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Hacking the Game

Posted By John Arcadian On September 12, 2008 @ 2:06 am In GMing Advice | 17 Comments

I’ve got a player who loves D&D, except for the parts of anything that he thinks suck. This class is underpowered in this way, this power doesn’t work most effectively, etc. He isn’t a power gaming type and he isn’t a houseruling type, but he turns to me as the GM to try to change/improve things.

With that in mind I’ve got a few questions and a few ideas.

What do you think about houseruling and hacking the game?
If you’ve seen The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, you know there can be some pretty heavy resistance to changing the rules of a game. What do you think about it? Answer in the comments, I’m curious about the general feeling towards this.

Here are some pros and cons, as I see them.

Fortunately, you might get closer to the game that you wanted to play.
If you are mostly satisfied with a gaming system but want one little thing different, then changing the rules to accommodate that can be a good solution. If you like Shadowrun, but dislike the long and intricate hacking sessions that go along with it, then changing the rules for Matrix diving might make the game more fun for those playing it.

Unfortunately, the players might not be sure what to expect.
If you rely on the rules to guide how things are resolved, then changing them might take away player’s options. If a person expects their magical powers to be constantly available, but thanks to a house rule they don’t work in a certain area, then you might have a pissed off player on your hands. The key to avoiding this is to make sure that players know about any major changes like that beforehand.

Fortunately, some balance issues might get fixed.
From a designers perpective a power may seem incredibly cool and fit right into the niche it was designed for. However . . . When mixed in with another lower level power or seemingly innocuous spell – KABOOOM. Changing the way one or more of these things works might bring things back into a playable balance. However, this might make it seem like a player is being nerfed for discovering a nifty loophole.

Unfortunately, some new balance issues might arise.
While making a change to powers and abilities you might inadvertently change the games balance. New loopholes might be opened and you are suddenly faced with 2nd level characters capable of taking down the tarrasque. It could happen. Something as simple as changing the way a sleep spell affects things so that elves aren’t immune might have unintentional consequences. Raising the damage on a certain weapon type might cause it to scale in an unexpected way.

Fortunately, it makes the game more fun for everyone.
There are some kinds of game hacking that make the game more fun. If everyone agrees on them and it eliminates barriers to play or enjoyment, then it becomes a null issue. I know my groups have always removed xp penalties for multi-classing. We just never found much reason for them in our style of play.

Unfortunately, it can make more work for the GM.
I’m always a little resistant to making major changes to a game system, especially if I’m not as familiar with all the intricacies of it or it relies on carefully balanced equations to work correctly. I never look forward to re-statting a carefully balanced array of powers or making it up from 1 to 20. Getting into the nitty-gritty of a system and changing around elements can be rewarding, but oh so time consuming. If you like this sort of thing then this is in the pro column and not the con column.

Hack away in the comments section and let me know what you think about game hacking in general. Do you hack game systems or prefer out of the box? What kind of things are you comfortable with changing about a game system? Success stories? Horror stories?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Hacking the Game"

#1 Comment By DNAphil On September 12, 2008 @ 5:59 am

I am a game purist. I do not like to tinker too much with my games. I may houserule a few minor things, but I would never hack a game. It has been my experience that when my group hacks a system, that we often run into severe balance issues.

Because of that I am very picky about what games I want to run. Before I feel comfortable about running something, I have to be comfortable with the rule mechanics. I am fine just not using some parts of the rules, but I won’t play a game if I have to hack something just to get the game to work.

When I ran d20 Modern, I did not like the vehicle chase rules. In my campaign that was not going to be a critical part of the game, nor did anyone really want to play a Wheelman type of character, so we dropped using those rules, and the few times there was some kind of chase, we just used the Drive rules.

All in all…I am the kind of guy who sticks with most of what is written.

#2 Comment By Rafe On September 12, 2008 @ 7:05 am

I’m of the opinion that the rules are guidelines. If something isn’t working, change it or adapt it. However, the rules should be tested in application before deciding to alter or drop them.

#3 Comment By John Arcadian On September 12, 2008 @ 7:43 am

@dnaphil: Just leaving out rules you don’t like isn’t something I had thought about when writing this post. It makes total sense if you never plan to use those rules, or there is a simpler method involved. I know when I look at it from a designer’s standpoint I try to make any rules that have “extra” bits completely optional, but then again that is very subjective to the game system or play style.

@rafe: I tend to be this way too, but usually on the fly. If something isn’t working and I can come up with a better way for that situation, then I make the change and usually forget I ever did.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On September 12, 2008 @ 9:42 am

I enjoy hacking away at systems, but I’ve been getting better about trusting the designer’s intent and at least giving it a chance first. [I was particularly bad about house ruling early on, in high school.]

