Beyond the Dice: Breaking the Rules!

It may come as a shock to some of you, but I really don’t like rules.

The first few times that I tried playing a tabletop role-playing game, people kept telling me “You can’t do that.” It was truly annoying and frustrating! Here I am, all ready to go with this really awesome idea of something that I want to do with my character, and the rules didn’t allow for it! Years later when I began to run my own games, I had to be the one to tell a new player “You can’t do that.” It really upset me to have to say that to someone. I could see the light in their eyes as they excitedly described what they wanted to try to do. But instead of a failed dice roll representing a random turn of fate, I got to be the one to rob them of their dreams. I was the one who made that light in their eyes begin to fade.

“The game mechanics simply don’t allow for it.”

I’ve played a lot of tabletop RPGs over the years and some of those games had absolutely horrific rules! Some games tried to nail down every single aspect of a character’s life, right down to the wear and tear on their clothing. I’m honestly surprised it didn’t have a skill challenge to see if your character used the bathroom properly. However, as time has passed, the world of role-playing games has evolved immensely. As my measuring stick, I use Dungeons & Dragons, simply by virtue of it being one of the very first games in the hobby and because it was my very first game.

In its original form, Dungeons & Dragons was primarily a board/figurines game with a little role-playing thrown in. As it morphed into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons more emphasis was placed on role-playing, but it wasn’t until the third edition that role-playing became the primary focus. They cleaned up all the really confusing math (THAC0 was a nightmare) and streamlined the system so it was easier to understand, thus giving players more time to focus on their character’s development. The system wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but until I’d looked at fifth edition, it was the best version of D&D yet!

Third Edition was still unwieldy in many ways. If you wanted to have the coolest character around, you had to get Feats. It got silly after a while because everyone and their second cousin were publishing books full of Feats. It slowed things down and made the system much more clunky than it needed to be, not to mention making it really easy to manipulate the system. And the thing was, you couldn’t blame all the upstart companies for their manipulations. That’s what we as gamers do! Regardless of the system, eventually someone is going to change this, change that, or home-brew different things. Next thing you know, word gets around, and TA-DA! It’s a new “house rule” that you’re looking at. 

However, Fifth Edition is MUCH better! It took the focus off Feats, keeping the system balanced between the different character archetypes. You can still get Feats, but you give up an attribute progression to get it, making it balanced. By making it a simple choice between one or the other, it reigns in much of the chaos that existed in previous editions.

Fifth Edition focuses on the basics, but it still has its vulnerabilities. That is what I’m attempting to address here; the way the rules can be manipulated by a player to their character’s advantage. We used to call it min/max and it only happened during character creation, but people have gotten a bit more savvy with the rules. Not only do GMs need to keep vigilant during character creation, but the players can also manipulate the rules during the course of the game. When a player knows the rules better than you do, that’s when you’re in trouble. Not only do you have to research it, but you also have to prove the person wrong. You have to make sure the rest of the group knows that you DO understand the rules, ALL of them!

How much credibility are you gambling?

Isn’t your goal to make a good game experience that everyone enjoys?

Why are you dealing with this?

I don’t use a good portion of the rules when I run a campaign. There’s still too much effort into making rules to govern mundane activities and aspects in minute detail to avoid disputes over them. They’re still continuing to interfere with the natural flow of the game. You can’t create engaging scenes if your players are constantly questioning whether or not you are using the rules properly. You can’t immerse your players into the action when you need to stop to look up a rule, even when you have a word-searchable PDF; it takes away from the game to perform a search!

I’ve played under GM’s who could recite ninety percent of the rules from extremely complicated systems, and those who had to look up everything from very simple games. A GOOD game wasn’t whether or not the rules were perfect for every situation or was followed to the letter, a GOOD game is when there isn’t a lull in the action for longer than the group is willing to tolerate. What makes a GOOD game is whether or not the action continues to advance without people getting bored; searching for a snack when we’ve finally gotten to the BIG FINALE, use the restroom, take a smoke break, or make a phone call.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you can’t look in the book for a particular rule. The point is, the GM should decide what rules to use and which ones to ignore?

