How do you tell a good House Rule from a Bad?

I know, I promised something short. As long-time readers will know, I don’t do “short” very well…

“Time and motion studies” used to be the favorite tool of “efficiency” experts who optimized a process for speed. They quickly became the butts of a lot of sarcastic humor because they had an alleged tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater, culling process steps that existed for good reason beyond their limited frame of reference. To some extent, this may have been deserved, but for the most part it was simply resistance to change; no intelligent efficiency expert would dream of not determining why a process was occurring and what other processes made use of it.

It’s like double-entry bookkeeping – yes, it doubles the workload of the bookkeeper, but it’s absolutely essential to any form of auditing for errors in the accounts.

It’s also a great way to tell a good rule from a bad rule – especially valuable when you’re thinking of adding house rules to a game system.

I’m a big fan of House Rules, of customizing the game infrastructure to incorporate and reflect the unique concepts of any given campaign. It’s even possible to create a whole new campaign simply by deciding to replace a base rule with a house rule idea and asking “what are the in-game consequences?”

But whenever you get into House Rules territory, the fact that these have not been playtested – or, at least, not in combination with every other House Rule that you have incorporated – can be a recipe for disaster. There is an analogy here to a personal computer – no-one else in the world is going to have your exact combination of hardware, software, environment, and user habits. That makes it hard for any software or systems developer to throw anything new into the mix with zero possibility of conflict and confusion, and is the reason why most troubleshooting advice starts with uninstalling anything new that has been added since the last time the system worked reliably.

If only it were always that simple… (sigh). Some software makes permanent changes to the system and doesn’t clean up after itself properly when it gets uninstalled. In part that can be because of sloppy design, but it can also be because the uninstall function also has to function in that particularly unique environment.

I’ve learned a few “rules” the hard way about what differentiates a good house rule from a bad one – enough that I can spot a lot of the lemons before even “installing” them in my campaign. Call them Metarules for the sake of convenience. This article is going to describe those Metarules, dividing them into six categories:

  • Rules that take too long
  • Rules that offer too much choice
  • Rules that occur too often
  • Rules that add insufficient value
  • Rules that require a shift in mindset
  • Rules that are redundant

I’ve been guilty of creating House Rules that have infringed on each of these, in the past – but I like to think that I have learned from those mistakes.

Rules that take too long

Some rules simply take too long to use. “Too Long,” of course, is a subjective measure; three minutes once a game session is not overly excessive. Three minutes per hour of play is becoming problematic; but if the rule is important enough, valuable enough, that might still be tolerable.
The more steps there are in a process, the longer that process will take.
“Too long” stems from a combination of three factors, which are only partially independent of each other:

  • Too Many Steps – The more steps there are in a process, the longer that process will take.
  • Too Many Variables – The more values that have to be included, the longer a process will take – especially if they have to be looked up in different locations.
  • Too Many Decisions – Every choice requires a comparison between that choice and every alternative. This element grows exponentially worse with complex or combinations of choices.

Any or all of these factors can cause a rule to simply take too darned long to use for that rule to be practical – and an impractical rule is a bad rule.

There is one final factor of which a GM should be cognizant in terms of this category of rule: Rules that take too long to explain to the players, or that are – for whatever reason – too hard for them to understand. This factor needs to be assessed a little differently to the others because it is an element that may improve with time. The more frequently a rule is accessed, the more likely it is that this will be the case; but there are no guarantees. So such rules may be worth trailing, but the GM should bear the potential for rule failure in mind, and have a way to remove the rule that is not too disruptive to the game’s internal logic and history – a topic that I’ll come back to at the end of the article.

Rules that offer too much choice

I’ve already touched on this in the preceding section, but here I’m talking more specifically about rules that expand the freedom of choice of the players by giving them extra metagame options, more ways of interfacing with the game mechanics.

This is the challenge that makes spellcasters such a challenge (compared to fighters and such) in the various incarnations of D&D – the variety of options (spells) that they have to choose from. The same problem can also afflict superhero games when characters have too many powers and too many ways to use them, or cyberpunk games where characters have too many weapons of different characteristics available in their armory.

As I said previously, every choice added to the palette requires a comparison with every other choice available before an action can be chosen – and the situation grows exponentially worse if there multiple sets of choices that can function in combination.

This problem can be compounded. Players generally come in two varieties: those with greater expertise in the rules that affect their characters than the GM has, and those with less, sometimes substantially less. The latter adds substantially to the workload involved in actually making a choice from amongst the options available. Some players cope better with choice than others, in other words. It’s probably fair to say that every player has their own individual breaking point, though, and this is the problem that the GM flirts with every time he offers a new mechanism of choice to the players.

