GM Advice: Excellent House Rules For Your Campaign

That’s not how it works!” “Yes it is.” “No it isn’t.” Every campaign and game needs house rules. Beyond mere mechanical tweaks they often handle crucial aspects of the session. Having a list of house rules minimises disagreements and maximises fun.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

In my experience, almost every game has house rules, but few GMs take the time to write them down. That’s a shame as producing a house rules handout is an excellent idea. Such a document lets the players know exactly where they stand and reduces misunderstandings and arguments.

Beyond system specific rules tweaks, several subjects are excellent topics for house rules.

  • Absent Players: What happens when one or more players can’t make the game? Is the session cancelled? Does someone else play the missing player’s character or does it mysteriously disappear? Can a character die while under the control of another character? These are subjects well worth addressing.
  • Character Death: Character death is part of the game. If the party don’t suffer a TPK, what happens to the unfortunate player? Should everyone have a backup character ready to go with minimal effort or does the game stop while a new character is generated? It is also worth considering (if the game allows it) how easy it is to be raised from dead. Finally, what happens to the deceased’s equipment? Is it buried with his body? Can the survivors share it out? (In one campaign I played in, for several adventures the main source of treasure was the equipment of slain adventurers! That was a tough campaign).
  • Optional Rules: Does the GM use optional rules or allow supplemental feats, spells, races, classes and so on. Listing the approved sources and/or rule items  enables players to craft their characters without bombarding the GM with questions about this feat or that spell.
  • System Tweaks: A GM should list all the system tweaks he uses so players can study and learn them.
  • Dice: Dice are at the heart of most role-playing games. The group should decide what happens if a die is cocked or if it falls off the table. Does it count or should the player re-roll? Who decides if a die is cocked? Should all rolls be witnessed?
  • Start Time: In a busy world, we all have to make sacrifices to attend the weekly game. Turning up on time and then sitting around waiting for the perpetually late player is frustrating. State a start time and stick to it.
  • Dues: Is the game free to play or does everyone contribute to a fund used to buy snacks, gaming materials and so on? If so, note how much everyone should pay and who administers the fund. (In my own group, we have a fund for gaming materials – modules, figures, gaming paper and so on – as it seems unfair the GM should pay for everything; we also use it to buy rulebooks for everyone).

Having made a list of house rules, a GM should make certain everyone has a physical copy. The GM should also update and review them at the start of every new campaign.

Help Fellow GMs!

Do you have any other (system neutral) house rules you think are crucial to a successful game? Let us know in the comments below and help your fellow GMs run a better game.

 

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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5 thoughts on “GM Advice: Excellent House Rules For Your Campaign

  1. Luckily, I don’t have this concern with my game group, but I have seen plenty of discussion involving distractions at the table (is the television on? can people play Flappy Bird and remain engaged in the game? etc.), so that might be a good thing to iron out beforehand.

    I also think there should be some kind of “post mortem” on each game session (whether that’s a short period of discussion after the game, or via email or a game site maintained by the GM and players). House rules could grow out of that discussion.

  2. There are several bouse rules that I regularly impmement.

    1: When rolling skill checks, using a d20 system, a natural 1 is not an automatic failure, nor is a natural 20 an automatic success. Instead, the roll recieves a -10 or +10 respectively. Should the final number be less than 1, the DM/GM will dictate what will happen. Perhaps the equipment breaks, or an alarm goes off. Something negative and entirely up to the discretion of whomever is running the game happens. Within reason of course.

    2: Only official published races and classes, for systems that use them, are allowed to be used. This way everyone has equal opportunity to read the source material and u derstand the mechanics of whatever is being brought to the table.

    3: 2 copies of every character sheet must exist at all times. One stays with the player, the other with the DM/GM. This way, in the event that someone loses a sheet or something similar, a spare copy is on hand and the character is not potentially lost to the metaphorical void.
    It also makes things easier on the GM/DM for planning encounters and things suited to the abilities of the party.
    This also applies to character companion animals, familiars, eidolons, mounts and similar things that the party is likely to use in combat and similar high risk/reward settings.

    4: Sense Motive, amd generalized Stealth based skill checks will not be rolled by the player. Instead, they are to be rolled by the DM and the final result will be kept secret from the player unless in the case of a Natural 20, Critical Success, or comparable roll. The situation will be described as their character percieves it and the player will have to choose how to proceed from there. The player is welcome to inquire about details the DM may not have considered important to make a more informed choice. Smell, humidity, things the DM may not initially consider in their primary description.

    5: Triple Crits. In the event that a player makes three consecutive Natural 20 rolls/critical successes, or comprable rolls in a combat situation, the enemy is automatically defeated unless it a boss battle, or it is being made against another player. Such boss battles or other events where it fails to apply, the GM/DM will notify the party so they can adjust their tactics accordingly. Can’t have the party one shotting a boss that took 4 hours to build from scratch now…lol

    6: Electronics are forbidden during a session unless they are required for dice, digitized character sheets, rule/spell quick references AND are on a device that is either a tablet, smartphone or readily viewable screen by all at the table. Thw only person with a screen between them and the table should be the GM. The rule is primarily to weed out excess noise and distractions.

    7: Food and beverages…. In the event that a player decides to provide food or beverages for everyone at the table, they will be entitled to a small bit of bonus xp or loot at the end of the session. Alternatively, in some rare cases they’ll be allowed to assist in disputes between other players. (At my table at least three pmayers all have GM/DM experience…)

    8: Alcohol. In the event that alcoholic beverages are served or offered to the players or GM, a minimum of two people must drink, or none will. Nobody has fun if only one person gets tipsy and gregarious, unless it’s the DM and they’ve had a particularly good week. Even then, because of the social aspect, two or more must drink if anyone is to. Nobody at my table is allowed to drink alone.

    9: Combat Criticals… Are automatically confirmed regardless to the implement used if the die result is a natural 20, or comprable roll if the system uses different dice.

    Those are my standard rules that I ALWAYS implement in my games. Of variations upon those rules. I often also use a point by system on character creation so that nobody inadvertently gets left in the dust because the die were unkind. Keeping a truly balanced party become easier and often results in the party having more fun overall since there is no possible shenanigans to rig the character.