Happy House Ruling – How to Use Game Design to Create New Gameplay Experiences
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #623
- Think of a Rules Pool
- What About Your Players?
- Category I: Game World
- Category II: Campaign
- Category III: Session
- Work With Your Group On All This Stuff
- The PCs Don’t Accept The Mission
- The PCs Don’t Realize They Are Supposed To Take The Mission
- The PCs Are Distracted By Red Herrings
- The PCs Decide They Want To Do Something Else Entirely
Introduce constraints through house rules and game design to offer unique gaming experiences and encourage creativity.
The PCs are shrunk to a small size. That constraint makes even normal bugs terrifying encounters. And then PCs are taken down the hole into a strange plane they must explore to find the escape. That’s another constraint, used to introduce motivation.
House rules and constraints can enhance the flavour and fun of your campaigns. Here’s an example from Jeff Gilbert, who wrote me about this sensible rules restriction:
In my game world, you can’t teleport to a moving boat unless you can see it. You can only teleport to where you last remember it being, which, unless it’s anchored, is nothing but open sea!
So teleportation may find some use ship-to-shore or ship-to-ship (an interesting boarding tactic, two dueling stealth-mages teleporting to each other’s ships and trying to sabotage or take out the other side’s defensive mages), but it’s not game breaking.
What I’d like to point out here is how he turned a new restriction into a world building and gameplay opportunity. Perhaps the stealth-mages are turned into an actual class, or given a special sub-culture within the culture of sailors. Maybe the PCs are spies on board with a mission to discover the identity of the stealth-mage amongst a sullen and silent crew. Maybe the stealth-mages serve a higher, nefarious purpose, and their mission is to infiltrate every major ship. Lots of potential in this house rule tweak.
I think a lot of us, myself included, are problem solvers. We see frustrations, ambiguities, and opportunities as problems to solve. We design solutions.
Sometimes that’s bad. As they say, when you’re a hammer everything is a nail. And life is more complex than a bag of spikes.
It’s also why I think we get writer’s block when staring at the metaphorical blank piece of paper. The paper is clean and perfect. It has no problems to solve. So we’re stumped.
I bet some of your players are the same way too. They struggle in a pure sandbox. But give them a villain or a problem to solve, and they have a mission.
The key tip here is to design interesting constraints in your campaign to make your game seem fresh and even more interesting.
Think of a Rules Pool
Consider the rule books of your game a pool you draw from as part of what you do to make each campaign unique. You don’t have to use every rule. You also can change rules. And you can add house rules inspired by other games, game masters, and ideas from your own noggin’.
In my games, players get one pocket point per player at the table, excluding GM. Players give them to each other as a way of saying good idea, that was brilliant, or, you just made me blow milk out my nose. Each point is worth a +1 to any roll. We use poker chips to track the points.
They work well because points are tossed out in the moment, right after the good gameplay. It’s great feedback that teaches and encourages good roleplaying, sportsmanship, and gameplay.
Another constraint example, and the first time I came across this was in FRE3: Waterdeep I believe, is PCs have to “peace bond” their weapons. That means they tie their weapons to their belts or armour to prevent rash behaviour. I’ve taken this idea further, as I’m sure you have, where PCs can’t enter certain places with weapons of any kind, or PCs can’t wear armour in certain social occasions such as balls and parties.
These constraints make players feel a little vulnerable. And it’s good when you can make your players feel something – that’s part of the fun of playing or experiencing a story. The constraints also make combat more difficult. And disarming PCs means players must draw upon their wit instead of the steel at their hip.
Last example. Gem magic, monster parts for magic, and socketed magic. I have books on all these topics, and they make great additions to a milieu. But PCs can’t access this stuff, at least at the start of a campaign. It’s NPC only. This makes the world feel large and mysterious. Players interested in getting those items or skills now give me more campaign levers for quests and rewards. And certain foes get to surprise with novelty factor or mystery. “Hey, how did he do that?”
What About Your Players?
Some house rules mean new restrictions, like in Jeff’s example.
