Sunday, October 20, 2013

R.A.W. vs. House Ruled (or why I tinker with D&D)

When I started writing a post about Clerics and Holy Sites (which will be up some time next week...), I got a bit sidetracked in thinking about how people change rules and how topics like Saves or different approaches to classes or weapons, etc. never get old. Every topic in the OSR seems to resurface every now and then, gets discussed, resulting in some people finding solutions for themselves (and others) and then the topic is done for some time. I kept writing, then the Troll Questions came along and I finally decided to make a post of it's own about it.

Some general thoughts first. How house rules are presented or where the different parts that make a game work are tackled will go in four directions:

1) A reinterpretation of the rules.
2) Some setting specific changes.
3) A house rule that changes the system.
4) A new subsystem (or group of subsystems) to add to the rules.

Or a combination of those four, of course.

Although completely different in their approaches, they all could produce viable results and help an individual iteration of The Game. When I'm thinking about variations or additions to the existing rules set., my approach is aiming for a set of subsystems close to the rules (most of the time, anyway). I'm not trying to invent the wheel here, but I recently had a hard time explaining what exactly that means and I want to be clear about this in the future, mainly because it should explain what I'm trying to achieve when I'm writing about house rules. Here's my thinking:

Changing rules without loosing compatibility to the source

So this is a small attempt to explain how I try to design the rules I write*. The main goal is always that a rule doesn't interfere with the original rules. That's quite easy, because the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (my system of choice) leaves a lot of free room to maneuver and I believe that's on purpose (and true for most or all rpgs out there). D&D was never intended to be a "finished" set of rules. It's more like a proposal.

Of course one could go all Tékumel on the system and change most of it to leave but a small trace of resemblance. It sure is one way to make a system your own. But only if you change the Game within the rules, you can keep all the sweet tropes D&D is famous for and still customize it to your needs. Basically I'm saying, it's okay to change it as long as the source keeps holding valuable and translatable data for your game (in an ideal case, this would also mean every edition) and still sounds like D&D.

Most changes someone will do within the Game would be on the surface, cosmetic even. Maybe another option for the players, some sort of restriction on a spell or a few setting-specific changes on the rules, stuff like that. And, if done right, it gets the job done well.

So you keep all them levels and saves and fireballs and hit points and AC and all the other terms we associate with D&D and make your changes in the natural space that occurs in every system: the mechanics that lead to those results. In the end, if the AC is descending or ascending is totally indifferent to how the game is perceived when playing it. The decision to choose either way of handling it (or find a new one), is most of all a matter of taste.
D&D is like an engine: as long as the parts fulfill the same function,
you may change and alter them for an individual performance...[source]

To fill in the blanks

It's a trip down the rabbit hole to look for those blank spaces between the rules and the deeper you go, the deeper the understanding of the original rules needs to be. But it's not something a DM should be afraid about.

It is an ongoing process with several construction sites, but the more one gets acquainted to a game system, the more blanks will be found. Sometimes those blanks are filled with something as easy as a random table (but even there is room for further development), but more often than not it needs a decision where a DM wants to go with his game. And this is where a DM has to tinker. It's a natural occurrence.

So what I try to do is going as deep as possible and add subsystems at a layer where a change could have broad implications without changing or while using the output given by the Game. The idea is mostly to produce fringe and transfer benefits with the change that apply in general and will result in the solution to what I believe to be a problem or a blank space in the system.

One of my attempts to do this was with armor class (Part 1Part 2). It doesn't impact the data given in the game "as written", but adds to it and gives the DM the freedom to describe his NPCs the way he likes, while building an AC in the process (even when just showing random pictures, the numbers and the visuals correlate). And it encourages looting. There you go, a (easy) subsystem giving the rules some depth without changing them, while adding fringe and transfer benefits for the players and the DM.

There is nothing wrong with playing it R.A.W., but...

When I write about my house rules, I'm not saying I'm fixing the game for everyone and for good. That'd be foolish (to say the least). It's merely a proposal how the game could be tinkered with and where I think those blanks might be, but I'm still talking about the same system.

It's like those guys that take an antique car to restore it. They take the engines apart and put them together again, often enough altering it for a "better" performance while doing so. There are different opinions about how to do this, of course. But when they talk to other car enthusiasts, they talk the same language and about the same topics. Their general understanding of the hobby allows them to acknowledge and evaluate different solutions to the same problems, while being fully aware of the fact that it is totally possible to drive the car in it's original form.

This is how I've always seen the OSR, this is how I interpreted the Top Ten Troll Questions. It's like an exhibition of altered game systems, just like they do with antique cars. And I'm as much interested in showing my versions as I am in seeing what others did with it. So why make more of it than a friendly and creative exchange of opinions and ideas? When all is said and done, we're all playing the same game.

And now back to the cleric...

*Needless to say, but here it is anyway: I'm not a professional, I'm a hobby enthusiast. Those ideas are just that, I've no claim for an absolute truth and they will change with time. I still hope they have some merit, though. But there is a lot to discover and I constantly get the feeling that I'm just at the beginning...

1 comment:

  1. I like your way of doing things I think it's best if you like your system to add in small subsystems that enhance the game without trampling over it. It sounds like an easy task but anyone with experience will know that even the smallest rules interactions (unexpected or not) can lead to hiccups down the road.

    That said I'm currently going all Tekumel on my own system so I'm not setting a good example.