House Rules and One Ring

A number of folks make up house rules and apply tweaks to their games. Some folks say there is no right or wrong way. Sadly, those folks are trying to be nice. I’m going to set you straight here. You may not like what you hear, but think of it as tough love or a rules boot camp, or a wake up call. Or delude yourself into thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about and revel in your mediocrity.

House Rules: You want house rules. Fine. Go for it. I’ll tell you, as a designer, rules are a base set of guidelines and everyone has little adjustments they make to make the game their own. You and I may have the same TV, but odds are, we’ve each put various tweaks on the tv to make it work best for us, whether it’s as simple as adjusting the contrast, to adding a dvr, or up through the complexities of integrating surround sound and a small army of external devices (guilty as charged). The more stuff you add to the tv, the more difficult it is for others to use it without providing them some direction. I’ve had to teach others the nuances of the tv, and how to jump through the inputs, or what controls to use. However, the controls all adhered to a standard, so the learning curve was not obfuscated by the veil of ignorance.

1. Cleave to the core: The greater the variation from the core rules, the more difficult it is for people to understand. I make certain we cleave closely to the core rules in our development process. When we extend something, we make certain it has an intrinsic sense to it. An excellent example is the Sanity system I developed for Savage Worlds. It is an analog to the familiar wound system, so it’s learned quickly, but has enough variants to keep it fresh. There’s what you should go for when houseruling–Fresh, Fun, and Familiar.

2. If your baby’s ugly, seeing its family tree isn’t going to change our minds: I’ve seen folks throw together some house rules and then post them up on forums. That’s fine. It enables them to get feedback, but no one should post a hack and get hacked off when people don’t gush over it. Others are not going to be as emotionally invested in your thing as you are. Secondly, your house rule may suck. If you want to make it for the masses, go into it with the expectations you may well need to refine it. If it’s just for your group, why are you even posting it unless you want your ego stroked? Be prepared to take criticism. Some of you may want to eventually get to the professional side of things one day.

3. Make it self-contained: Lots of professionals read boards and forums and going a long way towards professionalism won’t hurt your chances down the road. Believe it or not, we remember the person who screams “you don’t understand the underlying backstory of this rule?” You know what? Don’t believe what others tell you. I shouldn’t have to read a treatise or liner notes on your edge to get it. I didn’t have to do this with Chess or Go, and I doubt your innovation is on the same level. If the rule is not self contained, rewrite it until it is. You got that?  Another thing: when I’m reading the rule, I don’t care about vision. I don’t care about how you spent three years in the Himalayas meditating upon it with monks. As a designer, I’m certainly going to dig all those nuances, but when I’m gaming, I want, you guessed it, the rule to stand on its own merit. Your experience and skill should inform the rule all by itself.

4. Keep it Short & Sweet: If it’s not painfully obvious from the above, if you get rid of your whining and extraneous materials, you know, trim the fat, and tell us what we really need to know, you have a lot better chance of impressing us, your audience. A good rule of thumb is a rule should not exceed a paragraph (excluding examples). When I say rule in this case, I’m speaking more directly to a new edge or feat than a setting rule, but the best setting rules follow these same rules. In Realms of Cthulhu, aside from the Sanity system, the only baseline setting rule is Fate is Unkind: No spending bennies to reroll snake-eyes. A minor change, certainly, but one with a major, potentially lethal, impact on game play with less syllables than a haiku. How about that? Iron Dynasty has a setting rule deviating from the core and I’m paraphrasing here—“Prone characters cannot get up for free.” This is a big one, and while it’s fine for the core games, if we didn’t add this restriction, it eliminates some of the coolness from martial arts moves (such as throws, etcetera) and ground fighters wouldn’t be as sweet.

5. Focus on One Thing: I’m sneaking in a Lord of the Ring reference in here at the end. Focus on one thing. We didn’t deal with a ton of rings, though we heard about them. We just dealt with one ring at a time. Make certain your edge deals with ONE thing. If it sounds like “the most awesome edge” ever, it probably is which means it’s wrong. If I have a choice between: Brawny which increases my Toughness by 1 and bumps up my carrying capacity and Brutal Build which increases my Strength a die type, adds 1 to my Toughness, and gives me +2 on Intimidation which one do you think everybody’s going to take? (You can certainly deconstruct Brutal Build and make an Edge chain…)

That’s it, go forth and create to your heart’s content, but if you intend to share it, make it better. Make us go “Wow!” not “Why?”

With a critical eye, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!

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