How to build a house (rule)

Aron Christensen
Jun 2 · 8 min read

Erica and I talk about house rules a lot. We house-ruled BESM so much that we eventually just took all the house rules and made our own system out of them. Is that kind of crazy? Sure! Does every game need to be house-ruled until it’s nearly unrecognizable as the system you started with? Nope! So when do you create a house rule or change a core rule, and how do you do it without turning your game into a Frankenstein’s monster that destroys its creator?

The RPGs made by gaming companies are generally well thought out and rigorously play-tested… But that doesn’t make them perfect. If that was the case, we wouldn’t have needed second edition Dungeons & Dragons, let alone be on the fifth edition of the game now. And even if a system is a perfect fit for one player group, another one might not like broad swathes of the ruleset.

So good game companies and game creators know that new ideas can improve a role-playing game, streamline it, and explore new depths. Either that or they’re just trying to get you to buy a new set of rulebooks.

Let’s assume that game creators aren’t just after your money. And since house rules apply only to your own table and won’t make you any money, we’ll operate on the assumption that rule changes are for the purpose of improving your game.

Gaming companies might create a new edition in order to revitalize the franchise, using new rules to create new opportunities for role-playing — and that’s a good reason for house rules, too. But since you get to tailor house rules to your style of gaming and players, you might do it for a myriad of reasons.

In most core rulebooks, I see some variation on the golden rule: do what’s fun, and if something’s not fun, then change it. That’s pretty much at the root of every house rule Erica and I have ever created. Either something wasn’t fun and we changed or removed it, or we had an idea for something that might make things more fun, so we tacked it on.

We’ve long-since house-ruled our White Wolf games to remove wound penalties. If you’re not familiar with wound penalties, they are pretty much what it says on the tin — rising dice pool penalties that mount as a character takes damage. While being penalized due to pain and injury is realistic, it also very quickly begins limiting players’ choices. These penalties are a downward spiral that they don’t even want to begin dealing with, so instead of taking interesting risks, they avoid damage at all costs. And when they’re on their heels, the penalties make it harder for them to rally and score a come-from-behind victory.

We really prefer to see our players being innovative and bold in game. They still take damage in a fight or crisis, and a lot of their creativity still has to go toward, you know, not dying. But when we removed wound penalties, we saw players suddenly able to devote their devious minds to implementing daring tactics and crazy plans instead of merely surviving the encounter. That was much more fun for everyone!

In another case, we created a house rule for our White Wolf games to make the Storyteller’s life easier. Some of the vampires’ Disciplines — their supernatural powers — were either a little unbalanced, or else undercut some of what we were going for in a story.

A figure in a red shirt wandering through a storm of wind-tossed books. Where’s that one rule…?
Art by Tithi Luadthong.

Celerity is a Discipline all about speed, vampires moving so fast that the human eye can barely register that they moved at all. In terms of game mechanics, Celerity grants a character multiple actions, which is pretty much the best thing in the world. Out of the book — second edition, at least — White Wolf characters only have one action. One for moving, using their abilities and attacking… (Though we house-ruled that, too. See below.)

So more actions swiftly multiplied a character’s efficacy. It made Celerity a highly desirable Discipline, and the gulf between those that had it and those that did not could become painful to behold. The vampire who had it would kill half the opponents on a map, while the entire rest of the team spent round after round hammering on a single opponent.

As a result, we changed Celerity so that it still allows characters to move incredibly fast, but with bonus dice rather than entire actions — plus some neat stuff like if a character’s Celerity is higher than an opponent’s Perception score, they can’t even see the movement. We also slapped diminishing returns on Dread Gaze, the Presence power to make someone tremble in fear with a glance… which could bog down big, important villains while the PCs just beat on them without much resistance. It was a headache for the Storyteller, and honestly, not a very exciting scenario for the players. It made everything far too easy and felt like an exploit.

