“Why are you doing this,” is a question I hear a lot. Especially when I’ve been forced to beat someone over the head with a Dungeon Master’s Guide to stop them from being an utter f$&%wit. But it’s not just something you ask someone who is currently and inexplicably assaulting because you don’t recognize it as a desperate attempt to dislodge your head from your rectum. It’s something YOU should ask YOURSELF every time you think about hacking the rules. “Why are you doing this?”
I’m not saying that developing your own rules and hacks is inherently a bad idea. It’s just that it is. Every new rule is inherently bad for the game. It takes an extra something to make it good. And if you’re not prepared to explain what that extra something is, you’d better back off. Like the people who try to stop me from beating people with rulebooks. Back. Off.
This article is a continuation of my series on hacking the rules. That is, adding your own rules and game content to role-playing games. Specifically, D&D. You should probably go back and check out the previous article before you proceed.
Hacking is Bad: Complexity, Cognitive Load, Imbalance, and Unexpected Interactions
First, if you’re going to proceed, you have to accept that ALL hacking is bad. See, despite whatever hyperbolic opinions you might want to hold about why a particular RPG system is “teh evulz” and is currently ruining the game community, the truth is most RPGs are very well constructed systems. They are also extremely complex systems. And they are put together by professional f$&%ing game designers. And if you’re reading this website written by an internet a$&hole with literally no game design pedigree, chances are you are NOT a professional f$&%ing game designer.
The point is, believe it or not, even the bad systems have been built with an eye toward good design principles. Yes. Even the games I hate and criticize. The systems have been designed to be approachable – to be easy to pick up and learn – to their target audience. Their target audience may not be newbies to the RPG space, mind you. Both D&D and Pathfinder are currently designed to appeal to preexisting gamers. You can prove this. Well, I can prove this. Trust me. I don’t feel like having this fight again.
Now, for a game to be playable and approachable, it has to do a couple of things. First of all, it has to minimize the complexity of the system and the cognitive load required to play it. Complexity is, roughly speaking, the number of different game elements you have to learn and understand in order to play the game. Cognitive load is the number of things you have to keep track of in your head to play the game. And these two things are related but they aren’t the same. The more you have to learn, the more effort you have to put in before you can start playing the game. And the more you have to keep track of, the more effort you have to put in while you are playing. Now, those two things limit the number of people who are willing and able to play your game. Some folks aren’t willing to work that hard for their fun. Some folks just aren’t able because they aren’t smart enough to grasp everything and they get frustrated. And some folks get fatigued or worn out by the complexity.
Balance is, roughly speaking, how level the playing field is for all players regardless of experience level or type of engagement in the game. A balanced game is one that allows new players and experienced players to participate mostly equally. And players are also able to participate mostly equally, regardless of which play options they choose and regardless of what types of enjoyment they get out of the game. Casual players, optimizers, and role-players can all enjoy the game equally if it’s balanced.
Sort of. You see, the concept of balance in role-playing games is actually very complicated. It’s so complicated that NO ONE knows what it really is. But everyone has an opinion. And I mean that. I don’t even KNOW for sure what it is. Game designers don’t know. It’s a huge mystery. Like dark matter or what racketeering really is.
Here’s the important bit though: balance refers to the connection between player skill and player choices and the likelihood of desired outcomes. It’s a slider you can set. Basically, if I want to build a very skill-based game, I can set my balance such that higher skill makes victory much more likelihood. Alternatively, if I want player skill to play less of a factor, I can set my balance such that skill has less impact over the likely outcomes. Damn I should do an article about this. Anyone want an article about the different types of game balance?
The point is that balance doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is on a level playing field, regardless of choices or skill. I mean, it does. But most games have a wobbly balance because they like to emphasize things like player skill, player choice during play, or metagame choices. For example, Magic: The Gathering includes a health amount of wobble and some disparities between different styles of play (that vary from set to set) to make a game out of deck building and to reward the players who focus their time and effort on paying attention to the shifting balance.
Now, imbalance is also tricky to design. But it comes down to this: imbalance occurs when the skills and choices of the players DO NOT affect the probable outcomes of the game in a desired or predictable way. For example, if less skilled players are actually more likely to win than skilled players, that’s an imbalance. Unless you wanted that. For another example, if there is no connection between the skill of the players and their likelihood of winning, that’s an imbalance. Unless you wanted THAT. See, that’s the tricky thing about balance. Balance is predicated on the game doing what you want.
