Home Brewing and House Rules.

home-brewing

One of the great aspects of any Role Playing Game System is that while the designers go to great lengths to create a wealth of material and game mechanics for us to use, none of it is set in stone. The forum posts I see where some Dungeon Master complains about this rule or that rule make me cringe, and the battle over which edition is best is just as agitating.

Before I go any further I want to make a point. While the mechanics are called “RULES” this term should be taken lightly and with a huge pinch of salt. I prefer not to even call them rules. The term “rule” implies that it is set in stone and must be followed or obeyed. This is far from the truth with any Role Playing Game system. Instead think of them as nothing more than game mechanics that are at your disposal to help facilitate the running of the game, and the telling of the story. Once you do this, you can see more clearly that any of these mechanics are open to change or modification by you the Game Master.

In truth any Game Master (with experience) worth his salt will have altered and modified the game mechanics to suit his own brand of story telling or game in some way. This article is going to address this and both give some advice and make some observations.

Each Game Master will (over time) develop his own style. This style will reflect how he runs the game, and the way in which he tells the story. The Game system that you use is the frame work on which your story will be built, and the mechanics are the tools you will use to create the outcome of events. This article applies to any Role Playing Game but for the sake of simplicity I will relate it to Dungeons and Dragons.

So lets look at Dungeons and Dragons as a game. It first come to light in January 1974 with a three booklet set. in 1977 it was divided into Basic and Advanced rules sets. In 1989 the second edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was released, and brought with it many more options for players. In 2000 we saw the third edition come to light (under the new ownership of Wizards of the Coast), and shortly after (in 2003) was the revised three point five edition. Third edition changed much of the mechanical system that had for the most part remained fairly similar for the past twenty plus years. The year 2007 brought us fourth edition and almost simultaneously pathfinder (by Paizo publishing) which was a revised three point five rules set. Then the current release of fifth edition hit the shelves in 2014. Over the span of the games history it has gone through many changes. The current edition is a far distant cousin of the original game concept, and for those of us that have played through every edition that has ever existed, we can draw vast differences in not only how the game mechanics work, but in the overall feel of the game.

I am often asked “which edition is your favorite?” In truth I can not answer that. I have many fond memories of First edition and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I have a crazy amount of game hours with many groups of people sunk into running three point five, and I have had fun and new experiences with some younger players with fifth. My favorite edition changes based on who I am running the game for, and what kind of feel I want for the story. You see to me an edition is nothing more than a tool set to tell a story. Whichever edition I have to modify the least to get the feel I want to achieve is the edition I will use. I am not an edition puritan. I hear people give reasons why they prefer fifth edition over three point five, or why pathfinder is superior. Each to their own, but I do not view mechanics the same way as many. I borrow “rules” from various editions and discard others. I change and modify things to suit my style and the situation.

As mentioned in an article you can find here, I run a game differently for a virtual tabletop than I do a physical one. Regardless of who I am running the game for, or what base edition I am using for my tool set, one thing is certain. Its Home brewed.

The term Home Brew is basically the more recent buzzword for what us old guard used to call house rules. That is to say it is our own custom rule set or mechanics that we use for our individual game. To Home Brew with any benefit can only be achieved with some experience behind you. I know some fledgling Dungeon Masters that refer to their Home Brew system and it makes me chuckle a little inside. They barely know the game or have a good grasp or understanding of the mechanics, so to be changing them already is kind of like a new chef trying to restructure a family recipe after one taste. It is not a requirement, or a status symbol to have your own set of Home Brewed mechanics.

