One of the great aspects of any Role Playing Game System is that while the designers go to great lengths to create a wealth of material and game mechanics for us to use, none of it is set in stone. The forum posts I see where some Dungeon Master complains about this rule or that rule make me cringe, and the battle over which edition is best is just as agitating.
Before I go any further I want to make a point. While the mechanics are called “RULES” this term should be taken lightly and with a huge pinch of salt. I prefer not to even call them rules. The term “rule” implies that it is set in stone and must be followed or obeyed. This is far from the truth with any Role Playing Game system. Instead think of them as nothing more than game mechanics that are at your disposal to help facilitate the running of the game, and the telling of the story. Once you do this, you can see more clearly that any of these mechanics are open to change or modification by you the Game Master.
In truth any Game Master (with experience) worth his salt will have altered and modified the game mechanics to suit his own brand of story telling or game in some way. This article is going to address this and both give some advice and make some observations.
Each Game Master will (over time) develop his own style. This style will reflect how he runs the game, and the way in which he tells the story. The Game system that you use is the frame work on which your story will be built, and the mechanics are the tools you will use to create the outcome of events. This article applies to any Role Playing Game but for the sake of simplicity I will relate it to Dungeons and Dragons.
So lets look at Dungeons and Dragons as a game. It first come to light in January 1974 with a three booklet set. in 1977 it was divided into Basic and Advanced rules sets. In 1989 the second edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was released, and brought with it many more options for players. In 2000 we saw the third edition come to light (under the new ownership of Wizards of the Coast), and shortly after (in 2003) was the revised three point five edition. Third edition changed much of the mechanical system that had for the most part remained fairly similar for the past twenty plus years. The year 2007 brought us fourth edition and almost simultaneously pathfinder (by Paizo publishing) which was a revised three point five rules set. Then the current release of fifth edition hit the shelves in 2014. Over the span of the games history it has gone through many changes. The current edition is a far distant cousin of the original game concept, and for those of us that have played through every edition that has ever existed, we can draw vast differences in not only how the game mechanics work, but in the overall feel of the game.
I am often asked “which edition is your favorite?” In truth I can not answer that. I have many fond memories of First edition and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I have a crazy amount of game hours with many groups of people sunk into running three point five, and I have had fun and new experiences with some younger players with fifth. My favorite edition changes based on who I am running the game for, and what kind of feel I want for the story. You see to me an edition is nothing more than a tool set to tell a story. Whichever edition I have to modify the least to get the feel I want to achieve is the edition I will use. I am not an edition puritan. I hear people give reasons why they prefer fifth edition over three point five, or why pathfinder is superior. Each to their own, but I do not view mechanics the same way as many. I borrow “rules” from various editions and discard others. I change and modify things to suit my style and the situation.
As mentioned in an article you can find here, I run a game differently for a virtual tabletop than I do a physical one. Regardless of who I am running the game for, or what base edition I am using for my tool set, one thing is certain. Its Home brewed.
The term Home Brew is basically the more recent buzzword for what us old guard used to call house rules. That is to say it is our own custom rule set or mechanics that we use for our individual game. To Home Brew with any benefit can only be achieved with some experience behind you. I know some fledgling Dungeon Masters that refer to their Home Brew system and it makes me chuckle a little inside. They barely know the game or have a good grasp or understanding of the mechanics, so to be changing them already is kind of like a new chef trying to restructure a family recipe after one taste. It is not a requirement, or a status symbol to have your own set of Home Brewed mechanics.
