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House Rules: Do You Need One?

When Dungeons & Dragons hit the shelves in 1974, the world’s first roleplaying game (although it didn’t bill itself as such) was incomplete; they assumed that you owned copies of Chainmail and Outdoor Survival. Referees that didn’t own those books were forced to improvise; thus the first house rules were born.

Since then, house ruling has become a time-honored tradition amongst GMs. Whether pulling unofficial rules from game magazines, adding “optional” rules, drifting mechanics from another system, or simply making up our own rules, all of these are, to some degree, house rules. We use them to patch holes in our system of choice or to expand their scope.

I’m a recovering house rule addict. Not all that long ago, whenever I saw a problem in the game, my first urge was to add a house rule. However, over the course of my GMing career I’ve learned that there are times when house rules aren’t necessary; a different approach is called for. Thus, today’s article is going to focus on the following:

You’ve discovered a problematic issue in your game. Do you need a house rule?

Now, as a recovering house rule addict, here’s my five-step program to determine whether a house rule is necessary.

Step One: Is the problem going to crop up enough to need a house rule?

Sometimes, a situation just doesn’t come up often enough to merit a house rule, especially when it doesn’t impact the characters enough. If you are running a game about super-spies and only have them going into space for a single adventure, then quick judgment calls on fighting in a zero-G environment (which is neglected in your rules) will be enough to get by.

Step Two: Are the PCs happy with your temporary fix?

Don’t give yourself more work than you have to. Unless you completely froze during the session, you probably made an off-the-cuff decision. If the players were happy with it and it doesn’t affect their sheets (i.e. you didn’t nerf a special ability) or gameplay, then let the ruling stand in the future.

Step Three: Re-read the official rules

You’d be surprised how many times a problem pops up in the game because a rule’s been ignored or misinterpreted; it happens far more often then you’d think.  Whenever I identify a problem, my first step is always to re-read the relevant rules section (okay, my real first step is to make a quick ruling for the remainder of the session—nothing brings a session to a screeching halt like cracking open the books).

I play in groups that have been together a long time. It’s easy to get comfortable with someone else’s interpretation, especially when everyone else nods in agreement. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a player/GM say “that’s the way we’ve always played it” only to have the rules unequivocally reject that interpretation.

Step Four: Is there a similar official rule?

Sometimes there is a rule that, with slight tweaking, can cover a different situation. d20 Modern, for example, has no rules for seduction, which is a circumstance that could pop up often in a Bondian-style spy game.  At first blush, you might be tempted to create a seduction skill. But do you really need one?

In an RPG, Seduction is a tool. Unless the player simply wants to “get lucky,” then he or she is using Seduction to trick someone (Bluff), establish a relationship (Diplomacy), or get them to do something that they normally wouldn’t (Intimidate).  Add appropriate class abilities and circumstance modifiers and you’re finished. No separate Seduction skill is necessary. That said if seduction is a major part of your adventures, then it may be used enough to warrant a separate skill.

Step Five: Has this issue been tackled elsewhere?

You may wish to look at other products for the RPG that you’re playing (official and unofficial) to see if your issue has been addressed. While it can be a bit foolish to spend $40 on a book because you need a paragraph of rules, such a purchase may offer more meat for the situation that inspired your need for a house rule (look at the number of naval, airship, and steampunk products that came out for D&D 3.x (and soon to be coming out for D&D 4e)).  If, for example, you were looking to houserule naval combat rules because you are about to run a nautical-themed adventure, then you may just want a whole book on nautical campaigning to mine for ideas.

Wrapping Up

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’m a recovering house rule addict. It’s been so bad at times that my players had to practically re-learn the rules every session as I walked in with my latest set of house rules. Not only would this slow down gameplay, but many players needed to rewrite their character sheets since they weren’t aware of the changes at character creation.

In today’s games, house rules can also wreak havoc in other areas. It can be a pain in the rear to re-tool character generation or campaign management programs to accommodate your house rules, and with the rise of online play and convention gaming house rules can create compatibility issues.

Hopefully, this article will help you filter out areas where house rules aren’t necessary. In future articles in this column, I’ll be looking at crafting, applying, and reassessing house rules. If you have any particular issues with house rules, please let me know.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "House Rules: Do You Need One?"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On October 7, 2008 @ 11:15 am

I’ve also been… eager to house rule in the past, and now follow a similar procedure for deciding whether it’s worth working up full house rules. I still do– but I try to figure out what the real rule is and what effect my changes are going to have, big and subtle.

