Nordic Weasel Games

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Upgrade your design: Options and defaults

Rule number 1 of tabletop gaming: You can always change the rules if you like.

Rule number 2 of tabletop gaming: Most people never do. 

Today we are going to talk about game options and game defaults a little bit.

Long time players know I love optional rules. I usually always put in some and I love designing alternate versions of rule systems.

Sometimes there were multiple ways to do something and at the end of the day you have to pick one, so including the alternative as an option is a nice touch. Other times I think of something later and it gets folded in as an option for players who want more/less/different detail.

Optional rules help players tailor the experience and by including them you can help players do so within predetermined confines. What that means is that you have the insights into the logic behind the system so the options you created will (hopefully) work with them. 

That doesn’t mean players should be discouraged from their own house rules of course, but they run a greater risk of accidentally causing a problem elsewhere.

As an example you house rule combat to be a little more deadly, but now units are also taking more morale tests and therefore running away too much. Sometimes a change can cascade through the game and it can take a bit to get a feel for how these things all link back into each other. 

Additionally options cater to a particular type of player who enjoy tinkering with the game and giving them a little bit of what they want can be extremely valuable. Over the years I find that most people who do modify the rules modify them very little. They might add a modifier for one thing and a sub-system for a specific type of action but its rare for people to do big, sweeping overhauls of core mechanics. 

This also makes sense for compatibility purposes: House ruling that units in cover get +1 to morale doesn’t require any big changes if I play with someone at the gaming club who wants to play the game as written (or conversely they are open to using my house rule). If I have replaced the entire shooting system, it is a much bigger challenge. 

The real risk is making sure that options stand alone. A particular pet peeve of mine is a game with “advanced rules” that are essentially required to play because other game rules feed into them. In my opinion an option should be truly that: An option. A choice the player actively has to make and they should not be left wondering if they made the wrong choice, especially if the book presents one option as the easy one and one as the difficult one. 

This brings us to default options. In software and video game design it is generally held that most people will stick to the default selections. I can attest that I’ve spoken to a lot of gamers who don’t really look through the appendix or advanced rules chapters at all. As such the game presented by the default setup should be as representative of what you intend the game to be like as possible. 

This is especially a stumbling block when we are talking about up front decision making. One thing I underestimated for a long time was the value of a starter scenario. Even if it is extremely basic (we each get 2 identical units and they fight) it gives the player a way to get to grips with the material without making any decisions at a point when they don’t feel they have the knowledge to make those decisions. 

Default options also provide a common base level for players to interact on.

It is fine if you have multiple options for how to do something, but in my experience you are almost always better off presenting one as the standard as one as an alternative instead of giving the player two options and saying they should decide. 

In conclusion: Think carefully about the options you present in your game, how you present them and what they are meant to do.