Man have I been lazy! I haven’t gotten anything done, but I did need a break from everything, just to recharge my batteries. I’ll get back to my humanoid project soon, but I did want to hurry up and add my two cents into the current Blog Carnival taking place at Campaign Mastery. This one is in regards to mistakes that one makes during play.
While I believe that it is everybody’s goal, to identify the mistakes that we make, and weed them out, discovering our own weaknesses takes time. I take you back to my first table, I wasn’t the DM, but a player, and of course, those Dungeon Masters taught me how to run games. We were just kids, which is common, but man were we horrible. I refer now to the number one mistake that I have witnessed, and that I myself have been guilty of, which is over-doing it on the house rules.
We tinkered with everything so much really, that it would probably take months to describe in full, but I will hit what I feel were the worst cases of house rules that really didn’t work but we still stayed with them.
Now 2e is very hospitable to house rules, the DM has the final say so over everything that takes place, and I still do house rule from time to time, just to make sure that a scene transitions well with another, or to speed up a part of the game that I don’t feel that anybody is to terribly interested in. I also like to keep my save or dies to a minimum because I don’t want to lose the impact that they have by over-doing them. In other words, there are lots of great reasons to come up with different ways to do the same thing. I don’t disregard every instance, in fact, I would rather see more house rules in play over all of the supplements and pointless books which do more to bog the game down with clutter then actually aid to it in any truly meaningful way.
BUT! In regards to the Core Rules, and I am referring now to simply the Players Handbook, the Dungeon Masters Guide, and the Monstrous Manual, these things should not be tinkered with. The only thing that can happen by playing with what is core, is failure. Even if you think that it is working, one rule provides the basis for a hand full of other rules, and if the DM can’t describe his house rule quickly while at the table, then it is probably a good idea to just do away with it completely.
Today I will talk about what I feel are the greatest sins of house-ruling a game, but before we get down and dirty in the mud, it would be beneficial to know exactly why folks house rule core rules, for which there is only a few answers.
The most common being that they think that their way is better. They discover a problem which annoys them, or most often something that they don’t understand, and instead of thinking it through and trying to identify why the rule is there, or how this rule effects the rest of the game, they simply change it and do their best to ignore the repercussions of their actions. It would actually be humorous to see folks completely blinded by their own house rules, if it just wouldn’t effect your own personal game in the dramatic sense which it does.
The other reason to house rule a core rule is because deep down you really don’t want to play Dungeons and Dragons, but some other obscure title that you can’t get any players for. D&D is the catalyst, I don’t want to learn new rules, and when I sit at the table I just want to play! This kind of house ruling seems innocent enough. Something written down can sound like fun at the time, but in actual play can go to the opposite effect. The most common mistake involves war games, and trying to adapt them to be compatible with D&D which they aren’t. Some people are just die hard about getting realistic combat with dice, and it can’t be done! A critical hit list quickly turns into a pain in the butt and if you aren’t balanced about it, a true game-wrecker that isn’t fun for anybody.
Boredom is also a good reason to house rule a game, but again, this goes back to the first problem, which is the lack of understanding of how the core rules require each other to stand up for themselves. In 2e if your players aren’t challenged enough, then it is time to place the more advanced rules which are already in the PHB. New players aren’t expected to count their weight and deduct it from their Movement Rates, they don’t need to worry about specific weapon types being faster then them, or capable of by-passing their armor class, these are advanced rules written for advanced users of the game. They are harder to remember and to understand, but that is what makes them fun! Maybe your table doesn’t ever need to go to them, but maybe it does, this decision is between individual DMs and their players to decide.
Personally, when altering the core rules, even though a Dungeon Master can do it, it is more ethical to ask the players, especially if the rule is in their handbooks. It is very important to keep all of the rules in the PHB functioning as is, they need to know how everything in the game should work. If it isn’t in there, it is slightly less core. Everything in the DMG should run fine as is, but we can alter these rules with a bit more freedom. The MM should always be ran as written, but then again we can always add our own monsters into the core without any problems . . . well, as long as we know what we are doing.
Now, with that out of the way, lets get down into my terrible past and examine some of the worst cases of blatant bad DMing decisions that I have ever had the gall to enforce!
1. TWENTIES DO DOUBLE DAMAGE
This one seems innocent enough, and as far as house rules go, is the least odious of them. Why this one is a mistake is that specific weapons carry a bonus of double damage when a natural 20 is rolled, and if we take this away then we are encouraging the players to never change weapons, not to mention taking away the impact from when it does happen.
