Saturday, August 29, 2015

What's a DM to do?! (about the DIY-ethos and game design)

I'm doing a lot right now (with intent to do even more the next few weeks) and it's arguably all DIY. The more I do stuff like that, the more I love it, actually. Tinkering with games, taking them apart to see how they work, talking about it, writing my own games, it's all part of the same fun package. One thing I encounter every so often is that I always seem to find a new construction site once I'm done with what I originally was doing. It goes on and on, but I'm starting to think there is a pattern. So this is a (incomplete, I'm sure) list of things I tinker with and my thoughts on their value for my own games. Maybe you guys find something of interest ...

What am I talking about?

As much as everybody and their grandmother might try to make you believe otherwise, to provide a group with the world they are to explore is entirely the DM's duty. Sure, you might use something made by someone else, a setting, an adventure, an idea, there is some great stuff floating around worth using. The thing is, while it's totally okay to use stuff like that, it's equally important to give a DM at least the possibility to build his own thing from a very basic level of a game.

So this is a collection of some of the things a DM could (should?) do to improve his game the DIY way.

1. Relabeling

I'm not (yet) talking about customizing classes or skills and giving equipment a cultural touch and whatnot. What I'm talking about for now is easier, but going deeper than that. Like, rewriting the game terminology:

same/difference [thoughts]
In an ideal case an exercise like that won't only make a DM very familiar with the terminology he's using, but also helps customizing the very feel of the game solely by talking about it. It doesn't change the rules and it's done easy enough.

As you see, DMing a game is not only about knowing the rules and being able to interpret how they should be used in certain situation occurring in the game. It's also about language. So by keeping the division I presented above and using the terminology I deem best for the game of my choosing, I'll be able to control and contrast the elements I think important for the game. It produces tension.

2. Translating/In die eigene Sprache ├╝bersetzen - oder not?

In Germany Dungeons & Dragons is called ... Dungeons & Dragons. The brand is too strong to use a translation. Maybe they'd even been forced to use it that way. I don't know and it's not important. What they did for sure is translating the terms of the game. Random Character Sheet:

Original German D&D Rules Cyclopedia Character Sheet ...
My English speaking readers can consider themselves pretty lucky about this, as most mainstream rpgs (and many in the fringes of the hobby) are already available in English. For all others it's either going for the native rpg scene (not my favorite thing in Germany and, in my opinion, pretty commercial and elitist about it ...), hoping for a translation, reading and using the original - or translating your own version.

Sure, making your own translation needs skill and dedication, not every DM will has the abilities and/or inclination to do so. But it's worth considering, at least for the key terms (doesn't need to be whole thing) and even if there's already a translation available. Just like in the first point above, it gives a DM the chance to alter and change the game he offers on a very basic level, individualizing the whole thing as he thinks appropriate.

Alternatively you could take a game written in your native tongue and translate it into another language. It doesn't even matter if you are familiar with that language or just like the sound of it. I mean, why not take the D&D terminology, for instance, and translate it into Latin. If it helps your game, why not go there?

3. Setting means restricting some system availability ...

There you go, defining a setting means cutting down the options of a rpg. Even if you start with the setting and write the rules afterwards, you'll still have to make decisions what you want to happen in your game because of the setting. Either way, setting will have this effect, so why not use it to your advantage? Just google "obscure D20", for example (since D20 was notoriously exuberant with third party publications of that sort ...), and get some ideas:

Weird, right? But actually got some good reviews ... [source]
So could you imagine a beholder in a setting like that? Or a fireball slinging wizard? Me neither. And that's a good thing. Actually, the more obvious a change like this is, the more likely it is that it'll have an impact in your game. Just say "There is no Magic in Just-Imagined-Landia anymore" and you'll have a totally different (D&D) game.

Where ever you start, system or setting, building it from scratch or looting your way through your library, it's a great chance to have the nuance you want in your game. You don't like a rule in a book you bought? Test it anyway, make yourself familiar with it and if it still doesn't do anything for you, toss it. The idea behind DIY is not to do it all yourself (you still might, but that's not the point), but to do, learn from it, then do more.