In past campaigns, I’ve given players a limited menu of races and classes they could choose from, even though more were available in the player’s guide. Same with starting equipment, including a couple of memorable “you wake up naked” campaign starts.
So how do you earn player permission to set limits on rules and character options?
Your players might expect to have every option open to them. Take options away, they could get upset.
That’s what today’s tips are really about. How to add cool new house rules to your game without ruffling feathers.
Better yet, how to add cool new gameplay experiences through house rules your players embrace and enjoy.
My approach is dividing house rules into categories. Each category deserves a different GMing treatment to get players on-board with the ideas and getting into the game with them.
Category I: Game World
Start with limitations introduced by the setting. Game world based rules changes are the easiest to implement from a player acceptance view.
In the limited player character races and classes example, I would explain the world doesn’t have gnomes, half-dragons, wizards, or paladins. The players accept that readily, and it actually makes the world more intriguing to them. Why are those game pieces not in this world? What’s the story there?
Therein lies a pair of tips. First, let your players know all your house rules in advance, prior to character creation. If you can include this information in your campaign pitch, that’s even better, because you inform players before they even dream of and get their hopes up about playing things not available. If your group is well informed at the right time, they will not get grumpy with you.
The second tip is have your backstory ready. You don’t need a big story or a long document. You can just explain with a few short details how the paladins were decimated by evil and only knights exist now as a distant reminder of the holy warriors. And gnomes died out from a mysterious disease in the last age. Wizardry is illegal, so while wizards do exist, they are not available as starting classes (but the mage addict in your game could try to find a wizard-in-hiding to teach him and multiclass in future levels).
And half-dragons are all born with a genetic intense loyalty to their draconic parent. They guard, spy, and do missions for their parent, and aren’t available as a PC class right now.
Simple explanations like these satisfy players. They tell players the house rules are part of the experience you’re designing. And that’s enough for them to accept such limitations.
Peace bonding weapons and no weapons or armour allowed at parties are part of your game world. They don’t limit character creation. House rules like these are more roleplaying rules, imposed by what’s happening in the fiction. You don’t need to explain these rules in advance. You just introduce them in the game as you play.
Such situations aren’t rules, technically. Because they define in-game play through the story. They are rules created by people, places, and things in the game world. With my designer hat on though, I like to consider them house rules. It gets me in a mindset that makes me do experiential world building. By that, I mean details of your world that affect plots, character choices, and gameplay.
I love these kinds of rules, because as GM and designer, you can make gameplay interesting, novel, and challenging. The environment and setting itself now contribute to the gameplay experience instead of just being a flat painting in the background the players green-screen their characters onto in their imaginations.
Category II: Campaign
Now we get into campaign specific rules. Things to make campaigns and adventures more fun.
For example, enforced downtime for crafters and pacing. You might explain there is a mandatory downtime period between adventures for the timeline progress so another adventure can get queued up, to give the wounded time to heal, and to give non-adventuring skills and abilities the spotlight.
Another example is organized play for different games (D&D, PFRPG) that impose rules at this level to establish game balance and make GMing easier for world-wide events. Convention gaming often has similar house rules.
And episodic style campaigns need a few house rules, such as every session starts back at home base.
You should also think about gameplay design and flavour at the campaign level. Within the world you’ve created, perhaps the PCs are shrunk to the size of two apples high and must quest to get tall again. Inter-dimensional and planes type gaming can also have house rules at the campaign level (and world level).
My last campaign, Riddleport, we had a house rule that the PCs owned an inn and were to operate it in whatever fashion they chose, and the characters had to operate as a team. No PVP type stuff.
You might restrict races, classes, and other character-build options at this level. For example, perhaps the group wants to try a thieves only campaign. In the Ars Magica RPG, you actually get two characters. One is a mage, part of a mage’s guild. Another is a standard adventure type hero who works for the mages. Each player takes turns sending the hero group out on missions for their mage, and they can play their mage on those missions. The GM chair also rotated, but we always had an opt-in house rule where if you did not want to GM you did not have to.
Campaign house rules should also get explained up front. If you intend to have 90% fantasy city play, your players need to know this for fine-tuning their characters.
