Part of an Answer

Looking for a summer job has trumped writing the last few days and I haven’t had time to properly write up my 4E posts. I will get back to them in the next few days. Until then, I want to address — at least partially — the question posed by Kodak and Callyn in the comments to my previous post.

It does bear pointing out at this point, my reasoning here also involves, mostly, situations where you are not playing with a long-term group that is comfortable with one another or good friends. I’m thinking mostly of groups that are either organized play, at game stores, or even a group where you play together sometimes, but otherwise don’t know each other outside this specific game experience.

When it comes to the idea of not wanting to house rule (or at least, not very much) it comes down to three things. I’ve touched on these before but I’ll attempt to explore them a little better.

The first is the idea of that common language that the players of a game (inclusive of GMs) share. When we talk about D&D 4E and we bring up Goliaths, or Artillery monsters, or Elites, we have a shared knowledge of what those things are and how they work. If I tinker too much with any aspect of the game, then we can’t share that common experience anymore.

More than that though, it has been my experience that if we, as DMs change more than a little of the rules to suit our own campaigns or play-style, it tends to either lead to players not actually pay attention to the changes (especially if the changes are only fluff), and it tends to cause players to have a disconnect with the game experience because the game doesn’t work when they try to play it.

And that sense of player expectation is the second thing. If I make a significant change to the way the game works mechanically it can create confusion for players. They expect the game to work a certain way but are consistently confronted with experiences that don’t match up to expectation. The DMG2 talks about this issue a little bit with it’s suggestions for Alternate Rewards to address the magic item dependency issue. The writers warn DMs of possible player reactions to such a change…

Recently, a summer game that I joined had several very significant changes to the way Action Points work. I was uncomfortable with the ideas, but talking to another player who thought about joining the game, she was put off by the house-ruling and decided not to ask to join because she was worried about the game not being what she expected. That’s just one example, but it’s a recent one that’s helped shape some of these thoughts for me.

Finally, to discuss 4E specifically, the Action Point house rules really put something else into perspective for me. 4E has a very narrow design space, limited by the very tight mechanical balance. Change the interaction of one aspect and it will have unforeseen consequences. These changes alter player expectation as well.

So, that was a lot of words and I’m not sure that it really explained my thinking all that well… or, maybe it made sense. I’ll get to writing about what I’d like to work with in 4E in the next few days, but for now, Comments?


7 responses

  1. Valid points, but they seem to me to add up to “think carefully about what you’re going to alter” as opposed to “never alter anything.” I look back to your issue with “always say yes,” which to me seems to be one of the stupidest things ever put into writing (the rule, not your issue with it). The ability to change the game as it needs to be changed is part and parcel to being a GM – otherwise you’re nothing more than a story idea and a rulebook. And if you’re looking to run something directly out of a module, that may be fine. If you’re looking to connect your creativity with that of the players, though, you have to be free and willing to exercise just that – your creativity. And if that means saying “This new race can’t be archer rangers or seekers because they lack the ability to fire ranged weapons,” then so be it. If it means saying “This race isn’t available in this campaign because of these setting reasons,” so be it. If it means allowing rogues to use ranged combat abilities with a short bow even though the abilities say “crossbow, light blade, or sling,” (and explain to me how it’s more appropriate to fling a short sword than it is to fire a shortbow), then so be it.

    And I’ll go ahead and point out that when I talk about this sort of thing, I’m thinking in terms of campaigns with people that I know. If I’m running a one-shot with strangers at a con or with new players, then I’m less likely to include house rules…but then, I’m not going to run a game set in my homemade setting at a con either.

    As far as major mechanical changes, you just have to be careful. You have to carefully consider a change and be sure that it’s not going to mess up the game too badly. If you implement a change to the way action points work without completely thinking it through because you hate the rules as written so much that you just have to change them, then you kinda deserve to have them fall apart when you actually try to use them…but as a GM you have a responsibility to adapt to that, even if the adaptation is sucking it up and using the written rules until you can come up with something that works and makes you happy. As for GMs that aren’t flexible enough to tweak the rules until they can come up with something that everyone (or most everyone) can be happy with or are too stubborn to accept that their new rules aren’t working and need to be changed, and players that aren’t able to deal with reasonable rule modifications as long as the game continues to work, those two types of people have something important in common: They’re both types of people I don’t particularly want to play with.

