I love my Underground campaign. Its been one of the best things I have run in some time, and it has done wonders for breaking me out of my slump. The game has been rolling along well, until we came to a small bump in the road…the rules. After some debate, we decided to pull a rules shift, and swap out one set of rules for another.

This is the first of two articles about Rules Shifting. In this article I will talk about the fundamentals of shifting rules under your campaign, and in the followup article I will break down how I migrated Underground over to Fate Core.

Down For The Underground

My Underground game is about two vets, Pete and Reggie, who are trying to clean up the mean streets of Jessup Hill. Pete and Reggie are pretty complex characters, both mentally disturbed, which is par for the setting. The game to date has been very focused on their characters, with lots of dialog and a healthy amount of violence here and there.

Overall the campaign has been rock solid. It has been very immersive, with these complex personalities maneuvering through the story. The only thing that has been a bit off has been the rules. In and of themselves the rules are quite excellent, and pretty relevant 20 years after their publication. As we have been playing, we started to see two issues crop up. The first is that Pete and Reggie are melee characters and have their Strength a bit low for the system. That has limited their effectiveness in combat. The second is that the way we have been running and playing the game has been a lot less about super-powered combat, and a lot more about the complex personalities and relationships of the characters.

After a number of sessions it became clear that the rules were not really enhancing the type of game that we wanted to play. They were not hindering our play style, but we were not able to leverage the rules to make the game more interesting. So after some discussion we decided that while we still wanted to play our Underground campaign, we wanted new rules to use for it. It took no time to decide that the new Fate Core (of which two of us were backers of the Kickstarter) would be perfect.

Can’t You House Rule It Into Compliance?

There are two schools of thought regarding rules and play:

  • One Rules Set to Rule Them All – The belief that any game can be house ruled enough to provide any style of play.
  • Rules Inform Play – The belief that the rules of the game should support and enhance the style of play.

I won’t argue the merits of either, as that is an article unto itself. As for me, I am firmly a believer in the latter. I like my rules to facilitate the kind of game I run. This is likely why I am system promiscuous, as I am always on the lookout for an interesting set of rules to tell different types of stories for campaigns.

Pulling The Tablecloth Out

If you are going to rules shift your game, you need to look at it like pulling a tablecloth out from under a set table. You need to get the rules changed without your campaign coming crashing down in the process. If done well, your campaign will remain mostly intact and your new rules system will be in place. If done poorly, the changing rules will ruin your campaign – either forcing you to back out of the change or topple your campaign.

Rules shifting is not something that should be done on a whim, a little thought and some planning will go a long way to preserve your campaign and make your shift successful. Here are some key things to consider:

Picking The Right Rules

The first, and likely most important thing to consider in rules shifting is to pick the right rules to shift into. My preference is to find a set of rules which support the type of game I am running. What I am looking for are specific rules that are written for the types of sessions I think are going to be in my campaign. For instance, if I wanted to do a game with heavy investigation, I would lean towards a Gumshoe system. Likewise, if I wanted something with high action and wild combats, I would lean towards Savage Worlds.

Figuring Out What Is Important

Either before or at the same time you are shopping for new rules, you should also start to identify what is important in your current campaign and rules; the things that really define the game and campaign. Make a list of these elements, because these are things that you need to make sure are covered either directly in the rules, or via new house rules, when you covert the game.

This process works well when done in collaboration with your gaming group. You either can all make your own lists and compare or you can brainstorm the list as a group activity.

Converting The Campaign

Once you have your rules picked out and a list of the critical elements of the campaign to convert, you need to start mapping the conversion of the game into the new rules. Go through your list of critical elements and make sure that the new rules have a corresponding rule, or take the time to create a house rule to support each element. You want to make sure you have something for all the key elements, otherwise the campaign will be lacking after the conversion.

In addition to all of the critical elements on your list, you also need to consider the impact of the new rules on the following:

  • Characters – do you want to create a conversion path from one system into the next, or just have players make characters up in the new system, based on their old characters?
  • Combat – each game has a specific feel with regards to combat. What changes does the new system introduce? Is it more brutal? Is it more forgiving? How will that effect how you run your sessions?
  • Advancement – How is advancement handled differently in the new game, and how will that effect character progression and the campaign you are running?
  • Currency – What is the currency that underlies the new system. How will that currency work in the framework of the campaign, as well as what will be driving players?

Depending on your group (their experience with the new system, their inclination for rules tinkering, etc), you may want to do a draft conversion and share it out to the group for comments, or if you have a group who likes this kind of thing, work together to go through the conversions.

Test, Test, Test

With all your conversions done, the next best thing to do is to give the rules shifted campaign a test. The best kind of test is a throw-away, one-shot kind of test, where you schedule a game on an off-night and just try out the newly converted campaign to see how it runs, and to make any tweaks to anything that is not working as expected.

If you cannot do a one-shot test, then your first session with the new rules can be structured like a test. Write your first session to highlight different features of the game, and as you are running them watch to see how they perform. After the session collect feedback from the players as well.

Get A Good Hold of the Tablecloth and Pull!

Rules Shifting a Campaign can be tricky, but moving from rules that are not enhancing your campaign to a set of rules that will enhance it can improve the quality and enjoyment of your campaign. It is not an easy process, but with a little up front planning and some thought you can make the shift easy and effective.

In my next article I will break down how I converted Underground over to Fate Core, and how the first game went. As for you all…

Have you ever swapped out the rules mid-campaign? How did the swap work for you? What other parts of the rules do you need to pay attention to during a swap?