Changing the Rules - Roleplaying Tips

Changing the Rules

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #306

Changing the Rules

From Dave McKay, Calgary, AB

I’ve GMed a small, experienced group for four years, and we discuss the game after each session. A growing theme emerged: we were each unhappy with certain game elements. Moreover, there was a major part of the game system (spells and magic) we were collectively dissatisfied with.

One day I received a call at my office from one of my players. He was extremely frustrated with the campaign and was not happy with the mechanics that controlled the major part of his character. It seemed like he was going to quit.

I gave a mental sigh and thought about the time and money I had invested in the game, the material, and most importantly, the players. I started to wonder what we would be doing on game night.

Then came my ray of hope. My player had roughed out a system for the mechanics that were bothering him. From that was born a workable, fair, and plug-and-play set of rules. These tips are based on my group’s experience and are for any GM who is considering changing the rules.

Consensus – Establish The Need

Does the whole group want a change? If you’re looking just to flex some creative muscle, then consider that your players might not actually appreciate that. Don’t guess, ask. Talk to your players regularly so you can find common ground on any rules that are lacking.

If you have an idea, ask your players what they think of the concept. They are probably your best source of feedback as they experience the game world through the rules that govern their characters’ actions. In our situation, we were all dissatisfied with how the spells and magic rules worked. We held off on drastic changes as I was aware major changes could create major work.

One player vocalized his rule change ideas, and after several weeks it was obvious that this was worth pursuing. The catalyst was my wizard player calling me up. The need was established.

If there is not a major consensus on change and you still want to modify rules, I suggest you set up a play-testing group. If your changes are successful with the play-testers, their “word of mouth” promotion of the changes might pique the interest of reluctant players.

Do Some Homework

Make a broad sketch of how you want the rules to work, and start with the results. This gives you a target to aim for, and you can work backwards through your ideas on the generalized mechanics of your changes. Get your players to help you; their input and enthusiasm will keep you motivated and maintain consensus.

For example, my wizard player had suggested a new mechanic to me that he thought was an improvement, and the process seemed to fit the general game mechanics. His frustration was his source of creativity. A second player wrote up his ideas. I combined those ideas with my own and we were off. Then my wizard player and I spent a session identifying all the character classes and existing rules that we were affecting with our changes.

Your players can be a great resource during rule construction. Maybe you play with a history buff, an engineer, a research-writer, and a soldier. Each brings a lot of knowledge to the process, and you’d be a fool to ignore their potential. You can also turn to popular fiction, movies, or games for inspiration. Inspiration for a spell mechanic came to me from the movie “Dragonslayer.” (I liked the idea of the mage’s amulet being his source of power and a magical storage focus.)

Your homework is done once you’ve gathered input from your group and identified the areas of the current system that would be affected.

Work Out The Basics

Now comes the work.

Commit your rules and mechanics to the game format. We used several whiteboards to flesh out ideas into the system format. We discussed outcomes and presented our arguments and ideas, taking extensive notes as we progressed.

There has to be give and take. As the GM I had to consider game balance and the work involved in converting published material for the game system we were using. If you have the time for it, you might embrace sweeping changes, but I didn’t want things to run away from me.

As we worked out the basics I strove to maintain consensus and aimed for a “plug and play” solution. My wizard player didn’t get every change he wanted to see, and I saw a better mechanic in his solution to our “problem” than my initial idea. We saw that there were some skills, feats, or powers we needed to remove, and some we needed to add. As I made decisions I presented them to my players for their thoughts.

The final step of this phase is to consolidate your basics so that you can analyze the impact of your changes.

Analyze Their Impact

You need to see how your changes are going to affect the system you are playing and (most important to the GM) how much work it will take to implement them.

We took our notes and our basics and put them up against all aspects of the game that the rules touched on. In this case (spells and magic), we looked at each spell-slinging character class. We found that certain spell-users benefited more than others, and we had to adjust to keep the changes balanced. I considered the changes and how much work there would be for me, in particular to see if the changes might exclude published modules or support material.

Again I was striving for a “plug and play” solution, and we achieved it. With only a few extra minutes of making jot- notes I could implement our changes into any published material. Minimal extra work for me; balanced rules changes that addressed the frustrations of my players; we seemed to have a winner.

