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Jul 19 2012

A Rant on House Rules

I was part of a comment string on Google+ (Once again G+ is not a wasteland) about Never Unprepared concerning the book’s value for games that were less traditional. The comments were very civil and reasoned, which is much better than most of the experiences I’ve had on Facebook, but one of them irked me. I let it go because it wasn’t relevant to the discussion at hand. Also I enjoy the civil discussion on G+ and take great strides to not upset that balance. Still, it bothered me for the rest of the day. Actually, this subject has been bothering me since the first time I was confronted with it. It was during a discussion about how 1st edition D&D is a well designed game.

During the discussion about 1st edition D&D the person I was talking with said new games were unneccessary and new rules weren’t needed. RPG’s didn’t need new rules sets to do what the old rule set already did. That’s when I questioned him about the rules and discovered he’d house ruled a bunch of them to make the game do what he wanted it to do. On the surface I think this is fine but in my head I keep think this:

If you house rule your game then you’re not playing the game as it was intended so are you actually playing the game you’re defending?

It’s an interesting question. It’s interesting to me at least and more so when I start looking at games like Burning Wheel / Mouse Guard which are explicit in their play, or games like Apocalypse World which has been hacked into Dungeon World and Monster Hearts. Those games use the same core mechanic but are not Apocalypse World. The thing here is if you change the rules to a game you should call it something else. My 4e games isn’t 4e D&D. My players call it Chris’s 4e D&D because I’ve added a bunch of stuff to it and I understand that my D&D game isn’t the stock D&D game.

Getting back to today the comment about traditional games was:

“I don’t think those games have to be run that way, but they commonly are.”

Like I said before, on the surface I have no problem with this. Games should be fun and if someone choose to change the rules to a game and still has fun playing it then I think that’s awesome. Underneath the surface I’m wondering why you’re playing game A when game B can do what you want much better, and without having to change it. I’m also confused when someone says “this game sucks” when they’re not even playing the game the way it was intended. Maybe it’s not a bad game. Maybe this person had the wrong expectations.
And there it is. A house ruled game isn’t the game you bought, should be acknowledged as such, and the house ruled version shouldn’t be judged as a bad game just because it doesn’t do something you want it to do but was never designed to do well.

Point the Next. All RPGs are not games and shouldn’t be called Role Playing Games. I’m looking at Savage Worlds here. You can look at GURPS too if you’d like. Savage Worlds is not a game but a set of tools to create your own games. Now if you buy a Savage setting like 50 Fathoms or Necessary Evil then you’ve bought a game. It has a setting, rules associated with the setting, expectations on character creation, and a campaign built into it in the form of a plot point. The difference is the Savage Worlds core rules don’t imply anything. They’re genre and setting agnostic and promise Fast, Furious, Fun but there’s no inherent game expected except you’ll probably be fighting stuff.

Now before people jump the shark, or think I have, let me talk about D&D. D&D (this includes Pathfinder) is a game but it isn’t as explicit in its setting or what it’s supposed to be doing. fortunately we can tell what the game should be doing by looking at the rules. D&D is a game about adventurers who live apart from normal society by exploring wonderous locations (AKA going into Dungeons), overcoming foes and death-defying situations (killing monsters and avoiding traps), and gathering wealth to advance your cause (taking their stuff so you can go into more dungeons, kill more monsters, avoid more traps, and take more stuff). If you look at the rules of the game most of them are geared for this. There are some social skills but they’re minimal meaning they’re less important than the rest. I know people play this game in different ways but when they do it ends up being less satisfying or a hacked version. Doing a heist job is more fulfilling when you use Leverage. Political intrigue works a lot better with Houses of the Blooded. A game about fighting monsters works better when using D&D.

So where am I going with this? I think people should be more open to understanding RPG’s because there isn’t a one size fits all game out there. Different mechanics highlight different things in games. Different games will influence and create better games for you and your groups in the future. I house rule or hack most games because while I have the mechanical set I want for 80% of the game I want to run I’m always missing that last 20 which irks me and leads me into the realm of design. This is how we got to the games we have today. We built them on the foundations or in direct opposition of the ideals of older games. We cobble together the bits we like and dislike. The thing I see as I read more games is there is probably a game out there to do what you want it to do and while it might be West End d6 it probably isn’t.

To finish I would just like anyone who reads this to ask themselves a question. How much have you had to change your game to get it to do what you want it to do? If the answer is more than I realized or way to much then maybe you’re not playing the right game.

Now I feel better. I’m sure all four or five of you who read this probably think I’m nuts or have un-subscribed by this point but if you haven’t and you have something to say I’d love to hear it.

Game on,
Chris “The Light” Sniezak

6 comments

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  1. Chris Sniezak

    @ Mailimar:
    (I also disagree with your assessment that playing a game with houserules constitutes playing a different game entirely. If I play Fall From Heaven 2, I’m not not playing Civilization 4. If I play The Sims 2 with lots of mods, I’m not not playing The Sims 2. If I play D&D3.5e with house rules, I’m not not playing D&D3.5e, unless I change the rules so drastically that it’s completely unrecognizable. As long as I recognize the places where my experience differs from everybody else’s experience, I’m not disqualified from talking about Civ4, The Sims 2, or D&D3.5e.)

