The Rules

What rule system does The Game use?

“The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.”

-Gary Gygax

“The danger of a mutable system is that you or your players will go too far in some undesirable direction and end up with a short-lived campaign.”

-Gary Gygax


The Game uses a “homebrew” rule system. This system has evolved over 36 years and it is dynamic (not static, constantly evolving). The dynamic nature of the rules is one of the key reasons for the campaign’s success and longevity. Whereas other “fixed” systems come and go (as players seek ways to “beat the system”), our rules adapt and change when necessary. Rule purists or those who can’t stand the thought of a dynamic rule system will have difficulty with The Game and its rule system.

I never made a conscious decision not to use the official rules and instead come up with my own; it just kind of happened that way. When the campaign first began in 1982, I used the AD&D rule system. Or at least I used the portions of the rule system available in the few books I owned at the time. So I followed Gary Gygax’s advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide that the rule system was simply a guide to be expanded upon. When I came upon rules that did not seem to make sense, such as elves and dwarves can only rise to a certain level or priests can’t use edged weapons, I dropped them. When I needed classes that did not yet exist (such as the ranger or the alchemist), I developed my own. When I learned that DM’s were supposed to roll secretly behind a screen rather than allow players to witness the rolls like everyone else, I refused.

But the rule system, however changing, was still familiar to anyone who played D&D.

The one aspect of the rules that I did not like and that I saw getting worse was the slow pace of game play. Players need to be entertained and their interest has to be held for hours. But I don’t just want them to entertained, I want them to be thrilled. The more players, however, the more bogged down the game play. The session cannot become bogged down in checking rules on tables and charts. If I hear players engaging in idle chit-chat about out-of-game stuff (real life), I assume I am failing on all accounts. In order to create a sense of excitement, time is of the essence. While detail in rules is more enjoyable, it must be balanced with fluidity.

The Game uses the same basic stats as D&D (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, charisma, and comeliness) but they do not have as many, or as direct, connections to dice rolls. Stats matter but they are not as impactful or influential. You can have a strength of 14 and still be the best warrior.

The rule system for The Game moved early on into what is now called a d20 system. We moved onto this system even before the various incarnations of the rule editions for D&D. I realized that a 20d was in essence a percentile system. And armed with a percentile system, a game designer can do almost anything. Modifiers can then be added to the required numbers to allow for as much or as little detail as desired. Because I did not follow the rule incarnations after the second edition, I didn’t realize that our system went in this direction even before the official rules. When the third edition developed feats etc., we had already done this through what we called “specialty moves”. But when players brought me rules they liked from the 3rd, 4th, or 5th editions, and I liked them as well, they were incorporated.

As our rules developed, I realized that our level system had already diverged from official D&D. This occurred because I never used the D&D experience system to gain levels. While I recognized its practicality, it simply never made sense to me. Nor did I want to undertake the arduous task of calculating XP. I also didn’t like how the XP system produced a more “hack n’slash” campaign and players impatient at the table if they were not constantly slaying creatures and collecting treasures. Instead, I wanted them to realize that experience was coming just by playing and to focus more on the role-playing and character-building aspects. Obviously, if the characters decided to remain at the tavern for the entire session, they would not get full experience (unless events occurred at the tavern!). Instead, I developed a simple system whereby characters gained a set amount of experience each session and a level system to match. By way of comparison, the level system in The Game is approximately double that of standard D&D. In other words, a level 24 character in our campaign would be about level 12 in a traditional D&D campaign. Hit points and damage are likewise doubled.

Over time, I absorbed rules that I liked from other game systems or I developed my own. While I don’t intend to lay out my entire rule system here, I will offer some examples of some of my rules. One example is the way we do stance and being knocked down. A character’s stance (ability to remain standing when hit in combat) is a fraction and a 10d is rolled to determine if he/she falls or remains standing. For example, a 1st-level wizard begins with a stance of 1/2. This means that if the wizard is hit for 10 hp of damage, he/she will fall on a roll of 1-5 on a 10d. If the wizard is hit for 16 hp of damage, he/she will fall on a roll of 1-8 on a 10d. A character is always down (and stunned) on a stance roll of 1 and is always up on a stance roll of 10. Stance increases with level changes or time training, from 1/2 to 1/3 to 1/4 etc.