Write Up The New Rules

Now you commit the rules to paper. I don’t consider myself a writer, but I am good at mimicking. I took all our notes and I simply started writing them out in a logical sequence. I used point form when I struggled with ‘proper’ writing. Then I took all my notes and sat down at my trusty PC and opened my word processor.

I set up the page with font style similar to that in the published rules and typed away. Though somewhat tiresome for me to go through, I was able to use different text colours to identify terms in the rules changes, I could spell and grammar check, I could edit, and best of all I could copy and paste. I referred to the published rules books for a writing style.

Afterwards I printed out my work and proof read the material in my gaming area away from the computer. Once I was happy I converted the document to a .pdf file (I downloaded a freeware program that converts anything you print into .pdf should you select the program as the “printer”) and e-mailed copies to all my players. This gave them a chance to review the _proposed_ rules changes.

Play Them

Prior to implementation, I suggest that all the players go through the proposed rules so you can iron out any issues. My group is fairly small and experienced, and we took about an hour prior to starting our session, made some character adjustments, and off we went.

I have to point this out because one of my mandates in creating the rules was to focus on consensus. This phase went very smooth and all the players were excited with the changes. You may find that not everyone is on-board. That’s okay, just be sure to get their input and seriously consider their objection.

Try some play-testing out of campaign so players can experience the changes with their characters. This can lead them to better understand the changes and might just sell them on the new rules without re working the proposed changes.

I recommend you keep the players in mind as the number one criteria for accepting any rules changes. Remember that your group came together to play in an RPG campaign with a given game system to have fun. If one player is so unhappy with the current system, you may have to risk losing that player rather than risk losing all the others.

Never Be Afraid To Tweak The Rules


You probably aren’t a game designer, and your rules might not be perfect. Ours weren’t. I discovered a loop-hole that, if left unchanged, could make certain characters extremely powerful. I know that as we continue we will discover other issues, but because the rules are saved on my computer, changing our changes is simple. Just remember to always consider the feedback from your players; they are the ones experiencing it.

It has been a great experience going through and creating rules changes. It has sparked the dream of perhaps designing my own game. The process has been fun and the players love it. I recommend to any GM that if you and your group are frustrated with some aspect of your game system and mechanics to go ahead and explore some possibilities. It doesn’t have to be perfect and the ultimate reward is just having more fun for everyone.

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A Brief Word From Isaac

Rant On Railroading

First, thank you all for reading and for contributing to the ‘zine. I’d like to comment on an issue that crops up regularly in our features and tips.

Railroading. At its best, forcing players down your rails is a heavy hand mugging of the adventure. At its worst, it’s a kidnapping, and might leave some players wondering why they aren’t just sitting in front of the tube, for all their opinions matter.

I want to emphasize that it isn’t the DM’s job to force anyone, anywhere. Your job is to run a fun game, and you can do that by communicating with your players. If you want to run a dungeon-crawl or a high stakes political space opera, your players probably need to know what to expect. This will keep them happy with their character choices, will keep you from being tempted to railroad when they explore different paths, and will keep them from considering a mutiny.

But that’s just my two cp. Have fun out there.


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

D&D: Knowledge Checks

From Dwig

Hi Johnn,

In the D20 system, I think the use of a Knowledge skill can sometimes give too much information, even with a bad roll. For example, if a PC encountered a strange phenomenon and the GM asked for a Knowledge (arcana) check, the PC will immediately know that the general nature of the phenomenon is magic with even a poor roll (DC 10).

Another problem comes from the rolling of a d20. Take a situation requiring a player to make two different checks: Knowledge(arcana), and Knowledge(dungeoneering). The player has 1 rank in arcana and 15 ranks in dungeoneering. After rolling a 19 and a 2, he gets 20 for arcana and 17 for dungeoneering. This would not represent the actual difference of knowledge the character possesses in different domains.

A solution for these two problems can be to call for only one roll for all Knowledge checks. A player rolls once and gives the GM separate results for all knowledge skills using the same roll (example: “dungeoneering 24, nature 8, 5 for all others”). That will reflect more precisely the difference in knowledge of different domains without giving clues to players before rolling the dice.