    I agree with the point but there is a line that is crossed somewhere that makes the intent of the game different. I think people should think about where that line is and if it’s been crossed over, especially when being critical of a game.

    On the other hand, if I want my D&D3.5e characters to graduate from adventuring to ruling a kingdom, I probably wouldn’t try to port the characters to a new system; too much of how much a character works, personality-wise, is tied up with the system they’re built in, to the point that I get a bit disgusted whenever anybody asks me to help them port a character from one system to another. In that case, it would generally be easier to introduce intrigue houserules to D&D than it would be to introduce the character and the world to an intrigue-heavy system. Continuity of play is a good excuse to mod a system instead of switching wholesale to a new one.

    Man, that's a whole other topic, the idea of porting characters from one game to another but I agree with the sentiment but only because we don't have a lot of solid advice out there for porting characters from one game to another. On another level it might almost make sense to port the characters over to another system because they're adventures, what do they know about running a kingdom. It's a very different skill set from the afore mentioned exploration, fighting, and looting so they could start out as beginners in that medium playing that game when they're doing intrigue kingdom ruling things and the origonal game when they're off adventuring. I believe personality can be transfered from one character sheet to another and still hold the essence of the character. If the same core mechanic is desired you find a game which does intrigue and port those ideas over to the core mechanic, build a seperate track of learning intrige for the characters, and have them play a sub game within the game. Man, that sounds like a lot of work, but so is learning a new game. Maybe there isn't a good answer because I don't think continuity of play isn't always the best answer if it leads to poor gaming.

    @ Shawn : I'm right there with you. I hacked my games to make them do what I wanted them to do too and had an awesome time doing it. In fact without people doing that we wouldn't have the variety of games we have today. I still wonder though if you had a game which did fighting and exploration adventuring well and a game which did more social/storytelling adventuring when you were a kid which one would you pick? I'm guessing you'd probably pick both and mix the elements you liked from each to create the uber game but if you had one or the other I wonder which one you'd take.

    @ Dave : Here's the question. What do you want your games to do? DO you want cinematic fights, do you want tactical fights, do you want story conflicts where you're fighting for narrative control of the scene or do you want a game which does task resolution over scene resolution. Why do you want reduced time in combat if the players like killing monsters?

    In any case if you want a game that has a quicker pace to fighting and want that fantasy feel I'd look at Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It's a pretty cool game.

    @Mike : I agree with point one. I agree with point two. I was going to partially disagree but nope. Money is needed to keep making stuff. Their craft should be rewarded and more importantly we can choose if we want it or not with our money. In fact I want the new stuff as long as it goes along with point one.

    @Garret : You can call SWSE a game engine but that's not what it is. It's a game, all by itself, and it's actually a pretty good one. Now if you want to strip it down and put a bunch of stuff on it, be that splat books, or power cards, or extra rules I think that's fine. I think chase and duel are fine but you've changed the game. I couldn't sit at a table to play SWSE with another group and have my expectations met if I sat and played with you for a few months because your game is a lot different from what the game origonally was. I don't think there's anything wrong with breaking down a game system to get at its "engine" and build the game you want to play but just like Doc's Dalorean, it's no longer a Dalorean. It's a time machine. An just like your SWSE game it's now Garrets SWSE hack. Like I said. I like it. I think it works but don't delude yourself into thinking it's the game it was intended to be.

  2. Garrett

    I enjoy the term “game engine.” By looking at you get an idea of what it can actually be ideal for. Then, you build the car around the engine to give it the ultimate effect. Especially with SW Saga, which I adore, I see a wondrous engine… and it is designed to be built around. Supplements for intrigue/war or legacy specific ar tools for building the car around the SWSE engine. As I’m repeatedly reminded about the only complete campaign designed for the system, Dawn of Defiance, it can be completely played and enjoyed with only the core book. I do not limit my players to those. I open the complete tool shop to the players… with the understanding I will be doing likewise. Beyond that, I see needs for other tools that weren’t designed, like chases and duels… and created those and made them part of my group’s version of the game. Is it the game Rodney Thompson designed? I admit to doing a handful of tweaks to his engine, but so did Doc when he turned the Dalorean into a time machine. It’s all about exactly what kind of game you want to run.
    Garrett

  3. Shawn

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: AD&D was my favorite game of all times, and it was a terrible game in terms of gameplay and mechanics. If you didn’t house rule that game, it bordered on unplayable. Part of the (unintended) beauty of AD&D was that since you had to do so much houseruling, you ended up turning it into exactly the game you wanted to play. My groups during my middle-school and high-school years turned the game into less hack-and-slash and more of a social/storytelling game because that’s what we liked.

  4. Malimar

    “Modability” is a concept that is more frequently used to describe PC games than in tabletop RPGs, but I think it might apply to both.

