Sometimes we old hands, tired of a subject that’s been talked to death, or thinking that everything there is to be said on the subject has been said, forget that a lot of players and GMs have come into the hobby more recently than we have, and hence weren’t privy to those discussions.

This produces, or at least contributes to, the ‘Generation Gap’ that differentiates modern gaming from ‘old school’ gaming. To overcome this, every topic needs to be revisited from time to time.

One of the most controversial posts I’ve ever written here at Campaign Mastery – much to my surprise – has been Draco Inadequatus: Beefing Up 3.x Dragons, published in August 2011, largely because it touches on one of those subjects that is all-too-familiar to old hands of RPGs – House Rules.

In a good-spirited but lively debate in late January, in the comments of the aforementioned post, Scott (one of our readers) touched on the subject of House Rules and why they should – or shouldn’t – be present in a game.

Credit Where It’s Due
I want to start by acknowledging up-front two references that were great reads in researching this article. I’m going to try and avoid repeating what they say, so you might want to click on the links below and have a read. They’ll open in a new tab/window, so don’t worry about losing your place.

The first is a section of “Introduction To Role-Playing” called ‘Kim D&D’ and especially the section ‘Setting Philosophy‘ and especially the first two subsections, concerning Realism vs. Playability and Continuity and Longevity. I don’t know when Kim E Lunbard wrote his content, but he couldn’t have summed up my attitude to the subject any better if he had tried, hitting several of the points I wanted to make squarely on the head and reminding me of what’s important in this conversation.

The second is a forum topic post at Warpshadow.com in which Eidre lists her house rules criteria. This dates all the way back to 2005 but is still directly relevant today.

Why Have House Rules?

Let’s start by looking at some of the reasons why a GM might introduce House Rules:

  • Regulation of Social Behavior
  • Correction of inadequate rules
  • Compatibility with the Campaign Setting
  • Improving game performance
  • Correcting a perceived Game Balance problem
  • Inspiration and Experimentation
  • Adding to the fun or game flavor
  • Increasing the flexibility of the Game
Regulation of Social Behavior

House rules are often used to regulate social behavior at the game table, but while house rules such “who brings the drinks” may be important, most of them are beyond the purview of this dissertation. But there is some overlap with the type of rules that we’re concerned with – questions like cocked dice, dice that roll off the table, consequences for interrupting the GM or another player, and so on.

This sort of thing is what most people would recognize by the term “House Rules” and they are not that dissimilar to what many other sorts of “House” might have – from a restaurant to a footie clubhouse. I doubt there is any serious contention from anyone that this type of House Rule, defining etiquette and standards of personal behavior, is perfectly acceptable. But don’t get too comfortable with this sense of agreement, it won’t last.

Correction of inadequate rules

In fact, we’ve gone directly into a source of ongoing warfare between different gaming philosophies that has been bubbling away within the hobby for as long as I’ve been part of it – 1981, if anyone’s counting.

Are there rules that just don’t work? Most game systems usually have one or two mechanics that either simply don’t work, or that take too much game time to administrate, or whatever. When this sort of situation comes to the GM’s attention, he has only three choices:

  • Live with the rule as written regardless of how broken it might or might not be;
  • Eliminate the rule and any attendant subsystem or sub-subsystem completely with a house rule; or,
  • Replace the rule with a house rule.

I can remember when no RPG review was considered either complete or adequate without the identification of at least two holes in the game system to watch out for!

To be honest, there is a lot less justification for this sort of change than there used to be in the bad old days. That doesn’t mean that this is completely dead and buried; I remain firmly convinced that the DC-setting mechanism for skill checks in D&D 3.x is broken, making success too easily achieved. But, by and large, the game designers have learned over the years, and game systems are now (generally) a lot more robust. This sort of problem is now the exception, not the routine reality that it used to be.

Compatibility with the Campaign Setting

This is a reason that far too few GMs consider, but it’s one that I consider not only perfectly justified, but absolutely mandatory.

Game settings which are not supported by House Rules are settings without depth. They are making no difference to the day-to-day operations of characters within the game, and hence are pretty superficial.

It’s only when a game setting begins to make itself felt within the game mechanics that it really comes alive. Different, campaign-specific skills, magic, materials, powers, restrictions, character classes, different or variant races, unique monsters, strange settings with unexpected environmental effects… perhaps just one or two of these, or all of them.

But this opens a Pandora’s box – whatever is put in place will never be as rigidly play-tested and very rarely as well-designed as the original rules. And if you change the rules too much, the game will become unrecognizable. The Game Setting can justify any rules change – but with that power comes great responsibility. I’ll talk about the right way to discharge that responsibility a little later.

