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Hacking Dread–Fixing What Is Not Broken

Posted By Patrick Benson On November 15, 2012 @ 12:00 am In GMing Advice | 11 Comments

Every year my local game shop hosts a Halloween party. Part of the tradition of costumes, good food, and gaming is that I run a game of Dread for whoever wishes to play. Each year this game of Dread has a full table, and it always turns into a sort of spectator sport for non-players who follow the story as it unfolds.

There has just been one significant problem with this game of Dread: Character creation takes too long for people to focus on while in the middle of a party. Dread requires that each player complete a questionnaire of thirteen questions in order without knowledge of what the next question will be. This is not the easiest activity to focus on when you are surrounded by good food and good times.

I decided to hack Dread this year in order to avoid this one issue. To keep my hack from going astray I committed to keeping the changes to a minimum.

Addressing Only the Key Issue

The problem I needed to address was not a problem with the rules. I had a problem with the situation in which that game was going to be played. The character creation process could not take a great length of time, nor could it require more than a minute or two of focus for the players.

The solution was to break the questionnaire’s up so that instead of answering all of the questions in order at the beginning of the game, the players instead answered one question at a time in no particular order while playing the game. I reduced the questions from thirteen to seven and wrote each question on an index card. My plan was to hand the players a card when they did something in game that should be rewarded, or when they took a risk in the game for the purpose of gaining a question.

My original problem was now solved, but I had inadvertently created a whole new one.

What is the Incentive?

The rules for Dread’s character creation gives the player a foundation and incentive for playing his or her character. By changing the character creation process I had removed that incentive.

I needed a setting that would work with the changes I had made to the character creation process, but at the same time was going to offer player incentive without causing anymore problems. I decided that I would make each character creation question answered an accomplishment that would be reflected within the game world. Since Dread is a horror game I decided to go with the scariest setting that I could think of: Hell.

The Premise

Each of the characters was a soul that had been sent to Hell. The characters had no memory of their lives before Hell though, and unless the characters were willing to risk plummeting into the depths of Hell to discover their pasts they would be tortured for eternity without ever knowing why. Seemed like a perfectly valid form of damnation to me.

Now I had my incentive for each player to learn more about his or her character, as well as incentive to interact with the game world. Sitting around in the game world would result in horrible things happening to each character, and each player’s natural curiosity resulted in plenty of requests for a chance to learn more about their character. I added a rule that you had to wait 15 minutes between taking on challenges to receive a question. Rewarding player actions that resulted in more fun for the group with a question also helped to keep the game on track.

The End Result

The game was great fun, and while my hacks probably would not hold up for a reoccurring game of Dread, they did work splendidly for this particular night. The reason I suspect that it worked is because I kept my hacks to a minimum. Each was focused on either resolving the initial problem (character creation during a party takes too long), or providing the players with incentive to play the game that fit the mood of the event (playing a scary game at a Halloween party).

What about others? Have you hacked a game in order to address a particular problem? What new problems did it result in? What were the end results? Leave a comment below and share your stories about hacking a game’s rules with the rest of us.

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Hacking Dread–Fixing What Is Not Broken"

#1 Comment By Silveressa On November 15, 2012 @ 6:57 am

A few years ago, (read early to late 2004ish) one of the games my group hacked (pretty much to pieces) was Palladium games “universal rule set.”

By the book a normal human with a high physical strength was capable of doing roughly twice the damage of a .9mm pistol bullet with their bare hands and feet, and with a simple make shift club able to rival a 12 gauge shotgun or .44 magnum for sheer death dealing capability.

This made firearms something of a lost cause in the games I tired to run, namely System Failure and Ninjas & Super spies, where in enemies armed with firearms were often feared less than enemies armed with baseball bats and brass knuckles.(and rightly so.)

Having grown tired of both characters and bad guys wading through gun fire to beat down opponents physically we played around with adding damage bonuses of various types to firearms to increase their lethal effect, lowering hit points, and even trying secondary damage effects due to shock and blood loss (which turned out to be so clunky as to slow combat to a crawl) but wound up with gun play then being far too deadly to make a campaign survivable in the long term.

To make a long story short, after several months and multiple attempts to “hack” the ruleset our group gave up and checked out different game systems, from D20 Modern, (which was even worse, with a sniper armed with a .50 caliber anti material rifle unable to kill a normal human in a single shot even if to the head.) all the way through Exalted, White Wolf’s system and a few others before deciding Cortex gave us the right mixture of cinematic flair and realism to suit the groups play style. (And the group broke apart not long after due to unrelated real life issues.)

Looking back on it, I can’t help but feel all the time we spent trying to “hack” Palladium to work would of been better spent checking out other rule systems, and let us spend more time gaming then fussing with the frame work that allowed us to enjoy the game.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 15, 2012 @ 7:21 am

Good point. My Dread example is based on a unique situation where the game itself was not broken. Your example demonstrates here some games are the wrong choice for a group, and that you will have better results finding a new game to play instead of hacking the rules.

#3 Comment By Silveressa On November 15, 2012 @ 7:36 am

Aye, it can be a tricky choice whether to tweak the existing rule set, or look for something better. By the sounds of it Dread has a functional rule set you merely needed to streamline for ease of play for a one shot, where as my groups difficulty was with a perceived lack of realism/plausibility within the rules themselves and a need for our hack to last the duration of a campaign rather then a single nights entertainment.

