Skin & Bones

February 27, 2018 at 4:56 pm

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

― Pablo Picasso


It should go without saying that writing an RPG makes you think a lot about rules. Is a rule fair? Is it consistent? Is it too cumbersome? These questions and more were constant companions. One stood out more than all the others, though. And that was, ‘does it even need a rule?

Role-playing games were revolutionary in how open-ended they were, where players could do anything and take the story wherever they wanted. And that leaves a game designer with a choice, try to cover every situation with rules or trust that the GM can just ‘wing it’ when the player decides to swing from a chandelier and throttle the blackguard with his legs.

More than the well-trodden ‘rules vs. rulings’ debates, this is about adding complexity to a system where it may not be needed. If there is a spell that shoots red balls of force from a wizard’s hands, would you need a separate spell that shoots yellow sparks of power from their forehead?


Skin deep

Rules are the bones of a game, the structure that holds everything together. But the surface is just skin, the individual elements that make every game world and adventure unique. And these can be changed and tweaked to fit each gaming group’s personal taste. As long as the bones are strong, the skin take on as many different forms as the imaginations of the players’ can conceive.

When we were writing Heroic Expeditions, the goal was always to create systems that would work in various situations rather than rules that addressed specific circumstances. Rather than detail a number of specific skill Aspects, we created a few categories of skill difficulty, and left the rest to an individual GM to detail. If a player wished to become a master brewer (for example) that is role-playing decision with limited mechanical ramifications, but a clever GM should feel free to allow it to come into play wherever appropriate. If the villain tires to poison their ale, would the master brewer not notice a shift in the hop balance?

Similarly with Attribute tests. If a character wishes to do something that is not expressly covered by the rules, the GM can simply have them make an Attribute test at a level they deem appropriate. This should get them through the vast majority of player surprises.

If a campaign leans heavily on a specific aspect — seafaring in a pirate campaign, or scavenging in a survival game — the GM might want to detail a few specific Aspects from these general categories and their mechanical effects. For example, in an underground campaign the GM might want to add Mundane Skills specifically for orienteering, fungi-cultivating, or spelunking.

In the case of magic, we created the idea of visual effects to cover the many variations an Adept might want to put on their spells. If they want their Mage Bolt to be crystalline daggers that shatter on contact, so be it, If they would rather their summoned guardian to be the spirit of the grandmother, make it so.

Their could be mechanical ramifications to these choices, if the GM and the player think they would add value to a game. An Adept’s blast might be actual flames that could set flammable things alight, but might have limited affect against fire creatures or inflammable objects. Or a particularly horrific visual effect might scare off skittish creatures, but would be ineffective against those without fear or conscious thoughts.


Risk and reward

This can lead to abuses, where an opportunistic player tries to inject positive benefits into situations but argues against any penalties. In these circumstances, its important to remember that the effects are designed to differentiate the character and serve the story, not to squeeze another +1 out of a damage roll.

What works for players is just as valid for the Game Master. Monsters, traps, and magical items can be re-skinned just as easily. If the group leaves the planned path and wanders into a trackless swamp, and the GM wants to have them assaulted by frog men, simply use statistics for goblins. For added color, allow them to use their tongues to entangle as whips and you’re done.

The rules should never constrain your choices, but empower your ability to adjudicate conflict. If a GM sees an item that’s a potion or a bomb, but would rather see it as an egg, then its an egg.

A potential drawback of designing this way are a perceived sameness of character types, as some players focus on the mechanics of the abilities and thus see all warriors wielding melee weapons as the same. But we’ve always looked at characters as much more than their damage die or best Attribute test. There is also the risk of creating loopholes within these rules-light categories that might have unintended consequences or be abused by players.

But if the alternative is a 500-page rulebook and a shelf-load of supplements required for every game, its a risk we’re willing to take.


Necromancers: Skinning the dead flesh

To illustrate, let’s say we want create an archetypical necromancer Adept for Heroic Expeditions. You could create a number of Aspects and spells for raising minions and controlling horrors, but you would just end up with more rules and more complications. But would that make it better? We think not.

Within existing rules, a necromancers would undoubtedly focus on summoning spells, and perhaps even use the Conjurer Spell School Specialization from here. There are many flavorful visual effects they could employ from using a giant leg bone as their Staff, or having ghostly hands reach up from the dirt for Slow Movement or Stop spells.

Beyond that, say you wanted to make their summoned creatures skeletal abominations in guardian, wolf, or even dragon shape. You could give them invulnerability (arrows) to reflect that, but could open them up to the optional clerical rebuke undead power (shown here) or perhaps they are just more mindless than the normal summoned creatures, and must be actively directed by their master.

For that matter, the Gm could create necromantic versions of most monster, from skeletal elephants to zombie unicorns. Zombies would not gain immunity (arrows), but would perhaps trade slowed movement for additional AD.

The idea is to create the image of a necromancer, without the need to rewrite a series of rules to make it so. Re-skinning over solid bones can save you time, increase your options, and help you make better games.

Do you re-skin elements in your games? Have you had successes or unexpected disasters? Did hew overlook the key to re-skinning success? Let us know in the comments below.