When I am not writing here, I am the co-host of the Misdirected Mark podcast. On our last episode, my co-host challenged me to do a segment talking about how encumbrance is an interesting mechanic. I laughed, because I don’t think I have ever used encumbrance in any of my D&D campaigns. Then I thought about it, and took him up on the challenge. As I thought more about encumbrance, I came to realize that there are a number of interesting game play decisions around it. By the end of the segment I had a much greater respect for the rule, and it made me think about other rules I think were bad or boring, that might have more to them. (Go and take a listen to the episode to hear my thoughts on encumbrance.)
I Hated Cheese For 15 Years
When I was a toddler I loved cheese, and then one day around age 5 I stopped liking cheese, for reasons I do not recall. For 15 years, I avoided cheese in anything I ate. Then while in college at the age of 20 I had a cheeseburger, and from that point on I liked cheese again. What does this have to do with gaming?
Well, many of our preferences for rules, GMing style, and setting come from our early days of gaming. We tend to carry those preferences through our gaming lives. So if we take a dislike to a rule in our formative gaming years, it tends to stay with us. This was true for my dislike of encumbrance. The problem is that during those formative gaming years, we do not have the best understanding of what is going on in the game. So flat out dismissal of a rule is dangerous, because we may not understand what the rule is doing or why it’s part of the game.
In the same way that I returned to cheese after having a cheeseburger (seriously, what was I thinking?), the same may be true with rules that we thought were stupid back when we were learning to play. Those rules could be their own kind of cheeseburger.
Rules Inform Play
The rules of the game tell you as much about how the game should be played, possibly more so, than the setting. Good game designers include rules in their games to create a certain experience during play. The combination of all those rules and the ways they interact help to enforce a certain type of play, when followed.
For example: in a game I am developing, The Fate of Elhal, the game is about heroic battles and special combat styles. One of the rules I created is call Momentum dice, which allows a player to build up to and then execute a special move during combat. That special move helps to enforce the feeling of those special combat styles.
There is a piece of advice in many RPG’s which states, if you are not enjoying a rule, drop it. It sounds so simple: “just don’t use it”. But that statement is misleading. Here’s how that advice should be given: If you don’t like a rule in the game, drop it, but beware of consequences for doing so. In pharmaceuticals this is called off-label use, which the drug company is very clear means that other things can happen if you don’t use the drug as it was prescribed.
Most rules in an RPG are either linked together or dependent on one another. So when you drop a rule, other rules are affected. Those effects can change the way the game plays at the table, and sometimes create more problems than just keeping the offending rule in the first place.
Quick example: I use to be pretty stingy about magic items in my D&D 3.0 game. I never gave them out, because I like low-fantasy more than the high-fantasy which D&D is designed to provide in play. Keeping magic weapons out of the players hands was fine until they encountered monsters with Damage Resistance, and nearly got killed. It was not until I was in a seminar held by WotC that they explained that they assume that at certain levels, characters have certain magical items and their associated bonuses. So by removing magic items from my game, it made using the published monsters and other materials more difficult.
Dislike Should Lead To Discovery
When we encounter a rule we don’t like, rather than just dismissing the rule I think we should look deeper, and figure out why the rule is in the game, and how it contributes to the experience the game is trying to create.
Sometimes we can figure that out ourselves by just thinking about what the rule does, the decisions which center around the rule, etc. If you cannot find the answers there, you can post the question out on social media, and see if the community can assist. Finally, you can often just find the developer online and ask. Most game designers are easy to approach, and will be happy to explain what their game is supposed to be doing.
The Chiltons Manual
Soapbox time. This is something I want from other games, and something I am vowing to do as I design The Fate of Elhal. I want a supplement to come with my game, a separate PDF (it does not need to be a print book) that explains to me how the mechanics of the game work, their dependencies, and what play experience they are suppose to create. In that same book, I want tips on hacking the game, or things to consider if I want to remove a rule.
I would buy this book for every game I had, so that when I encountered a rule I did not like, I could understand why it was there, what its intended purpose was, and what the consequences are if I want to ignore it.
Conclusion and Questions
Everyone has rules they like and do not like. Sometimes we drop a rule when we don’t like it, and other times we just switch games to find a game that does it more the way we enjoy. Rules are included for a reason, and not always a reason that the designer shares with us overtly. Before you get ready to drop a rule or dump a game, take a closer look at what the rule is doing, and see if it matches up with your own expectations for the game. Once informed, you can then make a better decision about removing it or switching games.
What rules in RPG’s annoy you and what have you done about them? Are there any rules you disliked as an early gamer, that you have embraced lately?