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Tinkering with the System

by Paul Mitchener
Jan 20,2005


Methods of Campaign and Adventure Design 7

By Paul Mitchener

Tinkering with the System

I know that last week I promised something about the design of nations and cultures. However, I decided to look at something a little more mechanically oriented since that is the way my mind seems to be working at the moment.

The reason for writing this column is that I find myself making minor, and occasionally major, rules changes to virtually every system that I run. There are several categories of rules change.

Not using every option

This is usually a safe rules change. Many rules systems suggest a large number of different abilities and character types, not all of which have to be used. To give the obvious example, D&D features seven humanoid (but non-human) races, and five different types of magic, each emphasised by a character classs whose primary focus is to use that type of magic. All of these possibilities are suggested as standard options.

However, using all of the above classes and races can risk creating a game world almost identical to every other D&D game world. My personal tendency is to trim the number of classes slightly, and to trim the number of races more drastically. While doing so, it is probably best to check with the players that they are not losing all of their favourite options, especially if the game was sold to them as standard D&D.

To give an example, if I run a new D&D campaign in the near future, I intend to get rid of both wizards and sorcerers, and somewhat restrict the martial abilities of priests. Since priests will be the main magic-using class, they will be in the spotlight, and will not need to be quite so effective in a fight in order to be an interesting character. I have not quite decided what to do about player character races; I suspect that other than human, none of them will be standard, but that is another issue.

Minor extra options

The above suggestion involved removing rules. Another idea is to add rules. Provided these rules are quite minor, their addition should again be fairly safe.

We have already seen one example in these columns, namely a simple advantage and disadvantage system. It might be fun to play with this system further using some ideas discussed in the forum, but I do not wish to get involved in further analysis of the issue in this particular column.

To give another example, many systems have deadly features. This can be a good thing- for instance, in any games that I run where guns are involved, I want them to be pretty lethal. On the other hand, the idea of such threats is to scare the players rather than kill their characters with a single unfortunately dice roll.

The dangerous rules could of course be rewritten. However, an easier solution could be to introduce luck points. Give each character three luck points, which can be used to make a dice roll an automatic success or (for enemies) an automatic failure. Major enemies should also have luck points, so that they cannot be removed with a single lucky shot. Extra luck points can be earned for some set number of experience points.

Replacing subsystems

We now come to more dangerous options. The first option I want to look at is replacing a game's subsystem with something new. To give a minor (and therefore safe) example of this sort of thing, in Call of Cthulhu I replaced the usual skill advancement system by the reward of a set number of percentile points to distribute, depending on the nature of the session and the actions of the characters.

However, at least to me, more significant ideas are quite tempting. To come back to D&D, I would in a way quite like to change combat, making hit points less significant, and to replace the class and levels system by something based purely on skills and feats.

Actually, the combat changes are easy enough to apply, by using Vitality points and Wound points, lower threshholds for the death by massive damage rule, or some similar mechanic. However, getting rid of classes and levels is a drastic change, and almost amounts to writing one's own system. Because of the effort involved, it may be better just to use another system in the first place.

It is possible that a fairly major subsystem (such as magic or combat) does not work in a satisfactory way, but the system is otherwise good. In this case, the subsystem should be heavily modified or replaced. Replacing a subsystem with the corresponding subsystem from another game (where it does work) is probably the easiest option. Some refitting will be necessary, although it is not absolutely necessary for this part of the game to work with exactly the same type of dice rolls as the rest of the game.

Writing a new system

Finally, the system one ends up using could be an entirely new creation, or else something so heavily house-ruled that it may as well be a new system. Such heavy use of house rules can be the result when the GM gets carried away after replacing `faulty' subsystems. For example, at one point last year, I invented a new combat system in Ars Magica 4th edition, and then couldn't stop making adjustments. In the end, basically the only thing I left undisturbed in the whole game was the magic system.

When creating house-rules, it is best to keep the style similar to those of the original system. When writing a completely new system, it is best to keep the mechanics extremely simple. Complicated new mechanics need time to learn and playtesting to eliminate glitches. It is only a very understanding role-playing group that is happy to continuously play-test a GM's systems, and happy with constant rules tweaks between sessions.

To round off this column, let me briefly describe an extremely rules-light system I came up with for running games in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. The Discworld RPG, powered by the GURPS system, is a useful resource to flesh out my system.

d8 Discworld

In d8 Discworld, any character is described by a list of Traits, rated from 1 to 8. A fairly typical character should choose two Traits at level 3, two Traits at level 2, and as many Traits as desired at level 1. More powerful characters should increase the ratings of their main four Traits.

The following Traits are standard; the names are fairly self-descriptive:

Artistic Ability, Athletics, Brawling, Charisma, Connections, Education, Guile, Marksmanship, Medicine, Perception, Performance, Physique, Social Graces, Stealth, Streetwise, Swordsmanship, Tinkering, Wealth, Willpower, Witchcraft, and Wizardry

Further supernatural abilities are possible, and should be added to the Trait list if used in the game.

When in a situation where a Trait is tested, a Trait check should be rolled. This check consists of rolling a number of 8 sided dice equal to the Trait's level. Each die roll of 5,6, 7, or 8 counts as 1 success.

A typical task can be accomplished with just one success. More complicated tasks might need more successes. If a character gains no successes on a skill check, and at least one dice shows a one, the result is an amusing or catastrophic failure. If all of the dice show an 8, the result is absolutely fantastic, succeeding beyond a character's wildest dreams, and possibly causing problems in the process.

Sometimes, two people will be competing in a Trait or in different Traits. Examples of this situation include an archery competition (Marksmanship), or an Assassin's Stealth against a guard's Perception. In this case, any parties concerned should make Trait Checks. The side with the greater number of successes wins, whatever that means in a particular situation.

Combat can also be handled as a competition of Trait checks, with the winner doing damage to the loser's Physique Trait. Magic can be handled similarly; if mental effects are present, the Willpower Trait is used to resist, and can be damaged in a magical duel, for example in a staring match between two witches.

Wrapping Up

Next column I really do want to look at how to design nations and cultures within RPGs. However, as usual, let me know if you have any better ideas for a column.

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