Thursday, April 19, 2012

DM Advice - Changing the Rules to Fit the Setting

A buddy of mine and I have an interesting discussion the other day regarding how a game master could take the rules of a game and tailor the game in such a way that adds to the story by giving benefits to players who play within the roles of the story arc and some penalties to those that play outside. Specifically, we discussed the pros and cons of applying this idea to character creation in a Shadowrun game he ran years ago featuring an Orc/Troll ran biker gang in Seattle.  I admit that I have reservations about some of the ideas in that to some degree the game master is pigeon holing players into playing a specific theme but in other ways I like the idea because it does give the party a sense of unity and a reason or existing as a shadowrunner group.  I will break down what was done in basic terms and then feel free to weigh in with your thoughts to the ideas presented. 

First off, let me say that I have tried this in the past to limited success and in some situations it completely backfired when players decided that they did not want to play at all because they did like the sandbox I was creating.  Then again there are some games that I have tried to get the characters to play within a theme and it ended up working perfectly fine but I digress a bit as the subject of today’s DM Advice column is more about my buddy’s shadowrun game and how he specifically tailored it to fit the theme of his game world.

Due to the fact that the core group was a biker gang and all players were members of this biker gang controlled by orcs and trolls the players were given benefits.  Specifically he swapped the cost for orcs and humans and dwarfs and trolls.  This made it more costly to play human and kind of pushed players into wanting to go ahead and play orcs and trolls instead of the humans and dwarves.  For the most part everyone ended up playing either an orc or a troll but there was at least one player who decided to play human but it cost him points whereas ‘by the rules’ the points are different.  Now I can see how some players would be offended by this.  Of course there is always the ‘it’s my game’ argument but that really never got any DM very far in my opinion.  I have used that one too to various successes and failures. 

In a way it is brilliant because it really gives the game mechanics the flavor for players going for the setting and adds in the benefits of extra points to spend on character creation.  The converse side of this is of course if someone just really wanted to play a human or dwarf character he would be out points.  Is this really a big deal?  Some say yes and some say no.  It works in games like Drow underdark games as there are not very many humans around but Seattle is a big city and one could argue that the orc/troll gang did have humans and why should it cost additional to play the human? Why not just let people play orcs or humans at no point cost?  In the end it’s up to the DM but I would like to hear from my readers about what they think in regard to this type of change to the rules for the benefit of the setting.

Next as the game was set around the biker gang he limited the tech that was available as the players did not work for large corporations.  The tech wasn’t limited to no tech but some of the more costly benefits and perks were eliminated or completely restricted from the game.  Again, I have done something similar in my Dragonlance game whereas because it is a steampunk environment the anachronistic  weaponry of the dark ages such as particularly large swords must be purchased at a premium due to the advent of gun powder and the time and effort it takes to make such a weapon. 

Conclusion and Final Thoughts
Let me leave you with this one question, does it really hurt the game to manipulate the rules in such a way as to provide this level of theme setting or is it just something that is expected of creative game masters?  What have you done in the past that is similar in regards to manipulating the rules to suit the environment?  Is this fair to the players who want to play a specific character type but feel limited in their choice?  What if anything could be done to modify this to make it better?

I want to thank my buddy for the discussion as it proved lively and lead to the creation of this post at 7:00am in my hotel room in Durham North Carolina.  I am looking out the window and I can imagine the next game adventure forming in my head as I take in the majestic scene and natural beauty of this state.  I think that the next Dragonalance game will take place on a floating island covered in trees.  Who knows, they might even encounter an orc biker gang.  Until next time.



  1. Hi ACG

    As the DM who was running this game you bring uo some interesting points. When I ran this game most of the players liked the idea and wanted to play Trolls and Orcs without the liits of the race slots so the issue never came up.

    We had one person play a human and the person did this because they would have the advantage of being very useful to the gang. Since the party were members and not leaders this was important. Although as a human she could not be a member of the gang, only an associate, she did have the advantage of being able to go and deal with the outside world ithout the onus of being a troll biket. This made the character useful to the Troll that ran the gang and earned her favors.

    All in all it was a fun game but I can see how a player might want certain benefits. Still since the party were a metahuman gogang and the players wanted to do this I think that the modifications we made were mutually agreed upon, so it ended up working I think.

  2. Oh don't get me wrong Indy I think that the idea is brilliant but the fact that some players would have a problem with it does not escape me. I like what you did and I am glad it worked out for you. Have you done this kind of thing in other games? What do you think about our Dragonlance game so far? Do you like the changes to the rules I have made? I have had mostly good comments from the guys and ladies about it in the game.

    How would you have dealt with a character that wanted to play a half orc type character in that game? Say he has some human but also orc blood and wants the best of both worlds?

  3. I think this kind of modification really helps to make a game feel unique and special. Of course there's always people who chafe at any limits. Like the person who wanted to play a human. Making such options available, but cost the player somehow is a good solution. You also need to make sure there's room for plenty of types of characters within your limits.

    Campaigns with limited character types like this automatically have the characters start with a connection. You don't need to figure out how the elf celebutante knows the bear shaman. You have a good idea of motivations and missions that will work with the group.

    As for half-ork's I'd go with the human-looking advantage and play out the rest of the details with build and roleplay.