Before you begin butchering and modifying years of work, you should truly understand it. Only then can you make changes to it that can infer any benefit. Changing rules or mechanics for the sake of it can only impose a negative result. Each time a Dungeon Master changes and modifies a rule he alters what his players have come to know and expect. If he is going to do this he should be able to explain why he wishes to do so, and convince the players that it is a change for the better. Back in the early editions of Dungeons and Dragons, you gained experience points for gaining gold and treasure. It was originally envisioned to reward the thief class, but it did not differentiate effectively. This was one of the first rules I remember changing. When I found myself limiting treasure, not to be stingy to the party in wealth terms, but because I did not want them gaining to many experience points to fast, I realized I did not care for this rule. I explained my thoughts to my players, and pointed out that if wealth was linked to experience, then every foppish young rich noble would be a level nine fighter. I also told them that I refrained from giving out wealth at times because I did not like the fact that it encouraged players to horde and hold back treasure and caused imbalances in experience. They understood and agreed and so we changed the rules. You see the rules change ultimately offered improvement to our idea of the game that we wanted, and as such was welcomed and mutually embraced by all. I often speak about trust. The players have to be able to trust their Dungeon Master, and if they feel he changes the rules without their knowledge or understanding it damages that trust. Also any change should be mutually applied to both players and Non Player Characters where applicable. IF for any reason this is not the case then the Dungeon Master should be able to explain (with justification) why.

I do not intend to discourage home brewing in anyway, in fact I encourage it, but I urge Dungeon Masters and Players alike to not do so until they have a clear understanding of the system mechanics as is. Sometimes when you alter a rule, you indirectly break others. You should realize the effects your changes will have on all aspects of the game, and not just the individual situation in which you applied them. For example creating and using a critical hit system can seem like a great idea, but how does it work with the improved critical feat, and does it then make that feat over powered? So now do you have to modify that rule? and alter the crit range of certain weapons? also if it is to be a mutually used rule are you prepared to have a goblin lop off the rangers right arm? Often there is more to consider than you may see at face value.

Beginning play with a set of home brew rules, is also easier than altering and changing as a game progresses. If you begin a certain way, its easily accepted but if you change it mid flow, you have to look at who it may hurt or hinder and how will they feel about it. Remembering my golden rule that you (the Dungeon Master) are there for the benefit of the players and not the other way around is paramount. You may not like a rule but do your players feel the same way? You should consider discussing it prior to coming up with changes or implementing anything. Players will be accepting of a rule change that they know is coming but will almost certainly rebel at one that is imposed upon them without prior knowledge. The game after all belongs to everyone at the table, and not just the Dungeon Master.

When you feel the need to alter a rule, firstly you should be able to identify why it needs altering. Knowing the reason then allows you to measure the impact of the rule on the game, and think of ways to better balance this impact. At this point, you should mention your thoughts about why a rule does not seem to work to your players and see if they agree. Once you have an idea for how the change will work you should then discuss it with your players and see how they feel about this solution, or if they have any input on a better way. Once the idea of change is agreed upon, and the method of change accepted, then you can implement it. Doing this will ensure acceptance of the change, and make sure you continue to have trust in your players.

Another observation is that many do not record the changes to a rule or what home brew rules they use. You should. Writing these changes down is important for a few reasons. For one it is good to have for your own records but it is also good to be able to show a player the rule (as written). I typically also write the date that I applied the change. This serves to show players that it has been in practice since that time, and not something I just came up with and threw at them. Writing things down also helps you to commit them to memory.

I have different sets of home brew mechanics. Some rules I use with my very experienced players, that I would not with newer ones. I also have some that I use for younger players (kids) that i do not use with adults. I do tent to let people know however when I am using a particular modification and again I always come prepared to explain why. I remember one case when I mentioned a home brew rule I wanted to use (that i had done so with many other groups) and it was met with resistance. That particular group did not like the idea of the rule, so after we had discussed it and everyone put fourth their thoughts, we collectively modified it. They understood why I had changed the particular rule, but not how I had changed it, so we collaborated to find a solution. By doing this I showed the players that I was fair and that I was there to run the game for their enjoyment. It developed trust. I know several Dungeon Masters that would not have changed the rule and some who would not have even told the players that it had been changed. To me that is the typical “the DM is god” mentality that piss poor Dungeon Masters seem to share.

In closing, I say Brew your proverbial asses off! However only do so where needed, and be sure that your players know about it, understand it and agree with it. No one likes a dictator………….

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The one when the Paladin died twice!

paladin-died-twice

I have mentioned this tale a couple of times live on Howreroll, so I figured it was time to tell the entire story with all the juicy details.

