Game Theory: Principles for House Ruling

Some abstract thinking about introducing house rules into a game system.

1. Understand the game system as a whole to avoid unintended consequences.

Understanding the rules as written, and how they interact with the rest of the game, can save a lot of time and effort. Why spend time rehashing rules only to find out that the a "fix" or solution to the "problem" doesn't work any better for the system in question? Certainly there is trial and error in any endeavor, but a little contemplation and foresight may save time and prevent frustration.

For example, consider the rules for psionics in First Edition. These rules are often cited as a broken subsystem, and either tossed wholesale from most First Edition games, greatly reworked, or replaced with a new system or one ripped from another edition or game 

However, redoing the psionic rules can lead to other headaches as well. There are a ton of monsters in First Edition that make use of psionic attacks, defenses, points, abilities, and disciplines. If another psionic system is to be used, whether invented out of whole clothe or brought in from game, how does that effect using those monsters effectively at the game table? Psionic abilities can certainly be treated as "spell-like abilities," and I suspect that this is the most popular way to treat them, but what about psionic combat? If a completely new psionics subsystem is used, how are the attacks, defenses, and points given in First Edition interpreted with regards to the new subsystem replacing the old? This might be a lot of work, depending on how compatible the new system is vis-a-vis the RAW. On the other hand, if psionic attacks, defenses, and points are simply dropped, a number of monsters are greatly weakened. This illustrates in a simply way that complexities that can arise when house ruling.

2. Identify the general purpose of the rule or rules so as to reconstruct or replace them in the same spirit.

The unarmed combat rules in First Edition are another oft cited subsystem that are thought to be overly complex, inconsistent, and/or contradictory. To rework or replace them, its helpful to boil down what the point of those rules are; i.e., they offer a means to adjudicate
what happens when a character or monster throws a punch, grabs an opponents, or attempts to knock an opponent down. The Referee can then determine whether to follow this pattern with new or tweaked rules that serve the same purpose, or whether to add to or subtract from the available options. One Referee might desire to add in a means to adjudicate kicks, flying elbows, and head butting, while another Referee may feel that having different ways to strike with a fist, knock an opponent done, or grapple with an opponent, add too much complexity and seek a general rule of thumb that covers all of these.

3. Realize the motive for tweaking, replacing, or dropping a rule.

Why we are interested in altering or replacing the rule in the first place. What is our own goal in changing this or that rule? My own motive for house ruling almost always boils down to facilitating the action at the gaming table, eliminating confusion or discrepancies in the rules, and reducing or removing the paperwork that comes with gaming as much as possible. Others may seek more "granularity" in their rules, some want a greater level of "realism,"  while others want more detail or complexity, and so on.

Once the motive is known, this may present means by which to accomplish the goal. Make a game more "rules-lite" will almost certainly result in a different applied paradigm  than making a game more "realistic."

4. Consider whether other rules or subsystems within the game itself that might meet the desired goal that is being attempted through house ruling.

Rules changes that make use of existing rules, terminology, and formulas can also be a helpful rubric. Why create a new rule when other, existing rules or subsystems that are already familiar to the Referee and the players may suffice? Hit dice, attack dice, saving throws, and rolling against an ability score (strength, intelligence, etc.) are popular examples of existing rules being made to serve double duty to adjudicate situations at the game table that are not already covered by the rules, or in place of existing rules that are thought of as "broken."

5. Allow the rules to succeed or fail as a result of organic play.

This point probably cannot be stressed enough. What works should be determined at the gaming table by play-testing them.The play is the thing! Its doesn't matter whether the Referee and/or players are shooting for "rules-lite" or "more realism/simulation/complexity," what matters is whether the house rules are achieving their desired goal by actually using them. Let game play reveal whether they serve the intended purpose to the satisfaction of the Referee and the players.

Players and Referee alike will have input on how various rules are working out. Be prepared to tweak new house rules, or ditch them altogether, if they are found to be lacking through game play. If play testing reveals that house rules are not serving their intended purpose, its important to be able to let go of a house rule rather than insist on its use. 

Copyright GA Norris 2011

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