Only so many rules exist. There’s only room in the market for so many companies, those companies can only release so many books, and those books can only contain so much material. It’s impossible for one system to describe in excruciating detail every possibility for every character, so players and DMs do some of their own legwork, designing new classes, items, spells, and everything else a character may need. But not everybody has a good sense of what’s balanced, flavorful, and sufficiently individual for every facet of a character. I’ve seen a lot of books try to describe dozens of new weapons or hundreds of new gloves just for the sake of doing it, when all that’s really needed is a slight twist on something within arm’s reach. Thus:
Law #3 – A character is allowed to have anything, as long as it is treated like something that already exists.
We refer to this as reskinning: taking the skin off of an existing rule but leaving the numbers intact, then replacing it with the skin you want. The example I always give for this is the character who wields a giant rib. There’s nothing in a D&D book that explicitly says that a character can gain proficiency in giant ribs, and there’s no breakdown of what it costs, what it weighs, what damage it deals, and so on. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take something that’s already there and change it to look like a giant rib while having the statistics of something else.
This actually opens up more possibilities than it seems at first glance. If the character holds the rib at the narrow point and swings it around, then we use the information from a greatclub, but call it a giant rib. If the character instead wants to thrust the pointy end at enemies, then we use the information for a scythe. If the character wants to throw the rib, then it’s a javelin (or any number of thrown weapons, but I like the range on the javelin). There’s no one-to-one mapping for a giant rib, because it depends on the character and what they want to do with it.
There’s an obvious restriction on this, that the giant rib can’t be all these things at once. A character can’t take the best of each weapon and combine them into one super-weapon by virtue of reskinning. If a player feels very strongly about being able to do everything, there are options available, but the point of reskinning isn’t to change something mediocre into something great. Minor changes, however, are generally fine; I don’t think that reskinning a bastard sword into something that does bludgeoning damage instead of slashing is a sufficiently significant change.
Physical things like weapons are easy to reskin compared to spells, but there’s room there too. One early book mentioned that a player can change the physical representation of their magic missile to a series of arrows, or hands that slap opponents. Also, a coldball is exactly as powerful as a fireball (the feat Energy Substitution allows a character to switch damages type to acid, cold, electricity, or fire without an increase in spell level, which is all the argument I need). If a character learns a coldball, then they have to take a feat or use an item to change it into a fireball. But this allows a character to change every spell into one damage type without having to spend the feats or time to accomplish it using normal rules. They have essentially reskinned themselves into a pure element mage, and the rules follow with that concept.
D&D 3.5 actually went out of their way to add some reskinning options into some books. For example, Complete Arcane introduced alternate items, like magic fruits that worked exactly like potions or tattoos that worked exactly like spellbooks. However, this is where 4th Edition shines. In 4th Edition, characters aren’t people with personalities and hopes, they’re machines that all have similar numbers and similar items that help similar attacks to affect similar monsters in similar ways. But reskinning is one of the (few [I mean, very few (seriously, it’s pretty much reskinning and ease of leveling)]) things that 4th Edition does incredibly well. The only thing that really controls what a power looks like is an easily-ignorable bit of italicized text between the power name and the parts that players care about. Powers in 4th Edition are almost begging for a reskinning treatment, to change the rules as written into the characters that the players actually want.
Here are a few examples of reskinning working in some current campaigns:
- One Piece Campaign: Gabriel Tomiko. This is one I did, changing a dragonborn battlemind (psionic defender) into a boxing Iron Man. Technically, the character is holding a longsword and a heavy shield, but I changed them both to metal gloves; it means that if I only have one glove on, I can either attack or defend, but not both, and I have to determine which is which when I equip them. Besides that, it’s a fairly easy exchange, switching psionic movement for rocket boots and lightning breath for tasers. I also like the reskinning for the power points, because I didn’t do any reskinning at all. They just work, and there’s no explanation, which doesn’t actually detract from the character.
- Tower Campaign: Cid Viscous. Technically, Cid is a shardmind druid/psion, but Cid’s player performs the most thorough reskins I’ve ever seen. This character in my campaign is a living slime, who doesn’t switch between humanoid and beast forms as much as he changes between human-like form and a writhing mass of tentacles. He teleports by reaching a strand of himself to a remote location and pulling the rest of him along, and most of his area and close powers have been changed to waves of slime. Even his items are reskinned into his body, which might have been questionable in a system with disarming or sundering but is awesome in 4th Edition.
- Post-Ragnarok Campaign: Vakr Eyvindarson. I really wanted to do this example, because not only is it 3rd Edition, but it’s a great example of a minor rules modification to allow a reskin. This character is a fairly ordinary human abjurer, with a focus on prismatic and rainbow spells, but there are no feats and few items based on this idea. So the DM approved changing the reserve feat Fiery Burst to Rainbow Burst, which gives a +1 bonus to caster level for rainbow spells rather than fire spells. In addition, the character can make a burst of energy at will, except that instead of fire damage, the damage type is determined randomly from among the big four (see above). The inability to choose the energy type keep this from being too bad, and it means the character can spend their turn accidentally causing cold damage to a creature he knows is immune to cold, which I’m sure the DM loves. The power level fits and it makes the character distinctive and fun to play, which is just about everything you could ask for.
As powerful as reskinning is, there’s one problem I’ve found with it, and it’s that I tend to value reskinning over not. I feel like there are so many great ideas for characters out there that don’t fit the normal, published molds, that over time I developed an unconscious derision for any character that follows them as written. That is, the less work a player puts into reskinning a character, the less interesting (and thus worse) that character is. Now that I’ve recognized this, I’ve been able to suppress it, but I still tend to encourage reskinning in my campaigns. Once you get into the mindset of thinking of a character and then bending the rules to fit them rather than the other way around, it opens up a terrific new world of character design.
Plus, most players don’t memorize monster information. A reskinned creature is as good as a brand-new creature when it comes to surprising and interesting players, but takes far less time.