Interactions occur when two bits of rules or mechanics end up affecting each other. For example, if you have one power that lets you reroll an attack roll any time you miss at the cost of reducing the damage and if you have another power that lets you increase the damage on any attack that hits, a player can use both of those powers freely to never miss and never do less than full damage. That’s an extreme example, but it’s also a simple one to understand.
Now, if you realized you had those powers, you might have been smart enough to create a limiting factor. Each one of those, for example, might require a resource that can only be spent once a turn so they can’t ever be used together. But if you don’t see such an interaction coming, it becomes an unexpected interaction. Unexpected interactions can be harmless, but they can lead to your game becoming imbalanced or literally not functioning.
Complexity, cognitive load, imbalance, and unexpected interactions are all impossible to avoid. Every system has some of each. And the bigger the system and the more things it can do, the more of each are going to crop up. More rules lead to more complexity. More systems lead to more cognitive load. More choices and options lead to more imbalance. And more of everything leads to more interactions and that leads to more interactions you don’t see coming.
In a well-designed game, the professional designers have balanced out all (or most, because nobody is perfect except me) of those things against the game experience.
And then you come along and you decide to add some rule or tweak some system or otherwise f$&% with stuff. And, guess what, you’re increasing the complexity, the cognitive load, the imbalance, and the unexpected interactions.
Now, obviously, you should try to minimize those things. But you can’t get rid of them altogether. Even professional game designers can’t. And you didn’t design the system you’re f$&%ing with. That means you have less of a grasp of the balance and interactions than the profession f$&%ing game designers did. And that’s why every time you hack the game, you make it worse.
So, why hack the game? Why f$&% with a good thing? Well, that’s a damned good question. In fact, that’s exactly the question I started with: WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?
You HAVE TO understand this. Every time you hack the game, you’re breaking it. So, before you break it, you’d better be sure that it’s going to be better than before. You need to justify your hack. I don’t care if all you’re doing is creating a new monster for a one shot. Before you put in that work and risk creating an unbalanced and broken monster, you need to have a damned good reason why THAT monster is any better than anything in any Monster Manual.
Now, I can’t tell you every good reason to hack the rules. But I’m going to try to tell you how to think about it. But before I do that, I’m going to tell you one very bad reason that you should not fall for. Ever.
More is NOT Better
So many – SO F$&%ING MANY – things get added to games simply because more is better. Classes. Races. Spells. Monsters. Feats. Optional rules and rule systems. Usually, the intentions are good. It usually starts with “you know what option would be cool that doesn’t exist in the game yet?” And then it spirals out of control. The hacker gets consumed with the work, hanging more systems and subsystems off the damned thing. Obviously, a new type of weapon – like guns – requires a new class to specialize in them. And some new feats. And the new class should have some interesting options. Maybe a new resource management mechanic. Like flair points or some bulls$&%. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
When you ask yourself “why are you doing this,” your answer cannot begin and end with “because it’s something missing from the game” or “because the game should have this option” or “because more options is better” or “because it would be cool if the game had this too.” You can’t STOP there. It’s okay if that’s your initial thought. But if that’s your only thought, stop.
Okay, so how DO you evaluate your ideas and decide what’s worth hacking into the game and what isn’t? This is going to sound crazy, but I’ll tell you exactly what you have to do, you have to have a fight with yourself. You have to deal with the Tyler Durden of game design. And you can do it one of two ways: you can either argue with yourself. Out loud. Or you can write a letter to yourself.
By the way: spoiler alert, the character of Tyler Durden in Fight Club wasn’t real. He was a figment of the imagination of the main character. When Tyler Durden was fighting with the main character, he was actually beating the s$&% out of himself. Sorry to ruin a 15-year-old movie for you. The book was better anyway.
I’m not f$&%ing kidding. I do out loud arguments, personally. Because I like yelling. It’s much better now that I’m not living with family anymore and my girlfriend spends eight hours a day at work where she can’t hear me. But some people like to sit in front of a computer and type. Either way, it works the same.
Whatever your hack idea, start with the assumption that it is a bad idea that is too complicated and will break the game. Now, convince yourself that it’s worth breaking the game. DON’T convince yourself that you won’t break your game. Tyler Durden KNOWS you’re going to break your game. You have to convince Tyler that it’s going to be worth it. And Tyler has three questions for you: WHY are you doing it, WHY didn’t the game designers do it, and WHY is this the best way to do it.
