Saturday, August 6, 2011

House Rules

Every game has house rules.  It doesn't matter what you're playing or how closely you try to follow the written word, there will always be something, either a variation on a rule or some bit of play-based philosophy, that needs to be talked over between the DM and the players.

So here's mine.  My houserules and philosophy of gameplay.  If you have an issue or question with any of these just let me know; these aren't dictatorial rules, these are things we all need to agree on, and as the GM I thought I'd get the ball rolling by bringing these up now so no one's surprised with what I expect from the games.

Firstly, in Combat:

The DM keeps track of damage.  I've never tried this one before, but after hearing about it I like it a lot.  After all, we're trying to get into the heads of people in dire situations.  The rest of the game tries for a deep level of verisimilitude, but as soon as combat starts all the realism goes out the window and everyone starts number crunching.  Take the following common line from a combat situation:

"I'm down 8 hp so don't heal me yet.  Let him hit me one more time so you don't go over my max hp."

Not very verisimilitudy, is it?  Most people I know would just want the healing.

This rule, however, forces you to stay more in character.  The DM knows the numbers, but gives you the info you'd actually have.  "The ork cuts you deeply in the leg" or "his blade smashes into your armor, knocking the wind out of you but not hurting you too badly" or something like that.  This just helps the game keep that "real" feeling, and I've heard nothing but good things from people who use this rule.  If a healer wants to know who needs his help he can't ask "how many hit points are you missing?" to everyone at the table, he instead makes a heal check to get an idea from the GM about who's doing fine and who needs help, the DC getting easier the more injured someone is.  I like it a lot.

Similarly, all combat tactics should be done in character.  Nothing slows down a combat like spending several minutes debating which combat alignment is the best to capitalize on the situation.  Instead, you can only communicate the way you would on the field, shouting orders to those you can hear you and making quick decisions as the battle unfolds.  There can still be some sort of tactical discussion, but the players can't send too long discussing, or the DM may just have to remind them that, if they don't take their turn soon, the monsters might just get another attack off while the characters pause to discuss.  Obviously the DM shouldn't be mean about this, but the point is to keep things feeling real and to keep the pace up, and nothing kills tension like dragging combat.


Some people get very sticky about XP.  Some like to award people for good roleplay, cool tactics, decisions that reflect a character's personal goals, and other individual behaviors.  Others get into arms with this and say everyone should always get exactly the same xp no matter what actually happened.  To me I've always loved giving individual XP awards because it reflects that character's actual actions, and serves as a fun way to reward someone who did something particularly heroic, fun or in character. That being said, if my players really don't like that system then I propose instead using a point system for rewards.

Players earn extra "points" at the end of a session for RP, teamwork, or whatever they did that really added to the fun of the game.  These points, then, can be traded in to heal damage faster after a fight, improve the quality of random magical items, or to make a "pray to your god" role (basically a role to not die horribly whenever the dice are against you and the fail isn't adding to the story.  Critically failed a simply balance check and just fell to your death over a cliff's edge outside of combat?  That sucks.  Roll the die, maybe there's a branch to break your fall.) I'd rather do the XP system, it's simpler (I still beleive in "pray to your god" rolls without the point system) but if players prefer, we can do it the other way.

Player's power of choice:

Make choices.  I want you to make choices, you want to make choices.  Let's make some in-character choices!

The worst thing I think a player can do is assume they know what the DM wants them to do.  The wise old man arrives with a job for the characters, and since he's obviously the start of a quest the players feel they "have" to talk to him.  Or, even worse, the players decide that because the DM obviously wants them to do the old man's quest, they're instead going to go the opposite way, just because it's what they feel they're "not supposed" to do.  The problem with either action, of course, is that it's not motivated by your character's desires, but instead by yours as a player and your desire to "get on with" or "mess with" the story.

Instead, I propose what I call the "closed sandbox" style of gaming.  Seraphuul is a world that lives and breaths, it moves and it changes with or without your character's input.  World-shattering events are unfolding around  you and people need quests done all the time, but the decisions, ultimately, are all up to you.