Improving game performance

Maybe there are rules that actually do what they are supposed to, but have a side-effect: slowing combat or other frequently-occurring gameplay to a languid molasses-like crawl. The weapon speed adjustment rules for AD&D used to be like that, for example. Elemental Controls and Multipowers in the Hero System can sometimes be another example – the combat sequencing system certainly is.

There is always going to be room for improvement in any set of rules, and anyone who thinks differently needs to change the colour of their lenses – lose the rose-tinteds, folks!

At the same time, there is a school of thought that runs, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. And “don’t reinvent the wheel.”

And both sides have valid points in this particular debate. Quite often – as Johnn discovered, and reported, in his post My Group’s Time Thief Revealed – what seems to be the roadblock, often isn’t.

There are also times when changing something to make it more playable does extreme damage to the look-and-feel of the game system – at which point you should think twice before keeping the House Rule.

And, finally, quite often you will take a mechanic that is clunky-but-works and replace it with one that is faster-but-broken – or worse yet, with something that is clunky-and-broken.

The upshot is that this motivation for house rules is a quagmire filled with unsuspected dangers and expected twists and turns. That makes this motivation a marginal one at best.

Correcting a perceived Game Balance problem

And here’s another hot-button topic setting up an army marquee on the field of battle: just what is game balance, anyways?

The problem is that the one term is used generically to sum up a whole host of different aspects of the rules system. It can refer to imbalance between races, genders, classes, spell effectiveness vs. spell level, combat effects in general or in specific, risk-vs.-reward, the power of magic items vs. the ease of construction and/or cost of said items, and on and on and on.

It’s usually at this point that the “Realism First” proponents start speaking up, if they’ve even managed to keep quiet for this long.

The problem is that changing any one of these rule-effectiveness ratios usually causes another to go out of whack, which also needs adjustment, and so on. I’ve seen it happen on many occasions.

The difficulties are made worse by the fact that these are rarely as simple as a constant ratio. Take D&D 3.x Mages, for example: at low levels, they are as fragile as spun glass and almost as useful in a combat situation – until at some point they suddenly go to the opposite extreme and then power their way into the stratosphere. There is no one simple fix for this, because what we have here are two or more separate game imbalances with opposing effects.

Boost the usefulness of low-level mages and you will usually find that high-level mages, already demigods in comparison to their peer rankings in other classes, become Cosmic Powers. I’ve seen all manner of attempts to fix this, and most have failed miserably. The only one I saw for AD&D that came close to success was so radical that the game no longer felt like D&D, it was closer to RuneQuest, and beggared the question of why they didn’t play RuneQuest to begin with?

This isn’t just a quagmire, it’s full of landmines – a dangerous reason for a House Rule. Sometimes necessary, but more often than not, it’s a poor justification.

Inspiration and Experimentation

Cooks play around with recipes, artists play around with paints, and roleplayers play around with rules systems. It’s a fact of life, a measure of our level of interest in the games that we run that, like a car-collector, we want to get our hands dirty and tinker around under the hood in search of an extra 3/8ths of a horsepower.

I’ve been astonished at the degree of (polite, slightly removed) crossover interest between the Formula 1 fans that I chat with on twitter and the RPG GMs and authors. Each has promoted a link or article about the other at some point, sometimes more than once. It was only when I wrote the paragraph above that the similarity of interests made itself clear to me.

Of all the reasons for creating House Rules that have been discussed so far, this is probably the least defensible, but also – cloaked behind claims of more benevolent motivations – probably more common than we like to admit.

At the same time, every improvement to the robustness of game systems that has occurred in the history of RPGs started life as an experiment and was filtered through the rule author’s accumulated databank of things that had worked and not worked in the past. You can’t learn how to write good rules until you’ve written your share of bad ones.

So there is something positive to be said for experimentation with the rules, so long as the author (usually but not always the GM) doesn’t hide the real reason for the rule behind some other purpose.

Adding to the fun or game flavor

This is a somewhat touchy one. We all get different things out of an RPG, so one person’s “fun” probably won’t match that of the person seated next to them.

All the changes that I’ve seen that use “fun” as a justification rank amongst the most egregious cases of Monty Haul-ism and munchkin-ism that I’ve encountered:

  • “These Vampires shoot death beams from their eyes – cool, hey?” (well, No.)
  • “The Dragon leaps out from the old man’s backpack and breathes fire at you. It has a wingspan of 400 feet and does 30d6, no saving throw.” (Really? Uh-uh.)
  • “The wand explodes when the Druid casts Warp Wood on it, doing 400d6. Save for half damage.”
  • “Okay, everyone’s weapons are now +1 enchanted.”

