Thursday, February 3, 2011

House Rules

I've been refereeing the Dwimmermount campaign for a little over two years now, but planning for it began several months beforehand. Part of my planning included giving some thought about what house rules I wanted to make to the LBBs, the results of which can be seen here. Looking back on that post, I feel a small amount of embarrassment, because I can see that I fell into a trap that I've often cautioned against in other posts of mine, namely, treating OD&D's rules as something distinct from their actually being used in play. Of the rules modifications I listed in that entry, most of them have never been used or, if they were, they were quickly abandoned. I use the alignment system (though it has minimal mechanical effects), the hit dice re-rolling, liquid courage was used briefly at 1st and 2nd levels, and scrolls (also less used now than they once were). The others have all come up in play from time to time, but, more often than not, we simply forget them.

What this suggests to me is that, like so much else, house rules are usually better if they're a consequence of having to deal with a genuine problem that crops up in play. I've noticed that lots of gamers will claim that rules X or feature Y of OD&D "doesn't work" or is "broken" and sometimes they're right. But "brokenness" is situational and what one groups finds problematic, others will not. Likewise, many referees -- I know this, because I am one of them -- become obsessed with "fixing" this or that or introducing some mechanic that they think is neat, only to find that the fix is intrusive or that his players couldn't care less about the mechanic (such as my early attempt to introduce a weapon vs. AC modifier table à la Supplement I).

My point is that, unless one has extensively played a particular system with the same group of players over time, creating house rules in advance of actual play is jumping the gun. The most durable -- and useful -- house rules I've created for the Dwimmermount campaign are those that were created, often on the spot, to address a problem that arose at the game table. The most forgettable -- and useless -- "house rules" I've created are those I came up to scratch some intellectual itch of my own. Consequently, I've largely stopped tinkering with OD&D's rules in the abstract, which is why I so rarely make game mechanical posts to the blog anymore. The ones you do see are things I either used in actual play or that I created in response to an immediate (or at least imminent) need in the campaign. I won't say this is the only approach, but it's definitely my preferred one these days.

26 comments:

  1. What about changes to the rules to support a specific setting, such as limiting character types or creating new ones? OD&D is capable of covering a very broad section of fantasy, and not all of that spectrum fits with dwarves and elves and clerics. Would you consider removing those to be "jumping the gun" or do you think that can be done before play?

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  2. Evan,

    That's a good question and one I haven't given a lot of thought to, since I used everything in the LBBs straight (except hobbits, whom I replaced with mechanically similar goblins). As with all such things, each referee needs to weigh carefully any decision to remove or replace something in the rulebooks, but I can certainly see validity in the decision to do so.

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  3. I brought it up because one of my current projects is set in a Hollow World with roughly bronze age technology that doesn't have any existing fauna other than humans.

    That takes a bit of tweaking, even though the concept itself is still a cadre of adventurers who plumb ancient ruins for gold and such.

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  4. "I fell into a trap that I've often cautioned against in other posts of mine, namely, treating OD&D's rules as something distinct from their actually being used in play"

    Can you elaborate on this? I'm not sure what you mean.

    "unless one has extensively played a particular system with the same group of players over time, creating house rules in advance of actual play is jumping the gun"

    In my 20+ year D&D group (currently using D&D III) we have 1 house rule that we have used in every edition of the game we have played: No material spell component inventory managment. The assumption is the spellcaster always has them in hand and in unlimited quantity. That's it.

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  5. "No material spell component inventory management."

    Another argument for OD&D where that's built in. :-D (Obviously I'm sure you've got gobs of other things you like about 3E.)

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  6. I'm curious to hear your story about the weapon vs. AC tables and how their implementation and actual practice.

    Also, how did your adjustments for high and low ability score develop naturally?

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  7. This is a great bit of advice - don't spend your time thinking of solutions to problems that don't exist yet. In a way it is similar to the philosophy that says it is preferable to let your campaign world evolve through actual play than to detail all of it out ahead of time.

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  8. Hi James - can you do a post some time about how you've successfully balanced 2 years of regular gaming with both academia & family? I used to be able to do it, but now I seem to spend all my time on paid work (LLM course leader) and childcare (1 3 year old boy), with no energy left for dragons and goblins!
    :-(
    I find the hardest thing is keeping gaming going once the teaching semester starts. It's fairly easy to make time ca May through early September, but then it just gets too busy and games end/peter out.

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  9. I knew in the current game I'm playing in, the pages of houserules that will never come up was a bit of a turn off. It would have helped if it had been in PDF or something instead of a narrow message board that made it hard to read, but writing out metamagic feats for inherent magic that no one was going to use wasn't much help.

