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House Rules

They are a necessary part of most games, and as GM’s something that we frequently have to deal with, either to address a shortcoming, plug a hole, or meet an unforeseen need. While a great many GMs are skilled behind the screen, that does not necessarily translate to their being adept at system modifications. So consider these guidelines when adopting your own house rules.

The Fiddly Bits

I’ve met GMs in my time who—like myself—love to understand and debate the interoperability of game mechanics; dive deep under the hood and see what makes a system work. Conversely, I’ve also gamed with my fair share who could care less about the underpinnings—they just want a game that works. Both are perfectly fine approaches (and everything in-between) and I’d even go so far as to say that the second group—if using a commercially published game—have an expectation that things will “just work.” Sadly, as we all know, that’s rarely the case.

Even designers are mortal and just like no adventure will survive an encounter with the PCs, no system will survive an encounter with a group of players…or a tweaker GM. Then there are the subset that like to tweak their rulesets—as is their right—even for no good reason. Man, I hate playing in those games!

So, putting my designer hat on for a moment, allow me to share my own philosophy when it comes to house rules or altering systems.

In thinking of an example to share I can’t help but go to one of my favorite games, Fading Suns. The Victory Point System (VPS) that it uses isn’t anything to write home about. It’s quite serviceable, however. It’s also something that just about every time I read about someone has tweaked the system. For good reason, however, as the system—as-is—does have its own problems with internal consistency.

For example, the entire game revolves around a d20 “roll under or on your target” mechanic. It’s straightforward, easy to grasp, and how high you roll without going over the your target (the Price is Right mechanics), determines how well you succeeded. Hitting your goal number exactly is a critical success. Easy, right?

Except combat takes a wild left turn when, after you make a hit, suddenly the system turns into a success-counting exercise. You roll d6s—the only time in the game you use a die other than a d20—and count 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s, as successes for both damage and for armor soak. Every time I’ve explained this system to a player they’ve found it as jarring as I had when I first read the rules. In practice it just feels weird too; the game comes to a bit of a halt. (“Oh wait, I need my d6s now…”)

Now there’s a number of ways to approach this, not the least of which is just using the system as-is. But my point is less about trying to fix what feels like an abnormality but to highlight that it exists, even in the RAW. Personally, I’ve never felt compelled to try to “fix” this aspect of VPS, but many others have.

I’ve no doubt that you’ve tweaked your fair share of systems and I’d like to hear your thoughts as to how you approach such a problem at your own table below!

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "House Rules"

#1 Comment By SeeleyOne On February 26, 2014 @ 9:02 am

I used to be a compulsive tweaker. I found fault in rules even when I had not actually played them (many rules do not play as they read). Sometimes I had an idea or heard one and I wanted to try it out. Sometimes there are so many house rules that it is a game system in its own right. When I played AD&D 2nd edition my house rules were called “JD&D”.

Sometimes they work out awesomely, like when I tweaked Cyberpunk 2020 and merged the Storyteller system to it (single die roll with the attributes and skills from Vampire).

When I first started playing Savage Worlds I wanted to tweak everything, but the Pinnacle forums are great for beating up on that notion in a nice and gentle way. The forums for Pathfinder and Mutants and Masterminds are equally great places to share ideas and get inoffensive constructive criticism.

Your guidelines above are spot on. Most successful house rules are for filling in gaps (new powers, edges, spells, skills, etc) or tweaks that help the system lend a certain feel (like fear or gritty rules). Modifications for how to create a character or to travk character advancement are also usually successful.

#2 Comment By Svafa On February 26, 2014 @ 9:21 am

I do a lot of house ruling, or at least what I’d consider a lot. I also have some decent experience with playtesting boardgames and video games though, and work as a programmer, where my greatest strength is troubleshooting. So, credentials out of the way, I agree with all of your points and follow them myself when developing and implementing my own house rules.

The two I can’t emphasize enough to others are keeping it simple and remaining internally consistent, which go hand-in-hand often. The rules and mechanics should remain seamless and invisible to the players, so any rule that draws attention to itself needs careful consideration. The example from Fading Suns is one that I’d put down for consideration for these reasons, however…

The other big consideration is balance; in math-heavy systems, ensuring that a new rule doesn’t alter the balance in an undesirable way is also important. Most exploits, in my experience, come from an imbalance or abuse of the math. And this is why I’d be hesitant to alter the mechanics of Fading Suns, as a change to the mechanic will also alter the probability involved; sometimes it’s better to just accept an odd mechanic than to muck with the math.

