Saturday, 7 January 2017

When and How To Fix Rules

To summarise,
Sometimes rules make sense. When they do, character and player can make the same decision even if acting on different actual information. I called this Synchronisation in a previous post.

Player knows he's got +5 to hit, character knows he's good in combat.
Player knows ghouls cause paralysis, character knows ghouls cause paralysis.
Player knows he gets exp for treasure looted, character knows that he wants all the treasure.
etc etc

You're in sync.

When rules don't make sense you get knocked out of that space.
The usual symptom is "that doesn't make sense" or "that's not realistic".
The usual cause is because a mechanic is Dissociated (eg 4e Fighter dailies) or badly Associated (eg. these examples).

Basically being synced up is good, because it means players can view a decision from a mechanical view or an in-character view and come to the same conclusion.
Thus a newbie who's told "you're a person in a world what would you do?" and a rules enthusiast who's told "here are your mechanical options what will you do?" can play in the same game with not much issue.

Extreme Sync!

Staying in Sync

Generally when you use a rule or make a ruling you are keeping player and character synced up. The player's expectations about how something should work are the same as how something will work.
As long as a mechanic works in a way that makes sense in the internally consistent fantasy world, you're fine.

It's when a mechanic doesn't make sense or work the way you'd expect that you get that "uh what?" feeling.

You tend to get this with things like Grappling. Say the designers have written rules to satisfactorily simulate two people wrestling, and suddenly you have to adjudicate 20 trained rats climbing over a dragon. Some messy culmination of circumstances and bonuses mean that the rats will chokehold a dragon 9 times out of 10, which is surely ridiculous.

It's an Associated mechanic, wrestling in the game world is simulated by game mechanics, but it doesn't make sense from a character's in-world perspective.

This can also come about as a result of ad-hoc rulings.

Say there is no rule for drowning and someone is starting to drown.
The DM, the players, and their characters all have an expectation of what happens when someone is drowning.
A "realistic" ruling is created, where realism is whatever the players and DM collectively think makes sense. Perfect. Everyone's synced up.
The drowning ruling is now a drowning rule.

At a later date someone's horse is starting to drown.
The group hark back to a previous ruling and... oh no! It turns out horses can hold their breath for an hour by the original drowning ruling for some reason! That's dumb and unrealistic when applied to horses!
Everyone's collectively Desynchronised!

How do you fix this dire situation?

You have three choices.
  1. Paper over the cracks
  2. Change the fluff
  3. Change the rules


Option 1 - Paper over the cracks

Make a ruling. This is obviously the easiest option, usually the best option, and the only one you can really make at the table.
Generally this is because it's a weird edge case that won't come up again so you can just make a quick ruling and side-step the issue, or your ruling is good enough that using it over and over works fine.

I won't go in depth into how you make a good ruling because this is one of your main jobs as a DM and Arnold wrote that one recently.

So an example.

For the dragon this means you go "it's ridiculous that a bunch of rats could wrestle a dragon because the rats are too small" and just say it won't work.
For the horse this means you go "I don't care that the drowning rule means that horses can hold their breath for an hour, the horse is going to panic and won't hold its breath anyway."
You make another ruling about horse drowning or whatever and keep going.

The dragon ruling is fine until someone asks how big they'd have to Enlarge the rats in order for it to work. There must be a threshold where the Wrestling rules start working again right? You'd expect 20 man-sized rats to at least have some small chance of wrestling a dragon, surely? What if they were as big as cars? Or the dragon itself?

The horse ruling is fine until the Magic-User is polymorphed into a horse in the Undersea Mermaid Dungeon. A scaling drowning mechanic would suddenly be very useful!

What now!?

Well, something needs to change.
Which presents you with the interesting choice of what to change to make the rule "make sense".

"Yea this could realistically fuck up a dragon"

Option 2 - Change the Fluff

This is one I actually really enjoy.
It's also generally less effort than changing the rules, and usually what I do when I like the behaviours that a mechanic encourages.

Probably most obvious in my game's Halflings. I gave them a mind control ability so they could be a pet-controlling Ranger-esque character class, then extrapolated that out into a dystopian Pokemon society that enslaved Man two thousand years ago.

Essentially the question is this - 
"If I keep the rules as written, what does that imply?"

This was my solution to the age-old constantly-head-rearing issue of trad D&D Vancian magic.
How does a wizard run out of magic? Why do they need to prepare their spells at the start of the day?
It doesn't make sense! Wizards just cast a bunch of spells all the time! Gandalf never said "sorry guys, no more spells for me until I have a nap". Merlin never said "well that's my best spell gone, I can only cast 25 more spells of a lower level today". Harry Potter doesn't blow the three Expelliarmuses he prepped this morning then stop!

But I like the resource management aspect of doing spells this way. And I like how it makes a wizard do something perfectly a limited number of times per day, as opposed to a Specialist who does something well consistently.

So I changed the fluff. 
Magic is now a buildup of Chaos pouring into your head through a crack in your soul, and you have to crystallise it into shapes in your brain in order to channel it and reroute it back out to stop it overwhelming you.
Spellcasting is vomiting a big chunk of the magical energy out into the world, giving the magic user some breathing room before the Chaos inevitably starts to fill them back up. Like throwing a bucket of water out of that slowly-filling bath before it gets dangerously full.

Now the mechanics are re-Associated and re-Synchronised. A wizard in the game world knows he's prepared a limited number of specific spells that day, the player knows the same from a mechanical standpoint.
The mechanics make sense as a way of modelling this new fact.