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  10. Hi James - can you do a post some time about how you've successfully balanced 2 years of regular gaming with both academia & family? I used to be able to do it, but now I seem to spend all my time on paid work (LLM course leader) and childcare (1 3 year old boy), with no energy left for dragons and goblins!

    I know you asked James for his thoughts, but I'm in a similar situation as you (full-time job and an 18-month baby girl at home) and I can give you my thoughts on the subject if they help.

    I think the first main thing is: have a consistent gaming schedule. Get together with your group and decide how often you can play. Be realistic but make it consistent. I am in two main groups: One game I run is on weekends, from basically 11am - 4pm. It's scheduled to run every other week. The other game is a "beer and pretzels" Friday night game from 7pm - whenever, and it's only once a month.

    But the thing is, everybody COMMITS to these schedules. We know exactly when the games are coming up, and as the referee, I know that I have to be prepared to run the game, so when I'm tempted after a long day working and putting my daughter to bed, instead of plopping in front of the TV or computer, I remember, "The gang is counting on me to be ready for next week's session."

    The other thing is, if you have a spouse/partner, make a deal with them - you get to play D&D bi-monthly (or whatever your schedule is) while they watch your child, and then in return, other times your partner gets to do something she/he likes while you watch the child.

    You'll be shocked that once you create a regular gaming schedule that people actually stick to, how easy it is to find time to prep for your games. It just gets done.

    Oh, and if you're the referee - don't procrastinate getting your game stuff together. I've done it myself, and it sucks. It's not fair to the players who have taken time out of their schedule to show up, and you just end up going home feeling upset that you let everybody down.

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  11. @cibet: Not to speak for James, but I think he means that you don't always get particularly useful rules when you think about the game from an entirely theoretical POV. If you think to yourself, "Boy! What this game really needs are rules for zip-bopping!" It's fully possible that you will not, in fact, ever find yourself zip-bopping at the table. Those rules will get ignored.

    OTOH, there can be an interesting argument that rules born entirely from "I need a solution for this problem" can be too myopic if applied in a more general sense. For example, several years ago I wrote a set of Advanced Rules for Fire which were specifically designed because I needed to run an adventure in a burning house and it was important to know exactly what in the house had been destroyed. I wrote 'em up, ran the adventure, and it worked great. So I posted them on my website.

    Several years later I ran across an internet forum where those rules were being mocked and ridiculed as being completely unusable and overly detailed. And that's probably true if you're trying to run a forest fire. And I could see how very easy it would have been for me to fall into the trap of thinking "these rules worked great for that last fire I did, I'll just use 'em again for this other fire" regardless of whether they actually worked in the new situation.

    BID.

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  12. @S'mon: As Martin suggests, setting a consistent schedule and then sticking to it can help a lot.

    OTOH, that may not be plausible. My regular gaming group includes people who do theater (which means sometimes we're in M-F rehearsals and sometimes we're performing on weekends); people who work variable day- and night-shifts; and people who travel frequently. It's impossible to set a consistent gaming schedule when the rest of your schedule isn't consistent in the slightest.

    What tends to work then is extremely flexible scheduling, and it generally falls on the GM to do it: At the beginning of every month, like clockwork, send out an e-mail with every date you have available to play in the next six weeks. Everyone sends you which dates work for them. Hopefully you'll get 2-3 dates that work for everybody. Set 'em in stone.

    But maybe the most effective method I've found of late is to Open Your Gaming Table. Change some of your basic concepts about how games needs to be organized, how they need to be played, and how they need to be scheduled and, IME, you can get back to those days when you could game all the time.

    Of course, that still requires you to make gaming some sort of priority.

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  13. On the topic of house rules: This was an interesting post to read because it so closely matches my own experience with your house rules. Right around the time I read your original house rules post, I was introducing OD&D to my third or fourth group of new players. And the question came up for the third or fourth time: "If all the weapons do the same amount of damage, why do they cost different amounts of money?"

    Good question. A previous group had just gone with the flow and allowed somebody to throw copper pieces as a missile weapon dealing 1d6 damage (since everything dealt 1d6 damage). But this group obviously wanted to go in a different direction.

    So I had a problem, and I had your house rules fresh in my mind: So we went with two-handed weapons dealing 2d6-take-highest.

    In short order, this had expanded: Two-handed weapons, composite bows, and heavy crossbows all deal 2d6-take-highest. Daggers, short bows, and similarly "undersized" weapons all deal 2d6-take-lowest.

    I'm still looking to a solution for the, "What does a helmet do?" question. The +1 to hit rule you suggested is too much for me to keep track of as the DM (who's wearing a helmet? I dunno). Translating that into a +1 to AC mucks up the relative simplicity of the combat tables and proved confusing, so I dropped that, too.

