Gaming the System

Sometimes I Play the Game and other times I Game the System.  I have been gaming long enough that I am not a big fan of “imposed motivations” being placed on a PC.  In Dungeons and Dragons 5E, there is a section in character creation where the Player is supposed to select a Personality Trait, an Ideal, a Bond, and a Flaw; there are tables of options from which the Player can choose or on which the Player can roll randomly.  There are rules and sidebars designed to help a Player create unique Personality Traits, Bonds, Goals, and Flaws, but the default assumption seems to be that when the Player chooses his or her PCs Background that he or she will take from the provided lists.  This is not an ideal situation for me, since the suggested options are designed to be as generic as possible and I am presently running a very specific (Gnome) campaign.  However, it has provided some neat insights for me.

Years ago, Jason Holmgren of Ironclaw explained to me how he felt rules not only provide the framework of game play, they also set the style of play.  I think he’s right in that supposition.  I’d even go so far as to say, “Rules, not only provide the framework needed for game play and the style of play, they also provide assumptions about the setting.”  For an example of this in D&D, check out my complaints about 3E and 4E (paragraphs 5 and 6).  While I do believe it is possible to tell whatever story one wishes to tell, regardless of the rules system, it takes effort to mold those stories into the assumptions the rules system places on the setting. (2014.10.04)

In my Gnome Campaign, Nicki and JR are playing forest gnomes.  Nicki’s character, Roywyn, is a druid (PHB pages 64-69) and JR’s PC, Gimble, is a ranger (PHB pages 89-93).  While the quick build suggestion for druid is Hermit, Nicki chose the Outlander background (PHB pages 136-137).  JR stuck with the suggested quick build background for the ranger class, which is Outlander.  In addition to the four categories of characteristics that a background provides, the Outlander background offers a table for Origin.  Nicki rolled Hunter/Gatherer and JR rolled Tribal Nomad.  JR’s roll for Origin, along with Nicki’s roll of “I am the last of my tribe, and it is up to me to ensure their names enter legend,” as her Bond caused me a bit of a problem when it came to my setting.  Gnomes in the literature are not tribal nomads.  They are hill dwelling, warren digging, settled folk.  This is reinforced in the 2E supplement The Complete Book of Gnomes and Halflings (I book that I got when a friend was giving away his collection, but tha I had never opened, until two weeks ago).  How am I to reconcile this? (2014.10.04)

I believe the basic presumption of D&D is that the game is going to be a multi-racial, multi-class, pseudo-European milieu.  Also, a GM is unlikely to get someone who wants to play a truly weird character: a gnomish ranger from a band of tribal nomadic little people or a halfling barbarian.  If the GM does, then he or she can use the basic assumptions of the setting to say that the halfling was found as a baby abandoned in the wild and raised among the Ice Marsh Barbarians who had a band of gnomes that lived among them or something similar.  I don’t have that option in my Gnome-centric Campaign. (2014.10.04)

So, I have to come up with a reason as to why there would be nomadic gnomes.  I have to use the rules to make the setting.  Are all forest gnomes from Terah nomads?  I don’t think so.  What if the nomad tribes (I really want to write it as gnomad tribes) from Terah were not just made up of forest gnomes?  What if they were a mix of gnomish subraces?  Why would they have such a society?  Roywyn is the last of her tribe?  Gimble only knows of one other member from his tribe, Papi?  What secrets does Papi, a rock gnome, know about the now lost nomads?  This is all a case of me trying to making sense of the results of the rules, as I see them.  Hopefully, I will make world sense out of rules sense and have a compelling setting and campaign. (2014.10.04)

Game On!

8 thoughts on “Gaming the System

  1. Gregory, you have never liked to play by the rules. Why don’t you just go ahead and write your own book where you can create your own rules and your own world?

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  2. Perhaps he’s a nomad *because* he’s the last of his tribe/clan? In any case I think you have a really excellent point here – and I would also agree that there is a strong bit of implied setting. That’s the trick when you have a well-established campaign world already, finding out where the implied setting and your own setting play well together and where they don’t.