Rules that occur too often

It’s a straightforward relationship – the real cost, in time and effort, of any rule is the product of individual processing time and the frequency with which that process has to be carried out. Ten seconds an hour isn’t very much. A minute an hour isn’t bad. An extra minute every combat round is too much. An extra second for every blow struck in combat is absolutely massive.

Here’s some simple math: The number of combats in a game session times the number of rounds of combat in the average battle times the number of blows struck in a combat round by all participants including monsters and NPCs. Typical numbers might be 3 x 6 x 20 = 3600. Even one extra second each comes to an HOUR of playing time lost. And since the GM is handling multiple characters, most of this will be time the players spend waiting for him – as Johnn Four discovered a while back My Group’s Time Thief Revealed – Chronology iPad App Review.

The frequency with which a rule is invoked is usually far more important than the time that the rule takes to use. This is a lesson that I have learned through very painful experience (My Biggest Mistakes: The Woes Of Piety & Magic).

Rules that add insufficient value

Any rule change needs a good reason to be there. Even house rules that are designed to streamline some process that occurs frequently within the game have to be justified; every such rule is a balancing act between what is gained and what is lost. And I’m not talking about what a rule is intended to do, or attempting to do; what is its actual value to the game, and to the campaign?

What does it cost? Every rule change has a cost, whether it’s measured in time (which has been the focus of this article thus far) or in terms of reducing the choices someone has to make. Even if the rule is a streamlining of existing processes, like the change from the old THAC0 structure in D&D, there is a price-tag in terms of learning the new rules.

Changes in value

Here’s some further room for thought: the costs and benefits change as characters become more powerful. In systems like D&D, they may gain in the number of attacks each can perform, for example. They will gain more options as characters. That can change the cost-benefit analysis, and can mean that a useful contribution can become unnecessary, unworkable, or simply not worth the hassle.

Don’t simply assess a rule on the current situation; consider what will happen a year from now (real time), or two, or five.

If a rule is worthwhile now, but will stop being so in the future, you have three choices:

  1. Tolerate the future penalty for the sake of the short-term advantage;
  2. Kill the rule now, and save the later headache;
  3. Include a mechanic to phase the rule out over time, or have some other form of “exit strategy” for the rule.

The last doesn’t seem to occur to people very often, perhaps because it’s an artificial solution – but there’s nothing wrong with employing a metagame solution provided that it is being made on the grounds of practicality, and the players are advised of this. For example, is there a sub-mechanic that can be employed to reduce the frequency of occurrence of the house rule based on some value that increments with character experience?

And if you’re really worried about the ramifications for campaign concept, you can always think about some in-game justification for this phasing out. While it’s not something that would worry me, per se,, I would probably put some such justification in place just in case it bothered one of my players. After all, no matter who the players are at the start of a campaign, you can never be sure just who the players will be at its end. (I was once told of a D&D campaign whose focus was generational change; each time the characters gained a level or was killed, one of the PCs was forcibly retired, and a new player brought in a new PC to replace that character. There was a rotational roster involved. It came to mind because it’s a story relevant to the next ATGMs – but it’s also relevant to this discussion, so I thought I would mention it).

Rules that require a shift in mindset

Once again, I find that I’ve anticipated the subject. In part this refers specifically to situations like the THAC0 problem – “Low rolls are good except for attack rolls when you want a high roll” – i.e. consistency of mechanism. More specifically, rules that require subtraction of numbers tend to take a lot longer to process than rules that require additions.

But there are also rules that require other shifts in thinking. Rules that address a team’s tactical situation, as opposed to the simple and straightforward “I attack”. Even shifting to a situation in which game rules dominate can take time. For that reason, in both my own campaigns and in the shared Adventurer’s Club campaign, there are times when a cinematic approach is taken so that the players and GM can stay in character rather than losing the time while everyone shifts mental gears.

Even if it only takes a second to shift mental gears, or to perform a subtraction instead of an addition, that time can be incredibly important, as the previous section shows – but my experience is that it takes more like 5-30 seconds.

Five seconds once a combat round – based on the numbers offered in the previous section – is a minute and a half. Thirty seconds costs almost ten minutes. That doesn’t sound like a lot – not in comparison to one second per attack! – but that’s assuming everyone can make the shift at the same time. If they have to do it consecutively, taking into account what the player who has just acted has done, a five PC group takes that Thirty Seconds up to 45 minutes of wasted time. And if the GM has to do it as well – that 45 minutes becomes an hour and a half of wasted game time.

Some players are especially poor at these mindset shifts. I have known one player who required something more on the order of minutes to achieve it – so much time that most of the other players became impatient. Once the mind-shift took place, once the decisions were made, he was as insightful and original as any player I’ve ever had in one of my campaigns – but he couldn’t turn it on and off like a tap, and the other players could.

