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House Rules: Modification

Welcome to the third installment of the House Rules column. In the first article [1], I discussed whether a house rule was necessary as a solution to your problem at the gaming table. In the second article [2], I discussed house rules that added something new to the game. Today, I want to discuss one of the most complicated types of house rule; modification.

Modifications are what we most often think of when someone says “house rule.” A modification is a rule that significantly changes the way the RPG is played by altering the official rules. Modifications need to be carefully considered and tested before being implemented because there are many issues, obvious and hidden, that occur when a modification is proposed.

Some examples of Modifications:

There are some dangers to making modifications. Let’s take a look at a few:

Inadvertantly Nerfing/Powering-Up a Player Character

Many house rules are implemented during a campaign after an issue has been identified. Unfortunately, there may be established elements of the campaign, particularly on a PC’s sheet, that may be affected by the change, for better or worse.

For example, in d20 games, characters get a certain number of skill points based on their class. Condensing a skill list may make some characters good at almost everything. Conversely, if the skills are streamlined too much, then all characters will excel in the only skills they use, making a highly-skilled character unnecessary.

As another example, getting rid of Attacks of Opportunity in a d20 game may nerf certain feats or class abilities that are already on a character’s sheet or will significantly weaken a particular class.

Consolidation Means Power

While easily folded into the above category, I think skills are a special case (one Telas brought up in the comments of the last article), especially since some rules system actually encourage tailoring skill lists to your campaign.

The problem here is obvious, especially in point systems. If it used to take six skills to be an effective martial artist and it now only takes two then you have more points to spread around. More problematically, you could push those two skills higher than you would six (unless the skill cap was low enough that it had allowed you to raise all six to that level before). A social butterfly now needs less points to become a potent negotiator. A burglar may be able to bypass any security system with little difficulty.

Outperforming the NPCs

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a GM over the years, it’s that the more options and special features you provide in the game, the less likely NPCs will use them. Players love options and will use them to their greatest advantage. As a GM, you have other things to worry about then whether your NPC throws a spin kick, side kick, crane kick, or flying fortress Immelman turn barrel roll kick to squeeze out the best tactical bonuses. As a result, the PCs could become significantly more powerful than their similarly-powered adversaries.

Modifying One Area of the Rules May Require Modifying Another Area

So you’ve decided to add Dodge and Parry actions during d20 combat. Are you planning on eliminating the Dex bonus to AC/Defense to compensate? How about lowering hit points? If you decide to give armor a Damage Resistance stat, will you eliminate its bonus to AC/Defense?

If you decide to modify a rule, make sure that it isn’t assumed somewhere else. In the above situations, Armor Class and Hit Points have traditionally represented multiple factors in combat. If you pull one of those factors out for a house rule and don’t compensate, then you may be threatening power creep or nerfing.

The Dreaded Die Roll

Both the 3rd and 4th editions of D&D have made combat more exciting with a variety of special moves and other factors. It can be difficult to recall the old days when a fighter simply rolled a die to hit with his favorite weapon and that was that (it’s also difficult to recall because many of us house-ruled additional combat options).

Sometimes, a rule modification can water down encounters. Maybe your players enjoyed having a lot of combat or social options, but now that you’ve trimmed them down the encounters are all feeling the same. Sure you could roleplay the distinctions, but after a while we all start taking the path of least resistance.

The Fun Factor

When modifying rules, never forget the fun factor. If the old rule was a bit broken but the players were having fun with it, they may not appreciate you tightening it up and sucking the fun out. Similarly, your new rule modification may make the game more unwieldly and, therefore, less fun (“Hey guys, I just made combat a lot more realistic! Oh, and, now it takes three times as long to resolve that fight against four kobolds).”

It’s Up to You

You may have noticed that I didn’t offer much in the way of solutions. That’s because every group is unique and what works for some won’t work for others.  Hopefully, I’ve highlighted some of the potential issues for you to think about when modifying rules.

How about you? Is there something I missed? Did you create a house rule that opened a new problem? If so, how did you address it?

