For a RPG geek, there’s an undefinable allure to game systems. There’s just something about understanding the rules, how the mechanics fit together, and the consequences they have upon play.
As Charlie has mentioned, however, there’s no silver bullet. He has written about how FATE is great for story, but not so effective for detailed tactical combat. He’s also opined that 4E D&D is awesome for tactical combat.
Your perfectly imagined character might not fall within the game system’s sweet spot. Does this mean you should pick another character? Maybe. There’s no shame in playing to the system du jour.
However, while your character may not be a perfect fit, there’s no reason to force conformity. Don’t let The Man get you down! This post will give a few strategies for working around the system.
Fighting Rules with Rules
This is the most extreme option, and ironically, the most common. If the mechanics don’t exist to play what you want, just make new ones. How many of us have minor tweaks or whole sub-systems to fit that specialty character? Of course, this sort of circumvents the whole problem, since the character now is supported by the mechanics.
However, rules need testing. Instead of an explicit playtest, though, house rules often get tested during everybody else’s regular game. I get suspicious when people start homeruling their own characters, especially without input from the whole group. Unless the player’s really trustworthy, the situation is the power gamer’s catnip.
For example, in a 2nd Edition AD&D game, we decided the spell memorization mechanic was too restrictive. So, we came up with level-scaled “Magic Points” that could be spent to cast a spell. In our very next game, the wizard quickly learned that he could create a maelstrom of high-level fireballs over a couple rounds. Rule-tuning can fix broken house rules over time, but can turn “gaming” into “working” very quickly.
Skinning, it Ain’t Just for GMs Anymore
In an earlier post, I wrote about how a GM can simply describe things differently to achieve a different result, while leaving the mechanics the same. The identical method is available to players. Instead of NPCs, however, you’re changing the description of your character’s abilities.
Replacing flavor text lets you use good mechanics that simply don’t “sound” right for your character. I’ve long advocated letting players describe their actions, and this is just taking that a step further. Instead of studying a spellbook, perhaps your character meditates with a rune covered stone. Instead of sneak attacking, your character does extra damage by aligning your chi with your opponent’s.
My group tends toward a less fantastic type of game, which clashes a bit with the 4E D&D style. Several of us used “skinned” our powers to be a little more realistic. Rays of energy became enchanted thrown rocks, while magically growing weapons were replaced with lunging attacks. One player decided it was a bit much for his monk to breath fire on his enemies, so instead, he launched into a series of acrobatic strikes.
Playing to a Theme
Another option is using a selection of rules to approximate an end that’s not explicitly provided for in the system. This option works especially well when when your aim is partially supported by both mechanics and descriptive text.
My previous post highlighted the diminished role of mounted combat in 4E D&D. Yet, I also mentioned playing a mounted character. Instead of making up my own feats or Paragon Path, I picked character options that simulated the effects of a specialist horseman.
First, I considered what mounted cavalry were good at: speed, riding through the enemy lines, and hacking away at either flank. Next, I focused on rules that allowed movement, bowling over the opponent, and attacking multiple adjacent enemies. From there, I just picked options that matched my criteria. The options worked exactly the same whether the character was on a horse or not, but, all together, the effect came close to what I had intended.
Mix and Match
Of course, you don’t have to pick just one method. Used together, they can be much more effective. A selection of mechanics that approach a theme can get even closer by describing them appropriately.
In fact, my horseman character used a combination of all three. In a 16th level campaign, a standard horse is just a snack, so the GM and I developed a beefed up version that would have a better survival rate. During play, I described many of the powers in less fantastic ways. Also, in the single encounter in which he managed to actually ride a horse, I described some of the mechanical effects as coming from the horse rather than the rider.
…Or How I Gave Up and Learned to Love the System
No matter how open, closed, rules-intensive, or rules-light a system, there’s going to be something it doesn’t do well. These gaps attract gamers like moths to a flame. Luckily, there’s a particular kind of enjoyment in getting mechanics to do stuff they weren’t meant to do. Hopefully I’ve given you a few ideas of how!
Do you have more methods to achieve the same goals? Got better examples of bending a system to your will? Just want to complain about a mechanic? Feel free to post about them in the comments!