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A group that I'm playing in has just met for the first time to start working out setting, characters, and a theme for the game. It was a fun meeting, and I have high hopes for the campaign.

However, the GM also announced some changes to the rules. We are playing D&D5e, but he is mixing in elements of D&D4e and FATE, such as FATE points and skill challenges. He's a very experienced GM, and I'm interested to see how this works out. I don't mind playing in this kind of modified system, but I'm a bit worried about playing in a system where I can't look up the rules, and I feel that straight-out asking him for a list of his modifications would be too pushy.

I think I can trust him, but, for example, I asked him about self-compels, and his response was that they would cost FATE points. Which is completely counter to my expectations, and if I hadn't thought to ask I might've gone ahead and done it and then found out that it was a bad idea.

How do I go about playing in a system with rules that I can't look up?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ that sounds like an awesome combination of systems. the "dumbed down" skill points is pretty much the only gripe i have with the newest release of D&D. \$\endgroup\$ – Woodrow Barlow Nov 20 '14 at 16:24
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There are two ways to deal with this that I have experience with. Which is better depends on your situation, but both are workable.

Ask for a list of houserules.

For me personally, I have a really big problem playing in a system where I can't know all of the rules up front. If I'm playing in a game where there are significant house rules, then I'd ask that they be written down before play, so I know what I'm getting into. I'd prefer that such a list was handed out before character creation, so I can know if I'm going to need to change around my character based on the houserules.

I can understand why asking for a list of rules might seem pushy, but it's important to know the rules of a game when you want to play it. If you don't want to ask for a written list, maybe just ask for an explanation of the houserules, rather than a written list.

Let it ride.

Sometimes, the kind of house rule that the GM is using isn't the kind of thing that you really need to worry about. For example, you say that your GM is going to use the 4th ed skill challenge rules. Practically speaking, a player doesn't have to know how those work. All the player needs to know is that they are making a bunch of skill checks to achieve their goal, and that their normal combat powers aren't going to be of much help. That kind of conflict resolution rule can be handled entirely behind the screen, and doesn't really affect how a player will play the game, or build their character. If you can be confident that the GM isn't going to suddenly change how your character works in the middle of the game, then it might not end up being a big deal that you don't know all of the rules that they're using.

The downside of this approach is that you can't really get attached to the mechanics of your character. This approach assumes that you can play your character narratively without being terribly worried if one of your abilities stops working the way you thought it would. If the mechanics of your character are important to you as a player, then this approach won't work well for you.

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Tradition... tradition!1

This is a process that requires a great deal of trust, as you must trust that the DM isn't out to get you. In a more nomothetic2 setup, the arbiter of reality is easily observable and, by virtue of being relatively immutable, is judged to be impartial.

However, it was not always this way3. Groups with a more ideographic tradition rely on precedent recorded in the memories of the group and the intentions expressed rather than the specific and strict rules.

What does this mean for you?

First, figure out the story the DM wants to tell, and make sure you're participating in it. For this sort of tradition-bound game, challenging the tradition will not be much fun for anyone involved.

Second, play conservatively with the rules, as they're certain to change. Focus more on narrative components of character that can be mapped to rule systems as they emerge. Don't rely on edge cases in the rules for edges or "power". So long as you have a strongly defined narrative character and the group buys into your character, your concept should be safe from overt tweaking by rules changes. Beyond that, once your character is in the tradition of the game, actions that make narrative sense but aren't supported by the rules will be privileged.

Third, make sure you have a model-of-rules 4 in your head. When something occurs that doesn't match your mental model, discuss it with the group (either out of play, or ask for a pause for discussion) such that everyone can be on the same page with their internal rules predictions.


1 You may ask... why do we wear these funny little prayer shawls? I'll tell you! They give us a +2 bonus on a skill that isn't in the game any more!

2 See: Clerics, Magic Users, Fighters, and Thieves. To quote myself:

Guba and Lincoln (1994) articulate the nomothetic debate in social sciences where they note that general theories may not fit specific cases well: “This problem is sometimes described as the nomothetic/idiographic disjunction. Generalizations, although perhaps statistically meaningful, have no applicability in the individual case.” While their argumentation is in support of qualitative research, the theoretical basis of the nomothetic as “law-making” conflict with the ideographic study of the individual case maps quite strongly onto the axis of form and the ideas will be used throughout this document. Players seeking the support of rules are far more nomothetic than those seeking mimesis with specific, individual cases of reality or imagination.

3 see: Abused Gamer Syndrome

4 See: ESR's discussion of open source transparency for mental model consequences.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I had to read that several times before I got it, but are you saying that a "nomothetic" person relies on specified rules, where an "ideographic" person relies more on what makes sense in the narrative? Would it be possible to explain that in a less dense form? The quote from your whitepaper is a bit hard to grok. \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Nov 19 '14 at 23:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ The link in footnote 2 does not work. \$\endgroup\$ – Thanuir Sep 3 '18 at 13:26
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The simple answer is not to worry about the rules. I personally try (as much as possible) to avoid the players ever having to think about things in terms of rules, but in terms of what the character is doing or attpempting. My job as DM is to decide how to resolve that action. I may use a pre-defined rule, but mostly I decide on the spot with a ruling that takes in all the nuances of the situation and the specific character and the style of the game. I may use an idea from another game or inspiration from my own or the players' experiences in real life, or a book or movie.

Ultimately, whatever the rules, the issue boils down to the same question: "What's the chance of my character being able to do x?" and the answer ranges from 0 to 100% (with twiddly details about side effects, but that's not essential); then you roll.

If you trust the DM, simply think in terms of what you want to do and assume that whatever method s/he uses to get to that % will be fair; if it is fair then the details are not that important to you. And if you don't trust the DM...well, don't play with a DM you don't trust, no matter what system it is.

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He may be an awesome GM, but in other people's campaigns and in my own, house rules are written down... often across hundreds of pages with production values rivaling those of commercial rule systems. He should step up and write the stuff down, possibly with player help. As a player you (and your cahoots) can encourage him to do just that.

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