4. Just don't see it as restriction, it's more of a focus, really

Instead of only focusing on what a DM doesn't want in his game and how it restricts a system, we should take a very close look at what's left and how to improve and expand on that. You want lots of car chases in your game? Write/steal/get detailed rules for it and make sure the system provides enough connections for the characters. Maybe a Driver class, letting characters have cars as starting equipment (with a huge list to choose from) or even whole skill sets about handling cars, from tuning to stunt driving.

So yes, a setting can't have all of it, but what it has should count. Emphasize and detail it where ever possible. In it's extreme form that's what most Indie RPGs are doing (as I understand it): they build an extremely detailed focus on one or two themes and ditch the rest to emphasize what's left even more.

You'll get exactly what it says on the cover. Nothing more,
nothing less. [source]
The lesson here is that all the little parts you want to work in your game, should ideally work as a mini game of their own. Again, lots of room here to get creative, steal, buy or borrow from other systems.

That's it, folks

Or is it? As I stated in the beginning, I always find new construction sites, but right there is the pattern I see when tinkering with games since I constantly:

  • change/play with the terminology,
  • translate it, use my native tongue or another language entirely alien to me,
  • define a setting by restricting the system I use to only what I'll need and
  • emphasize what is left even further by adding subsystems and more detail 

You can't go wrong with any of that. Just try it. In a worst case scenario you get the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and will therefore get better results the next time around. Over time you'll collect enough house rules and alternatives to make writing your own personal rpg heartbreaker just a formality because that's what you did the whole time.

But this is not about writing your own games, it's about making what you've decided to work with your own. Not every one is a game designer and doesn't have to be, either. But as a DM you start where the designers left. Devising a campaign is, after all, nothing else but individualizing the available content. It's just a matter of taste how far a DM is willing to go. The sky is the limit and all that ...

So how far do you all go with this at your tables? "Rules as Written" or "Write new Game for new Campaign"? Are you somewhere in between and if so what's the first thing you do when tackling a new campaign? Comments and observations are, as always, very welcome.


  1. Where D&D is specifically concerned, I have made the mistake of moving my game around the various editions of D&D, not out of some sense of dissatisfaction with any particular edition, but more out a desire to kick the tires and see what the folks at wizards had cooked up.
    As far as making a game my own and melding it to my campaign, I think I do some similar things to what your blog spoke about, regardless of what edition we’re playing.
    First thing I do is limit some of the standard fantasy elements that are baked into D&D.
    I impose strict limits on magic users, and Sorcerers. In 5th ed those magic wielding variants of every class, don’t exist. (Arcane Trickster for example)
    Magic is finite and limited to locations; a spell caster is hobbled by the lack of magical energy in the world. There are campaign reasons for this, built into the history of the game.
    Rarity of Demi humans, Elves dwarfs and gnomes in my world lead very insular lives. Dwarves might be gone all together, elves hide and gnomes are basically reduced to a wondering set of tribes. So when one of my players picks a Dwarf he attracts a lot of attention wherever he goes.

    Rarity of magic items: There are no rings of protection +1 in my game. Any magic item is unique and special.
    I try to not use vanilla monsters from the MM. If I do I try to give them a twist. I find this goes a long way to keep the players on their toes and also to make the world stand as its own entity. Orcs feel like talking to me, Drow feel like Salvatore. I don’t want players thinking they are player in middle earth.
    Its small details like that which I'm constantly tinkering with, changing a bit and hopefully improving.

    1. Thanks, Mark! Those are all good examples of what I'm talking about. Restricting player options (as you did with magic and prestige classes) and expanding on what is left (as you expand on the monsters you use) are both good ways to take control of your campaign. The same goes for individual magic items. That's something every DM would be good advised to do ... Thanks for sharing, man!


Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.