Virtual Tabletop Tips

From Arthur St. Onge

I ran a successful online game for three years every Tuesday night. This was an extension of a face to face game run before I moved away, and I used several techniques adapted from my face to face games. I used an approach that had as much done ahead of time as possible to maximize the game time at the table. I used published modules and material from magazines without much adaptation for the online environment.

  1. If you don’t have one already, get a scanner. Scan in all your maps and handouts and have them ready as files. Most of the on-screen role-playing programs out today allow you to put such items up on the screen for everyone to see. If possible, also scan in or import “figs” for your characters and monsters. There are several sets online, and you can raid the image files from your favorite RPG computer game. Many of the programs allow you to put the map up, then place the “figs” on the map and move them around, facilitating combat. Or, use the grid pattern that’s standard, just like you would a battle mat.
  2. You can usually prepare your maps ahead of time, and then just access them as the party moves from encounter to encounter.
  3. Most modules come with descriptions to be read to the players. I am not the world’s fastest typist, so I either typed these texts ahead of time into Word, or scanned them. I usually typed the texts into Word, then had that file open while we played. Cut and paste the descriptions from Word into the chat screen of the program. This saves _huge_ amounts of time.

    Have each player check-in when they are done reading so you know it’s OK to continue. We used a “k” from everyone to know they were done. One of my players was a slow reader so I knew when he was done, everyone else probably was too.
  4. Prepare the notes on the monsters and bad guys ahead of time. This speeds up combat, especially if it’s a mixed encounter, because you don’t want to be flipping back and forth in the monster manual for stats each round. Find a shorthand style for writing these critters and bad guys on a notepad and have that handy instead. It saves time when the spells, swords, blasters, or bullets start flying.
  5. If you can, access Team Speak or one of the other Internet chat programs out there. I think the latest generation of virtual table-top software includes this. In any case, the investment for a good headset/microphone piece is about $15. It’s well worth it. Just find a way to manage players cutting one another off during the game. We used a “who spoke first gets to go first” rule.
  6. For combat, use a simplified initiative system to speed things up. Generally, one side or the other has an advantage, so they go first. Initiative goes in order of: spell declaration, missile fire, melee attacks, spell effects. Spellcasters are assumed to be casting the entire round for the purposes of concentration checks and spell interruption. Then the other side goes. Repeat.
  7. Finally, since this is an online experience, everyone probably has e-mail. The GM can send a brief recap or summary of the previous session(s), and where things will pick up for the next session. I usually sent this the afternoon of that night’s session.

Not Every Game Is For Everyone

From Tommi Brander

Not every game is for everyone. Trying to please players with very different tastes in a single campaign can lead to everyone having the dreaded 20 minutes of fun in 4 hours of gaming. Some groups do not work. Split them. No gaming is better than bad gaming, and you can have friends without gaming with them.

Flour Trap – Redoux

From Shane O’Donnell


I thought I’d make a mention about the Flour Trap tip in a recent issue. The tip is fine when applied to our fictional games. However, you may want to let GMs who stress realism know what the situation needs: a flammable dust (your standard dust bunnies don’t burn) such as flour or sawdust, and a lot of air agitation for a serious explosion.

Dust that simply lies on the ground won’t burn because there’s not enough oxygen surrounding it, and several people walking around won’t kick up enough dust to create a damaging explosion–though they may create a startling explosion. An adventure that leads characters into a flour mill or saw mill could be highly dangerous though.

I have a friend who works at the local grain elevator who filled in some of the details for me, but I also found this site useful:

There’s a link under the article called The Grain Dust Peril.

Modified Timer Experiment

From HL

My tri-stat dX party is great fun, but they tend to take forever to make almost any decision. To reduce this, and because it sounded like fun, I thought I’d run an adventure with a timer, as a couple of tips suggested.

The party thought the timer idea was great, and everything was going swimmingly (including our druid spending five rounds unable to climb out of the moat), until combat started in earnest. With forty-five minutes left on the timer until more troops arrived to the besieged castle, the party’s thief pointed out a conflict – the timer was timing their real-life decision-making time, which was about two minutes a round at the shortest, but technically, a combat round is less than a minute long. (It varies across systems – we use 30 second rounds.)

