That’s Not How That Works Part 2
Previously I’ve written about how I shook up the game for some long-time players by using rules from a source book none of them had read yet, modified how a saving throw functioned, and applied some rules meant for monsters to them. All of these were very fun things that added a layer of “newness” to the game experience, and I wanted to go over some other ways that you can change rules or do something new to excite your group of players. Doing these kinds of things can be intimidating, given that there are already so many rules and you don’t want to unbalance your game. Just know that sometimes it is okay to be a little off balance in exchange for something fun; as long as the unbalance favours the players, you shouldn’t experience too much push back, if any.
- Create magical items with great power, and great drawbacks: Almost every magic item in the book is something that is useful. There is a section of cursed items, but these are kept apart from the main equipment. There is even a drawbacks chart that you can use, but it doesn’t really capture the flavour of something that’s dangerous to use. For example, I had a player who used an item that, when activated, gave him the petrifying gaze attack of a medusa… that he couldn’t turn off. He continued the campaign blindfolded, effectively blind, until combat when he was a devastating force. I have also included a Devil’s Deal Dagger, which was a weapon that, when activated, removed the soul of a creature touched by the dagger instantly and without a save…but it committed the wielder’s soul to a devil. You could get out of the deal by convincing a good-aligned person to use the dagger and commit their soul instead (a very evil act), but if you used the dagger three times, there was no way to back out.
- Use props as part of puzzles: There is no good description of this in the core rule books, but you can find lots of examples online. When presenting a puzzle, have some sort of physical object that represents the challenge being presented, and let the players interact with it. For example, I once had a gambler NPC who was cheating at dice; when the player character wanted to roll dice against them, I invited the player to actually roll some dice, and I pulled out two slightly larger d6s to roll for the NPC. My mother had recently come back from a trip and had bought me some gag dice that had pips printed on them in such an array that they always rolled 7 or 11. I challenged my player over and over to roll for double or nothing, and didn’t allow his character to discover what the NPC was doing until he himself noticed the dice I was using were rigged. I have also put music playing from my phone quietly and without saying anything to the players, set it on the table. When someone finally hears the quiet music and focuses in, that is when I call for them to make a Wisdom save or succumb to the distant pull of they harpy’s song.
- Create new abilities that use different rules: Back in 3.5, you could get your skill levels incredibly high. Where a hard DC might be 25 or 30, it was not unheard of by 10th level to have a bonus of 30 to a single skill. A player of mine had focused on putting his Intelligence stat up beyond what most people ever reach (somewhere in the mid 30s), and I wanted represent their unique intelligence. During an encounter with an elder alien intelligence, I had the creature unlock something in the player character; a power that mimicked magic but was just their brain being so effective. I gave them the ability to roll a Sense Motive skill check to use the effects of a Detect Thoughts spell. I gave them the ability to mimic the effects of an illusion spell with a successful bluff check. I effectively gave them some spells that were cast using rules that did not exist, and this turned out to be very memorable. Even if it was not perfectly balanced, because it was a power given to the player, it was very well received by the players.
You don’t have to include these kinds of rules-bending features in every game, and in fact, they are really only special when they come up only on occasion. However, finding something you can throw into a game that the players won’t expect is a great way to reinvigorate players and increase their engagement in the game. If you have any examples of times you’ve done something outside the normal rules as written, please tell me about it by commenting!