It’s rare that I play any TTRPG exactly by the book. Rare? More like impossible. Between rulings, house rules, and other types of changes, I am always adding or changing things in the games I run. Some things are added in or changed before the game gets started, some in the middle of a session, and others between sessions. One thing that is consistent is that I try to approach these changes the same way, regardless of the change itself.
So let’s talk about some best practices for changing things in your game.
What kinds of changes are we talking about?
There are a few kinds of changes that can be made to the game you are running. Here is a short list of the kinds of changes I make:
Mechanical House Rules – these are changes to the rules of the game. It could be removing a rule, adding a rule, or changing an existing rule. For example, forgoing experience points for leveling up at the end of each adventure.
Narrative House Rules – these are narrative conventions that exist in the stories you are telling. For example: if you let someone run away from the fight, they won’t come back to attack you later, they are just gone.
Safety Tools – most games do not have built-in safety tools, and many people choose to add them to their games. For example: using an X-card or Lines & Veils.
Add-Ons – these are activities that are not directly part of the game rules but can be added to the game to enrich the play experience. For example: Adding Roses & Thorns to the end of your gaming session, deciding who can play what types of NPCs, and who will do recaps at the start of the session.
These changes could come from your own thoughts, from your group, or could be advice you have read here (or elsewhere) or heard on a podcast. In fact, in the 10 years, I have been giving GMing advice, I have created hundreds of these Add-Ons that you could use in your games, and I am just one person giving advice. This is to say that there are a lot of potential changes you could add to your game.
A Model For Change
Regardless of the type of change you are making, there is a basic model for how to make a good change. It has a few steps:
Step 1 – Explain the change
What is the change you want to make? Be specific. Explain as much as you are aware of about the change. Is it a house rule about flanking? Define how that is going to work. Is it adding Stars & Wishes to the end of your game to get feedback? Explain how the process works and what you do with the information.
Also, it helps to explain why you want to make this change. Perhaps the flanking rules need to be more relaxed and you want to allow for more teamwork. Or you want to add Stars & Wishes because you can’t read the table about what they think of the game, and you want to get better feedback to work from.
Also, allow and answer questions from the rest of the group. Do your best to explain things – your initial explanations may not cover everything, so make sure everyone gets to ask questions.
Step 2 – Define Any Boundaries
You may have some boundaries for the change in mind, or the rest of the group may have some suggestions, but determine what boundaries exist around the change and make sure everyone is clear with those. Perhaps your flanking house rule is fine for small or medium-sized creatures but not for larger creatures. Perhaps you only want to do Stars & Wishes at the end of a story and not each session.
Step 3 – Establish Consent
We want everyone to be on board with these changes. The above two steps have defined the change as what it is and is not. Now we want to establish that everyone is ok with the change. In many cases this can be a simple, “Is everyone ok with this?”, but depending on your group dynamics and the change you are asking for, not everyone may be forthcoming.
What you want is enthusiastic consent (looking for a “yes” rather than the absence of a “no”). If you don’t have enthusiastic consent from everyone, you don’t have consent. If you can’t establish consent don’t move on with the change. Try going back to steps 1 and 2 and see if there are modifications that may bring about a compromise, and in the absence of getting compromise and consent, drop the change.
Once you have enthusiastic consent then…
Step 4 – Document The Change
Write the change down. It’s great that in the moment you all remember everything about the change, but what about months from now – will you remember it perfectly, then? No, you will not. Open up a Google Doc and write down your changes and save it. Have it documented so that it can be referenced later, or shared with someone who has joined the game after the change was made.
When Changes Can Occur
Changes can occur throughout the course of your campaign. While the model above is a solid way to create change, when your change occurs can affect how you make that change.
Before The Campaign starts
Session Zero is the best time to introduce changes to your game. It is where you are creating a shared understanding of the game, and changes are one of those things you can create understanding around. Also, no one has characters and there is no continuity in play, so changes are easier to manage and less personal to the players.
In your Session Zero, create a space to allow for changes. In that section, introduce any changes you would like for the game, and ask the players to also recommend changes. Then using the model above define your change and get consent. Then record the agreed-upon changes in either your Session Zero notes or another document.
This is the place where you might add safety tools, set house rules for advancement or character generation, decide to add a ritual for collecting feedback, etc.
There are times when you are in the middle of the session when the need for a change arises. This is most common with house rules. First thing, if you can defer the change and its discussion to after the session or between sessions (see below), do that, because you have more time to discuss it.
If you must make a change in the middle of a session, my recommendation is to make it a one-time change. That is define it, make it apply to only this turn, scene, or session (that is a boundary), and obtain consent. Then return to it between sessions.
This is where you may create a house rule about a specific rule, such as flanking, a spell effect, or how a power works. Or you might make a narrative house rule about how enemies that are knocked out say unconscious for the rest of the scene.
This is the second best place to make changes because time is on your side. However, while time is on your side, your players have characters that may be affected by the change and you may need to do some work to maintain continuity.
If you made a change In Play, this is a good time to further discuss and refine the change and get a fresh round of consent, and document your change. If your In-Play change turns out not to be a good idea, then it only lasted for that previous session and you can drop it.
Other times you might get an idea for a change from a blog article, podcast, actual play, etc, and want to implement it. Waiting between sessions is a great time to bring that change up and use the consent framework defined above.
One of the best things about TTRPGs is our ability to change them to suit the way we want to play. TTRPGs are far more flexible than video games in this respect. We can change the rules of the game, or we can add outside ideas, to enhance play. A good change is one where everyone understands the change and agrees to it (informed enthusiastic consent). Change can come up at different times in our campaigns, and being aware of where you are when you want to make a change can help to make better changes.
What are some of your favorite types of changes in games? How do you introduce changes with your group?