by Mike Shea on 29 December 2014
Note: This article has been updated from the original posted 10 August 2009.
Our ability to modify our tabletop RPG is it's one true strength over other forms of gaming. Each GM isn't just a referee for the game, we're facilitators for storytelling and designers of the actual game we run. Our rulings guide the experience of the group and the direction of the story. We also likely love to tinker with the system itself to steer the game in new and interesting ways. We do this by inserting house rules, small changes to the rules that change the way the game runs in a small (or sometimes large) way. House rules can push things too far however. When poorly implemented, house rules can break our players' trust in the system if too much varied from what they know of the game. It's also for us to tweak something and end up breaking some other aspect of the game without knowing it. Many of these RPGs are complex systems. A tweak here can have a major affect over there.
Today we're going to look at some overarching principals for implementing house rules in your games.
First, why are we implementing these house rules? How are we trying to make the game different? What do we want to accomplish and what do we want to avoid? When you're considering some house rules, start by writing down your specific goal and things you want to avoid to make sure your house rules are really accomplishing what you want them to accomplish. It's important that we ask ourselves whether it is worth putting a house rule into play in the first place if the thing we're trying to fix really isn't a big deal at all.
Once we clearly understand our goals and the things we want to avoid, we should also work to simplify our house rule as much as possible. Make sure it is clear and easily understood. Make sure it is easy to implement.
As an example, let's consider adding in a house rule for "advantagous positioning" based on the D&D 5th Edition "advantage" mechanic. With this rule, when a PC reaches particular areas of the battlefield, they have an advantage on their attacks. When they strike from this position, they can roll their attack twice and take the better result. This is a nice simple rule:
"When you are in an advantageous position, you can roll twice and take the better result."
Whenever we can, we should try to implement house rules on the GM side instead of giving our players a bunch of extra rules rules. If you want to change the math of the battle or modify the way skills work, we can do so behind the GM screen. This lets you tinker with the rules without your players even knowing you're doing so.
Let's go back to our "advantageous position" house rule. Instead of telling our players all about it, we can simply put it in a particular battle and see how it plays out. For one battle, put a villain up in an advantageous position and make it clear to the players that, if they can take that position, they will gain the same advantage. If it turns out that you don't like it, you can simply never do it again rather than having to change the system and inform all of your players of the change.
One great way to house rule on the GM side is to modify monsters rather than modifying PCs. If PCs are getting a bit too powerful, find ways to modify monsters to off-set the undesired increase in power, keeping in mind that players LOVE being overpowered, of course. We can tweak monster damage output, damage mitigation, and add new abilities to deal with certain effects. If we don't like how it plays out, we can toss them. This can often work better than a direct nerf of an overpowered ability.
Whatever house rules we put in place, ensure they fit well into the rest of the system. We don't want to end up creating a divergent and incompatible system. For those players who have invested in a particular rule-set, they don't want to have to relearn a whole system every time you make a change. Likewise, as new material comes out for your system of choice, you don't want to redo your entire game just because you put in a new house rule.
The ability to customize our RPG is a great strength but doing so requires a careful hand. Ensure you're doing so for the right reasons, make your goals clear, take small steps on the GM's side of the screen, and make sure you don't change the game too much when you try out your new house rules. Above all, ensure you're doing so for the right reason: the fun you and your friends have playing the game.