Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

“The good news though is that you could always house rule away the healing surges.”

(Mike Monaco left a really great comment over at Cirsova’s blog, but being a nerd on the internet I will ignore the context and the overall sense of his point and merely rant about a throwaway line that has very little to do with what he’s saying.)

House rules are basically done.

Now I know you can’t tell anyone to knock it off. Not when they know better. And everyone really does know better. They don’t care about the sort of things that guys like Steve Jackson and Alexander Macris fret about. They don’t want to let a top tier designer solve problems for them that they haven’t even anticipated. That’s just how people are. Roleplaying is something everyone has to figure out own their own and that most people insist on learning the hard way and there’s nothing I can say that will change that.

But the thing is, game mastering a group of crazy roleplayers is intense. When I do it, I get in this zone where I’m making one ruling after another. I constantly have to make this call of whether to err on the side of keeping things moving or else pause the game to look something up. Every session I go into it with the intent of doing one thing better. I’m constantly juggling contradictory feedback. And it’s aggravating, but sometimes I find out I’ve been doing something almost religiously for a half dozen sessions only because I was trying to accommodate the preferences of one dude that quit showing up months ago.

It’s insane, really. None of this should work. And yeah, most people will look at this kind of chaos and then reach the conclusion that rules don’t matter. But I disagree.

You see, the difference between whether a session of a roleplaying game feels fun in retrospect or not hinges entirely on how much friction there is between the players and the game master. Now, a certain amount of that is inevitable. Great roleplaying game sessions are really focused on exploring what lies outside of the rules proper, and figuring out how to deal with that is half the fun. But every house rule I add requires me to take a few minutes to explain it every single session forever. Every time a new player shows up, I have to explain my own damnably brilliant game design ideas rather than something pertinent to the actual campaign. It’s just not worth it.

There’s something to be said for being able to lay a single book on the table and simply tell people, “this is what we’re running.” There’s also something to be said for the players and the game master to both pretty well be on the same footing with regards to the rules. When I’m in the heat of the game, the players don’t always have time to ask me my opinion on something. If they can look something up on the sly, formulate a plan based on the rules, and then have confidence that I will have respect for rules even that I’m not immediately familiar with, then everything just runs that much more smoothly.

I’ve said elsewhere that the rules are largely just a prop. There’s a point I’m making there, sure… but the truth is, I depend on the rules to highlight what really matters at the game’s particular level of resolution. I depend on them to convey a whole range of implied setting, implied physics, implied reality. Honestly, getting in there and monkeying around with anything that isn’t an obvious error just spoils that. And to a great extent, I get a real kick out of exploring what a given game brings to the table right alongside the players.

But mostly, I do not see that the sort of things people tend to house rule as being worth the hassle. It takes a certain amount of friction to sell the players on them and to continually remind them of it and educate them. And to me it’s just not worth it. Because in my experience, all it takes is just one iota of friction to turn a great game session into one that leaves a sour feeling. Why then would I do anything to intentionally raise the friction levels in my game…?

And we don’t have to. This is not 1977. There are right now so many games on the market, that surely one of them is a decent enough fit for you and your group. Why not just pick one and see how it goes…? And why would I pick one that has such a glaring flaw that it thrusts me into the position of having to do the game design work that I’m paying someone else to take care of for me? No amount of glossy pictures and advertising hoopla is going to make that sound like a good deal. Sorry, but that’s just how it is.

17 responses to ““The good news though is that you could always house rule away the healing surges.”

  1. Cirsova June 24, 2015 at 9:11 am

    My only major house rule is that I use the Holmes “dungeon book” and let magic users refresh their spells from their scrolls so long as they don’t burn them up by casting from them. I’ve only ever had to explain it during character creation, and it has always been met with “Awesome”. I’d say that during 80% of my B/X sessions, no one has every had to consult the books about anything; 99% of the mechanics at my table are “Did you make your saving throw?” and “What AC did you hit?”

    As Moldvay said, “When you understand how they work, the rules will become more understandable.”

    • jeffro June 24, 2015 at 9:15 am

      When a chance for a total party kill is on the line, the books come out. With 30+ hours of campaigning in the background, the exact words of everything from the initiative rules to the spell descriptions suddenly take on an incredible degree of significance. This is the point where you find out whether or not the game designer has actually done anything for you.

      • Cirsova June 24, 2015 at 9:22 am

        Heck, I’m excited that I’ve finally found where stat-checks are actually codified in the rules; they’re tucked away in the “what to do when something isn’t covered by the rules and you need to wing it” section.

    • jeffro June 24, 2015 at 9:28 am

      I’m still reeling from finding out that the spell spoilage rules are in the Expert booklet. Agh! After all these years…!

      • Cirsova June 24, 2015 at 9:40 am

        So, do you have separate phases for missile fire, magic and melee? What order do they resolve in respect to initiative?
        I can’t believe I’ve never actually looked at or used the Combat Sequence because that was just never how any group I’d been in had ever played D:

      • Cirsova June 24, 2015 at 9:50 am

        Welp, there it is “The caster must inform the DM that a spell is being cast and which spell will be cast before the initiative dice are rolled. If the caster loses the initiative and takes damage or fails a saving throw, the spell is interrupted and lost. In addition, the caster must be able to see the creature or area the spell is to be cast on.”


      • Cirsova June 25, 2015 at 11:51 am

        Y’know, it just dawned on me: keeping the Saving Throws and To Hit tables out of the players handbook in AD&D makes perfect sense…

        …if players aren’t even supposed to have more than the vaguest idea of what armor class they’re hitting!!!

        ::everyone doing it wrong::

  2. Rick Stump June 24, 2015 at 9:45 am

    My OSR supplement, Far Realms, is still available through RPGNow.
    It is the distillation of 35+ years of house rules refined through playtesting and turned into a set of rules that can be added to any OSR game and includes new classes (PC and NPC), new hirelings, new spells, and a ton more.
    Why no, this isn’t spam. Snark, maybe, but not spam!

  3. Gyrus June 25, 2015 at 2:37 am

    A reason I read blogs like this is to “do one thing better” as a DM and player, no matter what system I’m playing. Fact is, a group of people at the the table have different interests and expectations from the same game, and that’s where most of the friction comes from. I thought house rules were a way to split the difference. To date, I’ve never figured this out.

    • jeffro June 25, 2015 at 5:26 am

      I’ve watched the response to this one… and yes, it’s no surprise that people have very different views on game mastering. However I will say that forgoing house rules is an option and it might fit with your own foibles better than you think. I’m not unbiased, though. I want d4 thieves to stay and d4 thieves!

  4. Michael Kelley July 6, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    “I constantly have to make this call of whether to err on the side of keeping things moving or else pause the game to look something up”

    Sounds like you do a lot of house ruling

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