And we’re going to look at those three questions…
And no. I am NOT kidding. You need to learn how to argue with yourself. If you want to hack your game in any decent kind of way, I expect you to verbally kick the s$&% out of yourself.
Why Are You Doing This?
This is the first and biggest question. Why are you doing this? And answers like “because the option should exist” or “because it’ll be cool” or whatever are cop outs. You need to explain how your hack will either FIX something broken, how it will ENHANCE a gameplay experience, or how it will CREATE a new gameplay experience.
Hacks that FIX something are the most common after the ones that simply add more options “because more is cool.” And that should make you very suspicious. Tyler Durden is VERY suspicious of fixes. If you want to tell him something is broken, you’d better be ready for a hard fight. Because Tyler will want you to prove something is broken. And how do you do that? First, you have to identify the way the game SHOULD work. Second, you have to convince Tyler WHY the game should work that way. And third, you have to convince Tyler that the game isn’t working that way.
For example, I recently claimed that the saving throw mechanic is a weird, broken mechanic. And to do that, I had to explain to Tyler first that the game is about choice, resolution, and consequence. That’s at the heart of the action resolution system. The player makes a choice, the player rolls dice to resolve the choice, and the result of the choice creates consequences. That’s the core assumption behind the ability check mechanic. Mechanically, that whole system creates a single rule that can be applied to any situation that a GM can easily fit in their head. Narratively, it emphasizes choice as the driver of action and it creates a good pacing curve of “choice, tension, resolution” that is mirrored in the actor rolling the dice. Saving throws sabotage all of that. First, they create a second rule that, mathematically, isn’t dissimilar from the first. Saving throws and ability checks use the same numbers and the same basic scale. Second, that rule is an exceptions-based rule. It is only used when the rules specifically say, “don’t use an ability check.” Which means it has to be spelled out every time. And it’s used in some seemingly arbitrary ways. Some spells have saves, some use attack rolls, some use both, some use neither. Third, by putting the die roll in the hands of the target of the action, it disrupts the narrative logic of “choice drives action” and the pacing curve. It disconnects the die roll (and the tension of the die roll) from the action itself. When I explained all of that, Tyler was satisfied.
And THAT is how you have to do it. If you want to FIX something, you have to convince Tyler that something is really broken. And that means spelling out what the thing is DOING, what it SHOULD BE DOING instead, and WHY it should be doing that.
Now, Tyler is very suspicious of FIXES. But that doesn’t mean he’s just going to let ADDING and ENHANCING fly without interrogation. Oh no. Tyler wants answers there too. And to answer Tyler’s questions, it’s important that you understand what drives “the game experience.”
See, “the game experience” is something people spew out a lot. It’s like “fun” and “engagement.” These are words people wield like guns to win arguments about game design. But, like a gun, those words should not be used by people without training. Tyler isn’t scared of guns. And he won’t accept words like “game experience” and “fun” and “engagement.” He expects you to go into detail. And when it comes down to details about game design. MY Tyler likes to hear about the eight core aesthetics of gameplay.
Let’s do a quick rundown. Because I wrote about that a long, LONG time ago. But they aren’t any less relevant today. See, those come from an academic principle of game design known as the MDA approach to game design. Basically, the idea is this. Game players are drawn to games because they seek various combinations of the eight basic types of game experience. Those are called aesthetics. Designers create game elements (both rules and story elements) that the players can interact with. Those are called mechanics. Those mechanics create the experience of gameplay, the gameplay dynamics. And those dynamics satisfy the players’ desires for various aesthetics. Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics. MDA.
In short, game designers create game elements in the hope of creating certain types of game experiences. And those game experiences can be broken down into one or more of the eight core gameplay experiences.
And understanding those is so useful to explaining to Tyler WHY you’re doing what you’re doing that I’m going to run through them VERY briefly here.
Challenge is the experience of applying your skills to overcome obstacles and challenges and ultimately to win. Challenge relies on a sense of fairness, that the player’s choices can affect the outcome.
Discovery is the experience of uncovering unknown and unexpected things
Expression is the experience of creating things are unique expressions of your imagination.
Fantasy is the experience of being a part of an imaginary world. It is escapism.
Fellowship is the experience of being part of a team, group, or social circle.
Narrative is experiencing a well-told, well-structured story. It is often confused with fantasy. But they are very different experiences.
Sensory pleasure is experiencing and appreciating things you can see, touch, hear, or otherwise perceive. If you like artwork, handouts, feelies, miniatures, and maps, that’s all sensory pleasure.