To account for the discrepancy, I agreed to add a minute to the timer every other round. This encouraged them to speed up their combat, but compensated them for the fact that while they had to take turns telling me their actions, their characters would all be acting at once. Of course, this resulted in a lot of yelling of “did you remember to add the minute,” but it was worth it when the party slew the evil overlord of the castle with barely enough time to race back to the entrance and present her just arrived troops with her lifeless corpse.

My group is only four players. For larger groups, it would make sense to add more time. Perhaps there’s a better mechanic for balancing out game time vs. real world time, but this is the one that worked for us.

Getting The Derailed Campaign Back On Track

From David Newland

DMs by nature like to build worlds, construct plots, and dream up fiendish challenges for their PCs. Yet in all of their complex imaginings, they never seem to foresee the PCs doing the unexpected. PC doesn’t really stand for Player Character. It stands for Purposely Contrary. As soon as they pick up the dice, PCs are going to shape the campaign’s direction in their own way. If it’s not going as you planned, there are some simple ways to get your campaign back on track.

Head ‘Em Off At The Pass

The simplest precaution is also the easiest. Be upfront from the start. Tell your PCs you want to run a campaign about X where the PCs will spend a lot of time doing Y and Z. Ask for their input about the kind of things they’d like to do. Work out a storyline that everyone will have fun playing. This doesn’t mean there can’t be surprises. Far from it. But the surprises will be what you plan for the PCs, not what the PCs spring on you.

Think about a dungeon crawl campaign. The moment the PCs bash in the first door, they are adventuring within an agreed upon (if unspoken) framework. There are monsters to fight, traps to disable, puzzles to solve, and treasure for the taking.

Within that framework, there are still surprises, but they are surprises typical of dungeon crawls. If all of a sudden a dungeon became an underground soap opera, with orc queens to woo or mining companies to run, the PCs would be understandably confused. Then they’d be in their rights to change the campaign to something more to their liking. But if everyone is on the same page from the beginning, you can be fairly confident how the campaign will develop.

Once the campaign starts, the communication shouldn’t stop.

  • At the start of a session, recap what happened last time. Emphasize the significant events and downplay the others so they stay focused.
  • During a session, if the PCs chase too many red herrings or veer off in an unexpected direction, stop them before they get too far. Interrupt them with a new scene: a quick combat, breaking news, or the arrival of an important NPC. Make it obvious within the scene what direction they should take.
  • At the end of a session, ask for feedback. What did the PCs like or not like? What was confusing and what was clear? Were things too easy or too difficult? What are their plans for the next session? When their plans match your plans, the campaign is moving full steam ahead.

Okay, We’re At The Pass

Despite your best efforts, the campaign has gone off track. Let’s use a stock plot as an example: a small kingdom is threatened by evil invaders; only a small band of brave adventurers can find out who is behind the invasion and stop it. Rather than striking at invader strongholds, the PCs decide to train the entire kingdom to be super-ninjas so they can repel the impending invasion. Now what?

  • Go with it! As long as everyone is having fun, who cares what the storyline is? Rent a movie similar to what the PCs plan and rip off the plot. Try The Magnificent Seven for the previous example. Create adventures about training commoners and wooing the local gals. Keep your original campaign idea in the drawer for the next time you game.
  • Have the original plot chase after the derailment. The evil invaders swoop down and kidnap the kingdom’s leaders and budding super-ninjas. The PCs now have to go attack a stronghold to rescue their friends.
  • Let the derailment circle back to the plot. The most promising super-ninja trainees are itching to take the fight to the enemy and strike at their strongholds. They beseech the PCs to come with them.
  • Make the derailment very tough. The commoners are imbeciles, the army recruits become conscientious objectors, the local priests want to sacrifice the PCs to their gods to gain favour, and merchants refuse to sell them equipment. Suddenly, storming the castle seems a lot more enjoyable.

Ride Off Into The Sunset

If there’s no way to get them to go back to your original plot, then end the derailment as quickly as possible. Within a session or two, let the PCs defeat the arch villain and save the princess. Tell them they’re so good they finished the campaign ahead of schedule. Wipe your hands clean. When they protest the campaign was too short, nod thoughtfully and mention that you have this other campaign idea. It’s about X, where the PCs will do a lot of Y and Z.