Mood and theme are campaign-level house rules. Again, not rules per se, but I think of them as such, as rules create the framework I design and GM in. If you plan on running a comedic campaign, design accordingly. Making this a rule you add to your campaign notes, even if it’s just for yourself, helps guide you and maintain consistency.
Category III: Session
Last, dig into session rules that make gameplay fairer, easier, more fun.
Pocket points is a good example. Another topic that’s come up a few times in Roleplaying Tips is how to handle absentee players. Do PCs just go poof, are they tuned into NPCs, or does a player present take control?
Figure these rules out before the campaign starts, and be flexible to tweak them as needed. I found too many pocket points were available at one point, and it seemed like game balance was suffering. So we chatted about it as a group and came up with a new quantity per session.
Critical hits and fumbles fall into this category if your game system does not already have this covered.
Food, snacks, and drinks supply might become a tradition or custom, which I regard as a house rule.
Sometimes we level XP. Every PC gets the same XP to make accounting easier.
You might have rules about talking in-character, “what you say is what you do” and so on.
Document all these rules so everyone has access. Avoid getting into semantics, and be a leader as GM when quibbles arise. Hear all sides and make a fair judgement, then move on. Change the wording on house rules if needed, but avoid interpreting house rules “as written” to avoid retentive debates.
Taking a page out of my Faster Combat course, spend the first and last five minutes each session talking about pain points and rules difficulties. If anyone researched a certain rule between sessions, they can present their findings at this time. And if you want to change a rule, have a short discussion and write down the new house rule.
And most important, discuss what wasn’t fun and how to fix it. If a house rule gets picked as the solution, write it down and try it out. Tweak as needed in future discussions.
Session house rules are often social house rules, so get your empathy hat on.
Work With Your Group On All This Stuff
Part of your world’s flavour might be restrictions in character options per race. Your desert dwarf culture hates water and forests, so dwarves cannot take seafaring or arboreal related classes, skills, or abilities. All Asian themed equipment might be unavailable. Wizards might only work from a limited spell selection because magic is dying, and the rest of the spells are sprinkled around on scrolls as future treasure.
Such restrictions add uniqueness to your games. They actually open up MORE gaming opportunities because restrictions sprout creativity.
It’s about how to design awesome settings and adventures.
Creativity and great experiences only come from restrictions. A killer design is just as much about what it’s not. And as world-builder, campaign designer, and session Master of Ceremonies, you have big input on what to exclude.
However, if your players resent the restrictions, your game will go south. And if your players reject your restrictions, you’ll get a screen-coup.
For example, there was conflict in my Riddleport game. The PCs faced a huge spider creature. It was waiting in a small room. It had serious defenses and 30′ claw attacks. It could dimension door. It hovered.
My players started making fun of it. They complained about it. It broke game atmosphere with all the meta discussion, like “Some game designer got really bored one day….”
I got mad. And snarky. Beneath their complaints I felt I could hear a whine in the air. I took it personally because I felt they were personally attacking my adventure design.
But the problem was the players did not accept this game element. It broke their sense of disbelief. It seemed too coincidental that it offset their key abilities. The creature lacked a cohesive story.
In my design, a mad drow wizard invented these creatures. And the drow planned an ambush for the PCs in a nunnery. Part of the ambush was putting this bizarre creature in place to test and possibly defeat the PCs.
It was the drow wizard’s finest moment. His creation being honoured by the commander of the surface task force with placement in the trap.
Further, the Drow Queen purposely had this creature – and others – designed to specification because she was aware of the potential threats from heroic surface dwellers.
It’s critical players not only accept the creative parameters of your campaign, but enjoy your game even more because of it.
My mistake was not revealing any of the backstory. I should have built things up with hints, clues, and signs about the creature and its origins. I should have romanced it more in the campaign so it seemed part of the fabric of the milieu, and not suddenly dropped into an encounter.
We can approach house rules by categorizing them as world, campaign, and session effects. And then we treat them in that order, and include them in our designs at the proper meta-game level.