    OTOH, I keep wanting to add All Shields Shall Splinter! to my OD&D games... but I never get around to it. Probably because it hasn't come up in play.

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  14. I believe the proper phrase for this is "we'll cross that bridge when we've burnt it."

    When I embark on any D&D campaign the only house rule I make is to swap the Vancian system for a spell point system. The system I then develop is inevitably broken, though, and I have to house rule it extensively once play starts.

    All other house ruling I do as I go. And usually I do it collaboratively with my players.

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  15. In one more example of the amusing way in which old-school play and refereeing mimic legal theory, you have neatly distinguished legislative rule-making (civil law) from adjudicative rule-making (common law).

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  16. I prefer the ultimate expression of this argument, in that all rules are optional until they are actually used in play, whereupon they set the precedent (either good or bad) for future use (or not) of that rule.

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  17. The best way I found of coming up with house rules that stick is to run theme campaigns. Everybody is a member of the thieves guilds, the mages guild, etc.

    While it may seem like just aiding background development more than a few rules result from players exploring that aspect of the campaign and dealing with attendant issues.

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  18. James, I'm wondering if there was anything in particular that prompted the look back at your unused house rules?

    I like Justin & Rob's comments. On Justin's nice point (detailed fire rules for one adventure may not play well in other contexts), I actually use my 3E books quite a lot -- but not to play with directly, but rather I often use them as a (self-consistent) probability basis and "zoom out" to some more abstract mechanic for the specific encounter or adventure.

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  19. "But maybe the most effective method I've found of late is to Open Your Gaming Table"

    Thanks Justin, very interesting - reading it now.

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  20. Martin:
    "Oh, and if you're the referee - don't procrastinate getting your game stuff together. I've done it myself, and it sucks. It's not fair to the players who have taken time out of their schedule to show up, and you just end up going home feeling upset that you let everybody down"

    Yep - it was in October when I found myself coming to sessions inadequately prepped for the module I was running that I realised I needed to drop D&D for awhile.

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  21. I think I've developed a sense for good and bad house rules.

    I imagine it as both an explicit rule with the exact mechanical effect laid out, and then as just a couple lines of suggestive text (e.g. witches may prefer to take a high charisma male as her lover).

    If the intent of the rule really just seems to be, "hey this is a cool idea, I'd like to see it come up in play", I usually think the latter is the way to go.

    Of course a very good way of communicating a whole bunch of cool ideas is just to have a common background in swords & sorcery fiction and the basics of pre-firearm warfare.

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  22. I tried using Philotomy's combat sequence, but that slid back into "this side goes, then this side goes" real fast.

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  23. I had similar thoughts myself recently amid a rules discussion between sessions and my approach when house rules are proposed is always "what problem are you trying to solve?" Quite a bit of the time people try to solve a problem that hasn't actually come up in play. I think most campaigns are better off starting with a "blank" house rules list and only adding to it as necessary during the game.

    I know that many of us that have been playing some form of D&D for years if not decades tend to have a list of standard house rules but the next time you start a new campaign take a look at it and ask if you really need it or why you implemented it in the first place.

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  24. @Ian - I have used the weapon vs ac tables ever since I got a hold of the combat computer in Dragon #74. Back then, I didn't really think too much about the logic of using the mods with creatures that weren't actually wearing armor. I also implemented weapon length rules in that two handed weapons had to have the space to be used and longer weapons struck before shorter ones in the first round.

    If you really want the PCs choice of weapons to mean something, you have to be willing to ignore the inconsistencies of AC. Otherwise, you end up playing Rolemaster. At least, that’s what happened to me!

    As to house rules, I am an admitted rules tinker. I spent most of the ‘90s tinkering with rules rather than playing them. It wasn’t by choice; I just didn’t have a stable game group. Once I got into actual play, many of those house rules went out the window. Some stuck and were further modified collaboratively through play. There really is no way of knowing how a rule is going to fly until you try it with a group. As James suggested, you’ll get different results from different groups.

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  25. I largely agree with James' core concept: house rules that arise out of the need to solve an experienced in-game problem or to respond to oft' expressed player desires tend to have more impact and greater durability than those that you pull "out of the ether" to satisfy the need to scratch a theoretical itch.

    In our old 1E/2E campaigns - and after much tinkering - my group eventually allowed all race/class combinations, and multiclass humans too. My house rules for fractional multiclassing (e.g., human ranger/thief 1:0.25 xp split) got a fair bit of use too. OTOH I can't remember ever using the complex mix-n-match combination armour system I came up with.

    I also agree with the people who suggested that coming up with a house rule to deal with a specific anticipated game situation is a good idea.

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  26. OK, I'm gonna run AD&D at the Meetup this Sunday evening - and no House Rules! :p

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