Burst of Insight—Thoughts on Design

Copyright Paizo

In addition to following Pathfinder First and Second Edition news, there are several other games and game communities I’ve been keeping up with. One thing I’ve noticed all of these groups have in common is that gamers are always looking to adapt their favorite books, comics, movies and even games to their system of choice. Some of what I’ve seen from these designers is frankly awesome and other things not so much. Over the course of this blog, I’ve spent a lot of time hacking other settings, adding rules to my home games sometimes new and sometimes cribbed from other systems.

This week I’d like to talk a little about my design philosophies for when it comes to homebrew and adaptations. I am in no way saying my way is the one true way. It is simply the right way for me right now. As GMs and designers we’re always learning and growing so I don’t expect everything I say today will necessarily hold true for me in a year, let alone after another decade of gaming. My goal today is to provide you my current perspective and see if it helps with your design.

Try New Things

My first philosophy is unlikely to change much and it is the backbone of most of this blog. Try New Things in one way means playing different games and types of games you never know where a novel idea may come from. I’ve stolen mechanics from boardgames as well as other RPGs for my various home games I’ve even talked about it here on this blog.

But beyond playing other games, when you think you might have a better or at least different way of handling an element of the game just try it. It seems like ages ago I made a small change to how I run initiative in Pathfinder. It’s a rule change I’m still using and see no reason to change back. Sometimes you’re not so lucky and you change a rule that makes game-play bog down or become less enjoyable. Okay, you tried something new it didn’t work out, change back. Don’t be afraid to try things out.

Be Open with Your Players and Have an Exit Plan

Goblin copyright Paizo

Like my first philosophy, I doubt this second one will change much either.

Before you launch a new rule even if the players will never see it (like my initiative rule) tell them about the change. Solicit feedback and establish the exit plan. Players like to know what to expect from a game and it’s important that trust and communication flow both ways. If you make a change to the rules you’ll want to know if the players love it or hate it.

Keep it Simple

Most often, new rules should make the gameplay smoother and easier. Pathfinder is already fairly complex, there is a reason why many of its detractors and even some of its fans call it Mathfinder. When you add rules they should at least conform to existing rules or better yet streamline them. I’m typically a fan of the wealth of options and general complexity of Pathfinder but there are some rules that when tweaked just a little could improve play a lot for everyone at the table.

Design with a Purpose and a Plan

You should have a particular goal in mind when you start tinkering with the rules. When I implemented my variant initiative rules I just wanted to simplify my workload as GM and speed up combat for everyone. When one of my players expressed an extreme dislike of the swarm rules we experimented with some options to patch that specific problem. Ask yourself questions to identify the problem and then brainstorm possible solutions. Note any concerns you might have about the rule try to find solutions for those concerns as well. Keep notes on your process you may want to refer to them again later.

Design with the Destination System in Mind

This is a cousin philosophy to Keep it Simple. This most often crops up when adapting from one game system to another. While reading various conversion threads I often see people converting Game System A to Game System B. Something many of these conversions try to do is carry over the exact experience of playing Game System A instead of focusing on how to adapt concepts to fit within the parameters that make Game System B worth playing. I’ll admit I’ve even been suckered by my own cleverness on this one. When 3e and d20 modern first launched I attempted to convert Shadowrun to d20. Instead of focusing on small manageable changes I began by making a priority based character creation system. The new mechanics despite feeling very much like the original Shadowrun rules didn’t work. The priority-based character creation really mucked about with how the PC balanced against one another and against the threats they would have to face. Ultimately, I gave up the project without ever running more than a single session with those rules. I had a similar discussion online with a Pathfinder player who was adapting Pathfinder to Genesys. Now, Genesys is a very narrative game with freeform magic rules that would do a reasonable job of replicating Golarion but the GM in question wanted to convert Pathfinder and was porting over rewrites for all the races, every spell, and a wide array of feats. Needless to say, the project fizzled despite some excellent work by the designer because of the project’s massive scope and the problem that this kind of straight Pathfinder conversion doesn’t play to the strengths of Genesys.

I hinted to this above but one way to convert one game system to another is to look any fiction that might exist for Game System A (or imagine what fiction set in that world might look like) and adapt the fiction rather than the mechanics. That isn’t to say you can’t borrow mechanics (that’s another hallmark of this blog, I borrow mechanics all the time) just keep your destination ruleset in mind when adapting those mechanics over.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel (Unless You Must)

If you had a good time with Strange Aeons decide you want to play more Call of Cthulhu with the Pathfinder rules don’t bother creating a new Sanity sub-system unless you don’t feel the current rules service your or your table’s needs. This goes for other rules too not just adaptation. I’ve found that (at least at my table) until someone gets a metamagic rod very little metamagic gets used. Now, I could design a new rule to fix this or spend a little time looking to see if anyone else has already dealt with this problem. I happen to know that Monte Cook has optional write-ups for metamagic feats in The Collected Book of Experimental Might. In that book rather than increasing the requisite spell slot, the feats can each only be used x number of times a day.

How do you approach game and rules design? Leave a comment and let us know.

Burst of Insight

Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.