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Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

Never Let the Rules Win

by Mike Martinez
Nov 04,2003


Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

By Mike Martinez

Never Let the Rules Win

"You can't do that."

The year is, oh...1984...ish? I'm a delightfully precocious 12-year-old (it wore off at puberty), and I'm playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. My character is a fighter, if I remember correctly, and my party and I are at this door. On the other side of the door is a room full of beasties of some sort. Our magic-user is out of really good offensive spells and we need a way to gain surprise and get rid of a number of beasties at once. So, I get this idea. Given a freshly acquired Belt of Giant Strength (or Gauntlets of Ogre Power or Jockstrap of Uber-tightness or whatever it was), I figure my fighter can rip the iron-banded oak door off its hinges and throw it - hard - into the room to soften it up a bit. Excellent idea!

"You can't do that." That's Keith, my DM speaking, shaking his head.

"Why not?" I protest.

"Where in here does it say you can do that?" Keith says, pointing to the Dungeon Master's Guide.

I flipped through every book I could find. Nothing. And Keith wasn't having it. So we just barge in and start hacking. My fighter nearly died, and two other characters actually bit it. Needless to say, that stuck in my craw, to the point where I can remember it nearly 20 years later. Though I still can't remember if they were kobolds or ogres or rabid badgers in that room.

An example of bad gamemastering? Hell, yeah. But if you go back to your first edition rules, there's nothing in there that says you can wing it. I think that Mr. Gygax and Co. felt that we could figure that out on our own. Ooops.

The funny thing is, we as gamers carry that kind of baggage with us when we go to write games. I've read a lot of games over the years, and I've participated in the writers' and publishers' forums on various sites. I've seen people reject some really good ideas because it didn't fit into their rules systems. They were too enamored of a really nifty mechanic to realize that the rules were there to support the story...not vice versa. They let the rules get in the way of the story.

So today I'm going to talk rules. When I first mentioned that I was going to develop my game, Spacebuckler, for the d20 System, I actually caught a little crap for that. Not much, mind you, but I do remember one person saying I should re-title this column "Musings of a Would-Be d20 Developer," because if someone else was doing the rules, I really wasn't developing a game. Others were quick to disparage any game that used the d20 rules. I've even had one person send me an e-mail to say that while he really, really liked what he's seen so far of the setting (from this column and the tidbits on our Web site), he would not be buying the game because it was d20.

Holy crap, people. I thought we were imaginative. I thought we were willing to think outside the box and accept things without prejudice. I thought we could bend and shape the rules to our liking.

I mean, hell...I thought we were gamers.

Rules Do Not a Game Make

Now, I will be the first to say that the d20 System has its share of problems. When I started writing this game, I'd have chosen White Wolf's system in a heartbeat if it were available to me. However, given that the Wolf is willing to go after ultramegacorporation Sony for copyright infringement, I wasn't going to tempt their lawyers with my little game about pirates in space.

As I explained a few columns ago, there were a lot of reasons why I chose to go with d20, the biggest of which was business-driven. I want to sell this game, and d20 games are the best selling indie games out there. However, let it be known that I wouldn't be publishing Spacebuckler under the d20 System if I didn't think the system would work....at least, not without some help.

See, what many people seem to forget is that the d20 System is issued under the Open Game License (OGL). That means, as a writer, I can take those rules and twist them into a balloon animal if I so choose. The core mechanics are sound and, after much wandering in the woods, finally make sense post-3rd edition. Yet some folks told me I could never have a swashbuckling game really shine in the d20 System.

Oh, yeah? Let's see. Classes and races...nope and nope. I kept two basic classes - the fighter (renamed the soldier) and the rogue - and tossed the rest. I created seven others to take their place: the alchemist, doctor, clergyman, trader, aristocrat, sailor and explorer. I have two major alien races in the game, and for now, neither will be available as NPCs. That's what supplements are for. Instead, I took the four extra skill points for being human and tied them to nationality, so that characters with a common background would likely share common skills.

What else? Armor class? Nobody wore armor in the 1780s (except for a few heavy infantry), so I needed something different. Hello, d20 Modern System Resource Document, also under the OGL, and hello Defense...and Reputation, while I was there. Much better. Alignment? Dropped like a hot potato. Skills and feats? Some stayed, some left, and some new ones were added. 'Cause I can do that. There were a few skills where I didn't like the mechanics. I changed 'em. The kewl powers? I think most D&D players will find some similarities, but alchemy and miracles go a long way toward embracing the feel of the game, and are a much better fit in Spacebuckler than bearded men with pointy hats hurling fireballs at people.

Yes, You Can Role-Play in d20

And finally, I wanted a mechanic that would both reward and enable players in their swashbuckling endeavors. After all, they're heroes, dammit, and they should act like heroes. Thus, I created Style Points. Each character chooses from one of five personal Styles. This Style is a little like alignment, in that it informs the character's outlook on the world, but also borrows a bit from White Wolf's nature and demeanor mechanic, and perhaps a dollop of the Essence idea from Mage: The Ascension. When a character does something heroic and done within the character's Style, the character gets a Style Point (plus one Style Point per level of advancement). This rewards characters for good roleplaying, while ensuring that not every character will be swinging from chandeliers or fencing while balanced on the ship's wheel. Indeed, only one of the five Styles is akin to the traditional swashbuckler.

Characters can then use Style Points to boost their abilities or save their hides in particularly dramatic situations. Doing something heroic builds confidence, and confidence lets you do extraordinary things. It's a positive feedback loop, captured in a fairly simple little mechanic that not only gives player characters an edge, but also encourages actual, honest-to-God roleplaying.

As you can tell, I'm proud of Style Points. And I did it within the d20 System.

As it stands, the d20 System really doesn't allow for anything other than standard fantasy fare. However, if you really work at it, the d20 System can be pretty much anything you want it to be. Any set of RPG rules are there to figure out who did what. They shouldn't impart any particular flavor to a game unless you want them to.

I realize that this probably sounds like a pro-d20 rant, but really, my point is broader than that. Spacebuckler could work under any system on the planet - d20, GURPS, White Wolf's Storyteller System, the Action! System, the old Chaosium system or anything else. I respect the folks who create actual game systems. I can't balance my checkbook, let alone develop the mathematics necessary to form the basis of a probability-based resolution system for a role-playing game. But if you're a good-enough writer and storyteller, then you can match any setting to nearly any rules system.

Granted, a very light rules system is better for a game emphasizing interpersonal relationships and role-playing, while a heavy system is better for a hack-and-slash fest. But that doesn't mean you couldn't do D&D in the Storyteller System or play Vampire using GURPS. (Yeah, I know...Steve Jackson did it already. And Exalted...kinda proves my point, no?)

So, when all is said and done, my advice is this: Choose your rules. Apply them to the game. But if you can, don't be afraid to play around with them, change them, do away with parts, emphasize other parts, and generally deconstruct the whole shebang if you want.

The story's the thing, ladies and gentlemen. Let the rules help tell the story. And if you don't like the rules, change them...especially if your other option would be to toss out a perfectly good game because you don't like someone's math.

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