    Certain games are more conducive to modding than others. Some games, you play them and they’re fun and that’s all there is. Other games, you play them and then you download a mod for them and you play what is in some respects the same game and is in other respects a completely different game.

    I got a lot more joy and replay value out of Fall From Heaven 2, a mod for Civilization 4 (replacing almost everything but the core gameplay), than I did out of the base game (I don’t say “I like Civ4″, I say “I like FFH2″). Team Fortress proved a popular mod for Quake, spawning an even more popular standalone sequel. 99% of the replay value for The Sims and its sequels is in mods of various sorts (I don’t say “I like modding The Sims 2″, I say “I like The Sims 2″).

    On the other hand, there are no available mods to some games, for reasons of difficulty to mod or obscurity or whatever. Or many MMORPGs, which you simply can’t mod.

    I think the same may be true of tabletop RPGs. Some of them, you play them and they’re fine out of the box, but houserules don’t improve them any. Other games, you play them and then you tweak them because they respond very well to house rules.

    For some people and some games, the very modability of the game is what makes it superior to all others. Some people prefer a game which is good but which can’t be improved; others prefer one which is adequate out of the box but which can be made great with the application of a few judicious house rules.

    (I also disagree with your assessment that playing a game with houserules constitutes playing a different game entirely. If I play Fall From Heaven 2, I’m not not playing Civilization 4. If I play The Sims 2 with lots of mods, I’m not not playing The Sims 2. If I play D&D3.5e with house rules, I’m not not playing D&D3.5e, unless I change the rules so drastically that it’s completely unrecognizable. As long as I recognize the places where my experience differs from everybody else’s experience, I’m not disqualified from talking about Civ4, The Sims 2, or D&D3.5e.)

    Additionally, fitting more in line with what you’re saying in your antepenultimate paragraph: for any given player, I very much doubt that there exists any one game which is precisely to that player’s taste. The best anybody can do is find the game that’s almost like what they want, and then tweak it until it’s more exactly what they desire. Thus, house rules. Anybody who has never used house rules for their preferred system is lying to themselves.

    (There’s also the simple fact that, for any system that includes splatbook supplementation, the decision of which splats to include and which splats to leave out effectively constitutes a house rule. But that’s more a question of pedantics.)

    Still, there’s an important distinction to be drawn between house rules that take a good system and make it better, and house rules that try to make a system do something it’s not designed to do at all.

    For example: some of my house rules for D&D3.5e are designed to bring it subtly more in line with what I like about the design ethos and aesthetic of 2nd edition. Making aging effects a thing again, for example. Or including monsters that are kind of preposterous, or whose ecosystems are more complex than “they live in dungeons and exist to be sworded by adventurers” (For this reason, I love Tome of Horrors, the third party book that ports all the silliest 2e monsters that WotC deliberately left out of 3.5e. Except the duckbunny, which is still nowhere to be found).

    But that doesn’t mean I want to play 2nd edition; far from it! The base 2nd edition ruleset sucks hairy platypus gonads! I much prefer the 3.5e base rules, finding them much less clunky than those of 2e, so even if I enjoy some parts of the aesthetic of 2e, I’d prefer to build that aesthetic onto 3.5e’s chassis than try to houserule 2e’s base system into usability.

    Now, if I wanted to play an intrigue-heavy Game of Thrones deal, I probably wouldn’t try to houserule 3.5e to do it. I could if I wanted, because 3.5e is extremely modable (and indeed, there are many GoT-esque elements already built into my 3.5e campaign setting, just because GRRM’s work has such a strong influence on everything I create), but that’s not really what 3.5e is for, and there are some systems that can handle it better.

    On the other hand, if I want my D&D3.5e characters to graduate from adventuring to ruling a kingdom, I probably wouldn’t try to port the characters to a new system; too much of how much a character works, personality-wise, is tied up with the system they’re built in, to the point that I get a bit disgusted whenever anybody asks me to help them port a character from one system to another. In that case, it would generally be easier to introduce intrigue houserules to D&D than it would be to introduce the character and the world to an intrigue-heavy system. Continuity of play is a good excuse to mod a system instead of switching wholesale to a new one.

  5. Dave "Mooch" Collins

    So what game do you recommend for drinking and whoring?

    On a more serious note, I’ve reduced monsters’ HP and AC in a 4e game to reduce the time spent in combat, so that my players could focus on things more important to them (advancing the plot, leveling up, killing monsters).
    It was the only D&D game we had the materials to, but combat seemed to take ages, especially much later, playing in your Pathfinder game. Is there a better edition we could use to make combat simpler and quicker (and with fewer miniatures, perhaps)?

  6. Mike

    One other thing I disliked about that person’s sentiment that RPG systems don’t need to update us 1) developers learn lessons over time after initial releases and improve with that knowledge. Rules engines evolve., adapt and overcome issues and so need to change. 2) they are written and poiduced by indivuduals who need to feed their family and require new product to sell in order to continue doing that.

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