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "House Rules: Modification"

#1 Comment By greywulf On November 13, 2008 @ 9:34 am

My own House Rules for 3e D&D are detailed and explained [3]. There’s just 9, and they’ve stood us in good stead for years now. some started as campaign-specific flavouring that spread out to become standards across all our campaigns.

For 4e D&D, we’ve just one House Rule, nerfing Eladrin’s Fey Step to being a Daily Power. Beyond that, we’re trying Really Hard to be good and play the Rules As Written 😀 We’re considering replacing the Elf’s group bonus to Perception with something else simply because we can’t rationalize how the heck that would work; for now though, it’s still in.

When it comes to House Rules overall, we find it’s better to try to understand the rules rather than re-write the bits you don’t like. It’s too easy to knee-jerk a “fix”, only to find the fix can cause snowballing problems later on – especially when the “fix” involves escalating one or more character’s relative power.

That said, at the end of the day it’s your game, and if you feel something merits changing, then make the change. If it works, more power to you 😀

#2 Comment By deadlytoque On November 13, 2008 @ 11:34 am

The only “standing” house rule I can think of that my group uses is in World of Darkness games (be they vanilla WoD or Vampire or whatever) wherein guns roll a to-hit based on Dex+Firearms and then if they hit, the damage bonus is added as automatic damage, rather than rolled. We were having too many situations where characters could just ignore being shot with high-calibre weapons.

On the other hand, we tend to improv house rules in almost every session, because it’s usually easier to just make a call and move on than to pause the game while we look up rules.

I tend to run a lot of indie games with very general conflict resolution systems, and I find that ‘house rules” per se are very rare, since the mechanics don’t have a rule for every little thing. If you’re making the same check for any situation involving your Family (for example in Hero’s Banner), then you don’t really need to know if you get a bonus to lifting heavy objects.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On November 13, 2008 @ 11:52 am

As your article anticpates, the house rules for my 3.5 game have had much more extensive effects than the bare changes seemed to indicate. While I think everyone enjoys the extra power, it does make challenge ratings even less useful in gauging a fight’s difficulty than normal.

#4 Comment By Starvosk On November 13, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

I generally don’t care for house rules. They tend to cause more problems than they create. Unintended effects, people not paying attention, arguing, and forgetting to use them are all big hazards of house rules.

House rules tend to catagorically nerf entire swathes of character options to such a degree that it’s better to just make a new character entirely. I’m talking about crap like critical fumbles, removing AOOs..blah. If you’re going to negate entire trees of options, how about just finding a system better suited to the game?

That said, in 3.5 I did nerf a number of things, such as Save Or Die spells, Ressurection spells, and the god awful polymorphs. To be fair, these were all considered WMDs (Weapons of Mutual Destruction) by most WOTC designers in the first place…In that if the players or the DM used either, the opposite party would almost be required to respond in kind due to the dramatic shift in balance it caused.

Let’s face it- you use house rules typically to nerf something you don’t like, and usually it’s the result of someone abusing the effect. It’s a form of telling dirtbags to stop being dirtbags.

In 4e I tend to see everything as more or less balanced. Although I think Daily Fey Step is an overreaction, the general point of the eladrin is to abuse teleportation…other races DO get consummately powerful abilities (DragonBreath? Reroll Attack? Extra At Will Power…)

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 13, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

I had five pages of D&D 3.5 house rules for my Greyhawk game. Some were probably necessary (additional skill points for the Sorcerer), some were lots of fun (Turn Undead does damage centered on the Cleric), and some were downright silly (I’ll plead the 5th amendment). Most of them were indeed modification rules.

However, I’d probably do most of them again, or at least simplified version of them. I would, however, pass each one through my Common Sense and Knowledge (Gaming) filters.

I honestly don’t have the experience with 4E to start fiddling with the rules, but we handle the Elf’s +1 Group Perception modifier with a pretty novel approach: We usually forget all about it.

