When Dungeons & Dragons hit the shelves in 1974, the world’s first roleplaying game (although it didn’t bill itself as such) was incomplete; they assumed that you owned copies of Chainmail and Outdoor Survival. Referees that didn’t own those books were forced to improvise; thus the first house rules were born.

Since then, house ruling has become a time-honored tradition amongst GMs. Whether pulling unofficial rules from game magazines, adding “optional” rules, drifting mechanics from another system, or simply making up our own rules, all of these are, to some degree, house rules. We use them to patch holes in our system of choice or to expand their scope.

I’m a recovering house rule addict. Not all that long ago, whenever I saw a problem in the game, my first urge was to add a house rule. However, over the course of my GMing career I’ve learned that there are times when house rules aren’t necessary; a different approach is called for. Thus, today’s article is going to focus on the following:

You’ve discovered a problematic issue in your game. Do you need a house rule?

Now, as a recovering house rule addict, here’s my five-step program to determine whether a house rule is necessary.

Step One: Is the problem going to crop up enough to need a house rule?

Sometimes, a situation just doesn’t come up often enough to merit a house rule, especially when it doesn’t impact the characters enough. If you are running a game about super-spies and only have them going into space for a single adventure, then quick judgment calls on fighting in a zero-G environment (which is neglected in your rules) will be enough to get by.

Step Two: Are the PCs happy with your temporary fix?

Don’t give yourself more work than you have to. Unless you completely froze during the session, you probably made an off-the-cuff decision. If the players were happy with it and it doesn’t affect their sheets (i.e. you didn’t nerf a special ability) or gameplay, then let the ruling stand in the future.

Step Three: Re-read the official rules

You’d be surprised how many times a problem pops up in the game because a rule’s been ignored or misinterpreted; it happens far more often then you’d think.  Whenever I identify a problem, my first step is always to re-read the relevant rules section (okay, my real first step is to make a quick ruling for the remainder of the session—nothing brings a session to a screeching halt like cracking open the books).

I play in groups that have been together a long time. It’s easy to get comfortable with someone else’s interpretation, especially when everyone else nods in agreement. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a player/GM say “that’s the way we’ve always played it” only to have the rules unequivocally reject that interpretation.

Step Four: Is there a similar official rule?

Sometimes there is a rule that, with slight tweaking, can cover a different situation. d20 Modern, for example, has no rules for seduction, which is a circumstance that could pop up often in a Bondian-style spy game.  At first blush, you might be tempted to create a seduction skill. But do you really need one?

In an RPG, Seduction is a tool. Unless the player simply wants to “get lucky,” then he or she is using Seduction to trick someone (Bluff), establish a relationship (Diplomacy), or get them to do something that they normally wouldn’t (Intimidate).  Add appropriate class abilities and circumstance modifiers and you’re finished. No separate Seduction skill is necessary. That said if seduction is a major part of your adventures, then it may be used enough to warrant a separate skill.

Step Five: Has this issue been tackled elsewhere?

You may wish to look at other products for the RPG that you’re playing (official and unofficial) to see if your issue has been addressed. While it can be a bit foolish to spend $40 on a book because you need a paragraph of rules, such a purchase may offer more meat for the situation that inspired your need for a house rule (look at the number of naval, airship, and steampunk products that came out for D&D 3.x (and soon to be coming out for D&D 4e)).  If, for example, you were looking to houserule naval combat rules because you are about to run a nautical-themed adventure, then you may just want a whole book on nautical campaigning to mine for ideas.

Wrapping Up

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’m a recovering house rule addict. It’s been so bad at times that my players had to practically re-learn the rules every session as I walked in with my latest set of house rules. Not only would this slow down gameplay, but many players needed to rewrite their character sheets since they weren’t aware of the changes at character creation.

In today’s games, house rules can also wreak havoc in other areas. It can be a pain in the rear to re-tool character generation or campaign management programs to accommodate your house rules, and with the rise of online play and convention gaming house rules can create compatibility issues.

Hopefully, this article will help you filter out areas where house rules aren’t necessary. In future articles in this column, I’ll be looking at crafting, applying, and reassessing house rules. If you have any particular issues with house rules, please let me know.