It’s rare that anyone plays a game exactly as written. In some cases, we don’t understand the rules, or misinterpret what the designer wrote. Sometimes, there are parts of the rules that don’t align with our tastes and so we change or omit them. Finally, there are some people who take the system of a game and bend it to be something altogether different from what the designer intended. In all these cases, we are not playing the game as the designer intended, we are playing some variant. We are gaming off-label.
The term off-label comes from the pharmaceutical industry, a field I worked many years ago. Every drug has a label, which tells doctors and patients what to take the drug for, when to take it, and how much to take, etc. In essence these are the rules of the drug. When you follow the rules, there is a reasonable expectation that the drug will do what it says.
We often see cases of people taking drugs for situations not covered by the rules. A common occurrence is that someone will take a drug longer than indicated on the label. While the drug may help you, it also comes with a risk of unplanned side-effects or dangers. (Do a little Googling and you will find plenty of examples).
What then is Off-Label Gaming?
Like pharmaceuticals, games have rules. The rules of the game tell you about the game experience it will create. This is what we call: rules informing play. Some game designers are overt about what type of play their game is designed to accomplish, while others are less clear.
And like pharmaceuticals, there is a lot of off-label use of games. Some of this off-label usage is minor, while in other cases it can be radical. Likewise, the unplanned side-effects of these changes can be minor or significant.
Types of Off-Label Usages
Removing misinterpretations of rules, there are some general categories of off-label usage in gaming:
If you don’t like a rule drop it.
I am not sure how prevalent this is today, but in the 80’s designers seeded this rule into nearly every game. The sentiment is nice: if something about the game is inhibiting our fun, then remove it and return to having fun. An example of this would be something like Encumbrance (something I mentioned in my last article).
House rules are a step up from “Dropping” a rule. Rather than omitting the rule, the rule is re-designed to address the problem it is causing. In other cases a group creates a house rule to fill in something missing from the written rules. In either case, this often results in the addition of a new rule into the fabric of the game; a rule that will be influenced by other mechanics, and will have influence over others.
A house rule that I often use in d20 games is to drop Experience Points in favor of leveling up through story.
Reskinning a game is changing the setting of the game while keeping the mechanics intact. While the rules have not changed, the setting has and that can create unintended consequences. Setting and rules are often intertwined and by changing setting there may be an effect on the rules.
A reskinning of a game could be something like taking the rules of Corporation (the Brutal Engine) and using them to make a fantasy game.
In this category the rules are being re-purposed for something that was not originally designed into the game. This is often the changing of the rules and the setting. A great set of examples for this is Apocalypse World and the many hacks which have been produced: Dungeon World, The Hood, Monsterhearts, World Wide Wrestling (to name a few). The core of the Apocalypse World game is intact (moves, playbooks, etc), but the types of moves change, and each game adds something different (i.e. Dungeon World’s XP on a failed roll).
Quick note – Hacks are not just professional alterations to a game, they can be things that people have created for themselves and for their groups. I don’t want the above example to be misleading.
Pitfalls of Off-Label Usage
Mentioned at the start of the article, the biggest pitfall of off-label usage are the unintended consequences which arise in game. Games are systems, made up of a combination of rules and play experience. Many rules chain together (i.e. saving throws and damage), and when a change is made to an upstream rule, it can have effects on the downstream rules, and alter play. The more complex the rule system, the more chances that a change in one part of the game will affect other parts of the system.
Playtesting allows for the detection of these changes. Any time you want to go off-label, you should do some kind of playtesting. The more radical the changes you are making, the more extensively you need to playtest. While it is a valuable design tool, playtesting is work, and not the same as running your normal game. When done to a reasonable degree, playtesting will unearth design issues, reveal downstream consequences and help you refine your changes.
If you don’t have the time to playtest, or the interest in doing so, you have to accept the risk that the changes you have made may cause problems you did not expect somewhere else in the game. These are going to occur during play, and you will have to address each issue and move on. The danger of this path is that you start to make house rules on top of house rules trying to fix the breaks the fixes caused. This can reach a critical mass and collapse a game.
While off-label usage sounds all doom and gloom, there are many benefits for doing so. Here are some of the things that happen when you go off-label:
- You learn about game design – I never understood how a car worked until I owned one, it broke, and I had to fix it with my dad. Go and hack a few rules and playtest them, and you will get a new experience on how games work.
- You get what you wanted – if your changes are sound and tested you will get that play experience you wanted.
- New games – if other gamers did not pick up a set of rules and think up new ways those rules could be used, we would have missed out on numerous games.
- New companies – a number of established game companies got their starts making hacks of other games (i.e. Green Ronin with Mutants and Masterminds).
Why Not Play Another Game?
With the number of games that exist today, its entirely possible if the game you have is not producing the experience you want, that there is another game out there which has that experience.
I am of two minds when it comes to this concept.
One one hand…Dance with the girl you brought.
Learning new games takes time, and often money. Plus you have to manage the change of moving to a new system with your group. Finally, when the changes are small, they are often manageable. “Why buy a new fantasy RPG when the one I want is 95% perfect and I can hack the last 5%?”
On the other hand…Play more games!
There is a benefit in learning and playing different games. The exposure to different systems and styles has an impact on our GMing style, making us more rounded GM’s. Also, published games have more extensive playtesting than we may be able to muster, increasing the odds that the game will hold up over long play.
Ultimately, there is no right answer to this. It’s based on preference. For a long time, I was about buying new games, but as I have become a game designer, I have new interest in hacking into games.
One last thing about off-label gaming. This is something that comes from my Misdirected Mark co-host Chris Sniezak. To paraphrase him:
“When you play a game off-label, you are playing your own unique game. It is no longer the game that the designer created. Because of that, you cannot make value judgements about the original game based on your off-label play.”
Use as Prescribed…Or not
Modifying the rules of an RPG is one of the oldest traditions in the hobby. If it was not for off-label play, the development and advancement of RPG’s would have progressed at a much slower rate. There are times when it is perfectly acceptable to stand on the shoulders of giants. When we go off-label we introduce a degree of uncertainty into the game, which we can mitigate through playtesting. There is a fuzzy line of how and when we should stop altering a game and just find a new one.
Where do you stand on off-label gaming? Are you a staunch follower of rules, or are you a tinkerer? What are some of your best changes, and some of your worst failures? Are you more apt to modify a game to fit your style or find a game that is a better fit?