#RPGaDay2015 24: Favorite House Rule

RPG-a-day-2015My favorite house rule would have to be the one that I don’t even think of as a house rule. When we played Carrion Crown, the GM instituted a house rule that each round, a character could drink one potion as a free action. Doing so simplified play, made potions a slightly more appealing option in the tight action economy of Pathfinder and became completely invisible. In short, it was the perfect sort of house rule.

Ave Talisman Movement Variant

During last week’s Talisman session, I was reminded of a thread I’d recently read on Boardgamegeek.com proposing a movement variant for the game where each player has a stack of cards numbered one through six. Each turn for their movement, a player chooses one of those cards, moves that many spaces and discards the card. Once they’ve exhausted their supply of cards, they pick up the discards and shuffle up to draw again. It’s essentially how I recall the movement in Ave Caesar working.

Being able to strategically ration and utilize movement values instead of moving at the mercy of the die means players could gun for each other much more easily. And as Aswin Agastya points out in the thread, the level of control over movement provided by even the limited choice of “this number or that number” reduces the opportunity for the fun of a character stuck between two impossible choices.

Then during the game, Hunter mentioned an initiative variant for Dungeons & Dragons where players draw playing cards for their place in the turn order — which rather reminded me of Savage Worlds‘ own initiative system. Then I thought, “Playing cards would work, but there are only four suits, so that’s kind of a bummer, since no one could have their own suit.” That put me onto the idea of alternate suits of playing cards.

And lo, there is at least one deck with eight suits cards, the additional four being clovers, droplets, moons and stars. $16 is pricy for a single-use game component like that, but if I can come up with more uses for that many suits of cards, maybe I’ll snag a deck.

[Arkham Horror] The Kingsport Variations

Since I cracked open Miskatonic Horror last week and spent some time ogling all the cards, one thought in particular has recurred to me: how could the Kingsport board be made more appealing? As it stands, visiting Kingsport is seen as a chore: investigators have encounters at locations in order to shut down rifts or prevent them from opening. It can get repetitive without a lot of tangible reward; “there’s no dimensional rift spewing creatures into the streets” fails to satisfy in the way racking up a pile of monster corpses can, or sealing a gate.

So I’ve been brainstorming some house rules to make Kingsport not only a little more appealing, but less of the time sink trap that it usually works out to be. This is an untested list of wild ideas at the moment, and I wouldn’t recommend using them all at once.

  • When adding a token to a rift track, place a clue token at the pictured location.
  • When a rift track fills, randomly select one of the four tokens used to fill the track. That location is now replaced by a gate to an Other World, which behaves like all other gates for the purposes of investigating and closing or sealing. The matching rift token is turned over and any duplicates replaced by new, non-duplicate tokens from the supply.
  • At the start of the game, randomly draw three markers from the rubble token pile from Dunwich Horror and three rift tokens. Place one of the rubble markers on each of the Kingsport locations. Thanks to the dimensional instabilities that plague Kingsport, those locations are now colocational with the Arkham locations pictured on the rubble tokens. When moving into either the Kingsport or Arkham space, investigators may choose which they stop in. Investigators in these spaces may trade items and use other abilities as if they were in the same space.

Another, more involved project I kind of want to attempt is to completely rework the Kingsport board. Ideally that would make visiting the Strange High House less of a trap, rework rifts or repurpose the materials for some other interesting challenge and otherwise spicing up the town. It would not mean making locations unstable, because that spins out into redoing or adding a stack of mythos cards to trigger gates opening in those locations — unless maybe unstable locations in Kingsport replace counterparts in Arkham. That’s kind of interesting. Hmm.


Setting the Scene in Arkham

Check out this house rule for Arkham Horror:

. . . just prior to drawing the first Mythos cards, all players set their skill sliders and we run an Arkham Encounter Phase (and, if necessary, an Other Worlds Encounter Phase) with Investigators at their starting locations. (They must draw an Encounter, rather than using any special abilities of their Investigator or the location). This has allowed us over the last few dozen games to get some idea of the Encounters available on green diamond locations. We still only visit them when we cannot reach our objective for the turn, but we like the added atmosphere and better sense of what our options are.

Next time I get to play Arkham Horror, I will suggest we try that. Thanks, Bern!

