Cinemechanix Design Journal 27: When To Use Special Rules

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 21 October 2016 Written by Steve

A few weeks ago, I talked about some of the things that game-specific rules adaptations can accomplish, like clarifying how story concepts fit into the game rules or allowing for customization. The next section covers actually deciding whether or not to implement special rules for a specific story element. If you think of the first part as the theory, this section is about the practical application. The previous post helps you understand how different chemicals react with each other, this one helps you decide whether you really want to poor the blue vial into the red beaker.  

One you’ve decided which story elements may need rules, it’s time to take a close look at how those rules will improve the game. If you’ve played other RPGs, you’ll probably assume that certain game elements need special rules simply because many games include rules for them. In reality, many of these common rules are holdovers from role-playing’s wargaming roots. They’re essential in a strategy game, but have few if any parallels in fictional sources. In fact, sometimes they lead to outcomes that contradict or violate the spirit of the source material. If the main reason you think you need a rule is that other games have similar rules, give extra consideration whether the rule is really necessary. Below are three things to take into account when deciding whether you need to go through the effort of creating game-specific rules for a particular story element. 


There are tons of story elements in every game world that theoretically need rules, but you only have to worry about the rules that you’ll need for your game. For example, if your world includes dragons, those dragons presumably have game stats that describe their power and abilities. If the players are going to encounter those dragons, you’ll need to define those stats. If nobody’s seen a dragon in 500 years (and you have no immediate plan for the “mythical creatures return” cliche), you’re not going to need those stats. At most, you’ll need some story rules about what people in the game world believe about dragons. You don’t have to decide how accurate those beliefs are until Kitiara Targaryen shows up riding Smaug. 


Is the thing that you’re considering creating a rule for important to the story, or merely a matter of description? If the absence of whatever the rule describes would only change the story cosmetically without altering the plot, you probably don’t need a rule for it. For example, would a character in the kind of story you’re telling actually get injured less often if he was wearing armor, or would the description merely change to reflect that he’s dodging attacks rather than just letting them bounce off of his plate mail? If the knight in shining armor and his half-naked barbarian friend suffer about the same number of injuries during a typical story, you don’t really need armor rules. 


Sometimes story elements aren’t significant or immediately relevant, but are necessary to make the game flow smoothly and keep the story interesting, often by placing limits on player authorship or providing a way to settle differences of opinion about the direction of the story. For example, most fantasy stories don’t include any scenes of the wizard deciding what spells he’s going to learn, but it’s often helpful to establish which spells a PC wizard has at his disposal (or at least the general limits of the character’s magical ability) so the player doesn’t try to solve every problem that comes up with Marysueomancy. This will involve brainstorming and possibly even defining the details for spells that the player may not pick and coming up with guidelines for a spell selection process that doesn’t happen in the source material, but it’s unlikely that work will go to waste since most GMs will find a way to use it before the campaign wraps up. The necessity of gameplay rules is often a function of player group dynamics. Players who know one another and have similar storytelling sensibilities can usually get by with fewer and less detailed gameplay rules than groups who don’t.   

Gameplay rules can also include variations that change the “feel” of the rules in order to underscore differences in the game world or assist the players in interpreting the results of dice rolls. For example, a world with monsters may include pixies, who are hard to hit because they’re really small and fast and agile, as well as trolls, who are slow and easy to hit but who have such thick skin that most weapons just bounce off without causing much damage. Both of these defensive advantages could be modeled with a Boost on defense rolls, but using the same mechanic leaves communicating how the monster avoided damage and deciding whether the player missed troll or just didn’t hit it hard enough up to the GM. Taking away the troll’s Boost and giving him an armor or soak rating that decreases any damage he takes (effectively giving the attacker an Effect Penalty) lets the rules underscore the difference. If the either creature wins the combat roll when defending, they dodge. If the troll loses the combat roll but its soak rating reduces the damage to 0, the player landed a blow, but the troll didn’t feel it.

©2012 by Hex Games
Cinemechanix Design Journal 27: When To Use Special Rules.
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