Besides creating house rules to address pain points, a house rule can also be used not to correct an exploit or problem in the system, but to add new opportunities. In White Wolf game settings, most characters get one dice pool per round, so players typically pick a single action and do it. They can split a dice pool between different actions, but the reduced number of dice dedicated to each thing they want to do makes succeeding that much harder… Often so much more difficult that it wasn’t even worth the attempt.

Other systems have the concept of movement actions, attack actions, minor actions, free actions, and so on. So we grabbed that for our White Wolf games, too. Now, special powers that are neat but maybe not worth using their whole dice pool on have become minor actions. Players don’t have to spend an entire turn running up to an antagonist, then wait until the next round to be able to punch them.

Some of our house rule ideas came from things that our players complained about or wished for. Some of them are fixes to game mechanics that always bothered me, or if I was struck by an idea that I wanted to test out.

So when you’ve identified the need for a house rule, how do you go about creating it and then working it into your game?

One of my players makes spreadsheets for fun. He calculates the odds on actions that he wants his characters to take. I’m a bit more Han Solo in that regard — never tell me the odds — and sometimes it drives me up the proverbial walls that my rules lawyer will take actions that only have the best chance of success, instead of making his decisions based on role-playing.

But hey, that’s just how he works. To me, RPGs are a vehicle for telling a story. To him, they are a strategy game with personality. We’ve butted heads enough times over the years to finally work out a good relationship. So when I have a new house rule, I like to run it by him. He always lets me know if the rule looks like it will accomplish my goal, but be honest if it won’t.

And he has said that some of my house rule ideas are cool in concept, but too difficult to execute. No player would ever use that rule because it doesn’t give them enough payoff. That’s great feedback! It lets me know that I need to consider making the rule easier or simpler so that players will be more comfortable trying it out, or to make the action more effective so that it’s worth the effort.

Of course, I have to keep in mind that my rules lawyer is my only player who will grab a calculator and do the math before even attempting an action. But his reaction is also a good indicator that my other players might be willing to try out the house rule once, then never do it again if it didn’t accomplish much.

As Storyteller, I’m the final arbiter of the game mechanics. My rules lawyer knows that and respects it. He makes his recommendations and observations, and then I make the final ruling, one that I’m comfortable with.

But that’s not the end. We have fifth edition D&D for a reason. When I roll out a new house rule, it’s for a trial run and I’m up front about that with my players. When they reach the point where my new house rule comes into effect, I’m watching to see how it goes. I ask for feedback if it made the mechanic easier, or made the scene more fun — whatever I had hoped to accomplish.

If it didn’t, then I take that feedback and iterate. Maybe the house rule was well-intentioned, but ill-advised — and I let it go. Perhaps it just needs a tweak. I make the change and try it again, or move on.

And lastly, when we’ve found a need, come up with a rule modification or new mechanic, tested it out and gotten feedback, I write it down. All the rest of the rules are there in the core system book for you to look up whenever you need to refresh your memory. Do the same with your own modification.

Keeping all of the house rules straight in your head can be a challenge, and if you don’t quite remember and use it wrong, you undermine yourself. Erica and I create a document for any game system that we run, and whenever we change or add a rule, we write it down so that we can look it up later — and so the players can, too.

I let my players know when I’ve house-ruled something so that they’re aware. But when I have a lot of house rules, I don’t just read out my list of them — which is long enough to be a whole chapter in a core rulebook — but if they’re attempting an action that I’ve altered, then I’ll let them know what’s different about it before they try so they can decide if that’s still what they want to do. Or if they’re attempting to take an action according to one rule — maybe bull-rush someone over a ledge, for example — and there’s a new rule like Judo-throwing enemies off a cliff, then I’ll let them know that there are other options available.

If you find enough things to change in your game and add lots of rules of your own, then maybe you will end up with enough for your own system, too. But there’s a reason that most core rule books have a sidebar somewhere in there about that golden rule — the bottom line is to make sure that you and everyone else are having fun. It’s a role-playing game.

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