You would think that the last thing a game like Dungeons & Dragons would need, what with its ever-expanding library of books, would be even more rules. They keep coming, of course, as people seek to expand either the mechanics of the game or the setting for it. But beyond the rules of the game itself, there is a meta-structure, a set of 'house rules' that helps set the tone of play, and can determine the way in which the game should be played.
Some of these expectations are arrived at organically, like setting the standard that a dice rolled on to the floor do not count, but needs to be re-rolled; it reduces the disappointment when six much-needed pips peer up, off-kilter, from the grey shag of the basement carpet, and saves the time needed to have an objective witness verify the roll of a dice whose journey ended behind a chair or underneath the table.
When we returned to role-playing about five years ago, we chose the then-new 4th edition ruleset, which places a heavy emphasis on the tactical elements of dungeon crawling, perhaps at the expense of the theatrical. This was a good fit for our crowd in many ways, long absent from this style of play, and completely new to one.
To keep the game from becoming too sterile, I introduced style points: small glass tokens I give out somewhat sparingly as a reward for playing the role, speaking heroically or in character, or occasionally passing a glib turn of phrase.
Ten of the tokens can be turned in for a miniature d20, which in turn may be used to take an additional action at need, or re-roll a failed attempt at a critical juncture. I also made them exchangeable, so one player can give their dice to another in order to help smite a particularly troublesome foe, or to save an ally on the brink of death (and a somewhat tedious character creation process!). The dice provide the motivation, but the stones set the tone and keep things lively.
Last night, returning to the dungeons after a prolonged absence, I sent things in a different direction on a bit of a whim.
The first encounter in five months saw the intrepid adventurers facing off against three shambling mounds, massive plant monsters similar to Swamp Thing, or perhaps Man-Thing, depending on where your comic allegiance lie. Very early on, Jeff's half-giant fighter found himself grappled and drawn completely within one of the creatures, which set many of the remaining hearts crosswise. After Audrey's dwarf cleric sought to rescue or avenge him but failed to make contact with the beast, I produced a box of candy and shook it. "So, there is a new opportunity for re-rolls if you are interested..." I said.
They looked at me apprehensively, knowing me to be stingy with such things, and wondering about the possible cost.
"These are Jelly Bellys, but the package says 'Bean Boozled', and there are some pretty distinctive flavours in there," I continued.
"Oh God," said Pete, "This is going to be some sort of 'Bertie Bot's Every Flavour' thing,isn't it?"
I nodded. "Well, the same idea, for sure, but I don't think the Harry Potter license would support jelly bean flavours like Dog Food or Baby Wipes. Half of them are regular types though, so your odds at having something disgusting should only be 50/50."
Someone made a gagging noise.
I continued unabated. "The way it works is as follows: your first re-roll will require you to eat two of these beans, one at a time, fully and completely, without swallowing them whole or any other sort of nonsense or trickery." (Did I hear someone snapping their fingers at an option removed from them?). "Your second re-roll will require four of them, and so on, and so forth."
Audrey looked down disparagingly at the mocking '4' on her twenty-sided die, and held out her hand. "Give me two of those damn things."
I shook out two beans, dark brown and bright green, and inspected the back of the box. "The brown one is either chocolate pudding or canned dog food; if you are lucky, the other one is lime, otherwise it's grass clippings."
Audrey considered this. "The brown one first then; grass clipping sounds a lot better than dog food." She popped the darker bean into her mouth and began to chew dutifully, as the rest looked on expectantly. She nodded in short order, her face screwing up: "Yep, dog food."
She finished off the offensive morsel, and followed it with the green one, keeping true to the spirit of the game by not chasing the dog food down with a swig of cider. Thankfully the other candy was actually lime, but it was all for naught, as her second roll was only marginally better than the first.
Rolling her eyes, she sighed, and held out her hand, into which I poured four more beans. This time she got rotten egg, caramel corn, lawn clippings and another dog food, but sadly, the re-roll still failed to connect. Rather than chance the results of eight such beans, she very reasonably ended her turn.
Beginning with Pete, other players in turn got to sample berry blue, peach and tutti frutti jelly beans, as well as the far less appealing baby wipes, moldy cheese, and 'barf'. Sometimes the results improved, and sometimes they remained the same, but the suspense and curiosity about what horrible taste might be visited upon them next became a game in and of itself.
Four of the five players allowed themselves to be Bean Boozled, with both Pete and Audrey leading the way with six beans apiece, and no one escaping unscathed. Each victim seemed to take perverse pleasure in describing the experience, as with the moldy cheese: "You can really taste the rot.." Or with the barf: "I honestly thought that would be worse, because that's the only one of these flavours I've actually had before. Actually, I recommend the barf, as far as that goes."
I certainly have a hard time picturing a more entertaining use for sixteen jelly beans, even if it did slow down gameplay somewhat. In the end, I think we all considered it time well spent, especially the two of us who stayed jellybean-free.
The best games feature difficult decisions: empty the vault to put that hotel on Boardwalk, or wait another turn? Commit your best unit to a highly contested objective or play a refused flank and hope attrition favours your side? Stand on 16 or take another card? Last night, it was fun to transcend the playing field for a moment and introduce a choice with immediate, real-world consequences, as whimsical and impermanent as they were.
And best of all, I still have at least have a package left for the next session, and many undiscovered flavours, both fair and foul!