  2. I agree with Kodak, I can see your points but I’m not sure they add up to your “almost no house rules to the point you can’t stand the system” stance. The GM is the arbiter of the rules and the setting, if the game you are running doesn’t let a certain race fire a bow or doesn’t include a certain race or class, so be it. Even if it’s something silly, if it doesn’t fit your game don’t allow it. You can work with the player to find something that will fit the game, but players are abundant and if they won’t work with you it’s their loss.

    I do understand that at cons you don’t have enough time to tell your players all the house rules you play with or to fill them in on your campaign setting, but the solution to this is simple. Don’t use your campaign settings or house rules at a con, use a system and setting which you actually like. Otherwise, even a group of strangers who are taking part in a couple of games together have enough time to be filled in on a few simple rule changes. If the house rules amount to a couple of pages of material that is relevant to everyone, you might be going overboard but if they’re that long it’s probably more of a problem with the game you are playing than you houseruling it.

    In conclusion, I say change the game to make it work for you or take it out back and shoot it. RPGs are a hobby, they’re supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, I can’t see why you’re still playing the game. Try something new, go back to an old love, do something else. H’burg has enough gamers for you to find someone to play what you want to play, so go enjoy yourself.

  3. Kodak’s right about not wanting to play with people who can’t change. But thankfully I haven’t run into those people yet. Out of curiosity, have you? You mentioned that someone didn’t want to play in a game this summer because she was afraid that the game wouldn’t work like she wanted it to, but have you ever had someone sit down at your table, hear about your proposed changes, and then flip the table on you?

    Last week, I started another 3.5 game with an incredibly variety of players. I have two players who have never played 3.5, one player who has played a little 3.5 (but not with me), one player who has played a good bit of 3.5 (with me running some of it), two players who are very experienced with 3.5 (and have played in a lot of my games) and one very experienced 3.5 player who has never played with me.

    For this game, I have houseruled 3.5 so much that it’s barely recognizable. Mana-based casting, average HP, 2nd Ed planar traits, 2nd Ed cleric limitations (distance from your god limits your spells), flaws, traits, variant classes out of any book you can find. Particularly, the game takes place in the Abyss, which (with those 2nd Ed. traits) means arcane spellcasters are screwed.

    The game is blatantly not “fair” to all classes or races, and out of this huge gamut of players… no one complains. Sure, a few of them have cursed the Abyss for disrupting their spell casting, and they all want to get out of it, but that’s the campaign goal (escape the Abyss or die).

    So I’m wondering if you are worried about a theoretical problem, or if you have tried this in the past and the players rebelled. It’s never been a problem for me, or any GMs I’ve played with.

    1. Paul,

      To answer your question as easily as possible… yes, I’ve tried this before, and it always (always) fails miserably.

      –Except when I’m playing with a close knit group and in a game that already doesn’t value numbers… such as Amber DRPG.

  4. I think the key points of this post is that there is a big difference about what will go at a table of people you know and game with often, and what will work at a table of near strangers. And I’m not only talking about the con game where you are gaming with people from different states, but also games that are organized at between a set of people who have classes together, but do not necessarily hang out outside of games. Most importantly, you know them, but do not necessarily know their views on gaming. I would consider these people ‘strangers’ for this discussion because unless you have actually spent some time discussing game theory with them, they are unknowns at your gaming table (for the first couple of sessions, at least).

    For house ruling with a group of gamers that you know and love – go for it! If they are game, why not? Right? I do not think that is the case Michael is arguing (please correct me if I’m wrong). However, house ruling the game to the point it’s no longer recognizable does beg the question about why you (general you) are using that system at all? If the rules as written are so broken* that you need to change them to a significant degree, why don’t you try a system that is more in-line to what you want? However, this is a totally separate discussion. And again, if it works for you and your gamers, then it’s all good to me.