[Broken Spokes] Dividing Up the Universe for Fun and Magical Profit

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

— attributed to George S. Patton1


One of the components of the Broken Spokes campaign / adventure framework that I have yet to solve to my satisfaction is the magic system. See, I like the flavor of GURPS Cabal‘s decanic magic: the thirty-six decans of the Zodiac, the aethyrs that control them, the color and symbolic correspondences, all that. But I’m not a fan of the rules underneath it, GURPS‘ many and narrowly defined spell lists. It’s a chore making spell-casting characters and either making cheat-sheets for the players, referring to books or trying to keep the details in mind. I’m much more comfortable with the freeform sort of system one finds in Mage: the Ascension.

So GURPS Thaumatology should be my best friend, right? It’s a toolkit book on creating magic systems that has a section on realm-based magic, which is essentially the freeform sphere magic of Mage. That should make ginning up my own system easy.

Only, it’s not, as I am too damn picky. Most of the decans correspond one to one with GURPS‘ colleges of magic, which separate spells into categories like Sound, Animal or Technology. I do not necessarily agree with or find useful some of the distinctions those spell colleges make. So I want different categories or realms, but of a number that the decans are still useful to some degree. I’ve got some possibilities in mind, but none of them are fitting just right:

Mage: the Ascension’s Spheres

There are nine of ’em. Drop Prime, because it doesn’t work in the context of GURPS Cabal and split Entropy into Death and Fate, as Mage: the Awakening did and you’ve still got nine. That divides evenly into thirty-six, at least, but that’s also a lot of unoccupied decans. Does that matter? I was never going to use those anyway.

On reflection, I could go from decans to the planets, or maybe astrological houses. GURPS Thaumatology conveniently has correspondences for those too, but Mars and Aries are much less spooky that Harpax and Anoster. I could use the number, but swap in decan names.

Alternately, leave Prime in as the “meta-magic” realm and that makes ten. It’s not mystically resonant, nor does it divide evenly into thirty-six.

On further reflection, including Spirit might be that smart, in that it creates a similar issue I never reconciled in Mage: when most of the universe the mages careen through is made of Spirit, that would be a highly abused sphere, wouldn’t it?

The Gramarye

There’s a magic system for FUDGE called the Gramarye. It has twelve realms, which again I do not entirely agree with, probably because they’re meant to work with a “mythical medieval Europe” and I’m a practical twenty-first century kind of guy. While twelve is a pretty good number, I’m not down with distinguishing Animal from Body, or breaking Illusion — essentially Sense — away from Mind.

Gramarye also has “colleges,” which others might considers verbs or techniques. These are ably covered by the GURPS version of realms being divided into levels that break down how a mage affects things within that realm.

Ars Magica

An oldie but a goodie, Ars Magica is, so far as I know, the prime source, if not progenitor, of the idea of a magic system where areas and types of influence are combined in different ways. Ignoring the techniques, or verbs, there are ten forms, or nouns. Again, I don’t necessarily agree with some of the divisions, even in light of the intent for them to reflect the worldview of the wizards who composed them. In fact, the forms of Ars Magica are awfully similar to the realms of Gramarye. Huh.


In which I take a bit of this, a bit of that. Consider these two lists:

Mage: the Ascension Spheres Gallimaufry Realms
  1. Correspondence
  2. Entropy
  3. Forces
  4. Life
  5. Matter
  6. Mind
  7. Prime
  8. Spirit
  9. Time
  1. Air
  2. Correspondence
  3. Death
  4. Earth
  5. Fate
  6. Fire
  7. Life
  8. Mana
  9. Mind
  10. Time
  11. Water

I started with the nine spheres from Mage, eliminated Spirit, split Entropy into Death and Fate, redistributed the contents of Forces and Matter among the classical four elements, which is in keeping with the cosmology of the Cabal’s universe and renamed Prime to Mana because that’s a Mage thing.

It introduces new corner cases. Where does a tree fall, besides the forest? Life when it’s alive; that’s easy. And when the wood has died? Death? Earth? Neither is terribly satisfying and it can’t fall under Matter because Matter’s gone. And what about light? Is that an aspect of Fire?

Numerically, the gallimaufry is one shy of a happy dozen. What else could go there? Light? Void?


And so finally we come to the possibly apocryphal quote that kicked off this post. I do not have an ideal solution in hand. So I should just pick something and forge ahead. If it doesn’t work, I can review and retool. When everything is made up, it’s all entirely revisable.

In a situation like this, I think it’s best to do something decent, rather than wait for the inspiration to strike that provides something perfect. So my gut instinct is to use the spheres from Mage without faffing around with the gallimaufry approach. They’re familiar, I’m comfortable with the divisions and they’re easy to teach. But it doesn’t seem right.