Before you begin butchering and modifying years of work, you should truly understand it. Only then can you make changes to it that can infer any benefit. Changing rules or mechanics for the sake of it can only impose a negative result. Each time a Dungeon Master changes and modifies a rule he alters what his players have come to know and expect. If he is going to do this he should be able to explain why he wishes to do so, and convince the players that it is a change for the better. Back in the early editions of Dungeons and Dragons, you gained experience points for gaining gold and treasure. It was originally envisioned to reward the thief class, but it did not differentiate effectively. This was one of the first rules I remember changing. When I found myself limiting treasure, not to be stingy to the party in wealth terms, but because I did not want them gaining to many experience points to fast, I realized I did not care for this rule. I explained my thoughts to my players, and pointed out that if wealth was linked to experience, then every foppish young rich noble would be a level nine fighter. I also told them that I refrained from giving out wealth at times because I did not like the fact that it encouraged players to horde and hold back treasure and caused imbalances in experience. They understood and agreed and so we changed the rules. You see the rules change ultimately offered improvement to our idea of the game that we wanted, and as such was welcomed and mutually embraced by all. I often speak about trust. The players have to be able to trust their Dungeon Master, and if they feel he changes the rules without their knowledge or understanding it damages that trust. Also any change should be mutually applied to both players and Non Player Characters where applicable. IF for any reason this is not the case then the Dungeon Master should be able to explain (with justification) why.
I do not intend to discourage home brewing in anyway, in fact I encourage it, but I urge Dungeon Masters and Players alike to not do so until they have a clear understanding of the system mechanics as is. Sometimes when you alter a rule, you indirectly break others. You should realize the effects your changes will have on all aspects of the game, and not just the individual situation in which you applied them. For example creating and using a critical hit system can seem like a great idea, but how does it work with the improved critical feat, and does it then make that feat over powered? So now do you have to modify that rule? and alter the crit range of certain weapons? also if it is to be a mutually used rule are you prepared to have a goblin lop off the rangers right arm? Often there is more to consider than you may see at face value.
Beginning play with a set of home brew rules, is also easier than altering and changing as a game progresses. If you begin a certain way, its easily accepted but if you change it mid flow, you have to look at who it may hurt or hinder and how will they feel about it. Remembering my golden rule that you (the Dungeon Master) are there for the benefit of the players and not the other way around is paramount. You may not like a rule but do your players feel the same way? You should consider discussing it prior to coming up with changes or implementing anything. Players will be accepting of a rule change that they know is coming but will almost certainly rebel at one that is imposed upon them without prior knowledge. The game after all belongs to everyone at the table, and not just the Dungeon Master.
When you feel the need to alter a rule, firstly you should be able to identify why it needs altering. Knowing the reason then allows you to measure the impact of the rule on the game, and think of ways to better balance this impact. At this point, you should mention your thoughts about why a rule does not seem to work to your players and see if they agree. Once you have an idea for how the change will work you should then discuss it with your players and see how they feel about this solution, or if they have any input on a better way. Once the idea of change is agreed upon, and the method of change accepted, then you can implement it. Doing this will ensure acceptance of the change, and make sure you continue to have trust in your players.
Another observation is that many do not record the changes to a rule or what home brew rules they use. You should. Writing these changes down is important for a few reasons. For one it is good to have for your own records but it is also good to be able to show a player the rule (as written). I typically also write the date that I applied the change. This serves to show players that it has been in practice since that time, and not something I just came up with and threw at them. Writing things down also helps you to commit them to memory.
I have different sets of home brew mechanics. Some rules I use with my very experienced players, that I would not with newer ones. I also have some that I use for younger players (kids) that i do not use with adults. I do tent to let people know however when I am using a particular modification and again I always come prepared to explain why. I remember one case when I mentioned a home brew rule I wanted to use (that i had done so with many other groups) and it was met with resistance. That particular group did not like the idea of the rule, so after we had discussed it and everyone put fourth their thoughts, we collectively modified it. They understood why I had changed the particular rule, but not how I had changed it, so we collaborated to find a solution. By doing this I showed the players that I was fair and that I was there to run the game for their enjoyment. It developed trust. I know several Dungeon Masters that would not have changed the rule and some who would not have even told the players that it had been changed. To me that is the typical “the DM is god” mentality that piss poor Dungeon Masters seem to share.
In closing, I say Brew your proverbial asses off! However only do so where needed, and be sure that your players know about it, understand it and agree with it. No one likes a dictator………….