    * And by broken, I do not mean it doesn’t mechanically work – I mean that it does not work in the way that you want it to work or that it does not work for your group.

    I do see Michael’s points about in a group of strangers (remember, I’m using the definition above, so this would occur more than just during con’s and random gaming store meet-ups – for some of us, this is how our gaming almost always is), it’s important to come to the table with a common understanding. I have personally declined to participate in games where I did not like the system or the concept of the game, so it’s not a big leap for me to see a person decline to participate in a game with house rules. And it doesn’t even have to be about house ruling in general – it’s possible that a particular house rule does not seem fun to the person declining. Just like it’s the DM’s responsibility to not run a game that he doesn’t believe is fun; the players also have a responsibility to determine what game styles work for them – they should not frustrate themselves either.

    I guess the point is – do whatever works for your players. Unfortunately, for those of us who do have to game with strangers (again, using the definition above), we cannot judge which house rules will work for them when proposing a game. Saying ‘I’m going to run a D&D 4e game’ is different than saying ‘I’m going to run a D&D 4e game with this list of house rules.’ There is a possibility of losing otherwise interested players.

    And, yes, you can just find new players. However, I have found that has been more difficult to do than others have said (perhaps not for some, I have just noticed a lack of gamers in my area). So, in my experience, it’s been easier to run/play in a game with few to no house rules. Of course, that’s just me 🙂 YMMV

    1. I think we’re talking about two different ends of the spectrum here, though. There’s a huge gap between “house ruling the game to the point it’s no longer recognizable” and not being able to add a new race without restricting any class/build access for them because players might ask for a certain combo and the rules say “always say yes.”

      That being said, I do agree that there comes a point when layering on house rule after house rule reaches a level of ridiculousness, when you have to ask yourself if you’re using the system because it works for the game or because the name is important. Of course, I’ve also played in a campaign using a system that was heavily modified, because the original rules were the closest to what the GM wanted, but still not close enough. In that case, he made all of his own rules available to the players well before the start of the campaign, and we were all free to not play if we didn’t like them. I personally had had no experience with the system whatsoever, so I basically learned it his way from the beginning…and loved it.

      In the end, I can only speak for myself as a player and a GM. I’m willing to play in a houseruled game if I feel like it’s going to be a good experience…after all, for me it’s the players that I’m with and the story being told as much as it is the rules. As a GM, I’d rather modify a system like D&D to get something close to it but more to my liking than try to write an entirely new system because I don’t want to fiddle with someone else’s rules. And am kind of in the process of doing so, actually (not that I’m ever getting a chance to run what I want in the next few years). The D&D campaign I was working on was conceived in 3.5, but I like 4e enough to use it…it just requires some changes, particularly in class and race accessibility.

  5. I feel we’ve strayed a little from my original point (and this is my fault, too). But the original point was really more about Homebrew than Houserule…

    Even though the two are related, there is a space between them. I consider saying, “I’m banning the Expertise feats and anything based on/changed by them” a house-rule. Or, if a die rolls off the table, you reroll…

    For Homebrew, I mean things the DM makes up out of whole-cloth for their campaign.

    Some issues are player issues. That is say, in Kodak’s case: the DM made all the material available but only one of the PCs actually read it before coming to the table. This would be mostly an issue with the players not really being very into it.

    On the other hand, my gripe is that the overall design philosophies, the way 4E works and the way the writers/designers/fans talk about the game (the Rhetoric of the game, if you will) is all designed to create a very narrow work-space where a very narrow range of numbers rule everything and DMs are told that they are bad DMs if they say no to players, whether up-front (denying character choices) or in-game (saying no to something during play).

    That last paragraph describes my current issues with 4E as well as I can without writing 15 more posts about the problems. For all the supposed “options” of 4E, I find it very narrow in actual application and I hate the attitude/rhetoric it creates around itself.

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