By The Warden
I have to admit something before we get started this week, though I’m not entirely sure if it’s shocking, dramatic, or unnecessarily overblown: I suck at following the rules in any game. Not because I don’t care or can’t understand them, but because I’m an eternal dabbler. I may have read the rules and played them at a con before, but it doesn’t take long for the GM in me to tweak and revise on the fly as it suits the story. It doesn’t matter how much playtesting and development a game has gone through, it’s in my hands and I’m gonna do what I want to it.
Case in point, I present to you the events of late 2003 when a minotaur PC defied the rules of D&D combat and decapitated a major villain with one solid strike. There’s little I remember about the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the fight itself because that was cranially pushed aside by the sheer thrill and curiosity at the player’s request: “Can’t I just chop his head off?” Those of you familiar with the d20 System (no, no, not that one, the original one) will know there was no decapitation rule. Maybe something to the effect of called shots would work, but the idea of a single blow killing a non-minion was basically against the rules. The game was designed to provide combat in rounds and unless a player was someone lucky enough to pump out 80+ damage in a single attack, that head was gonna stay firmly attached to the villain’s neck. Such gratuitous violence is reserved for an enemy’s eventual drop to 0 hit points in the middle of the sixth round, not as a result of the first swing.
Maybe it’s because the player knew asking that question would get my interest, maybe it was just a random thought spoken out loud. Whatever prompted the question, I started to think about it. “Ok,” I replied after a brief moment, “you can try it, but there’s a -4 penalty to your attack because it’s a targeted strike against a specific point on his body and you must roll at least 25% of his total hit points to lop that head clean off. Otherwise, he’ll simply take that damage as a regular attack.” For memory’s sake, let’s say our villain had 100 hit points, forcing my player to cause at least 25 points of damage with a battleaxe causing d8 + a minotaur’s Strength damage. It was very difficulty, but still somewhat plausible. And it was a spur of the moment experiment.
Wouldn’t you know it? He rolled a critical. With a battleaxe that tripled damage on a critical. He caused 26 points of damage, just enough to sign a court order forcing the villain’s head to remain at least 50 feet away from his body at all times. What was originally planned (by me, it should be noted) as a long combat encounter was wrapped up in a single blow. Now I had opened up Pandora’s box of roleplaying and provided a means for players to waltz over whatever fight they wanted unless I banned this rule or found a way to handle it for future use.
You know what? I kept it in the campaign. For years, it was an option, but with a strict hindrance. Killing an enemy by decapitation meant the XP reward was reduced to 25% of its previous amount. You could go around chopping off heads left, right and center, but it would take you much longer to hit that next level. The rule was never used again, but it remained as part of the campaign as a kind of emergency back-up.
Whenever I tell that story, I’m asked why I let players break one of the major foundations of the game so easily, thereby creating an optional provision where the very design of D&D combat was cracked open like an egg. My answer is spoken with firm belief. “Because I don’t think GMs should simply regurgitate the rules as they are written. We should adapt the mechanics just like we would adapt the story to preserve the pacing and demands of the game.” In this case, my player thought it suitable for his minotaur to go straight for the quick kill and move on. My job is to provide, not deny.
It’s a fundamental view I’ve carried into my game design. Yes, there are rules in place, but I’m not interested in finding new ways of phrasing existing rules. I want to find new ways to let the game shine by stretching what exists and doing so comes with its own challenges. It all comes down to a system’s accepted use, or how the mechanics come into play across the board.
PLAYING THE SAME GAME
While the experience may vary, the text of any RPG must maintain some level of consistency for easy use and comprehension during a casual read and particularly during play. This is where terminology spares everyone the burden of mixing up rules, bonuses, penalties, or whatever. That being said, terminology and a clean rule set do not guarantee the same interpretation at the table or in third-party publication. It’s all about the game’s accepted use, meaning how certain mechanics are generally applied in the game’s design and application.
Here’s a recent example pertaining to my latest project, Xenopedia (under the Mystical Throne Entertainment banner, the very same publisher behind this very website). Using the popular Savage Worlds system, I’ve been working on building new and interesting aliens within the rather compact and straight-to-the-point mechanics. For one species in particular, I designed them with a lower center of gravity and four sturdy legs to support their upper body, making them very difficult to trip or push. While a simple bonus would have done the trick, I wanted something a little more daunting. Increased difficulty. So I required anyone attempting to push or trip one of these buggers roll a Raise over the alien. For those of you not familiar with Savage Worlds, a Raise is when someone rolls 4 points higher than the target number.
The publisher came back with a note and changed this ability to a +4 bonus. The result is basically the same thing because either the PC needs to roll 4 higher than the alien’s opposed roll or the alien always gains +4 to their result. A minor change, but one that I questioned as I saw a Raise as a more daunting obstacle than someone with a +4 bonus. Everyone uses a bonus, that’s easy to do. My mind saw the Raise as comparing the act of tripping this alien to knocking over a solid brick wall and phrasing it as such fit my goal. The +4, however, was the accepted use for increased difficulty in Savage Worlds; this is how players and third-party publishers the world over apply such increases and therefore my Raise was reverted to a +4 bonus for my four-legged alien. A Raise is the equivalent of success, not a measurement of difficulty.
It’s important to note that the use of Raises as a measurement is not exclusively defined in the core rules as such, but it has become accepted as the standard practice. That alone is what made my version of those sturdy legs wrong. Technically speaking, there’s little difference. Like how someone pronounces “tomato” or “bagel.” (That last one’s an inside joke for Community fans. Seriously, if you didn’t catch it, then you’ve missed a show with the absolute best roleplaying episode EVER!) What makes such pronunciations and interpretations wrong in this case is that it makes you stand out in the crowd as an outsider and that can backfire when you’re supporting a licensed system.
The accepted use of any mechanics determines how strict or interpretive a designer can get with the material and it’s a very delicate balancing act in third-party game design. These designers and publishers walk a fine line between innovation and cohesion; their work is expected to fit in with the official products released by the system’s original publisher and yet stand out as their own body of work. It’s akin to a reinterpretation of a Shakespearean play. No matter what genre, gender, or format you change for your particular production (such as turning it into a film), you still have to follow the same script or else your audience will become upset. The same concept applies here and it all comes down to the simple fact that anyone who buys a Savage Worlds third-party product expects to see the mechanics they know and love. All they want to know is how you made them work for your particular setting, supplement, or adventure. It’s about suspension of disbelief and this is how it works in roleplaying games. If you cause players to stop their enjoyment of the game because of a mechanical glitch (in their eyes), you’ve broken the game. That’s why the bonus is right because it’s the accepted way of doing thing in the Savage Worlds universe. Because even four-legged alien pirates have to play by the same rules as everyone else.
Until we get to my table. Then all bets are off. And peace is restored to the galaxy.