Do you have a suggestion of another realm-like configuration to consider? I like to think I’m open to new approaches on this.

1 I can’t find an authoritative source showing Patton wrote or said that, just “witty quotes” sites like BrainyQuotes.com attributing it to him. There are enough variations in wording that it makes me wonder if it’s one of those nuggets of wisdom that just floats around the sphere of human knowledge.

When Do You Correct the Game Host?

Well, when? RPGs invite house-ruling more than board games. At the very least, board game house rules tend to be stated upfront, perhaps with somewhat more clarity and directness, as they change one or two things, where an RPG GM’s interpretation of the rules as written can be substantially looser.

Often when playing a game, someone in the group takes the role of resident guru. They may own the copy being used. They may simply be the most well-versed in it. They may be the GM, if the game calls for such a thing, such as most role-playing games. At any rate, they get a certain amount of deference when it comes to interpreting and remembering rules. This guru, though, is not always the game host, the person who owns the copy or did the legwork of getting everyone around the table.

This situation happened to me over the summer, playing Arkham Horror at a friend’s house. He’d invited folks over for an afternoon’s game. As the raving Arkham Horror fanatic, I found myself often teetering on the edge of uncertainty in the course of play: should I mention that technically, a rule worked one way, rather than the other, or not worry about it?

In that instance, I think I corrected more than I let it go, which doesn’t say much for my ability to lean back and not worry about the rules as written — at least when it comes to board games. In role-playing games, I manage to be much more laissez-faire, particularly when GMing.

At the role-playing table, it’s at least a social faux pas and more likely an astonishing breach of courtesy to quibble with how the GM interprets the rules. Or I think so. I’ve been in a few groups where interpreting rules is a god-given right to anyone who plays. And honestly, listening to the back and forth gets downright miserable. Take for instance one table discussion I sat through about Raise Dead versus Resurrect in Dungeons & Dragons. None of the characters at the table could cast either of those spells, but the bickering over what they could do went on for forty-five minutes.

So role-playing games are a situation where I’m almost always going to defer to the GM’s interpretation, simply because they’re so prone to house rules and modifications that arguing for “rules as written” is wasted time, taken away from playing. Even in board games, though, I try to defer to whoever owns the game or proposed they play it; usually because they know it best, but also for expediency’s sake. I’d rather just play the game than quibble fine points of proper play. During the game, that is. After the game ends is the appropriate time to debate those questions of rules interpretation and, when feasible, look up any online errata that may exist.

Beefing Up the Nun

A common goal of some Arkham Horror house rules, or so it seems from internet discussion, is making Sister Mary more of a contender in the struggle against squamous horror. In fact, that even became one of the modifiers in the difficulty level cards published with Black Goat of the Woods: Sister Mary can spend clue tokens to reroll to keep her blessing.

Personally, I think that’s a little too low key for the lady. Her stats are unimpressive enough she needs a stronger edge. So in our games, she doesn’t roll to keep her blessing, period. She can still be cursed and all that, so she doesn’t have a permanent blessing. Most of the time, however, she can expect the benefit of 4s counting as successes, which can only improve her chances when she’s maxed out a skill to a whopping three dice.

Make Me One with Everything, Azathoth

By request, and because it’s something I’ve meant to do after getting sufficient plays of Innsmouth Horror in, I’m bringing everything published for Arkham Horror for a One With Everything session this Tuesday night. That’s six expansions total; three big boxes — Dunwich Horror, Kingsport Horror and the aforementioned Innsmouth Horror — add a board each, additional encounters, more investigators and Ancient Ones, plus sundry items and impediments; and three smaller box expansions — Curse of the Dark Pharaoh, The King in Yellow and The Black Goat of the Woods — add items and encounters typically centered around a particular theme or nemesis.

Add all that together and it’s easy to have a jumbled mess. Other Arkham players report that the more expansions added to the game, the less effect any of them exert. Gates open less frequently in the outlying townships because they’re outnumbered by each other, as well as all the Arkham-centric mythos cards added by the small expansions. It becomes much harder to find really useful items in the equipment cards as tommy guns and shotguns are outnumbered by weapons with one-shot applications or fiddly usage rules that reduce their overall utility — which, admittedly, were added by later expansions in an attempt to water down the frequency of investigators tearing up the countryside with tommy guns and dynamite.

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