My big rules changes tend to be responses to good but less flavorful play. So after a successful Mage campaign where the PCs didn’t use many foci/rituals (due to enough Aerete to drop their most frequently required foci), I house ruled that spell target numbers in the new campaign were based on the amount of time and ritual used to cast rather than the power level of the effect. [The power level would still be a result of the number of successes.]

It worked out well and made setting target numbers easy. After we’d played for a few months, I realized that there was little difference between the way I was doing it and taking the rulebook and using the modifiers for using a focus when not required, taking extra time, etc. I had “hacked” the rules to match the actual rules. [It did have a powerful effect on the players; instead of counting up modifiers and working them in, they came up with flavorful rituals that just happened to take some time and tools.]

Fortunately, you might get closer to the game that you wanted to play.
Unfortunately, the players might not be sure what to expect.
Fortunately, some balance issues might get fixed.
Unfortunately, some new balance issues might arise.
Fortunately, it makes the game more fun for everyone.
Unfortunately, it can make more work for the GM.

All six points are true. The fortunately items are your goals– a game that is balanced, fun, and tightly matches your vision for a specific game. The unfortunately items are the unintended consequences of stepping back to a playtesting stage; more work for the GM, especially including heightened scrutiny required to keep balance. Getting players on board requires a lot of effort– instead of just explaining what the rule is, you need to explain why this rule is being changed and what effects you anticipate. While that’s work, it does make your game truly yours.

#5 Comment By LesInk On September 12, 2008 @ 10:34 am

I tend to stick to the rules as written. Why? I don’t always have the time to balance it out.

@John: You started out giving us an example of a single player who is asking the GM to change the rule for this or that reason all in the name of “improving the game.” Certain players you are never going to please as they may come across as moody. I find I only will consider making a house rule if one of two things happen: 1) the whole group agrees there is a need — not just a single player, 2) it meshes well with the design of the game campaign.

@Scott: It sounds more like you are doing ‘customization’ more than an on-the-whim house rule change. The upside is it was an area you wanted to experiment with and that gives you all the incentive to try. This reminds of a 2nd edition D&D game where I changed how the whole magic system worked. I ended up having to fix the various problems I had created (like the amazing number of magic missile type of spells everyone ended up with).

But what strikes me the most about this article is making ‘exceptions’ for specific players/characters. What the GM should be most worried about when he starts doing that is the proverbial ‘Can of Worms’ he’ll soon encounter — if it’s good for player A, player B may step up and want the same treatment — and then the rest of the players.

Therefore, I recommend that you keep your modifications are changes that the whole party benefits from such as new initiative order methods, spell/magic/psionic/technology systems, combat rules, etc. Yes, sometimes certain types of characters will benefit more from other types, but usually not exclusively. In addition, the enemies usually should always benefit from such changes keeping the game more balanced (a bonus for you can be a bonus for the bad buys). It’ll save you time later when you wonder why the players are steam rolling over all the encounters.

#6 Comment By LesInk On September 12, 2008 @ 10:41 am

Sorry for the add-on post, but this just hit.

If you truly have a problem with a player with an overly weak character who wants the rules changed, you might have a better weapon than hacking the rules: the respec.

That’s right, let the player consider changing his character by fixing bad decisions for better decisions. The benefit? You stay within the existing rules before changing the rules.

Sure, there will be times when that isn’t enough and so you may still have to consider rule changes, but consider it the first line of defense. Of course, the can-of-worms issue of everyone wanting the same treatment may occur again, so you might want to house rule some type of limited respec and how often (kind of like 4E’s ability to retrain feats/powers as you go up levels).

#7 Comment By itliaf On September 12, 2008 @ 11:37 am

I tend to worry much more that the new rules won’t jibe with my players game than that they will throw the balance out of whack. If they react to my changes with a shrug, find them too complex to learn, or feel their PC has suddenly been overshadowed (“No more penalty for firing into melee? what do I need this precise shot feat for?”), then rule has failed, regardless of balance.

That said, I have an evergrowing mental list of ways to hack 4e. New levels of frustration and apathy await my players.

#8 Comment By Dasis On September 12, 2008 @ 11:51 am

Lesink- i thought i would defend a little on the player side since many times i am that player that requests the change. You are very right that some players are looking for that added advantage, or being moody, but it can also come from a place where he or she is trying to balance some issue that may deal directly with that player’s character. Also it may come from a place of adding favor while balancing the issue. I once made a character, who had no dragon blood but could breath fire. His story was one of complete devotion to his god and thus was granted a gift. I made sure that my power was balanced and not out of sink with the other players. Thus the DM let me do it and the group and i had a great time with it. Truthfully i first try to recognize why a player wants the rule changed, because there intent my only be to add to the world and fun.

