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Grab a desk and join us for our first Homebrew University post-brew Discussion!
Yesterday we released a Homebrew University blog post by Kyle Taylor, a homebrewer extraordinaire, about how he uses homebrew rules and mechanics to modify hit points and armor classes for his adventuring party. Today he chats with Demiplane’s Peter Romenesko about how he became interested in homebrew, some of the amazing customizations you can make as a GM using homebrew, and some fantastic (and very funny!) role-playing moments that happened as a result. It’s a must-listen, but we’ve also included a transcript of the whole conversation below – enjoy!
Homebrew University transcript
Peter: Hello everyone and welcome to our first episode of Homebrew University! I’m joined today by Kyle, also known as Stormchaser across the tabletop role playing community. And Kyle’s been awesome at contributing both to Demiplane as we’ve started our development and kicked off here in June, but he’s also been contributing to the broader community with some really cool homebrew systems. And it’s for these reasons that we’ve decided to work with Kyle as we start thinking through different ways to use a homebrew setting, homebrew magic items, homebrew features, as well as changing the game mechanics themselves and thinking about how you can tweak specific or popular games to be more specific or more popular with your players. So, Kyle, thanks for joining us today.
Kyle: Hi, Pete. Glad to be here.
Peter: Excellent! So, you – to start – you’ve played games for a long time, been a Game Master for a long time, and this has inspired you to create your own game, your own system. So, tell me a little bit about that. Where did you start and then how did that lead you into deciding I’m going to take the lead and create something that is, you know, actually mine?
Kyle: [laughs] Yeah, well, like so many people it all started with Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is the entry drug to pen and paper roll playing games, you know for so many people it’s the first one, it’s your first love, it’s what gets you into it for so many of us in this community. And, you know, you’re playing the game and you’ve got your players or, you know, your fellow players if you’re not the GM and as you get to know these games you start to think more and more about the rules that you’re using and how they work and if they are telling you the story that you want them to tell. And I think for a lot of people that I play with, we’re very narrative-focused, we like to think about what is going on and how that arises from the rule systems that we’re using. And so, the more you play sometimes you start to disconnect between the action going on in your campaign and what you’re actually doing, what you’re rolling at the table and how the mechanics put the system together. And I find the more different RPGs that you try the more you see this, the more you see that different games approach the entire concept in different ways. You can get your kind of classic hack-and-slash swords and sorcery games like D&D, but then you compare that to something where you’ve got like gothic horror, World of Darkness, and these are using entirely different foundations into their mechanics to represent the action. And so, the more you experience different RPG systems the more you start to think about the different ways in which it can be done how you want to see it done optimally for you, for your style of play, for your players. And, I guess, that’s really the point at which you start to think about, well, “how would I build a game?”.
Peter: And so it sounds like kind of the journey here was you play a game that gets you kind of involved in this space, have a lot of fun with it, and start thinking about the consequences of some of the actions where maybe there’s gaps in the rule systems or maybe that what is covered doesn’t quite reflect what you and your players are seeking. So, it’s kind of – that’s the entry, is making that first tweak and now that’s snowballed, all of those tweaks have snowballed into a document full of pages of tweaks. So, talk to us just a little bit about the role-playing game and where you are there and what’s going on there.
Kyle: Exactly. So, Stormchaser kind of emerged – like you say – from a series of tweaks. So, we used to play D&D, we used to play Pathfinder, most recently, you know, D&D 5th edition, and you build up – if you’re into homebrew and changing and tweaking, like you say, you build up this collection of rules that you have generated that fit for your table. House rules, essentially. And, of course, the difference there is that you start to eventually reach a point at which – the system can only bend so far. You know?
Kyle: You’re trying, you’re taking what’s there and you’re trying to work within this framework, but eventually you start to reach points at which the system can no longer accommodate the changes that you are making. And that, I think that’s the real point at which you think to make the jump to writing your own game and a real good example of that I would say for Stormchaser and for what we’ve going on is that when you start to look at changing the basic attributes – so like D&D has these six basic pillars, these basic attributes that make a character strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, charisma, and depending on how you look at what makes up a person, those may or may not be okay for you. We really decided to redefine those. I think two of the most problematic stats are often wisdom and charisma. You look at, for example, saves – what’s a wisdom save, what’s a charisma save – people often struggle to differentiate these and we, I guess, in the end we wanted clearer concepts for how we’re going to define the stats. And then another side of that is, of course, how dexterity is infamous as being the god stat, it boosts your defense, it boosts your attack, it boosts everything.
Kyle: And so that was another one where we really wanted to break it down and say, okay, well here we want to have the building blocks that make a character look a little bit different so that we have not just a better representation of how we see a character, but also a more balanced representation.
