The Hows and Whys of House Rules

Every American child gets introduced to the concept of “house rules” at a relatively young age, when their parents bring out Monopoly for the first time. This old standby has any number of modifications from the official rules which are passed down from family member to family member, like skipping the auction portion of buying property or putting money paid in fines from Chance cards on Free Parking. This also means every American child gets introduced to *bad* house rules at a young age, because both the examples above slow down the game and, in the case of skipping the auction rules, might be more responsible for Monopoly’s reputation as slow and interminable than the game itself.

Just like Monopoly, Tabletop RPGs are catnip for people who like to prod and tweak. House rules are not really a form of hacking the game; they are small changes to make one of the game’s rules-as-written work better for a specific group. They’re also an increasingly small part of the RPG experience as the rulesets on the market get more streamlined and in some cases just better written. Still, one of the best parts of playing an RPG, especially if you stick with one game for a long time, is making it your own.

There are broadly two types of house rules. First are the house rules which are ‘for fun’, expansions of the game which add drama or flair to a session. Second are house rules which ‘fix something’, where a rule is adjusted, replaced, or removed because it doesn’t jive with the group’s experience. In both cases, the house rule changes something about the game, and understanding the intent of the original rule is important to ensure you gain the change in effect which you intend.

House Rules For Fun

The most widespread house rule in tabletop RPGs, D&D’s equivalent of “money on Free Parking”, is the Critical Miss. While Critical Hits were added later in D&D’s publication history than one would expect given the meme of the ‘natural 20’, no edition of D&D has ever had mechanics which penalize a player for rolling a 1 beyond an automatic miss. Even so, critical miss or fumble tables, card decks, and other house rules are such an ingrained part of the D&D landscape that other games took this ball and ran with it. But why? The simple answer is that missing an attack is the most boring result you can have during your combat turn. Having a chance for something crazy to happen, even if it’s bad for you, makes failing a roll in combat that much more interesting.

Most House Rules which are ‘for fun’ follow a similar pattern as the Critical Miss: take a boring or underutilized part of the game and spice it up a bit. My own group’s longest running house rule was for Cyberpunk 2020, the Luck Deck. The Luck stat in Cyberpunk 2020 gave you a number of points each session to push the results of your rolls. This always ended up being a little lackluster, with most players forgetting about their Luck points until they needed to make a Death Save or some other equally pivotal roll. The Luck Deck replaces these points with cards. While some of them still give that normal +1 to rolls, others give larger bonuses for more specific things, or give other ingame effects like rerolls and jumps up the initiative queue. We even added a house rule to the house rule by saying that you could always discard a card for the standard +1 effect if you wanted to.

The key of writing a House Rule for fun is the fun part. The Luck Deck adds time to the session start and also skews the game slightly in favor of the players compared to using luck as written…but when the first question I get before every Cyberpunk game I run is “are we going to use the Luck Deck?”, it’s pretty clear that players enjoy it. Just remember that every group is different. While a house rule that makes the game slightly easier doesn’t matter so much in a game like Cyberpunk where the numbers are already biased against players and the game isn’t making any outsized efforts to be realistic, it could really throw things off if the game were more grounded or if it were easier to begin with. Similarly, not every group wants more randomness in their game, which is what a lot of ‘fun’ house rules end up being. Ultimately, whether or not house rules like this work well for your game is much more dependent on the group than the system, though of course different systems will produce different results when changed.

House Rules With Intent

There’s something about the game you just don’t like. Maybe regaining hit points seems too easy, or the encumbrance rules are generous to the point of uselessness. Whatever it is, you think you know how, mathematically, to fix it. You’re writing a house rule with intent.

The most important thing about tweaking rules in any game is understanding why the rules work the way they do to begin with. The two examples above are from D&D Fifth Edition, and they are examples where variant rules are included right in the core text of the game. D&D has done this throughout its entire history, to such a rich degree that in some cases alternate rules are misremembered as the main rules (like 3d6 line-roll character creation). The core text is a great place to start for making rules adjustments because, especially with more granular games, the designers have often already done the work for you.

Checking the rules text is important also because the first thing you should do before changing a rule is ensuring you’re implementing it correctly. In some ways, D&D’s ‘quadratic wizards’ issue stemmed from this. The rules around learning spells and spell components have continued to get broader and gentler as D&D has evolved, in large part due to the community’s lack of engagement with these mechanics. Unfortunately, these were the resource constraints that balanced wizards against less magical classes. By the time Third Edition rolled around, the rules that did exist barely affected wizards and we all saw the complaints about “linear fighters and quadratic wizards”. While the designers were right to note that players didn’t like these rules, I’d posit that tossing character balance to the side wasn’t the right solution. Of course, an attempt to rebalance the characters in Fourth Edition wasn’t very popular either, but I digress.

This example also illustrates why House Rules with intent persist, even as games have changed and improved over the last 45 years. If you’re writing a Burning Wheel or an Apocalypse World, you’re writing your game for the first time and you can, hopefully, write it exactly the way you want. If you’re writing the Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons or the Seventh Edition of Call of Cthulhu or the Fourth Edition of Warhammer Fantasy, there are limits to how much you can change the game. Even D&D, monopolist of our hobby, can teeter from its pedestal if the fans think it changes too much. So, instead of changing the formula, the designers go ahead and put common house rules right in the text. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The most important thing to consider when writing house rules is not the mechanical impact, it’s the group impact. Good house rules address something that’s happening at the game table, not something that’s happening in the game text. If you do see something you don’t like in the text, take the time to discuss it with your players, especially if a game is ongoing. If the game hasn’t started yet, it’s really up to you to figure out what changes you want to make. That said, unless you have prior experience with the game, it might be worthwhile to play with rules-as-written first, and then see if the rule is as bad in play as it is when you read it. No matter what you want to tweak or when, though, keep your group apprised of the situation. Same goes if you’re a player. If there’s a rule and you don’t like how it’s playing out, talk to the group. Keep in mind this goes for pre-existing house rules as well! You may join a group with years of embedded lore from their older campaigns, including house rules. Don’t be afraid to ask why things were changed, usually these alterations have a good reason. And if anyone in the group gets huffy because you’re trying to figure out how they play…that’s not a good sign.

Even though we all read the same rulebook, every group is going to play a game differently. House rules sit on the interface between the game in the book and the game at the table. This means that for them to work, you need to understand what’s in the book and you need to know your table. Have these two things nailed down, though, and making a game into what you want is often just a few small tweaks away.

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