This entry is part 6 in the series My Biggest Mistakes

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Some mistakes you (hopefully) only make once; the mistakes that I’ve blogged about so far as part of this month’s carnival fall into that category. But some mistakes are bound to recur by their nature, and it is just as important to know how to recover from those. These mistakes might derive from a flawed scenario or campaign preperation regime, or from a recurring failure of imagination in a particular area (E.E.”Doc” Smith used to have trouble writing romance scenes; if these sound like they were written by someone else when you read this classic author’s Space Operas, it’s because they were)!

Or it might be inherant in the nature of house rules, and it is from this last source that I have extracted a pair of examples of a mistake that I have made time and time again, and fully expect to make again in the future.

Removing A House Rule

At first glance, this seems like a simple process. You simply announce, “this isn’t working, I’m scrapping it”. But there are some deeper issues to be pondered. If the rule is being removed because it was broken, giving PCs too much power or xp or whatever, do they lose whatever advantage they had gained from it? Even if their characters had made personal sacrifices to achieve those advantages along the way, acted in ways that the character didn’t like in the short-term in order to gain a long-term advantage? Or, on the other side of the coin, is it right to disadvantage the PCs because the GM, as administrator of the rules, stuffed it up?

I operate on three general rules of thumb:

  • if the players gain an advantage because the GM stuffs up, they get to keep that advantage or some equivalent, though the size of the advantage may be scaled back if it was big enough to break the game;
  • if the players were disadvantaged because the GM stuffs up, they get to keep that disadvantage or some equivalent, though the size might be scaled back if it was system-breaking. However, they will also receive an advantage in compensation;
  • Game history will be retconned as necessary to maintain the overall outcomes, and the changes will be communicated to the players. Where necessary, the players will be consulted in determining what changes need to be made, eg finding alternative reasons for PC choices of action.

This system isn’t perfect. In general, it means that if the GM introduces a broken house rule, the players benefit from it, one way or another. But it keeps the campaign alive, and keeps the players happy – and without the players, there is no campaign.

The Woes Of Piety

The first example derives from my Fantasy campaign, “Fumanor: The Last Deity”. This underwent a very turbulant history – designed for AD&D, adapted to D&D 2nd Ed, A brief flirtation with Rolemaster, and then into D&D 3.0. All of them representing a lot of effort in updating characters, in House Rules, and in adapting the rules to suit both the campaign history and the overall campaign conceptual framework. Along the way, because I’m the creative type, I had rules ideas; some of them worked, and some of them failed to work.

The ones that worked posed no problems, and remain in force to this day; I’ve blogged about them from time to time and will continue to do so for quite a long time to come. The ones that simply didn’t work are a different story.

I had looked at the reputation rules in Hackmaster – which is another system that had been contemplated for the campaign, prior to my players persuading me to go with 2nd Ed D&D – and thought to myself that reputation was a fairly trivial application of a good idea. A better use of the system would be as a means of tracking a character’s piety – characters would accrue points by doing things their deities approved of, and lose points for doing things disapproved of, which could then be redeemed for divine favours like being granted new spells, one-off bonuses to effect levels, etc. Right now, you’re probably thinking the same thing I was – it sounds great, in principle.

In practice, it was a nightmare. Perpetually looking up everything the character did to determine the modifiers to piety took ages; it meant that there was another hit-point-like stat that had to be perpetually tracked, but instead of being the target of just one process at a time, almost everything fed into it, so it slowed gameplay to a crawl. Furthermore, the fundamental premise was broken – when the rules were trialled, one of my players (who excels at finding system weak points and pushing them) asked himself what the effect would be if he found ways of accumulating piety while never redeeming them – then called them all in at once….

The result was an epic deux-ex-machina that was at the PCs beck and call when it really mattered.

Recovering from this mess was fairly easy; the player involved was more concerned with not destroying the campaign than in wringing as much advantage out of the flaw, and in fact it was he who proposed scrapping the system before it did permanent harm to the campaign. I gave him some one-off advantages and a couple of minor magic items that the character had always wanted, and everyone was happy.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

Another thing that I do whenever a house rule gets tossed onto the scrap heap is to look through it to see if there is anything that is worth salvaging, if reconceptualised. In this particular case, the general principle of having some measure of a character’s piety against which they could roll when making requests of the Gods, seperate to their Knowledge of abstruse theological referances, seemed worthwhile. After all, someone can be an expert in the Roman Gods and their mythology without believing in them, never mind being faithful to them. Preists can be both learned in religious doctrine and yet break the tenets of their faith with apalling frequency – witness the number of priests who have been sheltered from charges of pedophilia over the years. One estimate that I have seen puts the number of such clergymen who were active, worldwide, during the 20th century at 100,000…