#4 Comment By ekb On November 15, 2012 @ 8:35 am

Is it even possible to say that you’re hacking Fudge when Fudge itself is pretty much a hack?

It’s pretty easy to have Fudge turn into GM Fiat-fest, so my main hacks have been to make “beat 0″ a minimum standard “to hit” for success. Starting from there, it also becomes useful to have a very granular system for quantifying bonus and penalty factors. That’s where my roll many/keep 3 thing comes from: you still have a base ±3 range, and it’s pretty easy to see where factors cancel each other out even before the roll (which is where Gifts & Aspects should fit IMNSHO), and Legendary/Abysmal results can really only come about from remarkably unusual circumstances. It’s also easy to estimate probabilities: each bonus die is roughly a +1, each penalty is a -1… but the full range of outcomes is still possible. Unlikely towards the extreme values, but still possible.

Fudge isn’t broken. I just wanted a slightly more objective system that was a less fiat driven without turning it into a more math-heavy system.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 15, 2012 @ 9:41 am

My take on this: Fudge is an RPG design kit and not a full fledged RPG. You don’t play Fudge. You play games built with Fudge.

I am big fan of Fudge, but some assembly is required with it. :)

#6 Comment By SeeleyOne On November 15, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

In the early 90′s I played around with the AD&D rules so much that it was better to just switch games. The “house rules” was pretty much a manual in itself.

Later on my group played a mix of the World of Darkness and Cyberpunk 2020. We used the stats and skills from Vampire the Masquerade but the game and dice mechanics from Cyberpunk. It was actually a lot of fun and played pretty quickly. I have tried many other games, also with just as many house rules. I have wondered if I am just a compulsive rules-tweaker. In almost all cases even a small rule change can have a very noticeable effect.

Now I play Savage Worlds and Mutants and Masterminds 3rd edition. In M&M the only rule changes that I have made were to up the cost of several of the powers. This “balances” it better for the games and only really affects things where the cost of a given power matters (which only realy comes into play for PCs).

In Savage Worlds I have found that it is actually very rare when I will make a change, and if I do it is almost always for a very particular setting in mind. Most of the time any changes prove to be unnecessary or they change the game in ways that matter a lot.

#7 Comment By Kell Myers On November 16, 2012 @ 4:43 am

I can emphasize with Silveressa on hacking Palladium. My group tried it once. It was like pulling a loose thread on a tapestry, and having the whole thing unravel. Changing one thing meant having to change a lot of other things to keep it working, which is highly subjective in this context.
I’ve only met a few gamers over the years that adhere to a rules set without adding their own little tweak to things. I think a game that could be hacked and modified without those changes leaving a footprint on the rest of the rules would be a strong selling point.

#8 Comment By Svengaard On November 16, 2012 @ 6:05 am

In my D&D group we have a mix of players with 3.0 and 3.5 rulebooks. What our DM has done is told us that we have to pick one set of rules and our character has to stick to all the feats, skills, and spells in that book. If we want to use a suppliment it has to be based off the same edition our character was built after.
So for me my wizard’s stat boosts last for nine hours, but I can only boost Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. We’ve been playing this campaign for six months now and we haven’t had any problems with it yet.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On November 16, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

A Barret rifle round to the head? Non-lethal in *all* cases? That bugger does 2D12 with a hit! I know this because I’ve got a player toting one around in a D20 Delta Green campaign of mine (or did: he died last session from a single gunshot wound – and him at 7th level too).

You did have the Massive Damage rules turned on, didn’t you? If you turn those off you get into all sorts of trouble with D20, especially in a modern setting. Indeed, many of the complaints about D20 (other than the leveling aspect) go away once the Massive Damage rules are in effect, in my experience.

Though D20 is absolutely not the way to go for cinematic storytelling.

#10 Comment By nolandda On November 19, 2012 @ 11:04 pm

Having run Dread at conventions I also think the character gen can take too long. I tend to shorten the questionnaire as well.

From my POV the the questionnaire does two things:
(1) It gives a sense of who the character is / what is “reasonable” for them to accomplish without a pull (e.g. The Computer Hacker just fixes The Popular Girl’s computer. No pull required.) or with only a single pull when multiples may otherwise be required (e.g. The Army Guy just needs to pull to shoot the charging zombies, everyone else must pull to overcome terror before they can pull again to shoot).

But (2) is the most ingenious thing the questionnaire does. It gives the player investment in a character that is essentially a GM pre-gen. The player answers the questions and gets some authorial ownership of the character. Otherwise there might be a temptation to think “I don’t really care what happens to this character. The GM just handed it to me.” And if the player doesn’t care about the character than the scary parts aren’t so scary and the game isn’t as fun.

It sounds like you handled (1) with the amnesia and (2) by just having a group of eager engaged players, so it wasn’t a problem.

#11 Comment By Svafa On November 27, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

Our 4E game has been hacked a great deal, and I’m still hacking away at it. Most, if not all, have been made to move the system toward a story-telling base while keeping the tactical combat. Most of the hacks are things like possessing items the characters would reasonably have, declaring facts in areas that they are trained for knowledge, gaining situational bonuses for cinematic feats or descriptions, and similar. The final call is always the GM’s though and the group is happy with that.


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