Many years ago I was running a game of second Edition Dungeons and Dragons for a group every Tuesday evening. The group of players consisted of a Dwarven Fighter, an Elven Ranger a Human Paladin, a Human Barbarian, and a Human Druidess. The alignments spattered from Lawful Good (in the case of the Paladin) to Chaotic Neutral (the Barbarian). We had been playing a couple of years and had run through many adventures and campaigns including the most excellent “Curse of the Azure Bonds”. During the parties adventures, several times the Barbarians choice of actions would be borderline questionable when it came to the morality of his decisions, and typically the Paladin was there to keep him on the right track and prevent or dissuade him from carrying out his desired plan. Of course, this lead to several arguments between characters, and often the Druidess (being true Neutral) would find herself stuck in the middle playing devils advocate and trying to find the compromise. One such situation arose when they were rescuing a prince from an evil mage, and had to break into a stronghold to free him. On the way in they had a scuffle with a patrol or guards, and after defeating them, took one alive to question for information. Well firstly the Barbarian wanted to “slap him around a bit” to get him to talk, and the Paladin protested this course of action and instead wanted to make a deal with the guard. The paladin (like always) got his way and approached the tied and bonded guardsman. “Now my big brutish friend here would see harm done to you, where I would seek to avoid such unpleasantness” began the Paladin. “I am sure you are guarding this citadel for payment, so I shall offer you fifty gold pieces and your freedom if you tell us how many others are inside, and show us a way to get inside undetected“. Well as the Paladin had correctly deduced, the guard was indeed only here for financial reward, and had no real loyalty to his employer. He agreed to the terms and after informing the party that the citadel had a Garrison of forty men at arms and the wizard that employed them he showed them to a secret way in through the water drainage tunnel of the citadel. At this point the Paladin intended to just let the man go, but the rest of the party did not like this course of action. “I don’t trust him to sod off quietly!” said the Dwarf. “I agree” said the Elven Ranger, “what if he alerts them to our presence“. “I gave him my word!” said the Paladin, “and I shall not go back on it!” As was often the case the Druidess stepped in with some sense of compromise. “Why don’t we tie him up and gag him, and leave him just inside the tunnel for now“, she began. “We can free him on the way out, that way he can not raise the alarm and you sir knight will not be breaking your word.” After a little more discussion they agreed to this plan. All except the Barbarian. “I say we kill him to be safe“, he protested. “It’s the only way to be sure, besides what if we don’t come back this way?” “well then his fate is tied to ours,” said the Druidess. The party decided to tie him up and leave him in the tunnel despite the Barbarians protest, and made their way down the tunnel. The Ranger scouted a little ahead, with the Paladin not far behind and the Barbarian brought up the vanguard. However the Barbarian decided to lag behind a little and once he was sure the Paladin was out of ear shot, he promptly broke the guards neck, and caught up with the rest. Our heroes saved the prince and left the citadel by way of the same tunnel they entered through, as the Paladin was insistent that they go back to free the guard. Well upon finding the guard with his neck snapped, the Paladin immediately suspected the barbarian and set to questioning the rest of the party as to how the guard came to be killed. He stated that only the Barbarian and perhaps the Dwarf were strong enough to literally snap the guards neck like a chicken and  stated that he did not believe the Dwarf would do such a thing. The Barbarian denied the accusations, and eventually the party let it go and moved on, but the Paladin stated that he would be keeping a very close eye on the barbarian from here on out, and that he did not trust him in the least. These kind of things happened often through out their adventures and a deep seeded resentment began to take hold of the barbarian.

This brings us to where this tale really begins. During the Curse of the Azure bonds, our heroes had made some very powerful enemies. One of which was an Ancient White Dragon named Shiverlended. The Evil Dragon had sworn revenge on the party, and a couple of years later had found them and was ready to enact his revenge. He setup a trap in which one of his sons, an adult white Dragon named Ebenblight would attack some local farms and villages, and make sure he was seen retreating to some nearby mountains. Our heroes (as per the dragons plan) would seek him out to destroy him, and when they came to do so Shiverlended would also be waiting and together he and his son would destroy the heroes once and for all.