    For me this is some of the most enjoyable bits of being a DM. For one, I generally have an immediate sense of “can this work” even if I don’t know what the exact answer of “how it works” fits into my greater game world. This lets me veto or have player’s re-roll things if it just strikes as wrong rather than having me go “hmmmm…” In my own experience while sometimes I come up with an entirely new culture, I’m more likely to “discover” some neat little exception to the normally understood rules. In the case of the Gnome, what if there is/was a whole branch of Gnomes that are still travelling/escaping from wherever it was (if I’m recalling your setting correctly), what if some simply never settled down? Afraid to ever put down roots again due to the cataclysm that had befallen them?

    On the other side of Backgrounds, looking at 5E, where every race can be any class with any alignment I have already realized that I was going to have to provide my players (and, I suppose, myself) some guidelines as to what was a common class and what wasn’t. I run a game rich with social interaction (and where social class matters a great deal as well, thus me adding it as a second piece of background) and for the most part my players want to know what they are setting themselves up for (and often prefer simple to complex). Those “High Elf Barbarians” are pretty rare given that it’s kind of the antithesis of each other, unless you think of it as a some kind of mystical warrior society that a select group of High Elves have retained – even if the rest of the High Elves think they are nuts and would like them to sit down before they hurt themselves (or, worse yet, knock over the wine bottle).


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    • I think you are completely right, D. It is about seeing where the implied setting matches with one established setting. I, like you, am more than willing to limit Player choices or create non-system standard choices to fit the setting and campaign. On Rillmorn, elves have no souls and cannot be clerics, nor can they dream. Dwarves aren’t wizards. Etc. You’ve just got to learn what you can use and what you can change. I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve read about your world, so far. Thanks for reading and the great comment.

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      • You are most welcome and thank you!. One of my challenges with 5E is that my goal is to play as close to the “system as written” as possible – but in a world with not just a definitive 1E foundation but some time spent in other game systems as well as years as a home-brew. This is to simplify my players experience (here, pick up these rules, that’s how it works) and thus my own by having to keep track of less game mechanic stuff.

        Like the fact that dwarves can be wizards now. Wow. I really struggled to wrap my head around that. Thought about saying no, and then realized that I had the opportunity for a “Yes, and…” moment (always what I think is a better response to a player if at all possible). So I switched “no Dwarven wizards” from a “genetically incapable” fact to a “culturally sanctioned” prohibition. It made sense, I realized I had no problem with Dwarven rune magic, or Dwarven bards/skalds, or Dwarven alchemists/artificers – I just have a problem with Dwarves casting Magic Missile or Fireballs or whatever.

        So now, Dwarven wizards are all but impossible to find because they immediately get thrown out of Dwarven society. They get shunned and driven off and become one of the Derrokin (the Dwarven outcasts that I had already established existed – and the idea that some of them are mages actually hearkens back to the original Derro of 1E!). There no place to learn magic as a Dwarf, except in some very clear, very specific ways mentioned above – anything else gets you the boot. So players can either choose a “sanctioned” type of Dwarven spell-caster or risk playing an unsanctioned type (and they know I will absolutely play out the risks and effects of getting caught). Now, I’m not exactly sure *why* the vast majority of Arcane magic is so verboten to Dwarves, but I expect ‘ll get inspired at some point – and I’m looking forward to that moment!


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  3. What about gypsies? Would they count as ‘nomads’? If the definition stretches that far then that would probably also cover the travelling Radhanite traders described in Gentlemen of the Road.
    They are clannish, with their own rites and laws, beliefs and customs.
    Not true nomads, but maybe a bit Gnomish.
    Hope this helps.

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  4. In any territorial species with a defined habitat, there is the possibility of losing access to that habitat either through inter-specific or intra-specific competition. Those individuals or groups tend to become “wanderers” until a new territory or habitat is adopted.

    It is entirely likely that a group or tribe of gnomes could lose their warren, either through war or conflict with other gnomes, or through conflict with other warren-dwelling species, or simply through the need to change locations due to dwindling local resources. In areas rich in resources, this wandering is not likely to last long, but if all available warrens are taken or all available resources are tapped, even a warren-dwelling group could wander for a while.

    Certainly being the “last” of the tribe suggests a more conflict-related story.

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