House Rules and Tabletops

My wife sometimes accuses me of being a stickler for the rules only when it suits me. And honestly, though it’s not a quality I exactly admire in myself, she’s not wrong. We’ll be playing a board game, and a situation comes up that doesn’t particularly effect me, and I’m like “eh, we’ll just do it like this, I’m pretty sure that’s what the rulebook says.” But make the stakes personal for me as a player, and suddenly I’m citing Section 8 Subsection 3 Paragraph 11 Lines 6-14 of the rulebook trying to make sure the situation is supposed to go my way. It’s a fault I have as a player, and I think that’s one reason being the GM of tabletop RPGs is such an enjoyable process for me – I can play God with the rules a bit and it’s in my job description.

If you’re not familiar with the term “house rules” when it comes to gaming, it basically refers to any unwritten rules that are enacted in that particular campaign setting. “The rulebook may say this, but when I’M in charge, it works like this.” With the exception of Dread, I have never been the GM of a tabletop game where I didn’t use some kind of house rules.

With the first game I ran, Mutants and Masterminds, my intentions behind house rules were somewhat less than noble. You see, in M&M, the numerical value for skills like Acrobatics, Technology, and Stealth can vary wildly from character to character. A character might have an “average” Persuasion at rank 10, while a character with maxed out Persuasion might have rank 20. Compare this to non-skill stats, like a superpower or a stat like Strength or Stamina – average is 5-6, maximum is 10. This means that the difficulty class (DC) of stat checks versus skill checks would need to be wildly different for the skill checks to be challenging. The problem (at least in my tiny mind) was when skills were being used in combat or being countered by enemy superpowers – if a skill could be twice as high as a power or an ability score, then someone with high skills could just trump everybody. Plus, the huge variation in skill values meant it would be difficult to make a fair test challenging for everybody. After all, a somewhat challenging DC for someone with a 10 Persuasion would be DC 20, a check that would be offensively easy for the guy with 20 Persuasion. But if you made the DC 30 for the guy with 20 Persuasion, then the one with 10 Persuasion would literally be helpless without a critical roll. Because my first-time GM self thought it was too difficult to design DCs around that problem, I changed the rules. I set the skill caps equal to the attribute and superpower caps.

This caused its own problems – some checks in the book were designed around the higher skill caps, so I had to fiddle with those. Tightening the skills meant that there was little to no difference between a guy who was agile but had no stealth training, and the guy who had extensive training in stealth. Their stealth ability ended up almost the same, if not totally identical. This made the idea of a skill-based character pretty obsolete, as a character who put all of their points in ability scores could accomplish the exact same things thanks to my ridiculous house rule. Unfortunately, this house rule persisted through my second game of M&M (I hadn’t learned my lesson), and so my players were stuck using low-level skills. Did it make it easier for me to assign DCs to checks? Absolutely. Was it really better for everybody? No.

It took me awhile, but I finally learned the golden rule to house rules: YOU HAVE TO ACTUALLY TRY THE REAL RULES BEFORE YOU START REPLACING THEM. That seems simple, but the caps here are all for me – it is crazy how often I wanted to change a rule I read about without even seeing how it worked in play first. I wanted to use house rules to make it easier for me to run the game, but that’s not how it works. A good house rule should fix a legitimate problem with the game.

Now when I say “problem,” let me explain what I mean. A “problem” is any rule that is a serious stumbling block for your players. Something that doesn’t gel with the group dynamic, or that the group just cannot get their head around. Chances are, it isn’t “wrong” or “bad,” something the creators should have to fix. It just doesn’t work for the folks you have gathered together at the table.

As an example, let me talk about some house rules that I put in place for my Dungeon World campaigns. When I started running Dungeon World for the group I game with, the idea of bonds very quickly became a detriment to the experience. If you aren’t familiar with bonds in Dungeon World, a bond is a statement like “I owe Geoffrey a favor now that he’s saved my life,” or “I’ll teach Priscilla what it really means to love nature.” It’s a statement that describes your relationship, and when that statement no longer applies, or has reached the next level, you mark XP and write a new bond. It’s a way to reward players for getting to know each other and also to encourage them to roleplay the relationship between them. Problem was, my players just could not seem to agree on when bonds were resolved. One person would be like “hey, I think we resolved this, right?” and the other one would be like “nah, we still got that bond.” The bonds never changed, no experience was gained, and the whole system became stagnant. The players needed something else to make them care about each other. What I ended up doing was stealing the history (Hx) mechanic from Apocalypse World, Dungeon World’s darker parent. It focuses less on specific conditions of the relationship and instead gives you points when certain actions are taken. History goes up when characters help or betray each other, and when it reaches a certain number, the characters reach a new “level” of history and both mark XP. It was an effective way to solve the conundrum; my players are less focused on trying to fix specific bonds and instead are just helping or hurting each other and reaping the rewards.

Another rule my players really struggled with was the alignment system. Normally in Dungeon World, you choose an alignment on your class page and it has a statement like “rush into danger without a plan,” or “refuse to accept payment for a good deed.” If you do that thing in the session, you get XP. The system encourages you to behave like your alignment, but it has some faults. Some characters simply do not get the opportunity to act out their alignment conditions – we encountered this problem a lot when someone with a social alignment condition ended up trapped in a dungeon for a week. The alignment condition was also a problem because some players went WAY out of their way to get that XP every session, sometimes drastically derailing the game and making other players angry in their attempts to be good or evil or chaotic or whatever. During my first campaign, my solution was to take away alignment conditions – as long as we could agree that they did something good, or lawful, or neutral, then they got the XP. It accomplished the goal of encouraging players to roleplay their alignment while also removing the problem of everyone trying to do one specific thing in order to get XP.

In my current Dungeon World campaign, I changed up the alignment a bit more. The characters now have two alignments a la D&D – I chose to do this because I believe that it creates a more complex and interesting character. Additionally, I added another incentive for roleplaying alignment – mechanical benefits. These bonuses are small – maybe a player gets +1 forward or a small bit of information for acting a specific way. But having a mechanical reason to roleplay their alignments in addition to the XP gained has helped most of my players to look at their alignment more closely.

Now maybe you play Dungeon World and the idea of changing those things seems ridiculous. Maybe bonds work perfectly for your gaming group, and alignments have never derailed the sessions. That’s great – don’t change them! But there might be something that works for me that you totally hate and need to alter, and that’s cool too. Ultimately, the house rules you design need to make the experience better for you and the people you are playing with.

I hope this has been helpful and that if, like me, you have struggled with when and how to use house rules, this can make that process easier for you. Feel free to comment with questions about the house rules I use, or to suggest your own solutions to problems your gaming group has experienced!

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