Peter: That’s awesome, so, sounds like it went from literally, you know, tweaking or filling gaps in order to account for taste and preference and now it’s really like – hey, this is, you know, respect all the games that are out there as their own engines, if we were to take a stab at ours what could that engine look like? So it sounds like it’s really a lot of fun, and part of the reason for bringing it up today is just I think that’s one of the main things is accounting for taste in this world, you know, the tabletop role-playing world is so difficult to do, because there’s, you know, it’s – the barrier to going out and creating homebrew rules is very very low. It’s just – all you need is a nod from three of five people at your table and that’s majority rules and the homebrew line is in. so, but what’s nice to know today is, you know, we’ve got a whole spectrum of opportunity that we can talk about, and so I’d like to dive in a little bit to the two topics that you just wrote about in the blog post, with hit-points and armor class. So, let’s talk a little bit about hit points, it’s – we obviously have the video game hit point bar on all of our characters if we’re playing any of the more popular role-playing games, tabletop role-playing games here today, it’s kind of how hit points are represented. In our past discussions we talked about it as kind of a binary state, you are either in or you are very out. And that’s kind of how hit-points play. So talk to me a little bit about how you think about that and how you’ve also thought about adjusting hit-points both in games that you play that aren’t your own but then also as you start looking at your own system where you’re taking it.
Kyle: Yeah, well, I mean hit-points, as I’ve talked about in the article you mentioned, are abstraction. They describe a lot of things. They describe, for a start, what some people call “meat points”, you know, how actually physically hurt are you, but it’s also your stamina, your will to keep going, your luck running out, it’s all these different factors that contribute to how much longer you can stay in that fight until you reach that point that you describe where you go from in the fight to not in the fight.
Kyle: At that point, at the end, when you go from one hit point to zero, where for some players there’s a cognitive dissonance there, because, I mean, in real life you do not generally – unless something’s gone very very wrong – go from fighting fit to completely out of the fight in one single blow. I mean, not unless there’s something like a headshot with a high-powered rifle, you know.
Peter: [laughs] We all know that scene.
Kyle: [laughs] But you know, you get stabbed you don’t just fall to the ground. Or, there is an accumulation of cuts and bruises and little injuries until you cannot fight any longer. And with hit-points, your ability to fight never really decreases until you cannot fight. There is no sliding scale, there is no spectrum, you go from absolutely able to give everything to nothing. And that is something that has led my table to look for other solutions that kind of bring that nuance into the loss of hit-points in the game. And this is something that has been looked at before, it’s something that’s been looked at in Star Wars d20, Pathfinder, where they have systems where they split the pool between your kind of standard points, that most people would know, which you can call vigor or vitality in these systems often and a pool of wound points, which is usually your constitution modifier, for us, in 5e it’s your constitution modifier plus your proficiency bonus, but so you have that little bit of scaling, but in an essence it is a much smaller amount that actually reflects the actual meat points we mentioned earlier whereas you talk about vitality and vigor, that’s very much your stamina, your ability to keep going, your ability to fight, and just how much energy you have.
Peter: Right. So as we think through this, you’re kind of touching on this sliding scale of systems that add complexity but also a dose of – I’ll say ‘reality’, although some of the creatures that we’re fighting in role-playing probably I’m not going to see on my walk to work, but it’s this concept of like when you have a pool of health and that is the highest level of abstraction that’s being worked on. Then we’re talking a little bit about vitality points or vigor points and wound points which represent a more systemic interpretation of how health works. You get near-misses, you’re able to turn a hit into a near-miss, you’re able to take a bruise instead of a deep wound, these are the capabilities of vigor points and then once those end and those are gone, you are now in true danger because wounds are, you know, wounds are real and that means you’re truly at death’s door or you’re about to be on death’s door. Now you sound like, as you’re going through things, I’ll use the term ‘more realistic’, but I think what’s probably better is there’s a bit more grit in your games, is kind of what I’m hearing. So, talk to me a little bit about how you’ve pushed that and you’ve pushed the concept of HP or health points or meat points – how are you looking at that now as you’ve started building out your system?