Sometimes it’s the smallest things that have an impact over the game; for example, we roll two hit dice when leveling and pick the better. It helps avoid the groan that comes when a one is rolled, but over time it makes the characters last significantly longer in a fight than PCs with standard hit points. That can be a bad thing if you thought fights already go on too long…

#2 Comment By Sarlax On October 7, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

I avoid house-rules for a couple of reasons. The lesser reason is that I tend to be very good at recalling printed rules, so I’m usually not at a loss for a mechanic to resolve situation X, whether it’s the official mechanic or a suitable stand-in, like the Seduction example from above.

The more important reason is that a house rule represents a change from the shared framework for the game. If I’m running D&D and I decide “Spell Resistance is a real pain, so from now on I’m just making creatures with SR better than 25 immune to magic,” that is, clearly, a huge burn for the spellcasters and the party, who depend on that magic at least occasionally getting through.

Houserules can burn people in subtler ways as well. IE, “Diplomacy checks are bogus and just an excuse to ignore roleplaying, so we’ll just use what you say to determine how a conversation gets resolved.” That may help several players who skipped social skills, but what about the shy player who wanted a chance to be the social guy? By making it easier, his character’s role is diminished.

It goes more ways that just niche protection, though. Giving monsters more health can make combat a lot grittier than players expected. Eliminating the Willpower cost to sire in Vampire changes the setting in radical ways. Requiring hacking to be a team effort in Shadowrun makes the game run differently, too.

The big problem I have with house rules and the procedures for implementing them that is that they tend to undermine player participation. When a game is just starting to come together, there’s often a discussion about what to play, the campaign style, etc. When house rules spring up later, the shared expectations from the beginning are changed, and it can be difficult to determine its impact on everyone’s enjoyment of the game.

Here are a few considerations I’d throw in for creating house rules:

1. Don’t. If possible, don’t change the rules you have. As noted, systems often do have an at least adequate rule in place to cover the situation at hand.
2. Check the books. I guess I come out against the “Opening books always breaks the game” idea. I think it’s better to slow down for a moment and get something right rather than make a snap wrong decision that sticks for the night. Maybe the quick call can be made on one player’s turn while another player is checking the rules.
2. Get them out of the way. If at all possible, if a house rule is called for, create it before the situation comes up, either before the encounter, before the session, or, best of all, before the game begins.
3. Get consensus. The GM is just one of several players at the table and, more importantly, the GM is just one brain among several. There’s no reason to exclude players from the house ruling. Everyone at the table should have a say on new rules.
4. Get feedback. If a house rule does come into play, ask the players directly what they think of it and how it affected their enjoyment of the game. It’s not safe to assume one can read the “mood of the table” and know if someone’s having fun or not. Many players won’t speak up about a ruling they don’t like because they don’t want to break up the game about what they might feel is a petty complaint.

#3 Comment By Target On October 7, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

I played in a RuneQuest game where the GM was unsatisfied with the magic system. Though the changes he proposed seemed cool, my wife was constantly frustrated (as the mage) since the rules seemed to change every session.

And now in the new campaign where I play a cleric we are revisiting magic as a moving target.

I guess my point is this: Even if it isn’t the optimal solution, pick something and stick with it. Your players will probably be happier for it. Or at least ask them!

#4 Comment By Swordgleam On October 7, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

I wonder if there’s a difference between house rules that modify existing rules, and house rules that add new things to the game. That is, a difference in terms of the likely work/reward ratio of adding them.

I think it’s probably more difficult and less worthwhile to change an existing rule, since it will have impacts on other rules. Adding something entirely new and more “outside the system” seems like it would run into that problem less. For a common example, house rules on critical fumbles affect everyone equally, and don’t generally run afoul of any other rules.

I always ask my players when interpreting rules on the fly, and we can usually come to an agreement. Sometimes the patch sticks as a house rule, other times, we find the actual rule and use that in the future. I never make big changes to the system – but sometimes, I do make big additions. We all find action points pretty boring, so we’ve created a different kind of points that are more versatile.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 7, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

My benchmark for using House Rules is, “Does this complicate the game? If so, is the benefit worth the added complication?”

Sadly, it wasn’t always so. My original House Rules document for a D&D 3.5 game was five pages. Most of them complicated the game, but added nothing “fun”.

Turning my own question on myself:
Turn Undead does damage: The original Turn rules are a bit obscure and complex; my system (slightly different from the UA rules) could use some simplification, but was easier to use than the original, and used existing mechanics. I’d do this again.
Tumble DCs are 10 + opponent’s BAB: Definitely adds complexity, but a Tumble check was no longer a “given” after a certain level. I’d reject this rule now; it adds complexity and (duh) reduces mobility in combat.
Natural 1s threaten a fumble: This added complexity, but it also added an element of humor and danger. It was a Dex check to avoid, so more critters fumbled than PCs did. I’d use this one again.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 7, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

House rules are a great thing when done well. The article’s proposed system is a good place to start.

