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House Rules: Official Supplements

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On January 23, 2009 @ 12:06 am In GMing Advice,Tools for GMs | 13 Comments

Happy New Year everybody! I thought I’d start off this year by finishing off a series of posts from last year.  Here’s the first installment in that regard.

Last year, the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons hit the shelves. One of the hopes for the new edition was that it would slim down the rules bloat from the previous edition. This is hardly unique; the latest version of the World of Darkness consolidated their slightly incompatible lines into a unified whole, GURPS consolidated their various rules into Compendia  (and, ultimately, a new edition), and previous versions of D&D also tightened up what had gone before.

The last edition of D&D was also cleaner and tighter than what had come before. In fact, if you played by only using the core rules (an assumption third party adventures had to make, as the “splatbooks” lacked open content), the game still runs smoothly today. That said, most D&D tables in the last few years weren’t so smooth, as official supplements (books put out by the publisher of a game) added new races, classes, feats, power subsystems and other options. A game run strictly by the core rules will play very differently than one using the Book of Nine Swords, warlock powers, and options from Unearthed Arcana.

The desire to add new material to your game is a strong one, especially when that supplement comes from the “official” source (even if it is considered optional). There is the danger, however, that a new supplement can take your campaigns into unwanted directions.

Here are a few warning signs:

1. Balance

It’s no secret that the most balanced version of a game is generally the core rules. These are the most extensively playtested rules and there is more of a “big picture” focus. More resources tend to go into a core book than its supplements.

2. New Subsystems

I’ve mentioned this before, but new supplements sometimes add new elements to a game that could threaten balance (see above) or how the game is played. The classic D&D example is psionics; another was the expanded combat rules for the old World of Darkness.

3. Stepping on a Niche

Sometimes official supplements will “nerf” a previous class’s abilities. How will the paladin’s player react to a crusader from the Book of Nine Swords? How would a Castillian hero in 7th Sea react to the Castille sourcebook, which adds new options and magic for heroes from his homeland, especially if a new hero joins the group that takes advantage of it? How does the sorcerer feel about that new warlock slinging eldritch bolts with wild abandon every round?

4. Power Creep

New options generally mean an increase in power, simply because there are more options to choose from that enable rules to stack in brutally efficient ways. A wizard using the spells in the basic set of GURPS (3e) will certainly be outclassed by one using spells from Magic and Grimoire.

5. Planning Challenges

It’s easier to design adventures if you know what your party is capable of. In D&D, this was the classic Four Food Groups (see Gnomenclature). Add too many official supplements and it gets harder to judge how to design adventures (who among us hasn’t seen the shocked look on a GM’s face when a player nerfs her Big Bad with a power she didn’t realize existed?).

6. Kewlness Factor

Supplements are designed to attract attention. This increases the possibility of them being “broken.” Use your players as a guide; if the new element is a variant of an old (a new type of controller, for example), and everyone wants to play it to the point of not wanting to play the old anymore, chances are that the new element is broken.

Overall, my best advice is to treat any official supplement as potential house rules. Don’t let them into your game without giving them a good read-through, and let your players know that, if you allow it, you won’t hesitate to pull it if it proves damaging to your campaign (no matter whose name is on the cover).

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "House Rules: Official Supplements"

#1 Comment By Cole On January 23, 2009 @ 7:38 am

I found the core rules sufficiently complicated for my games. That was the reason I never used any other supplements on my games.

#2 Comment By nblade On January 23, 2009 @ 7:42 am

I couldn’t agree more. Supplements should be thought of as house rules/optional rules. I tend to generally not allow things from things I’ve not read as GM. I now some of the Players feel slighted when I do that, but hey if I haven’t read it I have no idea what it does and just a quick glance at the table isn’t going to give me a good idea of what it is.

I agree with the variant thing. I think that’s an excellent rule of thumb.

#3 Comment By Starvosk On January 23, 2009 @ 9:25 am

I generally allow supplements blanket if they come from a parent company. I regard 3rd party companies as “House Rules”. This is particularly in the case of WOTC.