Subjugation is the experience of shutting off your brain and losing yourself in an effortless activity. Grinding through simple combats in video games or mining endlessly for resources? Those are examples of subjugation.
When you are talking to Tyler and trying to convince him you’re going to enhance the game experience or create a new game experience, Tyler LOVES to hear you talk about the design aesthetics. At least, he does when I talk to him. Because that shows a focus on the play experience.
For example, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about crafting systems in role-playing games. Those are systems whereby the players can gather raw materials and create their own equipment, including magical items. And they have become something of a Holy Grail for fantasy RPGs. Many, MANY people – ESPECIALLY players – seem to want crafting systems. But so far, no table-top role-playing game has managed to pull off a good one. And the systems that have been developed are overly complex and many GMs have become so fatigued regarding bad crafting systems that they’ve just given up hope that there will ever be a good one.
Anyone, because such a system would include a lot of complexity and cognitive load and it could potentially create a lot of imbalance and a lot of unexpected interactions, it has been tough to convince Tyler that it’s worth trying to develop one. Ultimately, he wouldn’t even listen until I could explain WHY players might even want one. In the end, I explained the following. Crafting systems appeal to expressive players by allowing them to create unique equipment and unique loadouts for their characters. Crafting systems appeal to challenge players by allowing them to prepare for challenges and manage resources before the challenges. That enhances their feeling like they can earn better outcomes through their actions and choices. Crafting systems appeal to discovery players by allowing them to seek out resources and also to discover ways to create new magical items. It gives them another thing to understand about the world and the possibilities it contains. And crafting systems appeal to fantasy players by allowing them to take on tasks they imagine their characters would take on in the world, further enhancing their feeling of living in a fantasy world rather than just playing a game or experiencing a story. Tyler was impressed.
And I’ll let you in a on secret. Identifying the core aesthetics you’re trying to appeal to? Later, when you’re designing your rules, they give you a good starting point for the design. For example, in video games, lots of crafting systems involve subjugation. The act of gathering resources through mining, picking flowers, and that sort of crap? That’s a mindless, grindy task that players just lose themselves in while their mind goes to sleep and they listen to podcasts or whatever. Table-top RPGs don’t handle subjugation well and few players enjoy that aspect in table-top RPGs. So, even though I COULD also say that crafting systems can appeal to subjugation players, I’m purposely going to try to avoid that.
But that’s an advanced topic. For now, I just want you to learn how to win an argument with Tyler by appealing to his understanding of game design aesthetics.
Why Didn’t the Game Designers Do It?
Now, this question is kind of tough to answer. If this is a good idea that belongs in the game, why didn’t the game designers do it already? And this question requires a lot of guesswork. And it doesn’t often have a good answer. Fortunately, if you don’t have a good answer for this one, Tyler usually won’t beat you up. If you’ve gotten past the first question, you’ve already explained that there is a good reason for your hack. And that’s enough for Tyler.
So why answer this question at all? Why try to? Simply put, it helps you identify some of the potential problems you hack is going to have. If you assume that the game designers had the same idea you did, but somehow talked themselves out of it, you’ll start thinking in terms of how your hack could go horribly wrong. And that’s good. Not because it will prevent you from hacking, but because it will help you mitigate some of those problems.
For example, I’ve talked about adding a stealth and infiltration subsystem to the game. Something that lets the players Metal Gear or Batman or Ninja their way into hostile locations, assassinate dangerous characters, steal, scout, sabotage, and so on. Now, I’ve already convinced Tyler that it will add new gameplay experiences that appeal to certain types of players. So, Tyler said “look, if this is such a cool and fun idea, why didn’t Mike Mearls already do it because he’s way smarter than you.” After punching Tyler in the face, I answered. The biggest issue with any infiltration or stealth subsystem is that it’s not something all characters can participate in equally. So, rather than a complex system of extended encounters, they went with very simple single-die-roll type uses of stealth. Sneak attacks, ambushes, scouting during overland travel, etc. If something is going to take up a big amount of table time – like an extended infiltration sequence undoubtedly will – it must allow all the players to participate equally. Also, I suspect the D&D designers had some kind of brain aneurism that made them completely f$&%ing forget that they had actually promised exactly these sorts of modular rules when they were trying to convince the world that changing editions of D&D after only three f$&%ing years wasn’t a disaster.
Anyway, that’s the short of it. I had a much longer conversation with Tyler during which I also proved that I am way more awesome than Mike F$&%ing Mearls. The point is, by answering Tyler, I identified a potential pitfall in what I was trying to do. Something I would need to design around later.
