I have to admit something. I have a problem (aside from my stunning handsomeness, obviously)
My problem is thus; I am completely and utterly incapable of picking up an RPG rules system and then leaving it alone and unaltered. Doesn’t matter what is is; D&D, Black Crusade, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Gamma World, World of Darkness, D20 Modern… I will take those rules and I will bend them, break them, and twist them until they are new. Until they are… house rules.
Now, different gamers have different interpretations of what “house rules” means, and rightly so, because house rules are one of the big discussion points of not just RPG gaming, but of gaming in general.
To some, “house rules” are literally social rules that apply only when in a gamer’s house, like “guests bring snacks, host provides drinks”, or “put your phones on silent”. To most gamers however, “house rules” are modifications made to the core mechanics of the game they are playing. For example, a D&D DM may make a house rule that in his game, halflings can’t be wizards, or greataxes do 2d6 damage instead of 1d12, stuff like that.
This doesn’t just apply to RPGs; one of my Magic: the Gathering groups play with the rule that at the start of the game, you can mulligan for free if your hand has no land, all land, or only one land (normal mulligan rules mean that every time you mulligan, you draw one less card).
There’s a sliding scale of gamers in regards to house rules. On one extreme, there are those who read an RPG rules system and are totally, absolutely satisfied by it. After all, professional game designers wrote it, and play testers put in hours of time to make sure the mechanics worked; surely the system works perfectly fine as intended and it certainly doesn’t need any meddling from amateurs like you and me who think that they can do a better job and make the game better!
On the other extreme, there are those who pick up the RPG rulebook and see it as a salad bar of rules and options, something where you can pick and choose the parts you like, and tweak the parts (the many, many parts in the case of some games) that you don’t like. Sure, the core system is perhaps great, but there’s too much stuff there that could be changed, or streamlined, or modified.
Guess which type I am.
I don’t think I’ve ever run an RPG using the rules as written in the core rulebook. I’ve always felt the need to meddle. Like I said, there are gamers out there who see any kind of house ruling as totally unnecessary. I am not one of those gamers.
There are all sorts of problems with house rules. The most important are balance and necessity. Is the new rule you’re proposing mechanically balanced, and more importantly, is it needed? If it’s needed, what are your reasons for implementing it? A lot of Dungeon Master Guides (or equivalent, depending on system) have sections were they explain house ruling, and the risks that excessive house ruling carries.
Quick story about the dangers of too much house ruling; the first RPG I ever ran properly was D20 Modern. This was, ooo, about seven or eight years ago, back in my University days. I was in a new town, I had a new circle of friends, and I’d always wanted to GM, so I got the D20 Modern rulebook so that we could play. I read the book cover to cover, and liked what I read, at first glance. But then I read more, and decided that I wasn’t actually keen on a lot of stuff; character talents, feats, FX powers… so I started meddling, and in truth, I meddled much too much. It got to a point where my players were having their character’s options tweaked and altered nearly every session. One session would be “your hero’s psionic power does this”, the next would be “your hero doesn’t have that psionic power anymore, but instead has these three new powers that I wrote up last night.”
In my defence, I was young, and inexperienced, and fickle. My players must have had the patience of saints to put up with that crap. I cringe to look back on it, because I committed the first major sin of house rules; if you’re going to set a new rule that the group is going to use, stick to it. Be consistent, and let your group know what you’re doing. Don’t spring new mechanics that change how they play the game at the start of a session. Have a properly established rule set for the game you’re running before you run it.
For example, this year I was running Gamma World, a game I’ve house ruled so much it’s almost essentially a brand new game (who knows, I may write a post about that particular issue), but I didn’t implement my new house rules in the middle of the campaign I was running. The problem there was that I was running a game with a rules system I was unhappy with, which probably led to my eventual burnout.
House rules and games mechanics are things that interest me. I’ve been inventing my own board games and card games since I was a kid, and the tweaking and alteration of RPG rules seems to be a logical extension of that passion. Who knows, I may continue this rambling diatribe, because if there’s one thing I can talk about, it’s being a goddamn gamer geek.