Players want options and generally there are rules in place to keep track of that. If they feel things are unbalanced between them, they can police themselves. I don’t worry about it. If something is unbalanced, it usually becomes apparent quickly and is easily dealt with. After all, you, as the DM, are holding all the big guns.

I’ve always regarded DMs that state ‘core rules only’ as a bit stifling and paranoid, with just a touch of laziness. All you have to do is make sure statistical norms are followed. If a character’s say..difficulty to be hit, amount of damage dealt, or some other fishy thing goes up, you know something is wrong. Just a matter of glancing over character sheets from time to time.

There are certainly things that are broken, but is it really that hard to eliminate them once they’ve cropped up? You as a DM should be able to line item veto anything, core rules included.

#4 Comment By Airk On January 23, 2009 @ 10:30 am

“There are certainly things that are broken, but is it really that hard to eliminate them once they’ve cropped up? You as a DM should be able to line item veto anything, core rules included.”

That’s great and all, but -yes-, it is hard to eliminate them once they’ve made their way onto a character sheet, and even harder once they’ve been used. People get attached to their characters. It’s generates fewer hard feeling to say “No, you can’t be an elven sworddancermagearcher” than it does to start trying to line item stuff off someone’s character sheet once you’ve opened the pandora’s box.

An ounce of prevention is worth the proverbial pound of line item vetoes here. At the very least, you need to vet supplements with a thorough reading before you allow them, and that’s time a lot of people don’t have.

#5 Comment By Sarlax On January 23, 2009 @ 10:45 am

Branching from Starvosk: the source of the option the players selects (class, merit, spell, weapon, etc.) shouldn’t be what determines whether it makes it to the game, but rather the option itself. While the source might help one predict whether the option is going to fly, it shouldn’t automatically rule it out – or rule it in.

For D&D, there’s been an onslaught of 3rd party products. A lot of it is just plain bad, but once in a while there’s a spell, a feat, or a monster that is well-written and just too cool to exclude because it wasn’t inspired by a Hasbro paycheck.

At the same time, there’s official stuff, even in the core rules, that shouldn’t be allowd. The 3.0 ranger, for instance, with a class feature based on BAB, so that a one-level dip before multiclassing into something better meant you got all of the sweet ranger abilities. It was core, but who cares? It was bad design and any GM who rejected it would have been entirely fair in doing so.

Of course, it’s not bad to say something like, “By default, all core materials are allowed, and all secondary materials are excluded until review.” You assume the core rules are basically good enough for the game (or why are you using this system?) but if an option is revealed to be problematic, it’ll get changed or removed. For supplements, nothing is in automatically, but, as GM, you’ll give materials the player would like to use a read and make an informed decision. That doesn’t mean, “Hey, can you read this 300 page book and tell me it’s cool?” but rather, “Here’s a feat and a spell that I think fit my character well and I’d like to use them; let me know what you think.”

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On January 23, 2009 @ 11:41 am

Power creep can be an issue– particularly if not everyone is benefiting from the increase. Divergence in the party is harder to deal with than increasing the enemies power proportionately.

While I currently enjoy playing a 3.5e gaming with everything available, I’m not rushing out to buy the 4e supplements. I’d like to play a few more times– or, better, one solid campaign– using the core rules before we start drawing in all of the splat books. I know, Martial Power and Adventurer’s Vault sing seductively… but I’ll see if the core is enough for now.

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 23, 2009 @ 11:42 am

My approach is simple:

1) Players may present material to me to be accepted into the game.
2) If the material is easy to review (like a 2 page section) I’ll give it a read and think about it. If the material is much more time consuming to review (like a 400 page book) I suggest to the player that they run a game with that material.
3) If I approve of the material it goes into the game with a caveat that if the material make the game less fun for the group as a whole it will be revoked after a few sessions where the material is used. I try to introduce the material into the story under a premise that makes it “temporary” in nature. This can be tricky, but it allows the material to be revoked without retconning the game.

