Wednesday, February 3, 2021

... And What to Do When You Have Found It.

This is a follow-up to my previous article on learning systems in order to build the game experience that you are looking for. And I begin with a quote from one of the most seminal editions of Dungeons & Dragons:

"The D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions. No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination. The important thing is to enjoy the adventure."

—Tom Moldvay, The Dungeons & Dragons
Fantasy Adventure Game Basic Rulebook

And a counterpoint:

"Because D&D allowed such freedom, because the work itself said so, because the initial batch of DMs were so imaginative and creative, because the rules wre incomplete, vague and often ambiguous, D&D has turned into a non-game. That is, there is so much variation between the way the game is played from region to region, state to state, area to area, and even from group to group within a metropolitan district, there is no continuity and little agreement as to just what the game is and how best to play it. Without destroying the imagination and individual creativity which go into a campaign, AD&D rectifies the shortcomings of D&D. There are few grey areas in AD&D, and there will be no question in the mind of participants as to what the game is and is all about. There is form and structure to AD&D, and any variation of these integral portions of the game will obviously make it something else."

—E. Gary Gygax, Dragon Magazine, Issue #26

There is a tension that has always been with TTRPGs between creating rules that can be studied, exploited, and mastered, and the need to keep rules light and flexible to facilitate narrative play. The whole point of introducing a referee to wargames in Stratego was to prevent the rules of the game from constraining the Player's strategic imagination, while still having more structure and challenge than a Freikriegspiel.

Image by Mikutano from Pixabay 
Without rules, a roleplaying game can feel arbitrary and unfair. The referee needs to have reasonable constraints. Having rules to interpret, rather than just a story to tell helps position the referee as an arbiter, rather than an adversary. With too many rules, a game can become dull and unimaginative. It rewards rule mastery and character builds over clever, immersive play.

Roleplaying Games walk a delicate balance between being a game and being a narrative exercise. Too much focus on one at the expense of another can break the immersion that makes the game enjoyable, or stray off into the land of "let's pretend" without challenges.

What's more, different experiences and playstyles require different banlaces between rules and narrative fiat to work well. A Star Wars-esque space opera with tense and pitched space battles will need far more crunch than a Deathstalker-inspired sword-and-planet adventure, which in turn is going to require a different mix of rules than a sleazy Lexx-inspired science fiction Noir tale. (for reference I would start with Star Adventurer, Machinations of the Space Princess, and Alpha Blue for those, respectively.)

And, of course, the genre and playstyle itself will be dependent on the group and their tastes. It is a mix of Art and Alchemy to create the best possible TTRPG experience. 

This is why it can be so valuable to study multiple role-playing game systems and rule-sets. It gives you a chance to have a menu of options to let you choose a game as the grounding for the kind of adventure you want to have. 

The disagreement between Moldvay and Gygax above is examples of the extremes of this tension. And neither are completely correct or incorrect. Although, personally, I lean towards Moldvay's perspective. The idea that the game developer needs to create a completely unambiguous  and controlled experience, or as Gygax once put it:

"... a game was needed that would have more control over its audience, and one that was not so open-ended and one that was going to have more uniformity of play," (Polyhedron Magazine Issue #1)

fails to understand the core appeal of Dungeons & Dragons and its antecedents 

Role players, by in large, don't want their experience constrained to a particular setting, story, or structure. It is the liberty to make any virtual reality we wish, and then visit it through shared narration and the mind's eye that makes a TTRPG such an appealing experience to a majority it's players.

But Moldvay fails to express any Confession to the fact that the rules and structure the game do have value. Most of the design choices in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that players are quick to throw out the door, like low hit points, randomly generating your character, offering XP for treasure, wandering monsters, and random tables are there to create a very carefully constructed experience. AD&D, played RAW is a very cleverly tailored experience that provides a satisfying intellectual challenge to the players. Rules, put there for a considered reason, have the potential to make the experience richer,  more satsfying, and smoother. More importantly it does make that critical room for fairness and a collaborative mindset that can disappear when rules are selected - or discarded - without consideration.

The Middle Way here is to regard the rules as the framework on which you are going to build your VR experience. For the best experience, choosing the right framework is a must. Well-chosen rules will serve to make the adventure more enjoyable, more immersive, and facilitate good pacing.

