Monday, June 9, 2014

Homebrews, Hacks, and House Rules: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 29

In this episode of Play on Target we talk generally about homebrews, hacks, and house rules. In our group we've been playing primarily with a homebrew system since '01. But even before that we made pretty drastic changes to the way Rolemaster and GURPS operated. We'd played enough by the baseline rules we felt comfortable with those changes. I do wonder in this age of chunky rulebooks- Champions 6, Legendary, Iron Kingdoms, and Shadowrun 5 for example- how much actual play fully adheres to the rules. And that's not a question of option systems. How much are we dropping, streamlining, and cutting in an effort to make the play work at the table. Is that house ruling? Or is it something else? 

As I mentioned last week in my supers post, players can read elements vastly differently. In that case some saw Hero Points as a resource to be called on to represent their determination and effort. But another player saw them as purely dramatic- only for the most extreme situations and representing a turning point in the scene. That gap has consequences for play: especially when a GM has one vision and the players have another.

If you’re going to modify a system or create one from scratch: consider what that system will look like to the players. What parts will they come into contact with? What kinds of outputs will they see from the rules? It’s frustrating if players find themselves getting pummeled or feel helpless, but aren’t sure why or what kind of build would fix that. Building fancy systems for social combat, organization development, or weapon-crafting suggest to the players that will be important. So they probably ought to be. On a more granular level, think about all the steps a player will have to go through with a standard resolution in this system. They’re going to make contact with that, with combat, and with damage more than any other elements. If those gears grind, you’re going create frustration.

Also consider that the first contact players will probably have with the system is in character creation. You might have decided to front-load complexity there, knowing that the actual play will be simple. But that first process may put the players off. Once a player gets frustrated with some process in the game, they’re more likely to sense problems later on. Think about how you make that entry process smooth and/or allow some later editing and redaction.

I’m always a little frightened to run games online. I know that my version of the rules can be quite different from another player’s. Some of that can come from different house rules I’ve come to take for granted. But other times it can come from divergent readings of the rules themselves. I played an embarrassing Rolemaster session at a convention once. We’d been playing for years and I thought I had a grasp on things. But the con GM had another version of the rules in his head, which also seemed to hold to the books. Like the Copenhagen vs. Bohm Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

Little changes and difference in approach can have a major impact.I mentioned before that GUMSHOE explicitly presents a system where you don’t tell players the difficulty of their check before they roll and spend points. Offering that info to the players before they roll changes the feel of the game. And honestly when I read through GUMSHOE the first time I didn’t even notice that rule. I just assumed it worked like other games I played. It took being called out on that to realize. Add actual house rules into the mix and you create another layer of complication to inter-gamer communication.

In the late 1990’s, we were playing a lot of GURPS. I’d just finished three parallel multi-year fantasy campaigns using the system- plus assorted one shots. I still liked it, but as with most GMs I also believed I could do better. And this wouldn’t just be a few tweaks, as I’d done before. Instead I’d work things from the ground up stealing what I liked from GURPS, Rolemaster, AD&D, and Basic Role-Playing. I rolled out my massive opus, called trinity, and ran two parallel campaigns with it. One of them died from player troubles, but the other rolled on for a couple of years. It rolled on not from the strength of the rules, but rather the dynamic of the players and their willingness to play through the story and ignore the awful, bastard system I’d come up with. Each week I had to tune and tweak, and eventually simply cut more and more crap out of the game. The system never worked- but the campaign was fun in spite of that. That’s why when people say “system matters/doesn’t matter” I have a mixed reaction…I know the game would have been better if we hadn’t wrestled rules every week, yet we made it through.

For the longest time my habit was to see a problem and create a sub-system to handle it. New techniques, new mechanics, new ways of handling things. In practice, in actual play most of these things never survived. They saw one or two uses before my impatience at the table made me retool or cut them entirely. My revelatory moment came when talking about how I wanted to handle and upcoming campaign, how I’d build all of the architecture onto the homebrew system and add new elements. And my wife asked “Why?”—and I had an answer, a vague one. But she kept asking why? She made me look at how the games had run, at the wreckage of the systems, and made me define design goals. I still make mistakes now- I over did it with the L5R hack I wrote up. I didn’t need the complex suite of advantages/disads/ancestors I put together. But generally I approach rules elements trying to figure out what I really want, at core- rather than a “this would be cool…” approach. YRMV.

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