With the drowning horse, maybe you go "actually it would be really interesting if horses could hold their breaths for an hour in my world, and the larger you are the longer you can stay underwater".
Hey, sort of works if you extrapolate up to whales right?
And that can imply a lot about a campaign world. Is it a water world? Do horses have gills? If so, why do they need to come up for air? Are there giants? If so, they could hold their breaths long enough to reach underwater cities that a human couldn't reach unassisted? Does immersion in water kill small animals extremely quickly?

This is what happens when people try to divine the implied setting of vanilla D&D from the rules. If we take these rules as true, what does that imply?

"I've really been picturing seahorses wrong"

Option 3 - Change the Rules

This is the final option, usually. If something doesn't make sense, and there's no way you can satisfactorily change the fluff to keep the mechanic, it's time to make new rules.
The other reason to do this is because you don't like the behaviours that a mechanic encourages, like how exp-per-monster-killed encourages combat. 

Probably most obvious in my game's Goblins. I started with Goblin ecology and worked out mechanics to fit. I made a bunch of motile vegetables that could grow more of their own, then added mechanics to fit the concept.

The question now is -
"If I keep the fluff, how do I model that in the rules?"

Hit Points are another perennial debate about the realism of D&D.
You fight at full strength until you keel over and die at 0HP. Or at negative CON HP. Or after failing 3 death saves. Or whatever you're doing in your game.

I, too, was dissatisfied by the death-at-zero thing so added Death & Dismemberment rules I took from Courtney Campbell and tweaked a bunch.
Now HP is more like Not Getting Hit Points, and you only start getting hit for real when you run out of them.
The mechanics make sense for my idea of how death and dying should work.

With the rats vs the dragon, maybe you go "I feel like size differences between wrestlers is likely to come up fairly often in my game, so I need mechanics to model that".
Perhaps each wrestler rolls a die based on their size. Humans roll a d10, halflings roll a d6, rats a d2, giants a d20, dragons a d30, and so on.
Perhaps you just make it a d10 for evenly matched opponents then adjust the die based on size difference.
Perhaps the only issue is that there's a mechanical bonus for multiple wrestlers in the rules, and you can just take that bit out to fix it.
Perhaps everyone in the wrestle rolls their own contested roll, the winner deciding what happens to the losers.

So many options! Which is why this can be the most interesting and perilous option. You've got to find that sweet spot between a good mechanic, the fluff, and quick resolution at the table.

It's really satisfying when you get it right.

Proper simulation of Halfling wrestling matches is very important to me

Option 4 - Keep a Wonky Mechanic Because It's Fun

Surprise! There is a fourth option!
"The Open Doors roll is one of my all-time favorite D&D mechanics, because one minute the party is slaying demons and dragons like heroes and gods of old and the next minute they can't get the refrigerator open.  I love that shit. "- Jeff Rients

If it's fun enough for you to look past its flaws, keep it.

This also applies to Dissociated mechanics that you like enough to keep.
Keep in mind that any Dissociated mechanic you keep is something that you will have to explain to every single new player who enters the game.
If you have too many dissociated mechanical bits you won't be able to say "you're a person in a world and this is happening, what do you do?"
It is very important to be able to say this because it means a new player doesn't need to know the rules to play and can just jump right in.

So keep it light and easy.

I've got this big purple d30 rule. For every beer the party buys me during the game, someone gets to replace a die roll with the d30. It's sometimes incredibly useful for the group and has gotten them out of a few tense situations, but it also gets across that this is a fairly light-hearted table when I explain it to a newbie.
Dissociated. Silly. Fun. I like it enough to keep it.

Arnold's Brute class
"The most interesting ability on this page, though, is the Dramatic Whistle / Dramatic Exit pairing.  It sort of plays around with the idea that there is a place called "offstage" (something shared with my doppleganger class).  Yes, gamist.  Yes, storygamey.  But it looks hella fun (Blarguntharg tackled the illithid into the bottomless pit; we're done here but we need to wander around the dungeon looking for him and whistling.) and I don't think it's OP, given how restrictive it is.  (How many mechanics require a bottomless pit to be nearby?)"
- Arnold K
Dissociated. Silly. Fun. Likes it enough to keep it.

There's probably a separate thing here about not front-loading mechanics, but this is also the reason why I'm completely ok with the retroactive backstory bonuses.
Forcing a morale check to fail once per session because you ran a theatrical troupe out of town in your backstory. Not sure where that falls on Associated/Dissociated or Synchronised/Unsynchronised.
All I know is that I like it enough to keep it!


  1. I agree with your thesis, but this could have been condensed into a few paragraphs instead of two blog posts. Brevity would make this stronger.

    Concerning the "age-old constantly-head-rearing issue of trad D&D Vancian magic" - does no one actually investigate the source anymore? Or read Gygax's essays on this very matter, and his justifications and reasoning for the decisions he made? For anyone who has actually read Vance, the mechanics make perfect sense.

    The folks at Gorgonmilk put together a fantastic booklet - the Vancian Magic Supplement - that includes several short stories from Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth as well as the following essays from Gygax - THE D&D MAGIC SYSTEM, ROLE-PLAYING: REALISM VS GAME LOGIC, AD&D'S MAGIC SYSTEM: HOW AND WHY IT WORKS, and JACK VANCE AND THE D&D GAME.

  2. A very good point actually.
    As I was writing this I was kept removing Synchronisation as a word because it's annoying.
    I might just separate this and make it a blog post on its own instead of a weird sorta-related two parter.

    Vancian magic I know all about, but it's no cultural touchstone for players.