#6 Comment By Sarlax On November 13, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

Some systems are less vulnerable to the ripple effect of house rules; 3E and 4E are good examples. 3E’s rules are so comprehensive that small changes really shift things. Changing skill points, whether by collapsing skills (Hide and Move Silently into Sneak, or Search / Spot / Listen into Notice) changes the point allocation. Skill points, though, matter a lot for getting feats and prestige classes. They also cross-talk with synergy. Complete Adventurer introduced Skill Trick, which are like feats but paid for with skill points.

In 4E, changes to skills would have to be pretty radical to create big ripples. You might shift class skills around, but that doesn’t do much because with such a small skill list there isn’t a lot of niche protection to begin with. You could change the training bonus from +5 to some other number, but that would (presumably) impact every PC and NPC equally. Even if you broke the system down so that you’re back to using skill points instead of training, feats and paths don’t depend on skills, so the change doesn’t ripple.

#7 Comment By Karizma On November 13, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

Most of my house-ruling has been modification, but I actually started working on one that not only would have modified, but expanded the system I’m using to a painful degree. At first I was excited, but I realized that adding a truckload of crunch–though might fix “my” problem–would be rather pointless, when it would be infinitely easier to just find a new system (which I’ve actually picked up, and like both for different reasons).

After I hit step 1) Identify the Problem, I immediately started tearing it down hysterically. But I realized there’s most likely an easier way to do it.

In my example, I didn’t like the organization and structure of magic in the system. I wanted to redo it, but I found that the problem wasn’t crunch, it was fluff. In writing 8 pages of fluff about magic, I ended up finding a way to comfortable BS the explanation for why magic is the way it is.

My conclusion: Fix the Fluff before you Fix the Stuff.

@GreyWulf: Maybe Elves naturally commune with entities. They’re socially inept tree huggers because they can commune with living things well, and they act as a mental LAN for their party. Creating a faint “group awareness”. Or maybe Elves are so intimidating that the party pays careful attention to everything, lest the cursed elf uses the environment to do something to a party member.

#8 Comment By greywulf On November 13, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

@Karizma (awesome name, btw)

> Fix the Fluff before you Fix the Stuff

I agree 100%. We’ve long explained how pre-4e D&D magic works by saying that spellcasters pre-cast their spells and only utter the final syllable to activate the spell when it’s needed. That solved that whole Vancian memorization silliness without changing a single mechanical thing. Zero house rules needed.

I like your ideas about the Elven Perception ability; our favourite suggestion so far is that all elves are actually contact lens salesmen. They don’t sell the contact lenses to other elves because that would affect their commission rate and is against company regulations. Or something.

#9 Comment By Swordgleam On November 13, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

I was kind of confused by this before I got to the end, and even more confused once I did. Who makes house rules for reasons other than adding to the fun?

#10 Comment By greywulf On November 13, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

@Swordgleam House Rules could be added for several reasons, though I guess they all come under the “adding fun” banner one way or another.

1. To fix a perceived problem with the Rules as Written
2. To make the rules fit the worldview of your campaign setting
3. To speed up play – especially in combat
4. To slow down play – for example, to add layers of detail to a skill system, or increase simulational realism
5. To put your own stamp and style on the game

Pretty sure there’s many more. I’ve known folks add House Rules that make the game less fun, and I’ve been guilty of that several times myself too – but not intentionally 😀

#11 Comment By Rafe On November 13, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

Oftentimes, my house-rules are simply borrowing from other sources. For instance, if I were doing a generic 3.5 game, I’d probably use the Wizard class and magic mechanics from Black Company, scaled down somewhat because the Wizard class in BC is pretty powerful, or becomes powerful. I also borrow the hit points idea (modified) from Iron Heroes: Instead of rolling d10 if you’re a Fighter, you roll “d5” +5. (so d10 with 6-0 starting over; i.e., 6 = 1, 7 = 2, etc.) I’m also adding +1/2 level to hit, damage and AC, as per Star Wars Saga.

#12 Comment By LordVreeg On November 15, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

Rule 1 of setting design….
(and as big-picture, top down a rule as you can get…)
Make sure the rules system suit the setting you want to play, or the setting WILL begin to match the rules you are playing by.