And that’s what you need to do. You need to explain why your brilliant idea isn’t already a part of the game. And the answer is NEVER “because I’m way smarter than the designers.” Assume they aren’t so you figure out what your rule hack is going to break.
Why Is This the Best Way to Do It?
Now, once you’ve convinced Tyler that there’s a good damned reason for your hack and you’ve thought through why it might be a terrible idea that other, smarter game designers never would have touched, there’s one more question to answer: why is this the best way to do it? Alternatively, this question can be phrased as “isn’t there another, better, smaller way to do this?”
Remember when we first started talking about hacking rules, I explained one of the tenets is to use the smallest rules you possibly could? Don’t add an entire class when you can add a feat. Don’t add an entire new subsystem when you can just rearrange the existing systems. Don’t add a new system of magic if you can just add a new class. And so on. Well, that’s because the more you hack, the bigger your hack, the more complexity you add. The more cognitive load. The more potential imbalances and interactions. Get it?
And that is why Tyler wants to know whether you could do this any smaller.
Honestly, this is the question that is most likely to change your mind about how to pull off a rule hack. And it SHOULD. Think of it like Tyler’s last stand. He can’t stop you from hacking the rules. You already have a good reason. And he can’t convince you that other, better game designers skipped over it for a reason and you should too. The only thing he can do now is hold you back from going overboard. And guess what? You should totally let him hold you back a little.
Let’s say, for example, that you’ve decided that the best way to show off the new firearms you’ve added to Pathfinder is to create a new class that is an expert in using guns. Tyler should say something like a “whole new class? Isn’t there a smaller way you can do it?” And you have to admit there is. After all, there is already a class that is an expert at combat with weapons and that tends to specialize in specific weapons. It’s called the fighter. And its main form of expression is through feats and feat trees. So why can’t firearms expertise be accomplished through a feat tree whose constituent feats are flagged as fighter bonus feats?
Now, you really need to beat yourself up on this one. When it comes to discussing this question, the first thing you need to do is identify different ways of solving the problem or creating the hack. Like feats or class builds instead of classes. Or schools of magic instead of magic systems or classes. And you really need to try your damndest. Don’t be all like “nope, can’t think of any, I’mma make me a gunslinger. Hahaha, sorry Tyler.”
Once you’ve identified alternatives, you need to convince Tyler that those alternatives won’t work. And this is also something that you really need to beat yourself up on. “Well, I can do it with feats, but it won’t be as cool as a whole new class” is a crappy answer. Because creating a class requires you to create pretty far and wide outside the original premise. One feat tree worth of archetype isn’t enough. You’re going to have to fill a level progression, creating build options, and balance all that s$&%. And “cool” isn’t a good reason. Just like “more” isn’t a good reason.
And honestly, the reason I call out Pathfinder here in my example is because the ridiculous class bloat in Pathfinder is the result of this conversation:
Tyler: “Why are you doing this?”
Designer: “More is better!”
Tyler: “Is there a smaller way you can do this?”
Designer: “Hahahaha, go f$&% yourself!”
Pathfinder is a fun game. At least it used to be. But it’s become ridiculously unapproachable. It is hugely complex, lumbering under the weight of too many options. The reason I don’t write about Pathfinder anymore is because I have neither the energy nor the desire nor the money to keep track of everything in that system now. Want to know why that article about monster building in Pathfinder never happened? THAT’S the reason. The designers kept yelling “go f$&% yourself” at Tyler and I got tired of buying books. And that means I’ve lost track of the power levels and balance in the game. It isn’t fun to hack Pathfinder anymore.
Anyway, the point is, you need to be better than Pathfinder. And the way to do that is to fight with Tyler. Every goddamned time you want to hack your game, fight with Tyler. And fight to win. And let Tyler fight to win. If you do it right, you’re going to lose. There are some ideas I thought were great ideas that I never pursued because I lost the fight with Tyler. And that’s how it should be. That doesn’t mean those ideas will NEVER happen. Someday, the fight might go a different way. Hell, some of the things I absolutely refuse to try to hack into D&D would also be the cornerstones of my system if I were designing a role-playing game. Because I’m totally not.
Hacking the game requires the same maturity as designing the game. Even if you aren’t a professional f$&%ing game designer, you have to pretend to be one. And that means confronting your ideas and kicking the s$&% out of them so that only the strong ones survive.