Hacking as Learning

So this is a pattern I’ve seen on rpg (especially D&D) Reddit recently: A GM has a hazy idea of something they don’t like about their system, or wishes it played differently or had a different “feel”. So they hack it, and present the hack to Redditors, who promptly proceed to tear it apart. Now the system crunching in itself is fine – it’s what you want if you come to Reddit looking for opinions – but sooner or later there’s a chorus of “Glad I’m not at your table” and “This is the problem with…”, this last one implying the GM doesn’t understand the system, and that they shouldn’t attempt to change the rules based on a “feeling”.

In terms of rules, these people are usually right; 90% of the time, changing a rule will break something else, or unbalance five other things, each of which then needs fixing. Turns out rpgs are built to hang together, and screwing with the balance does just that. And I’m not going to argue commentators should step back for the sake of the other 10% either – again, they’re providing a valuable service by exposing these flaws.

What I am going to argue is that misguidedly popping the hood on your favourite system and fiddling around with things you don’t really understand is actually a way to gain that understanding. If you’re chasing a certain inarticulate “feeling” and want to bring that about by tweaking certain subsystems then watching what happens, and how your attempted tweak fails, helps you understand and articulate what that feeling you were chasing was, and why the system didn’t support it in the first place.

I experienced this when I attempted to adjust damage in my D&D campaign to make it feel more like the OSR (“Old School Renaissance”) games that I like. As it happens, the damage economy is a massive and complex beast, and messing around creates more problems than are feasibly solvable, as Reddit kindly pointed out (like, a million times). So instead I opted for a different approach, adjusting the resting options (in ways similar to options in the official rules), to achieve a similar effect less directly. Crucially, though, I also accepted that there were limitations; I could go so far to get the “feeling” that I wanted, but the way D&D feels is baked in to a certain extent, and you can’t change it completely without rewriting the rules entirely and re-balancing it all yourself, at which point you’re playing a different game. But had I not tried I wouldn’t have understood how the rules as writ support the feel of D&D, and would just have remained dissatisfied with the play experience, not understanding the rules well enough to know how to adjust them properly.

(As a side note, the DIY ethos of the OSR, and the many goods that come of that, are a brilliant example of the benefits of this sort of constructive, confused tinkering.)

The big caveat here, of course, (apart from making sure your players are on board) is that the GM who hacks the game has to be able to admit when they’re wrong, and recognise when further ad hoc tweaking to make the earlier changes work is leading them down a blind alley. Again, helpful Redditors are gold dust for this sort of reality check. But decrying the impulse to mess around with what you only vaguely understand actually discourages curious GMs from developing the understanding they lack.

It’s a platitude at this point that people who voice criticism on the internet rarely proffer constructive solutions, but I’ll put it out there anyway; if you think someone has messed up because they don’t have the same understanding of the system that you have, the least you can do is use that understanding to offer a suggestion for how they might pursue the “feeling” they’re after. Again, I know from experience that when pressed for alternative solutions these commentors can often be very helpful, making this, once again, a fruitful learning experience. Just ask yourself if you have a suggestion to make; if you do, make it up front, and if you don’t, there’s no need to comment.


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