As someone who takes a visceral pleasure in knowing the ins and outs of a system, I understand the appeal of making it do things that some people don’t expect it to. Whether it’s making a character build for Luke Cage in Pathfinder, or coming up with unexpected multiclass combinations for 5th Edition DND, doing something out of the ordinary with an existing rules system can be a lot of fun.
However, with that said, it’s also true that a lot of the time a certain game is simply not meant to accommodate certain themes or play styles. As an example, Pathfinder is so steeped in high magic (it’s in the history, the culture, the Golarion setting, and what feels like more than half the available classes get spellcasting) that attempting to run a low-to-no magic game is going to be problematic past the first few levels. If for no other reason than the game is assuming you have access to magic weapons to fight monsters, magical healing to press through multiple encounters, etc. so you’ll have to re-engineer everything from the ground up. Call of Cthulhu is great for investigative type games, but making it a class and level-based game is sort of the opposite of what it’s intended for. 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is a lot of fun, and it’s really flexible, but it doesn’t really accommodate a modern fantasy game that’s more about monsters like werewolves and vampires as PCs. Especially one where there are no fantasy races, no divine casters, and where other major elements of the rules don’t apply.
Despite that, though, I bet we all have a story about a DM who tried to make an idea like this work. If you’re that DM, here are some questions you should ask yourself.
1) Can I Make This Work?
The first thing you need to do is look at all the parts and pieces you have, and ask if it’s possible to turn the game you have into the game you want. While it might seem obvious, a lot of DMs don’t sit down and evaluate the materials they’re working with first; they just dive in and start making changes, assuming they can get the end results they want with enough tinkering.
Reflection at this stage can save you a lot of frustration later on.
2) What’s My Return On Investment?
I’m all for modding a game to make it more fun. Hell, you could make the argument that a large portion of my job is to think of stuff for other dungeon masters to add into their games to keep their fun and engagement running high. But from one mechanic to another, let me ask you this… how much work are you willing to put in when you don’t have to?
Imagine, for a moment, that your game of choice is a pickup truck. It’s durable, it’s dependable, and you know that if you need to really haul some heavy weight, it will do the job. What that truck will not do, though, is win a drag race against a sleek little speed demon geared to pick up and play. It doesn’t matter if you beef up the engine, add a NOS unit, and remove some of the bulkier, workhorse aspects… this truck isn’t meant to be a dragster. You can make it faster… but the question is why? Why would you do that, instead of just getting one car for racing, and one car for hauling?
This is what I mean when I talk about return on investment when it comes to your time and energy as a DM. Because on the one hand, if you really know a system, you’ve already put in that time to learn it. You’ve probably got books and pdf files chock full of resources, as well as experience. But what that doesn’t cover is how much work you’re going to have to do to modify the game, and then to explain/teach those modifications to your players. Then there’s all the re-tooling you’ll have to do to your modifications (often on the fly), when it turns out something you thought was solid doesn’t actually hold up in practice. That can lead to frustration all around the table, and sap the energy from a session.
Before you start a mod, all you need to do is ask yourself this question; are you putting in more time, energy, and resources into modding the game you know than you would in finding a different game that was made expressly to do what you want? If the answer is yes, then ask yourself why you’re doing that. Because on the one hand, it’s true that learning a different game takes time, effort, and usually costs you money. On the other hand, though, you’re also putting in resources to mod an existing game… and the further you have to mod it to do what you want, the more resources you’re putting in.
3) Am I Stuck In My Comfort Zone?
There is another factor at play when it comes to these total overhauls, and it’s one that kicks objectivity right out the window. Because if you know a game really well, and you like playing it, then you may not want to start over to learn something else. And if you’re going to be the DM, you’d rather have some version of your game of choice than a game you’re less familiar with… even if that game does exactly what you want for your story.
However, while it’s perfectly possible to assemble a Russian fighter jet cockpit from spare farming equipment parts, you may want to step back and ask why you did that. Because even if you can recognize all of the parts and pieces in play, and even if you can drive a tractor, that doesn’t mean you can fly a MIG made of tractor parts. Or that your players will want to.
The question of when changes have become too much will depend entirely on you, and your game. But when you start trying to twist your game’s mechanics to do things it was never intended for, it might be time to put down the combine harvester, and to look for a different machine specifically built to do the job you need.
But if you decide to stick with your initial plan to heavily modify an existing game, ask yourself why? Is it because this is really the best game to tell the story you want, and to provide your players with the proper experience? Or is it because this is the game you know best, and you’d be more comfortable trying to make a tractor fly than in using an actual plane?
For more by Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, or head to his blog Improved Initiative!
Picture Reference: http://www.infobarrel.com/How_to_Build_Luke_Cage_in_The_Pathfinder_RPG
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.