So as not to totally derail, i hack alot of my games. Sometimes i just want a different feel from the same game. Like SW Saga i really liked the game rules and how all the talents worked with vechials, so i hacked it with a Mecha game so my players could play a Giant Robot Star Wars game. Yes do picture the Jedi in a Giant Robot, talk about powerful ( These are not the Giant Robots you are looking for).

#9 Comment By Karizma On September 12, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

I’ve done a little GMing, and I’m rather happy with the rules I’ve come to use. However I find that for the purpose of the campaign world I’m making, I need to change a large part of the system (magic) entirely. This is going to cause a lot of problems. First, there’s going to be balance. Instead of a houserule or two, I’m actually completely redesigning magic from ground up, concept and all. That means I’m going to have to do some heavy play-testing in all areas. The upside though is that when (read: if) I finish, I’ll have a system that fits my ideology for my campaign world.

Also, the way my friends have done mechanic-hacking, was if a player wanted something changed to fit his character (say, I didn’t like the way bards were set up), the GM would ask me to arrange it in a way I saw appropriate, and I would play-test it. It worked really well, as the player has the creative freedom (and the motivation) to create his ideal vision of the implementation, and the GM would perform minor tweaks for balance.

#10 Comment By Swordgleam On September 12, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

I’ve done most of my GMing in tri-stat, with is flat out unplayable without hacking. It’s not so much that it isn’t balanced (depends how you look at it) as that it’s so rules-light and vague that any two people reading one rule are going to come up with three different interpretations. I consider the rules to be guidelines at best. I’ll always tell my group at the start of the campaign what set of house rules/interpretations we’re using, and if we have to change something mid-campaign, I make sure it’s okay. If a player has an idea for a change, I’ll usually allow it.

I’m just about to run my first 4e campaign, and I plan to stick with the rules as written, at least from the start. But that’s already been thwarted – my Elf Ranger would rather have more skills than Precise Shot, my Dragonborn Warlord doesn’t think the history bonus makes sense in the setting we’re using, and my Human Paladin wants to power his magic with blood. I’m sure our Cleric will want something changed by the time he rolls up his character, too. My group is fantastic, and I’m blown away by their enthusiasm, but.. if there’s one flaw we all share, it’s the inability to let anything alone if it could possibly be better.

#11 Comment By John Arcadian On September 12, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

@scott: Oooh.I like the way you hacked my post ;)

@lesink: You’ve hit the nail on the head for why I never/rarely make the changes for the player mentioned. I don’t think I’ll ever get the balance right to satisfy him and I won’t play favorites. Now if he wants to do the hacking himself and let the group approve it, that is a different matter entirely. Houseruling and specific hacking seem, to me, to be falling into very separate categories. If the group complains as a whole about a rule, then at least the group is complaining as a whole.

@itliaf: “That said, I have an evergrowing mental list of ways to hack 4e. New levels of frustration and apathy await my players.”

I’d love to see them. I haven’t yet gotten too ingrained into 4e, but I definitely have heard enough lauding turned to gripes that I’m curious what you are ready to change with it.

@dasis: “Sometimes i just want a different feel from the same game.”

I think that is one of the best reasons I’ve ever heard for why to hack a game. I know I like most games about 80 – 90%. There is always that something more that I would like to see work differently.

@karizma: Magic system hacking is one of the hardest things to do. In most systems magic is its own entity in total and it is never easy to deal with. I think I’ve rarely seen a nice and easy streamlined magic system that felt balanced. Cumbersome and works well or streamlined and leaving a lot open to interpretation are the two extremes.

@swordgleam: “I’ve done most of my GMing in tri-stat, with is flat out unplayable without hacking.”

That is my one big complaint about Tri-stat. It is so open to interpretation that it is almost impossible to get the same interpretation of a rule or way thing works from 2 different people. Usually my experiences with that have been to leave it up to the GM. The place that Tri-stat shines to me is as a background upon which people can build their own gaming systems. An rpg developers kit, the language underneath the program. I’ve always found that things like Dreaming Citys and Ex-machina, which are built with Tri-stat but have a little more structure, help to alleviate some of the interpretation issues. They still exist but aren’t so bad.

After seeing hellboy II I’m tempted to run a shared narrative Tri-stat game with the Dreaming City’s book. Let people make most of it up as they go along. “Who’s your informant? No, tell me all the details. ” Leave a lot of that stuff up to the players and just adjucate the inevitable inter-party conflict.

#12 Comment By Swordgleam On September 12, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

@John: I do like Dreaming Cities a lot. I had quite a few, “…d’oh!” moments reading about how they used Power Flux for ritual magic. I’d always wondered what it was good for, since the example in the manual was not too exciting. We tend to just use Dyanmic Powers as a catch-all for that sort of thing.