I’ve touched on this a little before, as the GM I consider myself to be above everything when it comes to decisions. It’s not just that I can manipulate the game world to my liking, I also reserve the right to manipulate the rules. I tend to reign myself in when I’m running a new group or if someone is used to playing a rules heavy game. When I have my gaming group for a while, they sometimes find that I blow past certain rules without a second thought. Eventually, they get used to it and it’s no longer a cause for concern. Occasionally, I’ll get challenged about it, in which case, I explain to them that I can change the rules whenever I like, because the goal isn’t to follow the rules, it’s to make a game that is fun, engaging, exciting, and rewarding for everyone.

Now, before you go off and change things completely, remember that these game mechanics are created to help keep things balanced. If you are going to give someone something, you have to take something away that is of equal value. Otherwise, you’ll make an imbalance in the game, potentially giving someone(s) an unfair advantage over others, the game world, or making a character too powerful for the challenges the game presents. However, as long as you are being fair and objective, you can make these changes without concern. Let me give you some examples.

In a D&D campaign, I once played a dragon; not kidding. Everyone else in the group was playing regular character types, but for me, I wanted to play a dragon! So, I created a “dragon” character from scratch and made it level one. I swapped one thing for another until I had most of the abilities that a newborn baby dragon would have, but I was still more powerful than the other players. I decided that my baby dragon was sickly and not completely developed. We began the campaign with the other player characters finding my egg and taking it with them in the hope of selling it. I hatched, in an inn they had stopped at when my egg fell out of a bag and rolled into the fire. TA-DA! A baby fire dragon was born who was pretty much useless until level twenty!

When I played in a (d6) Star Wars campaign, I created a Force-sensitive character and shove every kind of bionic into it. That essentially cut it off from any chance to use Force powers, but I was okay with that because I had explained my purpose to my GM. In our next campaign, I was planning on playing this character’s child. I wanted that character to use the Force with a family history going back six generations they weren’t aware of. The GM liked my story so much, he allowed my character a little more money for cybernetic enhancements to make up for the fact that my character would never be able to use their powers.

These ideas aren’t new to the world of tabletop role-playing games. When you look at other game systems you’ll find various game mechanics that allow the GM to manipulate the base rules. We only need to apply the ideas from other games and in ways that nobody has thought of. As long as you keep it balanced, you’ll keep it fun. Just remember, you have to take something in order to give something.

Now, time for me to really bake your melon. How about throwing out almost ALL of the rules? Yes, I’m serious! What do you think that would look like? How do you think it could work?

Such a radical idea isn’t for the faint of heart. The GM needs to be experienced and confident in their ability to run a game, to keep it fair and fun for everybody. The players need to be experienced, honesty, self-awareness, and the needed a level of maturity. It’s not just possible, it’s a reality that I’ve achieved. If this sounds like a challenge you’d like to pursue, check out The Window Role-playing Game by Scott Lininger. You can find it HERE for free.

I found the experience of altering the creative aspects of gaming to be liberating. The ideas are simple, yet complex when it comes to role-playing games. However, most people are very uncomfortable with the lack of structure. At the least, it should give you some ideas going forward for how to streamline your gaming experience and how to keep the players engaged. Remember, in all things RPG, the end goal is to have a really awesome game!

So, the next time a player comes to you with a character concept that isn’t allowed by the rules, why don’t you consider changing the rules? Who’s to say that magic using characters can’t wield a sword? Who’s to say that a bounty hunter can’t use the Force? Who’s to say that a rich kid couldn’t learn how to live on the streets? Part of what we’re trying to do with these games is to live the fantasy of being someone else while knowing that it’s impossible to actually be them. So, why aren’t we allowing the impossible to happen in the impossible game we’re playing? Why not change the rules?

Happy gaming!
~ Cindy

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