3 Tips For GMs On Using House Rules

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GM Tips, hosted by the talented veteran Game Master Satine Phoenix, is our show to help Dungeon Masters and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week, we covered getting a new campaign or players started, and this week we are going to shred old systems in new ways.

On this episode of GM Tips with Satine Phoenix, Ryan Green talks about how you can tweak and modify existing systems with your groups permissions to run entirely different types of stories.

The typical “It’s your world, GM, do what you want” is the mantra of this video with an added twist — making sure you do it without pissing off your players. It’s okay to break the rules or mix and match them with other ideas, just make sure it’s done with the right intent. Since the video covers the larger basics, the article below gives pointers on putting them into practice.

Don’t Be Afraid of House Rule Cherry Picking

If you are new to running a game it is pretty common to stick to the book. After awhile, your players (but mostly you) will find some broken mechanic in the game in a way that you were not ready for. This grievous error in game design will be sprung on you like a swift predatory cat that has stalked its prey for hours. You’ll make a knee-jerk reaction and ban that one thing from the game, but possibly causing a domino effect that turns your game into a knot of incomprehensible house rules.

This scenario is what happens time and time again with GM’s who shift into tyrant mode and make sweeping changes without consulting their players. If you are going to take a house rule and put it into effect—work with your players and test it out first. Even small tweaks to a class or power can end up spiraling in crazy directions and the more eyes you have on your changes the better. Plus your players feel included in the process and part of the game. I know this feels like a total beginner tip, and it really is, but it bears repeating often enough and ties right into…

Focus On Game Balance

Ultimately, the key is to maintain a balance between player tension and player excitement. Like toggles, you are going to need to keep tweaking. Once you start messing under the hood with game system engines you start bringing fresh ideas or takes into old familiar mechanics. Such small things can create fantastic stories or really start ratcheting up the player tension. Taking away death saving throws entirely when the someone goes down to a sneak or surprise attack drastically powers up the rogues or other stealthy people, which can change the entire flavor of the game to a heist plan feel with danger lurking around every corner.

If at some point you find that your players are close to death way too often, but everyone has really come to love the deadly shadow world, maybe take a look at the perception mechanics instead of undoing your rules change. This is where the tweaking comes in, as long as you are working with your group, you can make major house rule changes—then slowly dial them in to keep tension and excitement level with each other.

Be Kind When You Rewind

Sometimes when you change a thing, it can be difficult to undo. Don’t surprise your players mid-scene with some change you made. Also, if a change has been made for a long time, make it part of the story to rewind or undo. Tomb of Annihilation’s fiddling with the resurrection mechanics is a great example of this. Resurrection has been a staple in many games for years and removing it from the game mid-campaign would be unfun to the players—unless it was part of a new quest. If you implemented a house rule and it’s not working for you (but your players all love it) don’t rip it away mid-scene. Try toggling it above first or talking to everyone about it and if everyone loves it, go ahead and make it the point of a campaign.

There is a road trip vampire game I’m following, there are mechanics surrounding hunting that made me balk initially, and after reaching out to the GM about them he agreed, and then grinned. Everyone liked the easy hunting for their vampires and never really noticed that it was part of the plotline until I asked. Rather than just rip the band-aid off and rewind the mechanics, he made them a side plot point that grew slowly as the weeks went on.

Got a favorite house rule (or seven) that have been working for you? Post your favorite house rules, game system, and reason in the comments section so everyone can get some new ideas! And don’t forget to check out other episodes of GM Tips with Satine Phoenix here on Geek & Sundry!

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Featured Image by: Dis is Fine by Hugo Cardenas. Art and animations at: Takayuuki.deviantart.com and Youtube

Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.

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