as trivial as two characters of the same class could cause the entire group to implode in on itself.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Getting into the specifics

One of the biggest things that had been holding me back from making a blog for a long time was the name. Yes, the name of the blog has always seemed an impossibly daunting task to me. It requires one to know what is going to be written long before thoughts or concepts of the to be written material ever existed. In this respect, the name for a blog would need to be vague. Something that is general enough to allow any random person the possibility of stumbling upon the blog and instantly get an idea of what is discussed on the site. Often it seems people decide to use their name as the blog site name but that, in my opinion, does an even worse job of describing the site to someone looking for a specific topic than a general topic. Lastly it seems there is the option of choosing a more specific topic, as I know some of my future posts will be taking a look at D&D 4th Edition. I could therefore name the site something along those lines. However I also know that not all of my topics will be related to that game. So would I be misinforming someone if I put a blog title of 'D&D 4e Fan' when I don't have every post dedicated to the game? I suppose people could just make a blog for each and every topic they decide to blog about. Someone could also have a main blog site with sub blog (specific titles and topics) linking back to it. I for one, at least at this point in time, don't see the need to go down that path yet. So for now I will just keep the general name of a blog site while writing about various specific topics.

Editorial Note: I have since decided that this blog, as the title might suggest will from now on be related to D&D 4th edition since it invariably ends up taking so much of my time.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Setting the ground work for what makes a great game

At an abstract level a game is merely a situation that involves actors that have a set of rules imposed on them. Generally the rules apply across the board to the actor(s). Games also usually present some sort of objective or state in which a particular actor may win either against the game as an abstract entity or against other actors. In following the objectives of the game and adhering to the rules an element of challenge is presented to the actor and thus makes the game fun. The level of challenge is a delicate one however because something too simple or too difficult can quickly lose that element of fun for any given actor.
To keep this short and maybe even make a point, what really makes a great game is an ideal balance of challenge. This ideal amount presents the actor with a challenge that tests their skill but isn't immediately impossible for them to accomplish. Many games use an iterative cycle of increasingly difficult challenges, also known as levels to allow actors to rise to their own level of competence within the game. Once there, the actor much put a good deal of effort into what ever skill they may rely upon in the game to advance further.