Kyle: These aren’t just rules for rules’ sake, right? It’s not just – for having it there, like I said, we like to push reflecting the narrative and the rules with that my homebrew tables use and what’s really important there is then, of course, that when we drive into those wound points, something that I’m often telling my players is once you’re on wound points, you’re on borrowed time, because in normal D&D you’d already have lost all your hit-points. You’re virtually already out of the fight. And so at this point if you continue to fight on your wound points, you know, there can be real consequences, there can be real injuries and we have, you know, systems that can generate these based on how much damage you take and where it is and so on, but like, if you do continue to fight you lose a chunk of wound points and you can get seriously hurt. And I actually had a really good example of this come up very recently when a party of mine was assaulting a goblin war camp where they were trying to essentially cut off an army and its support systems before it could reach a dwarven hold. This is being led by the dwarven bard of the party who’s very much the, you know, the war hero who’s charging in, he’s going to save the day, and he got cornered in this fight. He got cornered by an ogre and a bugbear and it was ugly and he got really hurt. And the final consequence of this was that he lost an eye. And, I mean, the party went out that day and they came and they rescued him, they stopped the bleeding, but he has then a real long-time consequence for that character that he lost an eye. And I mean, in character, there in that moment, he flipped out, kicking into the goblin corpses that are lying there and swearing and storms off to the party’s wagon and, you know, just kind of downs a jug of mead and passes out.
Kyle: There are really great role-playing moments that arise from this. And, I mean, this of course actually led into something when he had a fever dream when he was out, wounded, he was healing, but actually it relates to his character’s backstory to the overarching plot that we’ve got going on in the campaign, and so there’s these great role-play moments that arise from things like the rules being able to tell you – okay, right now, actually these are the kind of injuries that you are suffering.
Peter: Yeah, I really like that and that key spot hits right there, it adds to, you know, it’s a true system that adds to the legend of the players in the game. And that’s, I firmly believe that’s why people play. It gives you the opportunity to kind of escape the mundane for a little while, have something crazy happen, and then celebrate it even though it’s not, you know, obviously stopping an army taking off before it leaves is an epic feat in and of itself, but it’s easy to not necessarily be personal, but when you’ve invested so much time in a character and all of a sudden something crazy happens, you know, 1, you’re glad it happened to your character and not you, but it’s also what a cool story. The whole party is always going to remember that and it’s, it’s both the highs and the lows that get remembered and it’s cool that a rule system can naturally bring that out, which is why I like homebrew, which is why I like this concept of let’s talk about these things and give Game Masters ideas of how they can add more epic moments in their own campaigns, either through rules that they keep in their mind, or maybe rules that they try to instill and share with their players. So that’s a great example. That’s a great example of why modifying a system can work well.
Kyle: Yeah, and that’s not to say that you couldn’t – without these rules – say a character loses an eye, but I think what the rules really bring to the table is that it was unexpected and it wasn’t just the Dungeon Master throwing it out there, it arose emergently from the system that we had produced because the system could produce results that conformed to our intuition of what happens in a fight.
Peter: Right. Right, I think so much of this, there’s so much of many things in life, but so much, especially about games, it’s about expectations and what happens, right? And when everyone agrees to a set of rules, especially in a game, there’s so much unknown because you roll the dice and you don’t have control over the dice, so you know where you’re absolving control, but if you know that you’re in a high-risk situation and something might happen that’s the result of being in the high-risk situation, that is an expectation that you have. If you’re in a high-risk expectation and then something just gets dropped on you and you don’t recognize it because the rules don’t guide you to ‘this is high-risk’, it’s a oh I’ll drop to zero and get a healing word from 60 feet out and I’m back in the fight. With 4 hit-points, even though I started with 98. That’s a huge difference between losing – if someone just decides they’re going to lose an eye you lost an eye, well, I’ve had this happen 100 times, why do I lose an eye now? It’s this classic expectation setting which helps get, you know, the systems help lean expectations into the whole party as opposed to a Game Master having to take full accountability for it. So, it helps just set a strong, a strong infrastructure for creating more epic moments. And adding more risk to actions, which I think is truly why we play. You truly – you roll to see if you get a natural 20 on the thing that should be impossible. That’s the 5% chance that we’re all chasing, so I like that.
Kyle: And you mention that risk, that’s really important, because what you do by having these rules is you put the agency into the hands of the players.
Kyle: You give them the opportunity to say are you going to withdraw now or look after yourself or are you actually going to fight and stand on this point, because this is really important to you.
Peter: Right, right. Absolutely. Super cool. Okay, so we’ve talked about hit-points and how you can push hit-points into a way that really brings a level of excitement and risk into the world in a different way. Let’s talk a little bit about armor class and how that can take away some of that risk, maybe, or at least make it harder to get hit. But I’ve seen some of the work that you’ve done on armor and like, I’m not sure if your degree is in medieval history or whether you’re a closet armor smith yourself, but like you have gone really deep in. I’d love to hear your thoughts on your armor system and how it’s just evolved over time.