The party did indeed take the bate and set out into the mountains to find the white dragon and slay him. Eventually they found evidence of a lair upon a large ledge on the mountains east side, and prepared to enter and slay the beast. They made their way into the large cave and in doing so found not one white dragon but two! “Remember me you filthy human scum?” bellowed Shiverlended. “Now DIE!” Both dragons unleashed their breath weapons in unison, and the heroes were terribly injured. Although none died (partly due to good saving throws) the Druidess was down to only eleven hit points and it was clear to the party that this was not a fight they could win right here and now. There only option was to retreat, but they had no time to discuss an exit strategy.

Now I will take this moment to mention these were some decent players. They did not meta game, or abuse player interactions around the table to discuss things at length that should happen in mere seconds in the game world. There was none of the common reactive actions that you often see from players. for example, when a player says something like “I rush forward and attack the wizard,” and another player says “No don’t do that we need to take him alive.” The players character did not SAY he was about to do it out loud before he acted, he just did it, therefore by the time the rest of the party was aware of his intended action it was happening. Their was no time to discuss it, so they could only react to it after it happens. This is a pet peeve of mine, and while I will be a little tolerant of it from new players, I have zero tolerance for it in players that should know better.

Anyway getting back to the story. With this in mind, the players did not discuss any plans, but just reacted in turn. The Paladin at this point declared in a bold voice, “There is no way we can outrun these beasts, I will hold them off as long as I can, you all save yourselves!” and before the rest had time to protest he charged head long at both the Dragons with a valiant war cry. This of course was suicide but as a Paladin he was willing to lay down his life so that his friends may live.

The rest of the party did indeed retreat as they realized if they did not they would also perish and his great sacrifice would be for nothing. The paladin of course was killed but it was a memorable death, and one worthy of a fifteenth level Paladin of Tyr. The rest of the players commended the player of the Paladin for his selfless act (one that I know many players would not have done, as they would not have voluntarily gave up a fifteenth level Paladin that they loved). At this point the Barbarian surprised everyone by simply saying “NO!” “We can not allow such a sacrifice to be made for us without trying to save our friend”. “I say we wait, and go back up there and reclaim his body, then find away to have him resurrected. Such a valiant act deserves no less“. The party agreed and I wrote a new side adventure in which the party would quest to have the Paladin resurrected.

The side quest took several weeks and during this time the player who owned the dead paladin was playing a twelfth level rogue in the short term. The quest was not easy, and the Druidess almost lost her life in the process, but eventually they were able to have the Paladin resurrected.

It was a joyous time around the table top. The Paladin was back! His heroic sacrifice to save the rest of the party was going to be talked about for years to come. And of course the Paladin himself was glad to be back among the living once more, ready to face the forces of evil in Tyrs name once again. And then it happened.

Freshly resurrected, the Paladin was low on hit points. A simple matter of a few healing spells from the Druidess would solve this minor issue however, that is it would have if she had been given the chance. Suddenly the barbarian launches a full attack on the Paladin and hacked him to pieces making him dead for the second time. The Paladin had barley been alive enough to thank the rest of the party for bringing him back and now he was dead once more. The rest of the players looked on in horror as this even unfolded, and as the Barbarian stood looming over the twice dead Paladins body he utters the words that to this day get repeated by the players. “I hated that guy, but no one kills the Paladin but me!“……

The art of war. Combat in Role Playing Games.

art-of-war

Combat is a thrilling  aspect of any Role Playing Game. Many players live for the thrill of the fight and enjoy it more than the actual Role Play itself. Rolling dice and seeing those desired numbers show face up, or landing those critical hits is exciting. Combat is however more than just rolling dice and having the numbers dictate the outcome. In this topic, we will look at how to make combat really come to life, and how to get the most out of those battle encounters.