The rules didn’t help, in that they weren’t designed to accommodate someone with his particular limitations. He would undoubtedly have been a less frustrating player if they had been constructed to minimize the frequency of mental gear-changes. As with everything else, the frequency of repetition is critical.

Rules that are redundant

But it’s not everything. A rule that costs 10 minutes every time a battle starts still costs half an hour of play if there are three battles in a game session. You can cope with that if the reward to the campaign is big enough; but how about if there is no reward unless that player chooses to exercise one particular choice?

Or a rule that costs time – even only a few seconds – repeating something that you’ve already done? What if the rule is nothing but an absolute, total, waste of time? Remember that number from earlier – one second an attack can waste an hour in a typical game session. Take that up to 3 seconds and you are talking three hours of lost play. That’s probably half the average game session. And if that’s because of a redundant rule that gives you no benefit at the end of the day’s play, how much better would your game be simply as a result of junking that rule?

Principles of efficiency

I was once told that there were three principles to efficiency:

  1. Do things once, and do them right;
  2. Do them when you need them, and not before; and
  3. Keep the results where you don’t have to look for them.

Well, here’s a shocker for anyone nodding their heads: I don’t agree with number two.

So long as you assume that you will follow principle number three, you will use less time if you perform the task when you already have the reference material in front of you. In other words, don’t perform the task when you need the result; perform it when you know that you WILL need the result before the end of play, and when it is most convenient to do so.

As always, there’s a caveat. Things are never that simple. Here’s the first rub: the more you do in advance, the more time you can lose wading through all the other things that you’ve done at “the most convenient time” looking for the result. It’s a balancing act. And the key to success is not just getting the balance right between “just in time” and “done in advance”, it’s doing those things in advance that have the biggest time penalty when done “at the time”.

Prioritize anything that has to be performed repetitively. Next, prioritize anything that requires a shift in mindset. Those two factors alone should be more than enough to get you to the right sort of mark.

Wise Prep

At least, they would be, if not for the second joker in the deck: Time spent when you are not at the gaming table doesn’t count. All time is not equal; if you can squeeze in an extra five minutes of game prep sometime prior to play to perform, in advance, some of these tasks, it’s all gain and no pain – and can yield a disproportionate improvement in actual game time.

When you read a section of narrative, it’s used once; you are generally better off using bullet points and a summary of that narrative and fleshing it out on the fly, then using the time saved to prep the numbers that you will need in the course of the game. This trades a one-off inefficiency for a recurring efficiency.

Removing Bad Rules

The simplest answer is to wave your GM’s magic wand and simply announce “the rules have changed”. What’s past is past, and even if the rules no longer permit what did happen to happen, learn to live with it and get on with the game.

If you really want some sort of in-game justification for the change, do it as a metagame byproduct of a present or future encounter. You could:

  • Assume that the old situation was unnatural, and give the PCs the opportunity to restore conditions to their natural state; or,
  • Assume that the old situation was to the disadvantage of a powerful NPC enemy, and have him do something to alter conditions such that they are more to his liking; or
  • Assume that the PCs have a hidden ally (competence to be determined) who thinks that the change will help them; or
  • Make the change a side-effect of something that the PCs do.

I want to expand on the last one for a moment. I once needed to make a rules change in an AD&D game. The PCs came across a wandering monster. The dice indicated that in this monster’s hoard there was a sword – no magic, nothing special. So I made it a magic item – no bonuses, but once someone lifted the sword, some runes glowed, and (unknown to the players at the time), the rules changed. They spent ages trying to determine what the magic power of the sword was; it radiated magic to anyone employing a “detect magic” spell, it was lawfully aligned, but any attempts to learn of its abilities produced absolute silence. Eventually, they got the runes translated, and learned that this was the sword “Gamechanger”. They then put two and two together and came out with five, which was exactly the answer I was hoping for. For the rest of that campaign, the PCs were afraid to touch the darned thing, and even more afraid of letting anyone else get their hands on it, or even learning of its existence. One of them was so paranoid that he hired an assassin to make sure the Sage who performed the translation could never tell anyone about it. And every time an enemy singled them out, they were afraid that he had learned of the sword. They could never be sure what change it might make next time.

So let me sum this section up in a different way: try to find a way to look upon the need to change the rules as an opportunity, not a burden.

The Final Word

Above all, don’t stress too much about the efficiency of the existing rules, including the house rules you already have in place. They must be working well enough, or your campaign would already be in trouble. Apply these standards and considerations to any new rules that you come up with, and don’t stress about the rest. The game is supposed to be fun, and while bad rules can maim or even fatally wound that fun, stressing out about them is certain to do so. When you perceive an opportunity to improve the game, by all means take it; but “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” as the saying goes.

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