The Basics: House Rules: Why, When, How?

Play a game long enough and you will find a rule or two that confuses or complicates your game in a way that you had not expected when you decided on the game.  There is an answer to this of course and that is the common use of house rules at the game table.  House rules offer the gaming group the ability to alter the game in a way that offers up less friction at the gaming table.

House rules have been about for as long as a pair of champions decided that we could play games in our heads whilst being guided by bits of paper, pencils and dice.  The reason why this is was that RPG’s became so popular initially that there was no way a single set of rules could cater to all gaming styles.

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Some of the people that played the game loved the idea of the heavy mathematics involved and treated the game almost like a mathematical problem (these people evolved into our rules lawyers).  Other players enjoyed the games ability to present a personality or role in a freely formed universe filled with story (these gamers evolved into our attention seekers).  And of course there were a multitude of players in between.  Due to this difference not all the rules were going to suit every group and hence the house rule was born.

A house rule is a deviation from the original rule set.  It is a decision that is made generally by the group as a whole that alters the rules or abolishes rules that the players feel hamper the game at their table or in their “house”.  There are a variety of ways that this may occur, such as a group having a house rules sheet where all deviations are written down through to just a verbal agreement that the whole group agrees to.

Take for example my recent discussion about the blindness/deafness spell and its completely crippling effect on a spell caster.  To me this spell is a seriously imbalanced factor in a game for all of my players that use spell casters.  One simple second level spell that practically renders a magician as effective as a wet sock left at the bottom of a washing machine.

Based on the discussion around that blog if all of you were in my games there may be some room to add a house rule around spells that offer an area of effect like fireball etc.  So we may sit down and state that ranged spells that offer area of effect results (such as fireball, cloud kill etc.) can still be sent out from the magician regardless of his blindness.  

See, it is that simple.  We just made a house rule (mind you, it is one I wouldn’t offer at my table) but we are not done.  We need to decide if this is a house rule that will always be played at the table or if it is a fleeting thing.  Say we are making a house rule about a situation in underwater combat (I am not going into detail because I think Pathfinder handles these well) and say I as the GM do not intend on ever running another game in an underwater setting.  If that is the case then why go to the effort to formalise it, just state the rule for the game and move on.

But what if I was going to be running quite a few games in an underwater setting (hard to believe while I am running a pirate campaign currently!).  In that case it is likely that we would want to record our decision somewhere.  In some cases groups may record their rules in a special book, on-line on a wiki or somewhere else official.  Other groups might write it on a scrap of paper and throw it in the cover of the rulebook.  If I thought something was serious enough to need a ruling beyond a game I would likely write it into my GM notebook.

So, there you go.  The answers to Why When and How.  House ruling is easy and a good thing for your games.  If there are rules that really annoy at the table or make you think “This is a really good game if it wasn’t for…” then house ruling may be the answer.  Finally though a word of warning.  Play the rules out that you are considering house ruling so you can see if there is a balance issue.  You see, game designers often look at their games and build in a rule that may not be popular but needed for the balance of the game.

I’ll talk about game balance in a post tomorrow so you can get an idea about what the designers are talking about.  Game balance is an art and a science that needs to be carefully dealt with.  Until then, keep rolling!

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