We should also we have our backstories or rationale ready, and then communicate them at the best moment so players don’t feel like they’re being restricted. Instead, they feel like it’s a new and exciting game experience tailored just for them.
For each house rule, decide its category and then whether to partner with your players on it or surprise and delight your players with it.
Happy house ruling to you!
How to Avoid Herding
One of my friends asked, “How do you keep adventurers on track without forcing them to do something?” It’s a good question, and one every GM has had to face at one time or another.
Every GM who has been running games for a few years has a handful of adventures that were ignored by the PCs, or that the PCs abandoned for one reason or another. Sometimes the PCs don’t accept the mission. Sometimes the PCs don’t realize they are supposed to take the mission. Sometimes the PCs are distracted by red herrings. Sometimes the PCs decide they want to do something else entirely.
The PCs Don’t Accept The Mission
The old “you see a sign in the Adventurer’s Guild” or “A mysterious cloaked stranger approaches you in the alley and offers you a job” adventure beginnings have, fortunately, been going out of style, at least in published adventures.
Although the flat offer of a job is a useful way to start a game when running for brand-new players or starting a brand-new campaign, it runs the risk of being turned down. This is especially true when there is a mix of moralities in the party; for example, my burnt-out-mage in Shadowrun once turned down a lucrative job because it involved working for the Mafia, and although my mage was on the skids, he wasn’t that corrupt!
The other PCs whined and moaned a little bit before deciding not to take the job, either. (Or at least, they didn’t while my character was around!)
One way to avoid having the PCs turn down an offer is to set up the campaign so that the PCs simply cannot turn it down; for example, they are members of the military who do whatever their commanding officer tells them. This requires informing the players in advance that their characters will all belong to a military force or other strict organization (like the Yakuza, for example, or a cult.)
Another way to avoid this is to set up the offer so that the PCs run a risk if they turn it down; for example, they earn a reputation as cowards, or a dark secret from their past is made public, or their dearly beloved little brother gets thrown into jail. This works best in a gritty, noiresque game, such as the cyberpunk genre, when the person making the offer is ruthless and desperate.
The best way to avoid having the PCs turn down an offer, however, is to link it to their backgrounds or weaknesses in some way. Is there a bleeding heart in the group? Make it a sob story of injustice and corruption. A romantic? Make the supplicant a desperate, gorgeous object of desire.
Has one of the characters been striving after a certain goal for a long time? Make sure it’s clear that carrying out the mission will help the character get closer to that goal. Do any of the characters have family or friends in town? Have one of those friends or family members making the offer.
PCs will be most interested in taking a job offer when they can see how it immediately affects them. Money, believe it or not, is not always—or even usually—the best motivation.
The PCs Don’t Realize They Are Supposed To Take The Mission
Often a GM will try to nudge the PCs into an adventure without spelling it out for them. A series of events happen that the GM hopes the PCs will investigate. But often the players just ignore the events, not realizing they have any significance at all. Or, alternatively, the players realize the events might have significance but their characters simply wouldn’t be interested in them, so in the interests of good roleplaying, the events go ignored.
This happened in an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game I played in once, when my character, an arrogant and amoral noble, ignored a scream in a dark alley in the bad part of town his carriage was passing through. If it weren’t for the meddling PC riding in the carriage with him, I would have had Mikhael ignore the entire set-up.
In fact, Mikhael kept trying to persuade the other PCs to ignore the adventure and let the city guard deal with it until it became clear that the guard commander was on the side of the villain.
One way for the GM to deal with ignored events is to finally make them obvious enough to catch the PCs’ attention. Perhaps someone who has been following them finally approaches them. A series of petty mishaps escalates into serious accidents. Or, as a last resort, an NPC finally points out how strange all these events are!
A better way to clue in the PCs is to gradually make the events relevant to them. My character objected to meddling in a series of murders because the police force was supposed to handle such things. In this case, the GM needs to make sure the police force is otherwise occupied, or obviously corrupt; the GM has to make the crime affect the PC directly.