I really love being able to improv and handwave and just have story without getting too caught up in the crunch, so tri-stat works fine for me. And it is very easy to introduce new rules – my adventure for WoAdWriMo features “the Rain Effect,” a zombification mechanic that’s been a great success whenever I’ve used it. I don’t think I could get away with something like that in most games.

I tried to introduce a crunch-loving friend of mine to the system once. He kept compaining about the lack of good called shot rules, and how his greatsword should do more than just be more damaging than the longsword. The events went something like this:
“This isn’t a tactical game. It isn’t an “I hit him here” game. It’s, “I hit him, now we have story things happen.””
“I critical.”
“You slice his legs off.”
“Can we have story happen now?”
He hasn’t played in one of my games since, but it certainly gave us a greater insight into each other’s favourite systems.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 12, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

I did what everyone else did… I started by playing the “rules as written”, went on to be a compulsive game-hacker (although I never wrote my own system), and then (once I recognized that any decent set of game rules have probably been tested once or twice) I finally came around to “reasonable” hacks. I tend to play a rule “as written” a few times before hacking it these days, but I’m still a bit of a hacker.

That said, there are basically two reasons to hack a game: Balance and Setting. I’ll hesitate a while before hacking a game over balance, at least until I understand how the system actually works; I’d prefer to see it from a few angles before getting the hatchet out. What I have found is that perceived balance issues generally mean that I’m doing something wrong, or I missed a bit of information elsewhere. (No, I haven’t always been this patient; yes, there are bad rules out there.)

I’ll hack a game to pieces over setting, however. We’re playing D&D 3.5 in a “medieval Europe plus magic” setting? In that case, there are no monks, period. If you want to make a pugilist, I’ll gladly trade you a feat or two for an unarmed damage die that scales with your level. :-)

I should add that I’m naturally suspicious of non-setting supplement books, and was so long before WotC flooded the market with theirs. I feel that a game should be pretty complete before publishing, and that “add-ons” rarely mesh as well with the core rules as I’d like them to. Setting supplements are different, although they can also suffer from “add-on dissonance”.

I’ve also found (as I ‘mature’) that I prefer rules-light systems such as Savage Worlds over rules-heavy systems like d20 and Hero. Regardless of which side of the screen I’m on, I prefer to rely on the GM’s judgment before breaking the pace of the game to look up a rule. (Then again, I won’t play under a bad GM.)

Sorry for the meander; this covers a few areas…

#14 Comment By John Arcadian On September 13, 2008 @ 7:36 am

What if I play a Benedictine monk? Franciscan?

I usually feel the same way you do about add-ons, depending on who makes them and what their purpose is. If something is adding on new rules I want the rules to be worth it, not just “Hey, we could gain more revenue by doing X thing and adding a few new powers. We’ll need to make it so much greater than anything else so people want to buy it though, so overpower it a bit.” Sometimes those rules mesh and sometimes they just don’t work at all.

If a rules supplement really adds something though, then I am all for it. Like a rules supplement that adds airship flight and mechanics to a fantasy game. However, I want it to state emphatically that I am buy a book about Airships, and not a book that has those rules buried inside of so many other sections.

I guess in the end it all comes down to the layout and setup of the book. I want to know what I’m getting so I can evaluate if the rules it adds are going to be worth the purchase.

#15 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 13, 2008 @ 7:55 am

John: I originally wrote, then edited out “there are no monks as written” because it sounded odd… But yeah, if you want a European monk, then play a cleric with Craft: beer. ;-)

#16 Comment By trollsmyth On September 13, 2008 @ 11:30 pm

Old-school hacker here, from way back when. There’s no RPG on God’s green earth that can’t be improved with a tweak, exemption, or good hearty kick.

Keep in mind that balance is a chimera; whether or not those non-combat skills are vital or dead-weight depends utterly on how the game is played. In most iterations of D&D, charisma is a dump-stat… unless you play with hirelings and henchmen, in which case it can actually be your character’s most important stat.

With that in mind, the first, last, and only criterion upon which a hack can be judged is fun. Does it bring fun to the table? Then it is good. Does it make it harder to have fun? Then send it for a long walk off a short pier. Ditto for official rules, too.

#17 Comment By Scott On September 14, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

I interpret a lot, and houserule whatever I feel I need to. I also come up with mechanics somewhat frequently. In 4e, I’ve done variant action points, added an action cache mechanic for time-pressure situations, and done a few other setting-related things. In HERO, before 5th edition, I house-ruled Aid to a higher point cost. There’s always something that can be tweaked to improve a group’s experience.

The trick it took me a while to learn is to weigh fun more heavily than anything else. At one point, way back in 1e, I had a slew of house rules. At least half of them were completely unnecessary to my game, when viewed from this perspective.

Odd that Dreaming Cities should come up in this discussion; I just reviewed it this week. It should’ve posted earlier today.


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