I think you would be difficult to find a tabletop RPG group, no matter the system, that did not employ some amount of house rules. In case you don’t know, these are rules that are not pulled from the book but rather from the mind of the person running the game with more or less some amount of mutual consent among the players. They can be as simple as a slight tweak to existing rules to drastic additions that for whatever reason, makes the game more playable and enjoyable for that particular group. That last part is the key to understanding house rules and why anyone uses them. They’re put in place to make the game more fun and more playable for the specific group of players. House rules in your game may be great but they may not work for my game which may not work in another group etc. etc.
It doesn’t take much effort to find countless pages of “published” house rules on the internet and if you have the time, it’s something I can’t suggest enough. You never know what gems you may find that your group will find fun. You may even encounter some useful tips about how to run games or play characters. Tabletop role-playing games have been around for a long time now and there is a wealth of information out there that can potentially enhance your game. It’s also worth remembering that you ought not dismiss works that aren’t for your system or the genre you’re playing. For instance, just because you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t mean there isn’t useful house rule material originally written for ‘Star Wars’ or ‘GURPS.’
My method of running games (be it D&D, Spycraft, Star Wars, Legend of the Five Rings) has been called unorthodox but it’s because I like to explore new ways to run games and challenge my players. It keeps things fresh, interesting and engaging. I have a large library of house rules curated for each system but there are a few that my regular players have come to just expect. I’m going to share a few of them with you and my reasoning (such as it is) for using them and keeping them in place for so many years of adventure.
1.) The Campaign Syllabus
This is something that I first encountered years ago when my friends and I would attend a local game club on Saturday nights. Some nameless chap offered to run a D&D campaign for us and he handed us what was, essentially, the same thing you get handed your first day in a class in college. It was a document detailing the DM’s experience, the nature of the campaign like the setting, world information and a vague summary of the plot. There were some optional methods for rolling characters and a part about how he conducted the game in the sense of interactions at the table. I remember he talked about creating this document because he would often DM for groups of strangers (in what I can assume was some sort of proto-Adventurer’s League scenario) and the syllabus answered a lot of pre-game questions and made everything the players needed to know upfront and available. I thought this was such a wonderful idea, I’ve used it in almost every game I’ve ever run. Even my games on Storium.com get this treatment in the form of a Google Doc. These days a lot of this can be accomplished on a computer or phone but when it comes to tabletop, I keep it old school and am very much a creature of habit.
You can arrange yours however you wish but mine typically breaks down something like this:
- Game World & System Name
- Who I Am & How To Contact Me
- Plot Summary
- Pre-Generated Characters (If necessary or for new players.)
- Suggested Class/Race Combinations (Just a suggestion. Nothing more.)
- House Rules (Game mechanics, things that impact dice rolling.)
- MY Conduct (Expectations of behavior by me and how I conduct the game and the action (i.e. “No, you can’t interrupt the villain’s dialogue by shooting him in the throat” and “Don’t talk over me.”)
- YOUR Conduct (Expectations of behavior by the players. Don’t bully or intimidate, player knowledge vs. character knowledge, new guy brings the chips etc.)
- Disclosures (If you have any special needs, let me know. I will bend over backwards to make sure you have a fun experience. I also let my players know that I am VERY hard of hearing so if they talk to me and I don’t respond, I’m not ignoring them I likely can’t hear them. Poke me, throw a paper airplane at me, get into my field of vision.)
- Notes & Graph Paper (I used to offer a few blank pages but since they’re cheap, I now tuck my Syllabus into a dollar store spiral notebook so that the players have a dedicated space for notes, maps, doodles and so on.)
- Likes & Dislikes (This is for the players to tell me what sort of things they really want to do in game as well as things they really don’t want to do in game. You may have a plot developed but knowing what your players like and dislike keeps them engaged.)
- The Survey (I keep a stack of blank survey forms which are totally optional but ask questions like “What did you like the most about the session, What did you like the least? What did I do that you didn’t like? Where can I improve? Getting feedback from your players is critical to a successful and potentially long running campaign. Make sure they’re having fun.)
This is something that, with the addition of computers and phones you may not find as useful but it’s something I still use so here it is anyway. I like to have players take on a job to help keep things running smoothly. I offer incentives for taking on these responsibilities which I’ll get to shortly.
The Quartermaster – This person is in charge of keeping a ledger of the party’s collective money, equipment, property etc. In a sense, it’s sort of like someone being the Banker in a game of ‘Monopoly.’ It saves space on the individual player’s character sheets and reduces confusion.
The Wrangler – This person keeps track of initiative during combat. We use a dry erase board and as initiative is determined they place it on the list. Known baddies are called off by me and if the need arises to have a secret or hidden combatant enter the sequence I simply interrupt in order as needed (if two or more individuals share initiative, there are rules in each system to resolve that stack.)
The Chronicler – This person records important events, NPC names, goals, motivations and plot points. Every session begins with a quick recap of the last session so everyone is on the same page and anyone who missed the last session can get caught up.
3.) Participation Awards
Anyone who offers something to game day gets rewarded, these days it’s in the form of gaining Advantage on X number of rolls. Years back I would offer Action Dice (just a extra d6 to add to any roll). Everyone at the table has some kind of talent so why not give some motivation to them to use those talents to enhance the game experience. If they draw, everyone likes character portraits. If they find or create mood music or sound effects, turn on the speakers and use the immersion! If they love to cook, let them. I’ve had many games double as a dinner party. The game is just part of the fun. Let your players bring their talents and passions to the table. They’ll be more inclined to show up and participate. Offer rewards to your players however you see fit. More dice rolling, more crits, more fun.
4.) Absent Players
If you miss a session, your character doesn’t just disappear into the ether. They’re going to be an NPC under my control. They may not say or do much but they’re going to be present in game. If a fight breaks out, they’ll act in accordance with their class mechanics. They could get killed. It happens. I’m not going to punish you for missing a game but I can’t break continuity for everyone else either.
5.) Character Death
A wise man once said “Nobody is dead unless you see the body and even then it can be tricky.’ If a character dies, I take the character sheet. Not the notebook. That the player keeps because they might have relevant game information there. Why? Well, it’s a ready built NPC that I don’t have to create myself. That’s just some good advice for time saving during game prep. In my games, there is a surprisingly high chance that the dead character will be back in some form although this depends on how they died. If I can turn them into a bad guy or some manner of foil to the party, I will do so with gusto.
6.) Your Character Sheet Stays With Me
This is as simple as it sounds. If I’m running a game, I will have my books and notes together. There can’t be a game without the DM but a player can easily show up without their character sheet. I’ve seen too much time wasted as they try to do a substitute reroll or create a new character almost every session. It’s a terrible distraction and by the time they’re done the session is nearly over. This also makes life easier if you don’t show up. I can still play your PC. No exceptions, no excuses. I keep your character sheet, if not the entire packet.
Remember, in the end if it’s fun – roll with it.