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House Rules: Supplemental Rules

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On October 14, 2008 @ 8:33 am In GMing Advice | 8 Comments

One type of house rule is the supplemental house rule. Supplemental house rules are created to address something that you consider “missing” from the rules system that you are using. In theory, you aren’t changing rules as much as adding new ones.

Some examples:

  • In early D&D and AD&D, making a roll of natural 20 a critical hit that inflicts double damage (this one proved to be so universally popular that a similar was officially incorporated into later editions of D&D).
  • In GURPS, making players spend a certain amount of points on non-combat skills.
  • In any system in which Martial Arts is represented by a single skill, breaking it out into several skills, each emphasizing a different aspect of the martial arts (this is the province of many a splat book, including WoD, GURPS, and WitchCraft).

It’s deceptively easy to believe that a supplemental house rule won’t disrupt the game because you aren’t modifying existing rules, only adding new ones. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. Here are a few of the ways that an SHR can adversely affect your game.

Breaking out a skill

So you were flipping channels one night and came across a fun martial arts movie. The single “Martial Arts” skill in your game now seems woefully inadequate. You want a system that can emulate all the cool moves that you saw on the screen. Working diligently, you come up with a new martial arts system that divides the old skill into six separate skills.

Unfortunately, it now costs six times as much for a character to be an expert martial artist. Existing characters must now spread their points at being an expert amongst a number of skills in which they are now mediocre or even unskilled. New characters can be experts, but they now have less skill points for other abilities.

If your group thought that the single Martial Arts skill was too cheap, this may not be an issue. If, however, they balk at paying six times as much for the same character concept, you may want to change your six separate skills into special abilities that can be used by anyone with the Martial Arts skill, perhaps with modifiers based on the difficulty of the special ability.

Stifling Assumptions and Creativity

Sometimes a supplemental house rule can stifle creativity. Continuing with the martial arts example, perhaps under the official rules players felt comfortable describing the various things that a single roll represented. Now that they have six specific skills, they may feel less comfortable taking that sort of license and stick with the same six moves all the time.

Similarly, adding competencies where there were none can actually make characters less competent. Early editions of (A)D&D, for example, lacked a definite skill system. Most players assumed that their characters were proficient in basic survival skills such as making a campfire, cooking food on a spit, fishing, and gathering herbs. If your supplemental skill system includes such things, then characters without them are suddenly incompetent.

Adding Complexity

Supplemental house rules can also add complexity. A hit location system or a detailed critical hit chart may add several rolls and chart consultations to every combat round. A player used to having one or two options in combat may now have to ponder over a half dozen options before declaring her move.

If your players enjoy the new complexity, then it’s not an issue. If, however, your new rules are making portions of the session tedious, then you may want to rethink your house rule.

The Unwanted Fix

Thus far, your particular game system barely acknowedges social encounters and when it does, it’s often a single dice roll. You decide to fix this by creating house rules that turns every social encounter into a series of skill checks with variable modifiers. Problem solved, right?

Ask the roleplayer in your group. You probably just took the one aspect of the game that he really enjoyed and turned into a combat encounter with a different coat of paint. He will absolutely loathe the new house rules. Conversely, players that would rather dice their way through scenes (e.g. We need to get through that door? Okay, I walk up to the guard and try to bluff my way past him. What do I need to roll?) will probably welcome the additional rules if they add flavor.

Summing Up

While supplemental house rules may seem like harmless additions, there are factors to consider that may cause you to rethink implementing the house rule.  Just because it doesn’t significantly affect existing rules doesn’t mean it won’t have an adverse impact at the table.

What about you? Have you implemented supplemental house rules? If so, what challenges did you face? Did you end up keeping the house rule, revert to the original rules, or come up with a different house rule?

Walt Ciechanowski

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.




8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "House Rules: Supplemental Rules"

#1 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 14, 2008 @ 11:18 am

I think the Unwanted Fix highlights the problem of many house rules — rule that “punishes” one type of player or one aspect of play in order to balance out another improvisation.

I think this happens more often than we think — and as I’ve said before — I think is the source of many so-called criticisms of certain games on message boards.

These players have tweaked their home game to such a degree that when a new supplement or variant comes along (especially with D&D) that derives its mechanic off the core rules — and not their table rules — it plays as “unbalanced.”

#2 Comment By Swordgleam On October 14, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

What I’m seeing for each point is, “this can be bad, but it can also be fine.” I think that’s true of supplemental house rules overall. The key is to discuss them with your players. Even if you end up with something that’s totally unbalanced, as long as everyone at your table is having fun with it, what’s the harm?

I use supplemental house rules all the time. In my current 4e campaign, I’m using a version of the “drama point” mechanic in some other systems to represent the favor of the gods (for the divine characters), the power of the dragonborn race (dragonborn warlord), and luck (ranger who rolls poorly). It’s more work for me, but the players love it. So far, no problems.

On another note, your point about characters suddenly becoming incompetent at basic skills gave me a great mental image of these guys sitting around a campfire happily, and suddenly being overcome with confusion about just how to cook their meat.

#3 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On October 14, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

Troy: I guess you could tell that I spoke from experience with that Unwanted Fix section? lol.

Swordgleam: Pretty much; supplemental rules can swing both ways. As to your other note, IIRC, one version of Rolemaster that I played back in the day actually did have fire-building and cooking skills.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 14, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

It can work in reverse, as well…

Let’s say you play D&D 3.5, and decide to combine Move Silently and Hide into “Sneak”, and you also combine Spot and Listen into “Perception”. You also combine Open Locks and Disable Device into “Burglary”. Sounds like a simplification, but suddenly the Rogue doesn’t have to decide if he wants to be “traps and locks” style, “face” style, or “sneaky” style; he can be all three at once. To counter this you could reduce the Skill Points available, but at this point, you’re rewriting large sections of the game just to simplify something.

That said, the skills simplification of Pathfinder and such are a bit different; they’re intentionally rewriting the game.

#5 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On October 14, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

Telas – I almost put that in my article, but collapsing skills feels more like modification (which is getting its own article) than supplementation to me.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 14, 2008 @ 9:02 pm

@Walt Ciechanowski – Good point. Lost the forest in all these damned trees…

#7 Comment By Omnus On October 15, 2008 @ 11:20 pm

Re: Swordgleam You campfire scenario is a little like playing the Sims and watching your little Sim burn his house down making mac and cheese. Hilarious.

I’d always say that any house rule that is proposed should be duly considered, but if it is inserted, the players and GM should come together honestly and discuss its effect on the game to fairly evaluate it. Otherwise there probably will be bad feelings for the reasons listed above….

#8 Pingback By Arounds the Blogs… On April 16, 2012 @ 6:54 am

[…] House Rules: Supplemental Rules – “It’s deceptively easy to believe that a supplemental house rule won’t disrupt the game because you aren’t modifying existing rules, only adding new ones. Unfortunately, that is often not the case.” Gnomestew chimes in on the pros/cons of splatbooks, houserules, and supplimental game material. I love their angle on this. […]


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