How does system matter (pt 2)

This is the second in a series of articles. In the first I talked about designer intent, and mechanical procedures.

As discussed in the previous article, designer intent is important but only so far as it is successfully communicated and/or implemented through the game text. We’ve talked about how the procedures of play can shape what the game is like: now let’s talk about what happens when you modify those rules through house rules or hacking.

First up, what’s the difference between house rules and hacks? I think it’s a difference of scope and formality, and can reasonably be said to exist on a sliding scale. A house rule is generally a focused change to the rules given in the official game, a hack is a much broader set of changes which, taken far enough, can become a completely new game. It’s a slightly arbitrary distinction but when you’re far enough apart on that spectrum, the distinction will matter, as we’ll see.

So starting with house rules: small, focused changes to the rules. In my experience these tend to come about when someone is playing a game, and a situation comes up that they want to handle by something other than fiat, but the official rules don’t give a mechanistic way of doing that. I emphasise mechanistic, because as we’ll see later, plenty of games give you tips or guidelines for making decisions in spaces that aren’t covered by the mechanical procedures of the game. But usually when a house rule comes about, it’s because the group wants something harder edged, that defines something you definitely can or can’t do, or that involves picking up the dice.

So we’re talking about discrete, focused, mechanical changes. They are the same as what I call “procedures”, meaning they are pretty much fixed in their operation: give them input A, they’ll give you output B (or perhaps randomly either output B or C, say). There will be interpretation about when something in the game has triggered input A, and how output B or C manifests, no doubt, but still – a fairly rigid mechanism that compels B/C to happen when A happens. And like other procedures, that means they force the game into a particular shape.

It’s useful to now contemplate the designer’s intentions again. The designer, we may hope and assume, has created a functioning whole: a collection of rules that work effectively to generate the type or types of play that the designer envisages[*]. Your intervention is hopefully giving you the type of play that you wanted, but it might push the game outside of its original parameters and into an entirely different play space. Or! It might not. Maybe your new rule is on just the same page as the designer, and it’s more of an incidental thing that they happened never to include such a rule – perhaps they didn’t have the space, or never thought of it.

Point is, by introducing a new rule, you’re changing the system. Maybe only a little bit, or maybe it’s more significant than that, either because it has a big impact on play, or because it interacts with other mechanical parts of the existing rules in unexpected ways. That’s a good thing! You wanted to change how the game worked, and that’s what you did. Just, it’s important to understand that you’re now playing a new game, and because system matters, that might make a big difference to the experience you have at the table.

An example may be useful. I was chatting to Ben Riggs on his podcast Plot Points the other day, and mid-way through a conversation about why Last Fleet isn’t a D&D hack, we came to an idea that you could allow characters in D&D to heal some hit points when they have an emotionally meaningful conversation. Ben was quite taken with this idea, and hopefully will try it out.

Here’s what I think will happen when he does: the players will start talking to each other about stuff that they never previously bothered to talk about, or at any rate will do so more frequently than they did before. Talking about feelings. Talking about things that give us feelings – happy or sad events, hopes or dreams, worries or fears.

More than that, if they’re clever they’ll start to set up stuff that they could talk about at some future juncture. Like, if you’re using the official D&D rules, the only incentive to introduce an ailing mother into your background is if you’re a drama llama who likes that sort of thing. But under the new Ben hack, doing this is an excellent idea, because when you’re low on hit points later on, you can talk about how worried you are about your mother and ker-ching! you get some hit points back.

And because it’s docked into hit points specifically, they will be having these conversations at a specific time i.e. after a fight. No point having the conversation just before a fight, in fact you’re squandering a future opportunity to heal! So you’ll get a rhythm: encounter, conversation; encounter, conversation. Now imagine if it was docked into the advantage system instead, so that you got advantage on your next roll. Or if it was docked into the XP system, so you just got some XP. That incentivises totally different types of play.

So you can see that even quite a small change to the rules could create a fairly radical change to the play experience. Now when you get into much broader changes to the rules, that’s the danger zone when it comes to system. Think of the system like a garden. If you plant a small herbaceous plant somewhere in there, it could potentially harm or benefit neighbouring plants, or those plants might harm or benefit it, but the garden as a whole won’t change that much. If you plant a gallumphing pine tree in the middle of that garden, you’re definitely going to change the look and feel of the garden, and maybe kill off some other plants. If you do that a lot, before you know it you’ve got a different garden entirely. And the key thing is, if you do it at random, the garden will be a mess, and many of the original plants may become unhappy.

Don’t get me wrong: a hotchpotch, higgledy piggledy garden could be beautiful and enjoyable. I’m not saying “you must design your game to be completely coherent and perfect”. But on the other hand if you simply throw things together randomly, you’re trusting to luck that it’s all going to work in combination. The more you venture from house rule to hack, the more you can benefit from thinking about that garden – that eco-system – as a whole, and designing stuff to fit together.

Ok, that’s enough for now. Next time I’ll start thinking about the softer stuff – venturing beyond procedures and into principles and culture.

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[*] But what about generic systems, I hear you cry! Well, so-called generic systems are generally promoting a particular type of play, too. D&D is sometimes held up as generic, but its systems aren’t designed to do just anything – for instance, they ignore completely the emotional life of the characters to focus on practical matters like whether I can kill this orc or get past this trap or seduce this guardsman. The designers of D&D thought their game would focus on orcs and traps and guardsmen, not hopes and fears; other games do the opposite. That’s the sort of thing I mean when I say the game is going to generate a specific type of experience.

Last Fleet is live on Kickstarter!

Hello everyone!

The Last Fleet kickstarter campaign is now live!

Last Fleet is a PBTA game about a rag-tag fleet, fleeing across space from the merciless inhuman foe that destroyed human civilisation. You play brave pilots, officers, engineers, politicians and journalists fighting to keep the fleet – and themselves – in one piece.

The game is focused on action, intrigue and drama in this high-pressure setting. The game’s setting, situation and mechanics push the theme of pressure, whether it’s through white knuckle space battles, tense hunts for infiltrators on the fleet, or the social fallout when your characters finally crack. It excels at the classic PBTA rhythm of switching between action and interpersonal drama.

If you like the sound of that, please do check out the Kickstarter page where you can see previews of the art, read more about the game, download the reference sheets, and of course back the campaign.

Thanks for your support.