And this means that no rule is unassailable. If it does not serve your experience, it ought to be tweaked and modified until you have a replacement rule that does serve your purpose.  Or, in other words:

For the best TTRPG Experience, you need to carefully select a rule system that is complimentary to the game that you want to play, and then hack that rules system until it runs the way you want it to.

"I may have no clue what I'm doing, but I feel
confident I can wrench this thing into shape."
-Mirdon the Mad Magus; Image created with
Hero Forge, used in accordance w/ their EULA

This is not as hard as it sounds.

If you have been building up knowledge of even a few systems that interest you, you can generally look at what you want from one game system, and figure out how to import it into another.

Here's a good example.

In a long-running Index Card RPG Core 2e campaign, my PCs and the army they had mustered discovered a massive war camp that the cannibal tribe that had been terrorizing the region had built in a box canyon. Most of its inhabitants were off raiding, and so the camp had a minimal group of sentries, mostly there to keep captives in line. Once they took out the sentries, My PCs wanted to crush the returning warband with an ambush.

I could have handed them a map, a detailed list of troops, and what intelligence they had, and let them design the ambush through an hour or two of tactical planning. But it would have killed the pacing of the game. The experience I wanted here would not be served by that kind of session.

Instead, I'd remembered that Blades in the Dark had a system built into its engine for making legwork, sabotage, and planning before a heist play out while the heist was in media res using flashbacks. Characters had a pool of flashback activities, and during play they could spend some of those points to describe how they already had prepared for the eventuality that is in front of them. They would then switch to a short flashback. Failed rolls during the flashback, or overusing it could lead to present-moment consequences.

Because ICRPG is such a flexible system, it was pretty easy for me to make a system for ICRPG that imitated Blades in the Dark's flashback system, only instead of being gangs of thieves, the PCs were commanders of a military force. 

I intend to go through the process of creating this "hack" in step-by-step detail later this month (following my pending review of Blades in the Dark.)

This was not the play experience ICRPG was designed to provide, but it was the one that I wanted, and because I see rules as things to be stolen from one place and grafted elsewhere when needed, it was easy to give my players what they were looking for.

It is important to remember that the System isn't sacrosanct.

It is meant to give you the tools for building that VR experience. Playing it RAW is only valuable insofar as it gives you the experience that the designers envisioned. If your group's vision deviates from the developers', then you are better served by taking that system and modifying it. No one cares if you are using the Shadowrun 4e hacking system in the way that the guys at Catalyst imagined, but your fellow players care if the hacking in your game feels right, plausible, and makes your cyber-fantasy game experience fun, engaging and fair.

I have foundd it is really helpful to keep a journal of the games you have read or tried, and keep note of what were the best, most interesting parts of the system, and what really didn't work for you. As well as what kind of stories you are most inspired to play when you think of that system.

By the end of the month, I hope to share a few samples of that journal here as a living, and often updated page for those looking for ideas about which systems to try, and what mechanics they might like to take a look at,

This is, in my opinion, where the OSR shines the brightest. Most of the contributors to the OSR community have a strong working knowledge of TSR-era Dungeons & Dragons which is a reasonably flexible system to which a lot can be added or subtracted without breaking the game, and they use that knowledge to make and share their own hacks, custom rules, or adjustments to work across multiple genres or kinds of experience. Many of them are designed either to work with a specific genre, or to serve as a catalogue of "hacks" that you can use or discard as you please.

Some even amaze by writing a totally new game that uses different mechanics, but can still use D&D monster stat blocks and monsters without any serous conversion work, such as Dungeon Bright or Knave.

Special thanks: James Maliszewski at Grognardia for making it easy to find the Gygax quotesused here thanks to these articles:


  1. So many good points in this blog post! I agree with pretty much everything you said.

    1. Thanks, Venger! Your work, especially with the Crimson Dragon Slayer and VSd6 engines is going to figure into this series a fair amount later on!

  2. To your point, the flashback concept comes from the game _Leverage_. Some of the designers for _Leverage_ did some work for Evil Hat so I'm guessing there was cross pollination there.

    1. Many thanks! That is one of the odd things about RPG design. once you get out of the 70s it becomes damned hard to find the origin point of a lot of mechanics.

  3. Please tell us more about the flashback mechanic and how it worked. Inquiring minds want to know!!

    1. My next article is going to be a "Rule Hacking 101" article. After that, I want to write a review od Blades in the Dark in order to discuss the mechanic. Then I will be using the flashback rule as a highly detailed example of a rule hack.