Now as I said, the material is revoked only if it makes the game less fun for the group as a whole. The players might love some new material that drives me nuts. Too bad. The group is enjoying it, and I have to adjust. Likewise the player using the material and I might not have any issue with it, but the rest of the group has less fun because of the material it should be revoked.

I’ve only had to revoke something twice. Both times the players involved understood why, and they found new materials that were a better fit. Having this process in place makes it easier to deal with those moments though, and it keeps the players from suggesting material that might upset the game’s balance.

One last note, since I skipped D&D 3.x I’m talking about different game systems here. I really didn’t have to deal with the 3rd party explosion of materials for that system.

#8 Comment By Swordgleam On January 23, 2009 @ 11:48 am

In a way, I’m lucky – I’m the only one in my group who pays any attention to what books come out. So if there’s a supplement coming out, there’s a 95% chance my players won’t even realize it exists. This means I have the luxury of never having to say no, because if I don’t bring it up, the question doesn’t get asked. If I think a book is cool, I’ll mention it to my group, and then they can buy it if they want it.

#9 Comment By Karizma On January 23, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

This is more of a random observation, but I notice that a lot of responses assume a kind of segregation of “GM material” and “Player material.” I assume this is from D&D publishing a “DMG” and “Player Handbook.” The games I’m used to have all the rules in one book, and I like that. It says “Everyone should get the hang of everything.” And it doesn’t feel like there’s a surprise in store for me as a GM that I don’t want.

As far as supplements go, I’m lucky in that I know more about all the official and unofficial rules and options are, since I use a system that isn’t sold in most stores. I don’t like sounding like that “Cool kid with the taste in music too good for you.” I’m just one of the weirdos that actually likes Iron Crown Enterprises (I’m in love with HARP).

#10 Comment By Knight of Roses On January 23, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

I am pretty much with Patrick Benson, I will look and vet just about anything for my campaign. Some will be disallowed, others adjusted but I am all for my players having the character they want and being able to do cool things. But, equally, no one character should dominate the game. Luckily my players share this view.

#11 Comment By Alnakar On January 23, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

I think I’m even luckier than you are on this issue, Swordgleam.

The group that I’m playing in uses a heavily (and I do really mean heavily) modified version of the original AD&D, with some of the changes having come from Dragon Magazine, or TSR (anybody else remember them?) supplements. There really isn’t anybody publishing additions to the system anymore. The closest thing to that that we have to deal with is when people say “hey, this game here has a really interesting system for this… perhaps we could steal parts of it and try to adapt it to our system” (read: hey, can you make this fit our system for me?)

We’ve been making changes and additions to the game over time, and it’s always been completely understood that the DM is the one who makes the absolute calls as to whether things get changed, or whether they get pulled out of the game if they’re not working the way they’re supposed to. It’s worked out quite well for us to not really view any of the rules as being written in stone, since the “core rules” of any system won’t necessarily suit every group of players perfectly, and supplements don’t always hit the mark, either. Sometimes a generous application of house rules can be just what you need to make something enjoyable for the people around your particular table.

I definitely agree that it’s a lot easier to hold off on giving something to somebody, rather than being put into the situation of having to take back something that you’ve given them.

#12 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 25, 2009 @ 11:24 am

Although I’ve never imposed a table rule as such, my preference is that each player limit themselves to two (2) supplements during the life of their character from which to draw material from.

I’m open to all sorts of publishers, though in the Third Edition d20 world, I’m most comfortable as a DM if the third-party published material came from 1) Paizo, 2) Malhavoc Press; 3) Green Ronin; 4) Sword and Sorcery in that order.

In past editions, players would come up with the own stuff more. These days, they are more likely to find it in a supplement and offer it up.

#13 Pingback By Weekly D&D Link-Around: Jan 25th « Jonathan Drain’s D20 Source: Dungeons & Dragons Blog On January 25, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

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