These are all real examples that I’ve encountered at the game table. In each case, the GM had changed the rules (and, in one case, what was physically possible) to make the game more “fun”.

Other examples of this type of rules change include incorporating critical hit tables from another game system because they sound like fun, etc.

As for game flavor, if it doesn’t match the campaign setting you want to use, how can you justify changing it? Either the ‘flavor’ matches the setting and the campaign, in which case the change is contradicting what you want to achieve, or it doesn’t, and the change can be better justified on those grounds.

So far as I am concerned, neither of these justifications hold water. Either a House Rule can be successfully defended on one of the other grounds listed, or it shouldn’t be there.

Increasing the flexibility of the Game

Few GMs stop to realize it, but every game supplement outside the core rules that they choose to incorporate into their games comes with a House Rule stating the acceptance of the material in that product.

Sometimes, more than one will be needed, because even when sourced from the same publisher, even the publisher of the core rules, these are not always compatible with each other. Sometimes they can be downright contradictory, at other times one simply ignores the existence of the other.

The only mention of the 3.0 Epic Levels Sourcebook in Deities and Demigods is the suggestion that in an epic campaign, it might be necessary to increase the character level of the Deities.

Every time a player takes a prestige class that isn’t in the PHB or DMG, a House Rule comes into existence. The only exception to this statement comes if there is one House Rule that gives blanket approval to ANY source that the player wants to use.

Heck, even the core rules of a game usually contain a few optional rules!

The Compact With Players

There is an unwritten agreement between the GM and players. The GM promises to interpret the rules fairly, and to create adventures for the PCs that are fun for the players – or, at the very least, interesting/diverting. The players agree to accept any measures that the GM finds necessary in order to achieve this result, and to tolerate the GM’s style. The GM promises not to interfere with the player’s ability to dictate the attempted actions of their characters, and the players agree to accept the GM’s arbitration of the results and consequences of those actions.

If a game is no fun for the players, they won’t stay. Every House Rule has the potential to erode that fun, or to enhance it.

If a game is no fun for the GM, he won’t run it. Every House Rule has the potential to destroy that fun, or to enhance it. Every arguement about a House Rule will certainly reduce it.

Gaming is a shared experience, and both sides need to be mindful of that fact, and allow the other their share of the joy.

Taming The Rules Jungle

So there are lots of reasons for introducing House Rules. Some of them are dubious, some of them hard to argue with. (That is NOT a challenge to our readers to do so!) The only way to sensibly integrate House Rules is to have some House Rules about House Rules!

In General

There are a few things that should be done, regardless of the justification for the rule.

  1. Make sure everyone knows what the House Rules are.
  2. Keep them in writing.
  3. Review them from time to time, and make sure they are up to date.
  4. Each time a House Rule is introduced, give it a defined trial period.
  5. Establish very clearly the reasons for the House Rule and, from those justifications, what the purpose of the rule is.
  6. Discuss the need with your players BEFORE introducing the house rule.
  7. Look for implications, especially hidden ones. Have your players do likewise.
  8. Establish clear criteria for failure, and a clear fallback position. The rule might need to be tweaked, replaced with a new House Rule, or abandoned completely, reverting to the base rules.
  9. When the review period is up, demand your player’s input on the rule – is it a success or a failure? Has it had unexpected consequences or repercussions, and are those desirable or undesirable? Are any gains worth the costs?

There are probably more, but that list – even though most of it is blindingly obvious – is enough to get started on.

Some specific notes, by justification:

Social Behavior:

These are the least likely to cause you trouble if prepared in advance of someone getting upset. Don’t get carried away with penalties and the like, if you don’t have to – remember the Compact! That said, if it comes down to a choice between shutting down a game that is even only sometimes fun or getting strict about social behavior, you may need to get tough. It’s better to throw one player out than spoil everyone’s fun.

Each GM has some soft spot that players can savage – I’m a fairly mild-mannered guy, but constantly being interrupted and not being permitted to finish what I was saying can make me explode. I’ve never been driven to the point of just getting up and walking out, though I have seen others do so. I did once, in early 2005, reach the point of contemplating getting out of RPGs altogether because they just weren’t fun any more. And I did once reach the point of ripping an adventure in two and shutting down the campaign – before being persuaded by the rest of the players to resume it.

The worst time to craft such rules is when problems have driven someone to the point where they are about to snap.

It’s also worth remembering that there are three sides to any dispute – your side, their side, and the people caught in the crossfire.

Correction of inadequate rules

This justification requires careful thought. Why are the existing rules inadequate? Is there any chance of misinterpretation? What would constitute an improvement? What else will get lost in the change, if anything?