We will begin by looking at designing a good combat encounter. Firstly we need to ask ourselves why will this encounter result in a combat? If it is a simple ambush, well then you already know the answer, but many encounters can result in combat where they perhaps did not need too. When I have an overzealous party that tends to hit first and ask questions later, or who has problems keeping their ego in check, I often deploy an encounter I like to refer to as a “swing encounter”. The Gorebad swing encounter is basically one that can go either way depending on the attitudes of the characters. For example I recently used a rather grumpy and agitated Weretiger to do just this. The characters had begun to bully their way through encounters, and had started developing egos that were eventually going to result in them biting of more than they could chew. I saw this eventuality looming so I decided to drop in this Lycanthrope. Now Weretigers are typically true neutral in alignment, so their actions are largely situational and are dictated by other outside social triggers. The characters met him in human form, and he was (for reasons that would become clear later) viewing the characters with suspicion and was a little stand offish. I had decided that he would either help or hinder them depending on how they interacted with him. A positive interaction would win them a potential ally, while a negative one would land them in a tough combat situation. I did this to illustrate to the players how sometimes you just have to know when to not push back and hold your tongue. The players chose wisely and avoided combat. If this had become a combat encounter however, I would have had a clear understanding of how and why the fight took place, and as such would have known how my Non Player Character or monster (in this case the Weretiger) should act. The combat would have taken place in a wooded area, one that my Weretiger would have been very familiar with and one that my players would not. This being said I would have used the monsters knowledge of the terrain to his advantage. Also depending on how the combat was going he may well have retreated and possibly came back at a more advantageous time. Determining the motivations behind the combat is important in being able to run it with substance. Are the players the aggressors or the victims? Is it on either sides home turf? Do the Non Player Characters have strong motivations to stand their ground, or may they break and flee? Are reinforcements close by? etc.

It is important to set the scene for the combat encounter also. Terrain and surroundings play an integral part in how a combat plays out. History tells us that three hundred Spartans held the narrow pass of Thermopylae for three days against tens of thousands. This was only achievable due to the location that the battle occurred. If they had met on an open battlefield it would have been a short and bloody massacre. Chapter ten of Sun Tzu’s the art of war discussed terrain and its effects on a battle. Indeed it enlightens us to how a battle can be won or lost based on where the battle takes place. This can and should be a factor in the combats in which your players find themselves in. Aspects such as height of terrain, difficulty of movement, items of cover, visibility and temperature all play a factor. Too many Dungeon Masters ignore this aspect of combat and allow combat to become a toe to toe turn based dice fest.

Not every combat has to start and end in one encounter. Indeed many good battles play out over several encounters. Recently on Howreroll the players took three separate encounters to take down one particular Necromancer. Making what could have been a simple end boss encounter, a chase that lasted a couple of weeks in game time. It also made for a much more climactic showdown when they finally did corner and ultimately defeat him. After the first battle both the characters and the Necromancer knew a little of the others tactics, so the dynamic changed the second and third time they fought. And again this change in dynamic altered the combat substantially. A good reoccurring villain can be a great source for great combat encounters in this way. Either he manages to evade capture time and time again or the players may keep slipping through his fingers if he is the pursuer, but each encounter has epic potential, especially if used with correct timing, and not over done.

The next thing we will look at is how to describe combat. Simply saying “you hit, you miss” is boring! I like to describe the combat step by step and blow by blow. Players love to hear the details of how the final blow dispatched their foe, or what the effect of a particular successful sword strike was. On our live Dungeons and Dragons show, I try to describe each and every hit, miss, crit and fumble. I keep the descriptions short, but I make sure they are imagined. My descriptions are dependent on the players actions and the outcome of the dice rolled. So for a narrow miss I may say something like, “you lunge with your long sword at the Orcs unprotected belly, but at the last minute he is able to bring his cleaver around and manages to narrowly deflect your blow to the side”. Or for a high damage hit that does over twenty five percent of the enemies hit points I may say, “your powerful overhead swing strikes the ogre and opens up a deep gash in his thigh. He glances at the open wound as the blood flows down his leg, and he takes a step back to reassess the situation. He no longer seems so eager to rush in”.

