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So, I'm a relatively new GM (having only run a quick foray into the Tomb of Horrors for fun) and I've got an idea for a city-based custom campaign. I feel pretty good about my story telling abilities and in general I'm not too worried about the campaign itself.

However, I also have several ideas for little tweaks to the game that I want to try out. These include giving some bonuses to basic melee classes like Fighter and Monk to help them keep up with spellcasters, and possibly having a list of "achievements" players could earn which wold confer a small bonus.

My problem is that I'm afraid throwing all of this new content in the campaign might over complicate or unbalance things. On the other hand it took a lot of effort get to a group together and I'm not sure when I'll have another chance to try these tweaks out. I don't want to ruin my players experience just because I want to experiment, but I don't have enough experience to gauge if that'll be the case.

Is there any way to figure out if I'm biting off too much to chew, without just diving straight in and adjusting if things go wrong?

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Typically, tweaking/adding rules and creating content aren't considered to be the same thing, or even related. Which one are you asking for advice about? Are you concerned primarily with these tweaks' reception, or are you concerned primarily with overloading yourself with city-campaign creation work? –  SevenSidedDie Apr 15 at 21:44
    
Consider that usually the "achievements" should be entirely cosmetic, with no real bonus attached. Of course you might do it differently, but in that case you might wish to rename them. –  Lohoris Apr 16 at 9:41

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Making large changes to mechanics is a difficult and rewarding process. Most of the time, the problems that your designs will have won't be obvious until your players have banged on them a little bit. Messing around with mechanics is one of my favorite things to do in tabletop games, so here's a few things to keep in mind as you do it:

Make sure you're on the same page as your players with these changes.

Your players may or may not like changes to the rules. Personally, I wouldn't like achievements in a tabletop game, because then I'd be thinking about how to best get the achievements, rather than roleplaying. However, if your players are interested in a more video game style game, then that's totally fine.

Don't be afraid to kill your babies.

As a designer, it's easy to get attached to mechanics and systems and designs that you come up with. It can be difficult to throw away a design when it's not working, but a bad extra system is way worse than no extra system. The ability to get rid of ideas that aren't working is not one that all designers have, but it's one of the big differences between a good designer and a great one. Don't be afraid to get rid of house rules that aren't working out.

Playtesting is better than anything for tweaking.

There's no better way to see if a change is good than playtesting it. If you're worried that a particular change might unbalance things a lot, make a test party and play it through a combat on your own, to see what kind of practical effect your changes have. Once your changes are in play with your group, keep a close eye on how they're affecting play, and don't be afraid to tweak your rules if they're not working out.

Give players time to get used to changes before adding new things.

Once your changes have been in effect for a while, your players will get used to them. If you want to add more new mechanics later, make sure that your players have internalized your previous changes first. Making a major mechanical change can make players feel like the ground is shifting under their feet, which is not something you want to do often.

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This makes a lot of sense. I had already planned on having a "Session 0" where we go over the basics of the campaign and people's character. I'll bring up the proposed changes then and see how they feel, and make sure they know that the extra bits might not make it if they unbalance things or aren't fun. Thanks! –  D.Spetz Apr 16 at 13:05

I say, go for it, but with two important caveats:

Get player buy-in

Make sure the players are on board for the tweaks you're planning. Are they veteran players used to playing a certain way and might resent it? Do they have certain expectations you'll be breaking? Make sure you don't make unilateral changes to the system.

Be prepared to rollback

This is an experiment. You know it, your players should know it. Leave yourself room to step back if things don't work out. Make sure the other players also see it as an experiment, so they won't take it too badly if you suddenly take away a bonus they used to have. If you're clear, up front, that it's an attempt to fiddle with the rules, it shouldn't be a problem.

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Save your Mechanics Changes for Experienced Groups

You're a first time GM, and you had a lot of difficulty getting your group together. Do you really want to risk adding a broken mechanic to your newly formed group?

An easy way to lose players is to have a power imbalance, because certain players will feel that their contributions are nonexistent, and lose interest. Spellcasters are physically weak and easy to hit, but high damage until they run out of spells. They can also use spells in creative ways to solve problems. If you increase the damage on fighters and monks in order to balance that out, then your spellcasters will just be weak, and spell-limited.

Save the changes for your second campaign with the group if you still think there's a power imbalance.

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Too much is if the players say it is too much

The only limit to customization is what the players will accept. Although I don't play 3.5 much, I ruthlessly customize in other systems. It helps create exactly the type of game I want.

I have never actually had any player object to the ammount of customization (though there are sometimes discussions about specific tweaks), but I tend to be friends with the players before I start GMing for them and they tend to know I like to tweak things. This might be different with a group that you have only just met, especially if they are used to highly tactical games. In those cases, they might not want to deviate too far from the RAW they are familiar with.

Knowing what works comes best by trying it, second best from experience, and third by talking over the specifics with others, especially the players

The best way to find out if your specific tweaks work is to try them. But that is time consuming. As you get experience, you'll have a pretty good idea of what the effects will be, but it will never be perfect.

Talking them over can help you uncover how things will work by drawing on the experience of other players and GMs, but really the feedback you want most is from your own players (so long as you can go over it without spoiling the plot).

Although not perfect, you can give yourself something of a safety margin if the players agree to let you undo tweaks that aren't working out. This may involve allowing them to also retcon their characters though if they made a character decision relying on one of your tweaks.

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