Campaign Setting

Because this can be such a blanket justification, it comes with some specific hazards. It may be necessary to be prepared to junk part of the campaign setting if the rules to implement it are excessively troublesome. I’ve written in the past (My Biggest Mistakes: The Woes of Piety & Magic) about one occasion when that was the case. This is worth reading because it also has advice on removing a flawed house rule.

Game Performance

Although it might seem that direct comparisons of performance are possible, this is never quite true; there are too many variables. Even repeating exactly an encounter or circumstance won’t work because the players will have seen it before, and will have learned from the experience what works, and the die rolls will be different. It follows that these criteria will either be statistical in nature, or subjective. The problem with statistics is that they can easily be misinterpreted; the problem with subjective differences is that they have to be fairly substantial to be noticeable and memorable. And the problem with using both is that they can disagree.

And, of course, as noted earlier, the whole House Rule can be mis-targeted.

So assessments of House Rules justified in this way are often the fuzziest – just when a clear yes-or-no is most desirable.

The best answer is not to get too fancy – track the ratio of combat time vs non-combat time, divide by the number of encounters of each type, and compare the gross effects. Then take with a grain of salt.

Things to watch out for are anything which gives the players or GM more work to do – refer to the “Piety” article listed above. A small delay which recurs frequently can add up to a mountain of lost and wasted time.

Game Balance

Here we’re talking about assessments made in a dynamic situation. As a result, these are also pretty subjective or fairly extreme.

Inspiration and Experimentation

Ohhkay. More than any other, this category needs clear criteria for failure that can be objectively measured, because you are replacing something that works with something that might work better.

Fun/Game Flavor

If this is the sole justification for a rule, it had better be a spectacular success or else. I have never seen house rules that exist for no other reason that were any good, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Even when I advocated House Rules in the context of genre-enhancement as part of the series on Reinventing Pulp the changes can be justified in terms of Campaign Setting.

Again, be very clear as to what will constitute an improvement.

Flexibility

Since this is the one area of House Rules that is virtually guaranteed to be present in a campaign, it is the most important of all to have clear criteria. I use a fixed procedure to assess proposed character classes, feats, spells, magic items, even new skill uses. The following is an extract from the house rules for my Fumanor campaigns:

  1. Editable Copy A physical copy of the must be provided to the referee for conversion to an editable computer-based document. Where this is provided by the loan of the sourcebook to the referee, the “computer version” must be generated by the referee when time permits before this step is considered complete. Players wishing to accelerate the process may choose to submit an electronic copy ready to be edited and then copy-and-pasted onto the approved list. PDFs of the source which do not permit copy-and-paste are considered the equivalent of loaning a sourcebook, because the work required is still the same. Note that it is not enough to simply list the game mechanics, the ‘fluff text’ are considered to be rules needing review as well.
  2. Background Justification: The referee will review the content from a standpoint of campaign background fit, and make any adjustment deemed necessary, or refuse to approve the submission. If the submission is not rejected as unsuited to the background, it then proceeds to step 3.
  3. Comparative Justification: The referee will then review the content from a standpoint of game balance, and make any adjustment deemed necessary, or refuse to approve the submission. If the submission is not rejected as unsuited, it then proceeds to step 4.
  4. Rules Justification: The referee will then review the content from a standpoint of uniqueness, logic, and necessity, and make any adjustment deemed necessary, or refuse to approve the submission. If the submission is not rejected, it then proceeds to step 5.
  5. Requirements Review: The referee will then review the requirements to ensure that they reflect the considerations of steps 2-4 above, and make any adjustment deemed necessary, or refuse to approve the submission. If the submission is not rejected, it then proceeds to step 6.
  6. If approved, the submission will be noted for inclusion on the the official Approved lists.
  7. When time permits, the referee will act on that note and add the approved version to the official Approved list. If time is short, he may include the submission as an addendum to the official list; this qualifies as approval.
  8. Until placed on the register of approved submissions, characters may not choose the option, though they may reserve a “slot” (feat slot, character level, skill points) pending availability.
  9. Any character who has an un-Approved option listed on their character sheet will lose both the option and the slot it occupies, and the option in question will be banned from the game from that time forward regardless of whether or not it would have been approved had it been submitted properly. It is therefore in the player’s best interests to submit any desired material for approval in advance of choosing the option for their character.

Looking Beyond The Rules

I want to close this article by pointing readers to an Ask-The-GMs post from September 2009. While the secondary focus of the post is answering a specific rules question – an answer that not everyone agreed with – the primary focus is on the process that I use in determining such answers. Every ruling is a House Rule, that should be applied consistently from that time forwards. Click on this link
to read the post. And remember to have fun in your games!

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