Kyle: Right, I mean, the way that my table looks at armor really actually meshes with what we were just talking about a moment ago with vigor and so on, because when you think about, you know, your hit-points become vigor, vitality, which is your stamina, your ability to fight, now consider what it’s like when you’re wearing chainmail and someone hits you with an axe. [laughs] Now, you’re going to lose some of that vigor, because you’re going to feel it. You’re not going to feel it as if you weren’t wearing any armor, because then you’d be in real trouble, but you don’t just ignore it. And this is, this tends to be where the disconnect comes in sometimes where you have armor being armor classed, because if you get hit, where does that hit go? And, I mean, now you can see this from the numbers, because you can see that if you are unarmored and you’re not looking at dex or anything, you have AC 10. So anything less than 10 is where you, and this is of course within D&D, but anything less than 10 is just going to miss completely, if it’s less than your hit bonus in addition to that, then it’s, you’ve managed to dodge it somehow, and if it’s anywhere like kind of between that and what you’re getting from your armor then it hit your armor. But normally in D&D you’d that means it hit my armor, it didn’t hit me, I’m fine. There is nothing further than that.
Kyle: And so what we do to make things a little bit different, a little bit more, like we said, conforming to the expectations of what you would expect things to be like in a fight, is we change armor, we say armor isn’t an armor class, armor is damage-reduction. You get hit and you take less damage because you are wearing armor. And so, you’re wearing a tin can of plate-mail and that axe bounces right off you and you say ‘well, I didn’t feel that at all.’ Whereas, if you’re only wearing studded leather, then okay, that’s going to bite a bit more.
Kyle: And so that’s what we do, we have a scale where you might have your paladins strutting around with 8 DR and most little hits just tickle, and they’re going to go ride in against the really big tough guys because they can take those hits. And they can keep trucking. Whereas then you have the rogue who’s really rather is maybe investing more, they’ve got high dexterity so they’re going to avoid being hit much more often. Then you have the paladins who might going to be much easier to hit, but the paladin’s not going to take as much damage. When a rogue gets hit, he’s in more trouble. So, you have these different approaches to the fight and it means the – it’s not just everything is how high is your AC. It means you actually have different approaches to how you want to fight.
Peter: Right. And that’s interesting, it’s – because the prior systems had used that, you know, had used that kind of concept of DR and now it’s kind of been abstracted up into the roll-to-hit, what’s the AC, and then there’s many different ways to define AC. But it is fun to think about moving a bit more real and not “real”, like you said – using armor as part of the storytelling mechanism during the number crunching. You know, when you’re throwing the math rocks, you’re shooting for 8 or less because your plate armor is 8, you know?
Kyle: Yeah, and I think it’s also important to, like, what you want is you want the mechanics to reflect the intuition of the players. Because you don’t really even have to know the rules to decide what you’re going to do, you just imagine it and you’ve got it based on logic. You just think about what would make sense. And as long as the rules are built to reflect that logic, then you can just go. You just play and you’re immersed in the story and you’re not thinking about, okay, about dice and numbers and stuff, you’re thinking about – okay – how am I going to solve this problem, how am I going to get through this?
Peter: Right, right. And we just had a small blip in the recording here, but it’s back up now, so apologize for that. But one of the things I think is interesting to hit home that point of intuitively keeping with the storytelling, is this concept of having an AC of 20 versus a DR of 8, right? It’s like as you’re telling this story as a game master, how do you articulate it to your player and is it a “oh they miss”? The hit doesn’t connect. Or is it the hit connects, they roll for damage, it’s 7 damage, oh, my DR is 8. Okay, you don’t take any damage, because you’re awesome. That’s a difference, right? It’s like you’re so quick, you’re so quick that they missed you or you have great armor and they didn’t miss you, but it doesn’t matter. There’s just the psychological difference that rewards both of those. Now, to be fair, it’s probably a bit more checking the character sheets and might be a little bit harder to pick up for the new player, but it is fun to celebrate that almost every round or multiple times a round knowing you just took a barrage of arrows from a goblin hoard and none of them mattered. [laughs] they all hit and none of them matter.
Kyle: Yeah, I mean, obviously that requires you to then look at the balance of the game and so on and you have to make sure that these changes that you’re making also allow the game to continue working as it’s intended to, but, I mean, that’s where the homebrew comes in, right? And so, this is all balanced out so that it still functions within the framework of D&D and it’s great fun! You know, like I said, you have this paladin who’s very much enjoying being able to just wade into battle or the rogue who says, ‘I just don’t get hit.’ You know?
Peter: That’s great. Well, I know that in the blog post itself, which can be found on Demiplane’s site, you also highlight a few other areas where you’ve gone into combat maneuvers and other ways for things to work, so for anyone who’s interested they can absolutely dive in and see how some of those things are utilized. But, for the sake of today, this covers the two primary topics – our armor class and our hit points. Kyle, it’s been great, thank you so much for joining today, I’m really looking forward to our next discussion and we’ll talk to you really soon.
Kyle: Talk to you soon, Pete.
Peter: Take care.
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