Four Principles for House Rules

by Mike Shea on 10 August 2009

Our ability to modify the game we play, to customize it around the desires of our players and our own desires as well. The desire to tinker with systems is what drove us to run our own games in the first place. We're control freaks and we like things a certain way. One way for us to take this control is to wrap house rules around our system of choice. We can push things too far, however, and end up with an unbalanced, unpredictable, and unmaintainable mess. Today we'll look at four principles that can help us design and implement house rules to D&D 4th Edition and avoid the drawbacks of modifying this system.

And now, the principles:

Keep the Goals Clear

First, why are you implementing these house rules? How are you trying to make the game different? What do you want to accomplish and what do you want to avoid? Sit down and write your specific goals and avoidances to ensure your rules are focused and clear. Always ask yourself whether it is worth the risks to implement your rules.

Keep It Simple

Once you clearly understand your goals and the things you want to avoid doing, you should also work to simplify your house rule as much as possible. Make sure it is clear and easily understood. Make sure it is easy to implement. For example, modifications to the defenses of certain monsters based on the protections of your new dark deity are easily added with a sticky note. If your changing statistics, keep the math simple and easy to calculate. Keep all of your house rules simple and easy to understand.

House Rule on the DM Side

Whenever you can, implement house rules on the DM's side instead of giving your players added rules. If you want to change the math of the battle or modify the way skill challenges work, do so behind the DM screen. This lets you tinker with the rules without your players even knowing you're doing so. If you want to modify the way certain monsters work, say minions, apply your changes to a single set of these creatures. This way you can revert without changing the rest of the game.

Keep It Compatible

D&D 4th Edition is constantly evolving with entirely new classes, races, monsters, and powers. Whatever house rules you put in place, ensure they remain compatible with the rest of the system. In software development there is a concept called "forking" where a single development path suddenly turns into two separate development paths. Doing so ends up creating divergent incompatible systems that require their own maintenance or conversion as they move forward. Don't let this happen to your own game. Keep your house rules compatible with current and existing systems.

With these principals in hand, we can feel confident in our ability to tweak and modify D&D 4th edition into the game we've always wanted it to be, even if we each have our own idea of what that may look like. Therein lies the power of the pen-and-paper roleplaying game.

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