I recently had a private message from one self proclaimed “veteran Dungeon Master” (of ten years) who told me that I should not describe the players blows and I should let them do it themselves. I totally disagree and here is why. Hit points are relative to the creature. Hitting a goblin for six damage may be an almost fatal blow, where as to a hill giant it is little more than a scratch. The players do not know how many hit points a particular enemy has, especially in relation to enemies with a class, so they are not effectively able to accurately describe the outcome of any given hit. That being said I am all for and encourage a player to tell me and describe what he is TRYING to do, but the outcome of his action is mine to explain. I also like to improvise advantages and disadvantages that may occur to one side or another during combat. If the players make a particularly high damaging hit on a monster, I may have it back of, and hold its attack that round, as it rethinks its strategy. Or I may have a high damaging blow drop the target to one knee, robbing him of part of his move action the next round. While these things may not be part of the combat mechanic, they add something to the combat that makes it feel more real.

We just mentioned that we should encourage players to tell us what they are trying to do. I do not mean in them saying I attack the Troll, or I cast Magic Missile, no I mean describe how it is to happen. “I swing my broadsword with all my might at the Dire Boar” can be a descriptive way for a player to let you know he is using his power attack feat. Or a player who’s character is a bard may start singing an eighties power ballad and in doing so lets you know he is using his inspire courage ability. I like to encourage descriptive combat in my players also so I will often give bonuses or allow successful skill checks to infer combat bonuses. Here is an example of what I mean by that. A group of players are battling some pirates aboard a ship. One of them just finished of his adversary on the raised bridge of the ship and looks down and sees one of his comrades pressed by two cutlass wielding sea dogs. He knows if he runs down the stairs it will be two rounds before he can aid his friend so he asks “are there any ropes or anything I can use to swing down to the lower deck”. I like where this is going with this, so I tell him “YES, there is a rope within reach that is tied off on the rail behind you”. “OK” he replies, “I try to swing down on the rope and I want to try to slash at one of the pirates as I swing by”. In this situation I would have him make a skill check to swing down on the rope and a bad roll may land him in a compromising situation (or give him disadvantage in fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons rules) where as a good roll may have a bonus effect (or give advantage). Never be afraid to reward creativity in your players when it comes to combat. They will be more inclined to be descriptive and really get into the fight if their actions can change the outcome and make it more exciting.

A prime example of some of this coming together can be seen here at minute 42.30. During this episode of the Marks of intrigue, a bar fight breaks out and all manner of improvised attacks and terrain come into play.

Finally lets look at mortality in combat. When two groups of people engage each other with weapons and magic, people have a tendency to die. While it is common for the monsters and some Non Player Characters to bite the dust, it is a much bigger deal and less common when it happens to a Player Character. With this in mind what is a Dungeon Master to do when he confronts the players with a fair challenge and due to their poor dice rolls and his good rolls the players are loosing to a band of goblins that they should easily be able to defeat. Well this really comes down to your individual style of Dungeon Mastering. many Dungeon Masters will tell you that they will modify a few of their own dice rolls (behind the Dungeon Masters screen), to balance this. Others will tell you that they do not baby their players, and the dice can be a cruel mistress to all equally at times and it is down to the players to retreat from a fight that is going badly for them (assuming they have the option). I have my own views on this and they alter a little depending on who I am playing with. With a die hard experienced group of players, sometimes I roll openly and let the dice fall as they may regardless. Other times I may fudge a roll here or their to be lenient to a newer group of players. Regardless I always allow dice to fall where they may during epic encounters or if the players put themselves in harms way through stupidity, despite fair warning. To me it comes down to trust. The players must trust you as their Dungeon Master to be fair and treat them with consistency and equality. As long as you achieve this I am not going to berate you for your choices. My goal is always to strive for open rolls but I also realize from time to time this can add to much of a random element to something that should be less so.

Combat is not the be all and end all of Role Playing, but it is a fun and integral part of any system. Taking steps to bring it to life and make it believable, is just as important as the work you put in to develop a viable world for your players to explore. There is so much more I could say about combat, but rather than lengthen this topic any farther I will just leave you with this.

“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead”. ~Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried