Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on a Dragon Age RPG House Rule

The new Dragon Age pen and paper role playing game has only been available since December 9, 2009, but I am already thinking about how this system can be applied to situations not specifically listed in the rules set. Creating "house rules" is one of the great obsessions of Game Masters, and some players, and I am not someone who is immune to the obsession. I am, however, one who understands that when coming up with house rules one should not think that a couple of readings through a rules set gives one a better understanding of underlying game balance than the designers have. The designers have spent months, if not years, creating, playing, and testing the rules to see how different effects affect the game play.

One of my maxims as a game tweaker is, "never create a house rule that eliminates meaningful choices from the system." What I mean by this is that no "innovation" I create should be so desirable as to create an effect that must be selected for characters to be successful in the world. Don't create a "super choice." It also means that a rule shouldn't prevent players from creatively solving problems, or from making foolish choices.

Games are about stories, whether the game itself tells the story or the story comes when the player is talking about the great time he or she had playing it, and the more choices the players have the more creative the stories can be. Any given system will already have eliminated some choices as a part of design, for example there are no machine guns in Dragon Age, my goal is to find ways that the existing structure allows choices that might be overlooked if they aren't pointed out with a house rule -- or that might have to be house ruled on the fly when a player asks if he or she can perform a certain action.

As you might have guessed, this doesn't mean that there aren't any choices that house rules should not eliminate. There often are. As stated in Will Hindmarch's and Jeff Tidball's book Things We Think About Games in statement 018, "all variations on gameplay stem from two core types of alterations: expanding choices and restricting choices." A house rule may be needed to create a restriction against using an "exploit" a player discovers within a system. What is interesting in such cases is that by restricting the use of a particular choice, the house rule might actually increase the number of other meaningful choices within the system. After all, what is an exploit other than a "super choice" -- a choice that makes all other choices undesirable? The key as a game tweaker is to determine what the meaningful choices are within a given milieu and to work to maximize those events for players while eliminating choices which might supersede these choices to the detriment of the game.

A second maxim is, "never create a house rule that makes it more likely that the players will fail." Players participate in role playing games because they want to imagine succeeding at things they, in the real world, would find difficult or impossible. They want to leave the workspace cubicle and become "heroes." Players hate failing and they hate it when their characters die. This is even true in slaughter house games like Call of Cthulhu, which is why the rule book for that game goes to great lengths to describe how to make death "meaningful."

This doesn't mean that tasks should be made easy. In fact, Raph Koster has an entire "theory of fun" based on a definition of fun in which enjoyment is equated with continuous challenge based learning. A game must challenge the player enough to be interesting, but be easy enough that they do not become bored. For role playing games, like video games, this means that the rules, adventures, and stories must scale in difficulty and complexity in a way that corresponds with player and character experience. You don't want to make a rule that makes it more likely that players will fail in any given course of action, because the game designers -- if they have done their job with any iota of skill -- have developed a game that has a "fun balance." More than likely, they have weighted their "fun scale" on the side of challenging rather than ease.

Okay, with those caveats, what new house rule have I come up with for Green Ronin's Dragon Age pen and paper game?

In this case, it isn't a "new rule." Rather it is an expanded application of an existing rule. In the Dragon Age RPG, the rules use three kinds of tests to determine the success or failure of a given action.

There are basic tests where the player rolls 3 six-sided die (3d6) and adds the appropriate ability and focus in the hopes of exceeding some target number. For example, a person trying to sneak through an alley would make a test rolling 3d6 + their Dexterity ability + 2 if they have the Dexterity(Stealth) focus. If the game master thinks this would be a Challenging task, then the result must equal or exceed a total of 13.

There are opposed tests, which are made when a character is attempting an action that is actively opposed by another character. This test works like the basic test except that both characters make a test roll and compare target numbers with the higher target number winning. There is a tie-breaking mechanic, but it is unimportant at present.

Finally, there are advanced tests. These tests are typically used to emulated tasks that take a lot of time and/or planning to complete. This might include forging a suit of armor or researching the history of Ferelden. Players make a test as normal, against a static difficulty, but they record the number of pips displayed on a particular die within the 3d6 roll (the Dragon Die). This value is then compared to a "Success Threshold." If the value of the Dragon Die equals or succeeds this number, the task succeeds. If not, the player must make another test which if successful will add the value of its Dragon Die to the existing sum of prior Dragon Dice values. This continues until the threshold is passed. Failed tests merely increase the length of time it takes to succeed. These tests aren't typically used to determine the success or failure of a given task where failure has dire consequences, rather they help determine the speed of success for tasks that will eventually be successful if enough time can be committed.

This is where my alternate rule comes in. The rules as written (RAW) state that if a character is aided by other characters when attempting an advanced test, then the difficulty of the test should be modified instead of both characters making tests and summing the Dragon Dice of the multiple participants. I think that is fine for some actions, but if we could also use the advanced test mechanic to simulate a test to succeed at something that would be impossible for one person to accomplish and where prolonged exertion may or may not affect success or failure?

For example, let us say that a group of 4 characters stand before the Temple of Riognaton -- one of the Old Gods. The temple's massive stone doors haven't been opened in millenia, but the characters need to enter the Temple. The GM has determined that it would be impossible for one character to move the doors and that the action will require at least 2 of the characters. One could rule that this is a basic test where additional characters add a modifier to a primary character's roll, but I don't find that quite satisfying.

I would like to propose using advanced tests in these circumstances. The GM could determine that the task is a "formidable" task (needing a Success Threshold of 25) for the group and requires a target number of 15. All of the players could roll against the target number, with only those who succeed adding their Dragon Die value to the Success Threshold. Obviously, there are multiple ways one could use the Dragon Age system to emulate the opening of the doors, but this method allows the individual players to see how much their character contributed to the ultimate goal. It also avoids the more mechanical seeming, each helper adds +2 to the roll or each successful helper adds +2 to the roll mechanic. It takes an often static choice, aiding a comrade, and makes it more interactive.

One of the wonderful things about the Dragon Age rules set is that it inspires these kinds of uses of existing systems. My house rule for opening ancient temple doors didn't require the creation of a "new rule," but it did use an existing rule in a way not previously highlighted by the creators of the game.

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