Want to take up arms against a tyrannical king who's also your brother and reclaim his rightful throne?  Awesome!  Want to start a simple adventuring company and raid dungeons for fun and profit?  Also awesome!  What's his motivation for adventuring?  What are his long-term goals and what does he want out of life?  Figure out what's driving your character to be in this situation and let's go get it!  Are you only adventuring for the money so you can finally start that underground rum-running company to fuel your attempts to start your own nation, congratulations.  The players now have their own rum-running company and nation.  The world will adjust accordingly.

There is, however, another side to that coin.  If you're really playing your character, then that means there's something he wants, something driving him, some need that isn't, apparently, being filled by a life of chopping wood at the local lumber mill, and I'd like him to show that.  Sometimes, there won't be any old man to give you a new quest, and your characters will have to decide their course of action on their own.  There is a sandbox quality to D&D, and sometimes you have to make your own quests.

Final note about the sandbox quality to the game:  if the quest goals or your personal storyline involves something big, like raiding fortified cities with armies of soldiers, please don't expect there'll be someone there to show you the "secret" way to solve the problem.  Maybe you'll have to do more sidequests to gain allies and abilities, or maybe you'll need to marshal some forces and hire some mercenaries.  This is a sandbox game, so I'd much rather see how you decide to solve the problem on your own.  The world lives and breathes and your character lives and breathes: I'm just there to referee.

And the final points about choice: A game based on combat cannot be fun unless there was a chance of you dying.  A game based on objective can't be fun unless there's a chance of you failing. A story based off of character choice can't be engaging unless there's actual consequences for that character's choices.  I want you to have fun, I want you to have that thrill of striving for your objective and those epic moments when you pluck victory from the jaws of defeat, so I won't be pulling punches or holding back when it comes to combat or reaching your quest objectives.  You can die, you can fail, it's more fun that way.  If you have to run, or if you fail the quest, show me how your character feels, what he thinks, how he's going to react to that, because that is good storytelling, and storytelling is, when all is said and done, the biggest part of the game.  Likewise, if you decide to go on a crime spree or do something like that, don't expect there to not be consequences: you make the choice, you get the effects of that choice, for good or for ill.  The world lives and breathes, and it will respond to your choices, for good or for ill.

That is the Adam Meyers philosophy on roleplaying and the way I'm hoping to approach this game.  If anyone has questions or would like to change something about the way we approach this game just let me know and we can talk about it.

Thanks you all,


  1. Responding in reverse order:

    Sandbox style world

    I totally approve. The success of this approach, however, depends critically on providing the players with reliable, consistent information about the game world. Maps help. A wiki or other reference helps. Of course, players should take responsibility for recording info that they receive; however, it's probably good to help them out with that. Ensuring that info provided about NPCs/cultures/locations/history is consistent is key; unless you have a godlike memory, you'll want to take notes on what info you provide to players and refer to those notes often.

    Also, the world must feel organic. This is related to verisimilitude, but goes a bit further; the players should be able to, and should feel like they're able to, extrapolate from what they see and hear from you. That is, if I am a player and you tell me X, Y, and Z about some nation/NPC/event, I should have some reasonable ability to correctly conclude W about it. For this to be the case, the way the game world works — economically, socially, emotionally, politically, and physically (except where deviations are specifically described, such as magic) — should be similar to the real world. In cases where this isn't so, the workings of the world must nonetheless be fairly clear and intuitive.

    Point system for rewards

    I don't really get how this would work in practice. The main function of XP is advancing a character through levels. How would this point system do that?

    I get the feeling that what you're describing is more similar to action points than to XP. Consider whether you want rewards and advancement to be unified within one system. It's not obvious to me that they should be.

    That said, I am not opposed to action points or a similar mechanic. They can indeed make for interesting rewards.

    To be continued...