In this case, I decided that maintaining piety required time that could be spent doing other things, so I made it a skill like any other, improved by funnelling skill points into it. A slight adjustment to the number of skill points awarded – increasing the starting allocation by +1, and conferring +1 skill points for every 2nd level in a theological class – completed the picture. I then simply converted the list of things the character could request to an XP penalty and a DC target – in other words, if the priest took 100xp less from the encounter, and made a Piety check of 16 or better, he could give himself a +1 to hit for the battle. If the fight was with a known enemy of the deity, the xp cost could even be waived. 200xp less, and a spell could gain an additional dice of pious damage, and so on. 500xp per level conferred a 1-off casting of a spell normally beyond the characters level – that’s 500 per spell level higher than they can currently cast. Existing xp costs for certain spells like Miracle gave guidelines for Divine Intervention, and the xp costs prevent abuse of the system. Communities can call for miracles like rain in a draught – take the lowest piety of the group making the request, count up the number of people of greater piety. If there’s 1 higher, add +1; two more, add a second +1; four more than that, add a third +1; and so on, until everyone is counted.

What’s more, it gave a mechanism for the Gods to demand that a cleric pay the piper – each time the player called for Pious Aid of some sort, the god notes the call (even if the answer is no) and eventually comes calling, saying “I’ve done all these things for you – now I want you to do this for me,” which puts the character in a difficult position. He either accepts a potential suicide mission, or at least an extreme inconvenience, or his piety gets knocked down massively.

Ultimately, this version of the piety system does more good than harm in terms of the campaign, and that’s why it’s still in the Fumanor House Rules.

The Woes Of Magic

The Hero system doesn’t do AD&D-style spellcasting any favours. It’s designed for characters who have only a few abilities, not a vast repetoire of spells. Designing a magic subsystem for my superhero game was high on my list of things to do after exhausting most of the possibilities offered in the 4th Ed rules.

I wanted a system where each spell was designed like a formula – plug in values for range, character points of effect, etc, multiply them all together, and what pumped out the end was a cost in “Mana” – effectively a points pool of available magic, similar to Endurance; look that value up on a table and you got the skill roll needed to successfully cast the spell. The virtue of this approach was that if you wanted to double the range, you could double the mana cost, or halve the number of dice of effect, or halve the area of effect, or whatever, and the rest was unchanged – it was universally flexible while remaining balanced.

In theory, it worked brilliantly. In private testing, the few spells I tried out also worked exquisitely well. In practice…

I’m at home working with formulas and mathematics. Others are not, and found the design subsystem for spells to be very difficult to follow, and the casting system for spells to be impossible to use in play. So much so that the first player to try the system ended up as a mage who refused to cast spells – when the ultimate design objective was a system that permitted a mage to use magic casually (Want the coffee from across the room? Cast a spell to fetch it).

And the second player to try the system became obsessed with the penalties for spell failure, which were modelled on the “side effects” rules, to the point where, once again, the character also refused to cast spells.

It needed to be replaced, and so it was, by a system modelled in part on early Elemental Controls, and which is far closer to the standard powers description. It’s actually less flexible and less elegant from my perspective, requiring more work in designing spells; but it makes designing spells and casting spells easier for every player who’s tried it, and they are the final arbiters. If anything, the revised system was too powerful and too flexible, requiring a number of additional tweaks and restrictions on ad-hoc spellcasting to maintain game balance; but these have been minor adjustments; on the whole, the system works. You no longer have the ultimate flexibility of the original system – if you want a different range, or area of effect, you need a new spell design – but overall, it works.

Playability vs Simulation

Every rule is a compromise between the playability of the game and the flexibility and accuracy of the simulation of reality that results. That, quite naturally, means that anyone who writes house rules will, from time to time, trip over the playability line in his quest for a better simulation.

It is my belief that every campaign needs House Rules to improve the fit between the game system and the campaign that is to take place – even if those rules are just documenting the choices in effect amongst the optional rules offered in the official books.

Both the examples offered in this blog post broke the game system, and could have irretrievably damaged the respective campaigns in which they occured. That, too, is part of the risk with House Rules. As always, the secret to success when life hands you a lemon is to make lemonade.

In other words, salvage what you can; ask yourself if you really need a house rule to achieve ‘X’; and, if you do, try again from a different angle that deliberately avoids the weaknesses of the previous approach.

It’s all part of being a GM.

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