Part One: The Perfect System Doesn’t Exist
So I’ve been reading my older Red Box and Holmes Blue book, and thinking a lot about what characters and what players get out of D&D (because they are very different things).
Moreso, I’ve been thinking about the OSR in general, and am looking to reread my copies of Mörk Borg, Swords and Wizardry, and the monumental task of rereading DCC. I’ve also been playing a lot, mostly some 5e as well as some Wrath and Glory, which seems like a very re-skinned Shadowrun with some elements from Don’t Rest Your Head and World of Darkness.
So I have a lot of systems in my brain fresh right now. And a lot of thoughts about various systems, but mostly pertaining to “General Fantasy” Gaming. Take your pick of high, low, or anywhere in between. All of them are great. All of them have flaws. A lot follow that cool new minimalist trend, which as a busy adult with a 40+ hour a week job, I’m grateful for. Some of them have EVERYTHING written down, which is glorious, especially when I can sink some real teeth in. None are perfect. And that’s ok.
What I find troubling currently is my current habit of making the game fit my personal tastes in fantasy, some of my preferred mechanics that highlight character mechanical diversity (often through various plug-and-play options, though as time goes on I’m eschewing this for player creativity), and the tar-pit of making everyone happy.
Finding the right mix of rules that reflect fluff and vice-versa is tough. My current homebrew world currently has only humans as a playable option. Further, they don’t receive racial bonuses as described in the book. I get a lot of flak for this. “Is this a low-magic world?” No. “Is this low-fantasy?” No. “This is lame. 5e is baked-in high fantasy. There are other systems that do this better.” No. No no no no no no no. No. D&D always has been whatever kind of fantasy you want it to be. They wouldn’t have supplements for other, non-generic settings if it wasn’t. In my case, I want Weird Fiction, Sword and Sorcery, Non-Tolkienic Fantasy. I want my world to feel “Vaguely Familiar, Yet Wondrously Fantastic.” And I do want my rules to reflect that.
I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to have an entire party of X Class and have them all feel and play different. Conan and Fafhrd are both barbarians. Elric and The Gray Mouser are both sorcerers. All of them are swordsmen. None of them feel the same, I’m sure they don’t play the same either. The current option(s) put out by The Big Publisher are many-fold: class, sub-class progression, the option to include feats, etc. Also multiclassing, but honestly I’m so burnt on this from 3e powergaming, it just feels boring to me, narrowed down to niche builds and chicanery, one or two trick ponies. Plus I really like the party roles filled by the big 4 of classes, and dislike characters who are good at everything. A team of specialists is vastly better than one superhero, in my humble opinion. This has had several workarounds in the past, but I’ve yet to find one I like that other gamers do too. A lot of my friends have a power gamer or tactician streak and making their character mechanically is one of the most exciting parts of the game (which for me, is boring).
And as you can already tell, I want my friends to be happy too. A referee who’s players aren’t happy soon finds themself without players, as the age-old adage goes. But you can’t please everyone, and if I tried to make all my players happy, none of them would be. Even I have my limits, and I think that establishing firm boundaries within your homebrew world is a smart plan. Not that I’m not open to having my players influence my world. If a player comes to me with, say a homebrewed class or something they think would fit, or they just really really really really want to play an Elf, I’m always more inclined to say “yes, but” rather than “No.”
This all hits home doubly hard when expectations comes into play. If I say I’m running a game of Shadowrun, you expect troll samurai and hacker wizards. If I say I’m running a game of World of Darkness you expect vampires and werewolves and dark alleys and horror. If I say I want to run a game of D&D... well, what most players expect likely isn’t Fritz Liber meets China Miéville, let alone Darkest Dungeon meets Skyrim with a dose of Heavy Metal Magazine. And that’s just fluff, if you say you’re running 5e... then all kinds of mechanical and crunch expectations come into play.
Which I suppose brings me to Part Two of this whole Mess:
Part Two: Frankensystem
That’s right, we both knew it was gonna come to this.
If I want my rules to reflect the fluff and vice-versa I’m gonna have to use my brain some, and not just cutting things out of 5e. I’m gonna have to start from the ground up and put together a Frankensystem. I’m 100% cool with stealing liberally from the various incarnations of D&D throughout the years, and likely most comfortable with AD&D elements, but maybe also some B/X and BECMI, mostly Holmesian stuff. Honestly, I’m stone cold stealing from other games’ systems or just making up rules, as I’ve done in the past. I’m heavily inclined to “Rulings, Not Rules” and most of my friend circle is fine with “Weird Hipster D&D” as they’ve called it, or at least they know I’m doing this.
Now why? Why this much work? Because I’m unhappy with RaW. Because I don’t want to tell a story about Tolkienic Marvel’s Avengers. Because the math is just terribly huge for my itty-bitty old-man brain. Because combat isn’t fast and I’m not scared no matter which side of the screen I’m on. Because the math is faster and easier when played on a computer instead of with friends. Because nobody does anything besides hit with weapons or cast their spells or sneak attack in combat encounters. Because the mechanics reward this. Because I go shopping for magic items instead of plumbing the depths of some crumbling ruin or an archaic deathtrap for them. Because I want my players to feel a sense of wonder and exploration. Because I want them to have a sense of genuine discovery. Because I want magic to feel magical again. Because I want to be 11 year old me sitting down in my friend’s house during a thunderstorm to play for the first time in every game. Because I want 11 year old me to be able to play the game, and love the world that’s built for it. Because I want it better than the games I was actually playing and running at that age. And because, in my experience, I tend to always run the games I wish I could play, and that seems to make my friends the happiest.
Now, Frankensystems can be pretty terribad and clunky, but I’m gonna try to minimize that. The simpler the rule, the easier it is to learn. May not be the better for X purpose, but that’s ok. Generally, simpler is better for me, as an adult. So I’m gonna try to focus on Ease Of Use without sacrificing too much depth. Personally I find Frankensystems (or regular systems) get weird and awkward and awful when they try to do too much, too fast; or when they focus on balance first instead of fun. “Balance” in a game can go out the window unless something is magnificently broken at face value. If the janky game-break requires your character to purchase a thousand shields kept in a bag of holding, the rule isn’t broken, your GM is too lax on the magical and mundane items they’re handing out, and your adventurer should be out adventuring instead of living in a tavern and waiting on their private smith to deliver their weekly dose of shields. Openly broken isn’t the same as stacking synergies either, and power gamers and munchkins are gonna find loopholes and gaps no matter what. I, personally, am grateful for their assistance in patching the bugs in the system.
A big advantage is that Frankensystems are extremely flexible, gloriously so. Especially if they’re just bolted together from other systems, blogs, rulings, and home brews out there. Dislike the skill system? Yeet it and pick another from a different game. Want to play a classless system? Let’s players choose either any “class” ability for that level or a feat every time. That doesn’t work? Try something else. If anything trying to make a Frankensystem will get you experimenting and home brewing on your own. I’d say be cognizant though that what works for one group may not work for all. So be open, be responsive, and be flexible.
I don’t know when I’m gonna be done with this, or if I ever will be, but I do know that as I progress, I’ll try to put a google doc up of all my homebrew rules for all of you all to steal and experiment on to your heart’s content.