The only thing I don’t see in your post is a recommendation to playtest your own mechanics. Before implementing a new house rule, I run through a few tests to see how it works and feels in play. Sometimes mechanics that seem simple and quick are actually more of a hassle in play, and sometimes you find that you can pare the mechanics even more. In testing rules, I advise using extremes (in addition to more typical samples) to test how well they work: throw something that’s completely abusive and exploitative, as well as something that’s so poorly built it’s barely playable. Knowing how a rule handles outliers can be a good indicator of how easily it can be exploited and how harshly it will punish suboptimal play.

#3 Comment By Philmagpie On February 26, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

Hi Don,

Despite the simplicity of the HeroQuest 2 rules, I still love to tinker.

I find it best to treat House Rules as Widgets; a self-contained amendment dealing with a specific area of the rules. There ought to be an element of plug-and-play, plus the new Widget should add something new to the game.

It easy to overdo things and have unforeseen consequences, but if handled carefully a good Rules Widget can add greatly to your game.

All the best
Phil

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#4 Comment By Blackjack On February 26, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

I created and used a lot of house rules in the many years I played D&D 2nd edition. I’ll expand on your first piece of advice, “Make sure there’s a good reason.” Good reasons include:

– The rules don’t support a story element you’d like to include. For example, your game concept involves powerful arcanists who can craft magic items, but the rules don’t provide a mechanism for magic item creation. If it’s just a minor element of the story you can hand-wave it on the rare occasion when it arises, but if it’s going to happen more than once or twice you should considering developing a mechanic for it.

– The rules work against something you’re trying to do thematically. This is similar to the above, but instead of a missing (or vague) rule it’s a rule that exists and is counterproductive. Sometimes you can simply ignore such a rule but other times you’ll want to revamp it.

– You (and your players) are simulationists who enjoy having a more complex and “realistic” mechanism for resolving something. Similar to the first point, this should be something relevant to the game concept. In a combat-heavy game it might be a more elaborate system of critical hits. It probably would not be a complex set of rules for farming, taking into account terrain, weather, irrigation, etc. Unless you REALLY like farming. 😉

#5 Comment By 77IM On February 26, 2014 @ 9:16 pm

Great advice! We have a very simple two-fold process for ensuring quality house rules:

1. They must be written down. This helps keep everybody on the same page by providing a rules reference. More importantly, it forces you to clarify your idea by explaining it in written form. Most importantly, it discourages you from creating unnecessary house rules by imposing a cost (writing them down can be kind of a chore).

2. House rule are open to review and revision at any time if they’re just not working or if somebody has a better idea. This is true of regular rules too, but it bears repeating for house rules, since sometimes people get really attached to their house rules or consider an issue settled once it’s been house-ruled.

#6 Comment By Aaron Renfroe On February 27, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

Great article.

Over the years, I’ve found that *most* rules tweaks don’t come from my players, they come from me as the Game Master/Storyteller. Standard game systems are designed to be just that, standard. Unless you’re buying into the game world or a specific setting, or just running a series of modules, there is quite a bit of room for customization to make a game feel like it fits my particular vision for a campaign.

Unfortunately, most rules-based game systems simply cannot incorporate all of the possible rules one might need for every situation. Worst of all (especially in products released in the last few years), I feel that GM support is lax. The cannon infrastructure to support content-makers simply isn’t there, leading to a vast divergence in homebrew games, along with tons of opportunities for overly complicated rules or broken content.

#7 Comment By black campbell On February 28, 2014 @ 11:35 am

I tweak rules sets when they don’t cover something that seems to require a mechanic, or where the game mechanics don’t match the feel of the game (the example of swapping from d20 to sixes, for instance.) I pulled the execrable combat rules from Castle Falkenstein and cobbled together a more consistent version that was cribbed from Lace and Steel that was more cinematic and faster-playing.

I’ve slapped together simple fleet-scale combat rules for Battlestar Galactica to handle mass fighter combat where the CAG or squadron commander can test for the overall success of their squadrons. It’s not crunchy, but it’s fast and gets the players deeper into the overall fight, rather than relying on GM fiat. Similarly, I did up rules for artificial beings and sentient starships for the Decipher Star Trek system to fill needs of the campaign.

#8 Comment By Airk On March 2, 2014 @ 7:49 am

Maybe I’m in the minority in this, but if you ask me, life is too short for extensive house rules, and this article gets off on completely the wrong foot by asserting that a “necessary part” of most games. If you ask me (which I realize you didn’t, but hey, the Internet) a game system that requires significant house rules is either the wrong system, or a bad system.

I realize that a lot of people like to “reskin” systems, or tinker with them to fit their favorite setting, but I think that in the vast majority of these cases, you’re probably making your game less good.

Back in “the day” (AD&D 2E and before, mostly), yes, houserules were crucial, because, frankly, game design was bad and the selection of options was limited, but nowadays? There’s gotta be a better way than doing tons of tampering.