I changed spell/prayer casting right from the beginning. Casting spells or having powers that can be used every day is too powerful. In The Game, spells and prayers are regained at the top of new level. In other words, each spell/prayer can be cast once/level rather than once/day. The wizard class is no more power than any other class, no matter how high the level. In addition, all casters actually cast their spells/prayers at the table (hand gestures, holy symbols, and incantations) in the appropriate language.

Another example is the armour class system. I never liked D&D’s system so I developed my own. It was based on the simple concept of the higher the number, the better the armour class. I also separated out armour class from what I call evasion. Armour class refers to actual armour worn for defense and results in a damage adjustment on every hit. Evasion, on the other hand, refers to how hard it is to hit a character. They are not the same thing. I developed charts with all the possible armour pieces and a corresponding armour class value. The higher the armour class, the higher the damage adjustment. A warrior wearing full plate, (AC 70), an open-faced helmet (AC 10), and carrying a medium shield (AC 15) has an armour class of 95 which means his armour absorbs 6 hp off each hit. Evasion is based on dexterity and can be increased through level changes or time spent training. A base evasion is level 1 which means it takes a roll of 11 on a d20 to be hit (evasion level 2 requires a 12 to be hit, evasion level 3 requires a 13, and so on).

I never understood the alignment system for D&D. I don’t mean that I didn’t understand how it was supposed to work, I just didn’t agree with how it was conceptualized and the function it was meant to perform. In particular, I didn’t like a system of arbitrary morality imposed upon a character. One of the revolutionary aspects of D&D when it to came to gaming was how rule restrictions were suddenly expanded, allowing freedom of action. Now, I was supposed to tell players that their alignment restricted what actions they could take? No, that wasn’t going to happen. Characters can decide to do whatever they wish. As in the real world, there are consequences, but there is no omniscient voice or power to restrict action. Alignment plays little role in The Game. Obviously morality is of immense importance. And every character has an alignment. But that alignment is not restricted to a line on a character sheet. It is much more complicated.

While my campaign started with the basic D&D classes (fighter, magic-user, thief, cleric), I soon needed more and so I began developing them. Aragorn in LOTR was an obvious example and became my model for a ranger. By using percentiles, it was simply a matter of thinking up skills. I liked the paladin class (based around the Knights of the Round Table and its Christian chivalric code) but I realized that it wouldn’t work for other cultures/religions. So I changed the name of the class to holy warrior. Restrictions around such issues as alignment were now not fixed but were instead based around the particular culture and religion. I allowed characters to become such classes as alchemist, martial artist, assassin, or monk. As characters emerged from many different cultures, new classes were added such as druid, ninja, bard, healer, shaman, witch, and shapeshifter. Players are allowed to develop their own classes through me. As long as everything is balanced and no class is more powerful than another, I have achieved success. In addition, it wasn’t long before multi-classed characters appeared. Experience is divided among the classes (based on what skills are used for that session). While some players prefer to focus on one class and the power, others prefer the diversity of skills.

One of the most impressive innovations The Game offers role-playing rule systems is the development of the defensive round. While gaming sessions revolve around role-playing, character development, strategizing, and combat, the dice play an important role. This is the “action” part of a session, this is the entry of the random factor. For the first 10 years of The Game, we followed the standard approach to combat. Players take turns indicating their actions, including rolling to hit the enemy. Why not allow the defender to also declare a defensive action and make his/her roll? In one fell swoop, combat was expanded. New defensive actions were developed, including parry/block, dodge, cushion blow, and bolster stance. For example, a human warrior rushes into combat with three orcs. The human is wielding a bastard sword and attempts to sweep all three enemies across the chest area. The orcs respond by one of them using a shield to block, another attempting to dodge, and the third to attempt to bolster his stance so he doesn’t fall if struck. The defender rolls at the same time as the attack is made.

Another important innovation was the use of what I call Focus Days. As The Game expanded, the number of players increased, and I moved cities, the same group of characters would not be present each time we played. One of the best attractive aspects of role-playing games is character development. So each time players come to the table, if they were not present for the last session, I catch them up to the present date in game time. Depending on how much time has passed, what the Party has been doing in the meantime, and what the particular character has been doing (do they need to work to make money, do they have duties to perform, etc.) they will have a certain number of Focus Days to spend. These days can be used, for example, to train and gain new skills, in prayer, or to make magical/spiritual items. The use of Focus Days performs several functions. While playing sessions and gaining experience/levels is always the best way to gain power, Focus Days provides an alternative means of character building.