  2. Comment, part 2...

    DM keeps track of damage

    As a DM, I am intimately familiar with the problems you describe. Exciting combats devolving into glorified chess games, and math exercises taking the place of in-the-moment tactics, is frustrating.

    I've got some doubts about your solution, however, for several reasons:

    1. More work for the DM.

    If you really think that you can manage keeping track of, what, 4 more changing quantities in combat? More if there are animal companions / summoned monsters / cohorts? Then I suppose I can't begrudge you the extra effort. But this is further complicated when characters start getting abilities that depend on how many HP they have, things such as fast healing and other self-heals, variable temp HP, and many other additional terms in the HP formula. I think this has the potential to get overwhelming. If it starts to distract you from keeping everything else in your head, then it might be worth reconsidering. If not, though — more power to you.

    2. It doesn't quite fit with the HP abstraction.

    I am referring to two distinct but related issues. One: taking hp damage doesn't hamper a D&D character. If the ork cuts me deeply in the leg, my move speed is not reduced. If he knocks the wind out of me, my actions are in no way — in no way — compromised. Describing damage only in this way may be cinematic and exciting, but introduces a fundamental disconnect between what you're describing and the reality of the game.

    The fact is, the HP system is not designed to track the practical effects of getting injured. There are other subsystems in D&D which do this: feats that apply status effects, such as Tiring Critical, Stunning Fist, and a host of others, as well as a myriad of class abilities (rogues have a lot of them).

    Which brings me to the other issue: hit points do not, in standard D&D, directly represent bodily toughness, and taking hit point damage doesn't represent being physically injured — certainly not being physically injured in any significant, disabling way. What HP really represent, when you cut through the fluff, is something much more meta, but that's a discussion for another time; the key thing to recognize is that "I'm down 8 hp" doesn't mean "I've just been stabbed with a sword, oh god, my spleen"; it's more consistently interpreted as something like "His blade grazed me; or bruised me without piercing my armor; or he didn't hit me at all, because I rolled away from the blow, which tired me out a bit; I can't keep doing this indefinitely, but I'm not injured as such." Needing to be healed in such a situation is not inherently more realistic than preferring to keep fighting.

    None of which brings us any closer to solving the original problem of players treating their combat status as an exercise in arithmetic. All I'm saying is that the "players don't know how much damage they're taking" might introduce more problems than it solves. I'd advise you to be very careful with rules that disconnect game mechanics from description. That way lies gamism and (horror of horrors!) 4e.

    Combat tactics should be done in character

    I agree unreservedly with the time limit on deciding what actions you take in combat. I also agree with enforcing in-character tactics, with the caveat that you should probably be prepared to be a bit flexible in those cases where the game mechanics are inherently meta and tricky to describe in non-game terms. In general, though, I'm with you on this one.

    I apologize for the length of this comment. You bring up issues which I think are quite important to the success of a game, and I'm very glad to see that you're considering them, and putting them out for discussion, at the beginning.

  3. damage, world consistency, and communicating hp won't be much of a problem. The damage idea especially I've heard great things about (Penny Arcade endorsed it, and it's been rampant in the DnD world ever since.) For the xp I just meant if people wanted another "rewards" system than giving someone more xp than someone esle (some people do get mad if someone else gets a level before they do.) I wouldn't be getting rid of xp, just finding other ways of saying "what you did was awesome" to a player.

  4. "damage, world consistency, and communicating hp won't be much of a problem."

    I will of course have to take your word for world consistency, but would you mind elaborating on what you mean when you say that the damage/hp issue "won't be much of a problem"?

    Do I interpret your comments correctly by surmising that you haven't had firsthand experience with the "DM keeps track of damage" rule?

  5. I haven't done this rule before, but I always keep track of player hitpoints during combat and include dramatic implications of the damage dealt. The only difference would be I keep the actual enemy damage roll secret, which I may forget once or twice, but I'll trust you guys to remind me, and if it doesn't work for some reason we can always change it.