Folks are so used to something cool happening when a natural twenty is rolled that it has become the equivalent of landing on Free Parking in Monopoly, something does have to happen. This something shouldn’t mimic another rule's special power, and there isn’t anything in the core rules which says that a normal weapon such as an axe simply hits its target on the 20, and nothing else. We can color our combat scenes and give the players, or the villains, an edge when a 20 is rolled for an attack. Nothing more lethal then normal, but an edge all the same. Perhaps the victim loses their attack the next round, has to make a morale check, or some other thing which would fit the scene. I feel that that is a good unwritten rule, however double damage should only be reserved to arrows and pole arms.
2. MISSILE COMBAT RULES
This one relates to another problem which is common, which I’ll get into later on, but the misunderstanding which involves missile combat is that it is different then melee combat. In direct combat, nobody knows how many parries or blocks were really involved in scoring the hits, but this is not the case with missile fire. Every arrow that flies into the scene must be accounted for. This is easy to forget, because each attack will deduct an arrow from your inventory. It is almost easier to track arrow inventory on a separate piece of paper and update your character sheet at the end of the night. Of course, DMs are just as guilty as players are when it comes to NPC archers, but the number one problem with missile combat is blatantly ignoring the range of the target. Most Dungeon Masters don’t even bother checking an enemies range, they simply treat it as normal combat and it isn’t!
3. DORKING WITH THE MAGIC SYSTEM
Back in the day, we had a hard time fumbling around with the mages spells, and one of the players who usually did the DMing kept buying all of these spell books, “And gosh darn it, I am going to use them!” well, he didn’t say gosh darn, but you get my point. Many tables have gone through this, and have house ruled it so that instead of learning spells, you have access to all of them, and instead of using the table in the PHB, you use a spell point system.
This was a nightmare! Not only are all of the mages exactly the same, but the player playing the mage is ignoring the game while he constantly reads spells and their functions as he is trying to find ways to make the DM’s life as hellish as possible.
Wizards in AD&D are extremely powerful, in essence, magic allows a player to cheat the rules. It is vital that a DM knows exactly what spells he has up his sleeves. That way, if the DM’s got a problem with a mages spell list, then he has only himself to blame because he’s the one that gave it to him. Spells, especially wizard spells, have been play-tested to death by the good folks at TSR, and while it sounds like you are getting ripped off, you aren’t.
On the other hand, a priest, whose spells are mostly defensive and typically aimed at healing, are less restricted. A priest can use any of them which he has the proper level and granted the proper access to the sphere of influence. I generally keep this list to the PHB only, or upon request, the Tome of Magic. I can also add new spells through NPCs if the player can identify the new cleric spell, or through scrolls. In effect, the priest requires a greater amount of spells to function on a fair level then does his wizard counterpart.
Spells are also suppose to be written down and turned into the Dungeon Master on the start of each in-game day. These are the spells which the spell caster has studied/meditated for. Under more advanced rules, the magic user has to spend at least 1 hour per spell level to gain the spell. This doesn’t go away under normal circumstances, a remembered spell will stay in his brain until he casts it or if he chooses to replace it with another spell.
This also hints at removing charts and graphs which make magic unpredictable, as under the AD&D magic system, all spells are terribly expensive. Spells can be ruined if the caster is interrupted in any way, so one must properly know how long the spell takes to cast, and what is required of him. Magic does slow down combat! But if we move it to fast then we run the risk of making errors.
4. IGNORING XP
This was an even worse sin! And unlike all of the others, this sin is one of pure laziness on the DMs part. Instead of counting up XP like we were suppose to, we’d just be granted a level for a game day. This fell apart on many different levels. We’d play first level characters for many many hours and never reach 2nd level until the next game, when in reality, we should be much higher. Then, on the other side of the scale, we’d breeze through the higher levels with uncanny speed. We’d only get 20 games out of our characters, and we had no idea how rewarding that actually earning a level was.
5th level comes fairly quickly, but there is a dramatic slow down after that point. We also ignored level limits on demihumans because the DM loved them so much and felt it unfair that an elf who lives longer couldn’t achieve high levels of play, which for us, was usually only 9 games. This isn’t role playing, this is simply playing. If the rules are ran correctly, the player playing a demihuman can play the same character for a year or two before maxing out on his levels. Especially multiclassed demihumans who are always going to be slow to advance and perpetually behind the other players who are single classed, and one must be meticulous about XP when playing something like that!
Again, all of this goes right back to play-testing on a professional level. Being young, we thought that we understood the game more then the brainiacs at TSR who invented the damned thing! Of course, now we know and since we are playing the game correctly, we are having a much better time and a more rewarding experience all around.
5. CONDUCTING ROUNDS INCORRECTLY
This mistake is probably by far the most common, even for advanced players who have been playing the game for years and years!
It is most common, I have observed, for everyone to roll initiative, and then decide exactly what everybody is doing. This is completely out of sequence, and it effects the rules for both missile combat, the casting of spells, and for initiative itself!