I tend to stick with the printed rules until the group makes it clear that they don’t enjoy a rule. Too often I have played with GMs who changed rules because the GM didn’t enjoy the rule.

If your group doesn’t enjoy a rule then that rule is a candidate for house rule revision, and find out why the group doesn’t enjoy the rule before you house rule it. But don’t create house rules because as a GM you don’t like it unless you explain your problem with the rule to your group first and get their consent to make a change.

Even worse are GMs who house rule things because they didn’t bother to read or take the time to understand the printed rules. But that is an article by itself! 🙂

#7 Comment By BryanB On October 8, 2008 @ 9:46 am

I don’t use house rules very often. The most common cause for me creating a house rule is when something in the game seems extraordinarily weak for the cost (Dodge Feat — I am looking at you) or when the rules don’t go far enough in explaining the outcome of a certain skill roll (perhaps more details are needed about the skill). Sometimes I come up with an alternative for character creation: In the case of Saga Edition Star Wars, I thought 25 points was too weak for iconic PCs and went with 35 point builds instead.

I think some tweaking and minor modifications are bound to happen, depending on the GM and his players. I think one should attempt to play the rules as written as much as possible though until they notice a need for modification or change. In the case of character creation, I noticed the shortfall of character build points the first time that I sat down and created half-dozen pre-gen PCs. Thus I knew that I wanted a modification right from the start.

There is a pretty big gray area between making a few rules modifications and altering the rules so much that the original rules set is unrecognizable. I’m much happier with being as close to the original rules as possible, rather than the later, but everyone’s mileage will vary on that issue.

I like the guidelines posted in the article though. 🙂

#8 Comment By BryanB On October 8, 2008 @ 9:59 am

[1] – 1. I think the “best of two” rolling for hit points thing is a very common practice. The groups that I have been in have been doing that at least as far back as 2nd Edition AD&D. It only makes the PCs a bit more resilient and it certainly helps the poor player that can’t seem to roll more than ones and twos on his hit point tosses (like me). I’ve even had old groups that went max hit points thru level six and started first level with the CON score instead of a HP roll.
I adopted these “booster methods” for PCs when I stopped rolling hit points for creatures and just decided to have two tiers. One tier was max hit points for their HD and the second tier was at 50% of that. I think it balanced out and saved me a lot of time but some might disagree with that approach.

#9 Comment By Knight of Roses On October 8, 2008 @ 10:31 am

Well, sometimes House Rules have to do with setting as well as mechanics.

I try to keep my house rules minimal, simple and to open up options rather than limiting them (like allowing characters to use Dex rather than Str when they attempt to trip someone). And I insure that new players get a copy before they start building characters.

#10 Comment By Sarlax On October 8, 2008 @ 11:49 am

Despite my rant my game has a few house rules. The first was that in my 3.5 game we did away with negative HP. When you hit zero, you’re unconscious, and you won’t die unless you’re left like that for several minutes, which pretty much means the whole party needs to be wiped for it to come up. I proposed this and we went with it to limit the frequency of PC death. I didn’t want to deal with the irritant of players having to track precisely the HP threshold needed before a teammate would die – “We have to heal Barker in 8 rounds!” – and I believe that being unconscious is bad enough for everyone. Everyone contributes, so losing on PC’s worth of actions every round is motive enough to get that guy healed and back in the mix.

The other game-start house rule was to bypass XP. I level the party by fiat (usually once every two sessions) and we substitute GP for XP when it comes up as a cost. Spending personal knowledge to make magic that benefits the party never struck me the right way, and the process of calculating XP rewards, even to someone like me, who doesn’t shy away from complexity, was too arcane to pleasantly deal with.

The next house rule is about death. I hate the level-loss penalty, and it’s especially untenable in my games, because of how the party levels. Instead, death wipes out your action point total (a semi-house rule ported from Eberron).

The last house rule I can think of involves magic item creation. One player ended up handling all item crafting, and it was a huge pain for him, especially in dealing with the “creation queue.” What happened was that, after collecting loot and leveling, the party was flush resources, and was ready to enhance existing items and make new ones. The crafter would then have to prioritize items, track creation time, calculate costs, etc. The first fix was to cap the creation time on all items at 7 days; nothing takes longer than a week to make. This corrected a problem of the party having to potentially wait 6 months before being allowed to adventure with all of their wealth in hand. The next fix was to use the dedicated wright homunculus from Eberron, which takes over crafting.