Once again, bringing in the PC’s family and friends is a good way to make sure the events don’t get ignored—even seeing one’s local grocer being shaken down by a gang will tend to motivate most PCs into action. After all, they know that grocer; it’s not a stranger being harmed anymore, it’s personal.
The PCs Are Distracted By Red Herrings
Adventures often include red herrings, clues that lead nowhere and are intended to slow down the investigation. The problem is, sometimes those red herrings can get out of hand. Players often develop far more complicated and dastardly theories about the underlying plot than the GM ever imagined.
If they convince themselves that their theory is correct, they may very well go off on another tangent entirely, chasing down false clues for days. This can be a real problem, especially if the GM has a timeline of events. While the adventurers are tracing false leads, the villains may be carrying out their crime!
The best way to avoid this problem is to minimize the use of red herrings. False clues may abound in real life, but who’d want to watch a movie or read a book in which the protagonists did nothing but chase down dead ends? RPGs are like good action movies and books; they should be exciting and entertaining.
(Okay, some RPGs are like soap operas and romantic dramas, but those, too, are exciting and entertaining in their own right.) I personally try to avoid sending PCs on a tangent for very long, and I try to make it obvious that they are at a dead end before they waste too much time questioning the wrong NPCs.
Another way is to describe an event that makes it clear to the PCs that they’ve miscalculated. Perhaps while they’re chasing down their red herrings the villain sets a bomb off elsewhere—and the PCs must scramble to figure out why and realize they made a mistake somewhere along the line. Perhaps an NPC blows a hole in the theory. (“Naw, he’s a long-time friend. Why, we were playing cards together just last Tuesday. All night? Yup. I remember ’cause we had the TV on and we watched the news about that big kidnapping together … hey, where are you going?”)
Truly hard-core GMs may choose to exercise no mercy whatsoever in these cases, of course. If the PCs get distracted, they fail. The villain wins. Sometimes the GM may allow an eleventh-hour rescue (the super heroes race back to combat the villains when they hear about the hijacking), but other times the PCs may just have to live with their failure. This darkens the mood of the campaign and the players and should only occur when either the PCs made a very stupid mistake or the campaign lends itself to that sort of gritty realism.
The PCs Decide They Want To Do Something Else Entirely
Every once in a while the GM has an adventure prepared but never gets to it because the characters decide they want a wild night on the town, instead. Or they finally decide to go off to deal with some old enemy the GM hadn’t intended to bring back in so soon, or one PC proposes to another and they decide to have a wedding, instead. The GM shouldn’t be upset when things like this happen (as long as they don’t happen so frequently that the campaign collapses). They’re a sign of good roleplaying and satisfaction with the campaign. Still, what does the GM do?
First, if the GM expects something like this to happen, s/he can prepare in advance. For example, an old enemy that survived an adventure should be tucked away someplace safe, and every once in a while the GM should sit down and adjust the enemy for time—making the enemy more powerful, perhaps.
If the GM has based the campaign in a town or city, s/he should have some maps and NPCs on hand—a few bars, a restaurant, the city jail; generic police officers, thieves, and thugs. (Most published city campaigns will provide these for you; my general rule is to buy any good RPG supplement that describes a city and its denizens, regardless of the game system.
Maps are maps and personalities are personalities—it’s not hard to adapt one game system’s city to another game system! If that’s too expensive, check out Irony Games On-Web RPG Tools for instant map makers.)
Second, even if unprepared, the GM should sit back and enjoy. The players realize the GM may need a few minutes to prepare; they’ll wait, if asked. The GM should keep track of any names made up on the spot, so that they can be used in a later game if necessary.
The GM should avoid bringing in any major adventure, confining combat to brawls, duels or attempted muggings in the city, random encounters in the wilderness. If the PCs intend to face an old enemy, the GM might want to bring them up to the point of discovering the old enemy’s fortress or lair, and then end the game. That gives the PCs a chance to plan and the GM a chance to prepare the adventure for the next session!
If the PCs are engaged in romance, throw in an old rival, a family curse, or a series of comedic problems to liven the session up, depending on the tastes of the players. The main point is to relax and go with the flow.
After all, the adventure that didn’t get run during that session can always be run later, right?