Now I know that this is bad, but back then I never thought nothing of it. In fact, we still find ourselves doing this same mistake to this day! While the game is still functional, by doing this it is broken and not at all core. In fact, the game is much smoother and less chaotic if it is done correctly, but what is correct?
Before the round starts, and before initiative is rolled, the DM decides what all of his NPCs are going to do that round, if it is the first round he also needs to figure out the range of the enemy, determine if anybody is surprised or not, and figure out the enemies initial reaction. Once all of this is done, he decides what each enemy is going to do, which isn’t all that difficult. If a creature is going to attack, then who? If there is a leader, he’ll probably hang back and bark orders until he sees who his party is struggling with the most, and he’ll target that person. Lots of stuff needs to be factored in, but this doesn’t take too long if you are prepared.
After we know what we are going to do that round, we ask the characters. This doesn’t need to be too advanced stuff. If they are going to attack, find out what they are going to attack, and with what. If they are going to do something tactical, such as charge, this is the time to say such, but we must resist altering our plans, if we have decided that our gnolls are going to attack, we shouldn’t alter them to setting their pikes for a charge. They don’t know what the players are going to do, just like the players don’t know what you are going to do.
A player can choose a few different options, and none of these are set in stone. In fact, a good player will be as brief and to the point as possible when describing what he is planning to do. “I am going to attack one of the gnolls with my broad sword” vs. "I am going to attack the closest gnoll to me." If he says this, and one of his companions beat him to the punch and slay the creature, that player may lose his turn if there isn’t another enemy around for him to target.
Spells are a bit different, if they are going to cast a spell, this has to be announced prior to initiative, this is the true reason for the rule. A spell caster is not allowed to change spells, but he is allowed to stop casting it at any time. It will be up to the DM to decide if it was successfully stopped or not, some spells happen so fast that it might not be voluntarily stopped before the magic is released and the spell is forgotten.
Arrows and other missiles are also taken out of sequence, and must be properly figured before the round can be determined.
After it is figured out what everybody is going to do, they may have the option to change their mind after initiative, but at a cost. Movement costs time, a fighter is better at this as he can give up 1 or 2 of his attacks to perform different actions. For example, a priest originally stated that he was going to attack, however an enemy archer scored double damage on him and he is in serious danger. He can’t cast a spell to heal himself, but he can stop and run half of his MR away while digging for a potion of healing. This action will be completed last, so if he has won the initiative, he has a good chance of surviving this, however if his party has lost, he may have lost his life if he gets hit.
Hesitations are always left up to the DM to figure out where they happen in that round.
Once it is figured what everyone’s action will be, we can move on to initiative, which can take place in a variety of different methods depending on the difficulty of the game that you are playing. I think that the easiest method, and the fairest, is to have all of the PCs roll their own initiatives, and the DM rolling a group initiative for his monsters, factoring in weapon speeds and such to modify the roll for each individual in the monster party.
Initiatives can be house ruled all you want, as long as it is fair for everyone. You can even have the leader roll the initiative and have all of the PC’s modify that number with their personal speeds, or simply be civil about it and take turns like good little children. It doesn’t matter if nobody cares.
The formula for the round can now be determined. Of course spell casters screw everything up. If a spell caster is casting that round we have to figure out where he will be in this formula. If the spell takes a round to cast, then it will take effect next round if he can maintain his focus (i.e. not get hit), casting times are there to help us place the spell properly in the round.
Here is the exact formula, with the exception of spell casters who defy it. The word winner here refers to the winner of initiative, if the group initiative is being used, and the loser refers to the loser of initiative. Advanced games will be really chaotic, and will have to be determined on a case by case basis.
- Winning Missile weapon 1st attack
- Loser missile weapon 1st attack
- Winners melee weapon attack or first attack as dictated by weapon speed
- Losers melee weapon attack or first attack as dictated by weapon speed
- Winners Second attack (including arrows and other missiles)
- Losers second attack (including arrows and other missiles)
- Take turns with additional attacks with winner always starting until they’ve all been played out.
Some times, especially with group initiatives, there is a tie. This dictates true chaos and is not rerolled. Instead, it has been judged by the gods of the dice that both parties attack at the exact same time. Go ahead and let the players go first, because they are itchy, but when there is a tie, even a dead creature who dies in that round still has an attack, and in effect, two characters can kill each other.
I now know that THIS system is real Dungeons & Dragons, and by modifying it until it isn’t recognizable makes it no longer D&D, which might not bug many of my readers, but it sure does bug me.
Well, I made it to 5, and I am sure that that is just the tip of the iceberg, but that is okay, because in effect, discovering mistakes and correcting them is exactly what this blog is all about!
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