Together, this meant the crafter could have a little factory of dedicated wrights cranking out the gear; all she had to do was start up the process. This puts about a week between adventures, unless they’re willing to skimp on some supplies.

#11 Comment By Karizma On October 8, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

I agree with KNIGHT OF ROSES. For example, if I was to DM 4e, I probably would not allow Tieflings and Dragonborn, because they don’t fit into my setting in any way. However, this topic is one I really need to take in, as I seem to be a younger gamer in the “Houserule Everything!” phase. (My current goal is to modify a system to add a layer of depth to each of the four spheres: combat, arcane, subterfuge, and social. These layers are optional for specialized professions to add flavor to their gameplay that differs from the others).

At first I wanted change to make it “mine”, but from the opinions expressed here in our tasty Gnome Stew, I’ve fittingly rethought the “Why?” and settled on a less extreme approach. However, what OF adding depth to an area of mechanics with the intent of enhancing player experience? For example, maybe a bard wants to start hiring other minstrels to make a troupe? Could we enhance the experience of performing his piece or writing his new sonnet instead of leaving it to a single “Performance” check?

#12 Comment By Sarlax On October 8, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

For example, maybe a bard wants to start hiring other minstrels to make a troupe? Could we enhance the experience of performing his piece or writing his new sonnet instead of leaving it to a single “Performance” check?

The rules actually do take care of this for us, with Aid Another. Each minstrel who makes a DC 10 Performance check gives the leader a +2 to his check.

I’m actually hard pressed to think of circumstances that can’t be covered or approximated by existing rules in either of the two systems I usually use (WoD and D&D).

What are some actual experiences people have had where situations came up in which the existing rules truly could not handle what was going, and a house rule had to be made?

#13 Comment By Swordgleam On October 8, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

[2] – Not the greatest example, but the only one that comes to mind at the moment: my dragonborn warlord usually fights with a bastard sword and a shield, but he likes dropping his shield to get the extra strength bonus from wielding a weapon two-handed. This wouldn’t be a problem if he didn’t do it several times per battle, straining everyone’s credulity. The rules state that dropping a weapon – I believe any item, actually – is a free action. Picking up his shield seemed like it must be a minor action.

So he would drop his shield, attack, and pick it back up again, constantly. I finally ruled that if he kept doing that, the shield would break, and he had to find some other way to make the switch work. The current plan is for him to get some kind of Steampunk-y apparatus to swing the shield onto his back so he can wield his bastard sword two-handed without having to drop the shield and pick it back up again.

#14 Comment By Omnus On October 8, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

In order for a house rule to be added in my group, there has to be a clear and present need for it. For instance, the combat system for D&D needs a bit of spicing up if you’re playing the old editions. (For youngsters like Karizma, think “roll d20, look up result on a chart to see what you hit, compare weapons with the armor you’re striking against to see if you do damage, rinse, repeat.) I think every game group back in the day had their own critical hit table, which gave people a chance to get excited about rolling a clutch “20”. Along with the critical hit chart came the fumble chart for many, promising a bit of chaos on the battlefield. It’s strange that these rules were absent when the books had rules for potion miscibility and prostitute encounter tables…anyway, the need was there to add interest to the combat system, which ran like crunching math formulas.

Need can also be situational. If you need a heroic scale for your party members, having them roll 3d6 in order to determine their basic statistics in D&D for their characters doesn’t give a lot of hope. That’s another house rule that eventually became part of the canon of the Core Rules (4d6, drop the low makes for a much better curve). House rules, then can be seen as a proactive way of creating a personal edition for your group that works for you and your needs.

Re: SARLAX, I know this may sound like revisionist history, but the results kind of bear out the usefulness of house rules. We were playing 3rd Edition D&D before 3.5. The party fought an old red dragon in its lair in a volcano. It was a tough battle, especially since it had landed on the cleric and had him pinned through much of the fight. The party had him whittled down to double digits. Beaten and battered themselves, they sensed victory until…the dragon used his ring of spell storing to activate his heal spell. The dragon went, in one action, from 54 hit points back up to 580, fresh as a daisy. The partys’ jaws dropped. They had used this spell frequently, as it wasn’t very powerful, only 6th level. But none of them had over 500 hit points and a vicious breath weapon. The party nearly wiped, and only got out by a lucky critical (from a home-brewed chart) that drove the dragon off (not skill, pure luck). After some hotly argued discussion about the balance, we decided that the spell could only heal a maximum of 200 hit points (3.5 made it 150 at 15th level). A house rule that saved the balance of the game was had by mutual agreement of the players and DM.