5 of the Best House Rules for Your RPG

July 6th, 2010 by Ed Grabianowski

One of the defining characteristics of role-playing games is that they can be customized in an infinite variety of ways. The most common customization is the almighty house rule. If something isn’t working for your gaming group, you can make a change on the spot. Here are five of the best house rules I’ve found (plus a few bonus tracks).

1. Penny Arcade illustrator Mike Krahulik occasionally offers DMing suggestions, usually based on a cool encounter he put together. Like any DM, he also uses house rules to add spice when necessary. My favorite? Making skill checks during combat a minor action by default. The point is to encourage interaction with the environment and more creative combat tactics. How many times have you run a scenario with a statue that offered healing surges or a fountain that drained the hit points of undead creatures, but no one ever bothered to examine it and find out until after the encounter was over? Krahulik’s minor skill check system helps overcome that by making it virtually painless to read the runes on the magic fountain or see what happens when you pull on the torch held aloft by the statue. The DM can overrule on an ad hoc basis, since some skill checks clearly don’t fall under the purview of this rule, but as a general guide I think it could make 4E combat much more lively.

2. Our gaming group acquired Paizo’s critical hit and miss decks not too long before we made the transition to 4E (I promise these aren’t all 4E-centric). The cards as written don’t really fit 4E critical mechanics, but we didn’t want to abandon them, since they’re cool and fun. We simply continued using them, making judgment calls each time a card was drawn. After more than a year of using them, all those judgment calls have added up to a loosely defined set of rules. First I’ll list what the card says, followed by what we house rule it to mean:

  • Double Damage; Deal normal 4E critical damage (ie. maximum plus magic weapon bonus).
  • Triple Damage; Deal normal 4E crit damage plus an additional roll of your normal damage for that attack. Example, if you hit with a 2W attack using a weapon that does 1d8 damage, a Triple Damage crit would deal 2d8 +16 damage.
  • Bleed; 1d6 ongoing damage, save ends.
  • Ability reduction or bleed; Weakened, save ends.
  • Other status effects; We still rule these case by case. Some of the 3.5 statuses match 4E ones well, other times we have to stretch things a bit.
  • Random magical effect repeatedly drawn by same player; Character can use a limited form of that effect as a daily action. This stems from a player whose critical miss draws resulted in a random stinking cloud hitting the battlefield at least four times in the course of just a month or two of playing. We decided he’d done it accidentally so often that he’d finally learned how to do it on purpose.

3. Owen K.C. Stephens is a renowned game designer, so it’s no surprise that his house rules are awesome. He created an alternate damage rule that can be used with most RPGs. In essence, each character has two pools of hit points, a “Bruised” pool and a “Wounded” pool, each of which is half the character’s total HP. Damage comes off of Bruised HP first, while healing applies to Wounded HP first. Bruised damage heals very quickly between encounters, but can’t go above the current Wounded HP. For Example, if you have a total of 100 HP, but your Wounded HP are only 30 at the moment, your Bruised pool won’t go above 30 when you rest. Unless you get a healing potion or cure light wounds (which will restore Wounded HP), you won’t be able to heal above 60 total HP.

It only adds a slight amount of additional bookkeeping while creating two classes of damage that feel realistic and also work to keep the party moving without always taking long rests between encounters. I especially like the idea of using this in the gritty campaign.

4. In the last two weeks, we’ve had some healthy debate here on Robot Viking about the shortcomings of D&D 4E when it comes to powerful non-combat magic effects. A poster at the EN World forums had a suggestion that I’m planning to put to use immediately. Instead of simply using Action Points for an additional Standard action (a simple yet uninspired mechanic), players can use them for “power stunts.” This concept will sound familiar to veterans of the old Marvel Superheroes RPG — that game allowed you to take a basic power like shooting fire and create a “stunt” like forming a cage of fire to trap an opponent. In 4E D&D terms, the stunt would be tied to a character’s class, feats, powers or Paragon Path. Players can spend an action point to perform a power stunt, describing what they want to do to the DM and justifying how it fits the character’s abilities or history. The EN World post gave some cool examples: a party needs to climb a cliff in the middle of the wilderness, so the druid spends an action point to make vines grow up the side of the cliff; a party being pursued could be saved by a spellcaster with elemental earth powers using a power stunt to partially collapse a tunnel behind them.

I think this is a fantastic rule that will encourage creativity and give players a lot more options outside combat without requiring any additional bookkeeping or the creation of lengthy alternate powers lists.

5. A very common house rule is a player rewards program. Some groups reward role-playing, creativity, hilarious one-liners, or remembering to bring beer. Our group generally has tossed out small XP awards, 50 to 100 XP here and there, although for a while we had a more complex system designed to speed combat rounds. There are many varieties of rewards systems, though. The official D&D Encounters reward system gives players Renown points at the DM’s discretion, which can be cashed in for bonuses usable at any future RPGA event. One interesting system I found replaces Action Points with a far more versatile Karma Point system.

6. It’s never Lupus (assuming you’re playing a medical-mystery-of-the-week RPG).

7. At the end of every gaming session, we hold a vote to decide who was the best role-player that night, who used the best tactics, who had a clutch roll, who gets the hard luck award, etc. We use dry erase markers on small gridded sheets with everyone’s names and all the categories, so it’s mostly anonymous. The XP awards, especially at higher levels, are minimal. While this is just another variant of the player rewards system, I’ve come to realize that it’s true value lies elsewhere. It is a perfect way to end an RPG session because it causes everyone to go over the night’s events in their minds. We all lobby for ourselves (“Three critical misses in one combat, you guys better vote me hard luck!”), and the resulting conversation is a great way to recapitulate the recent adventure and cement it in everyone’s memories. Plus, there’s all the good-natured trash talk as we pack up to head home.

I have no doubt that the Vikings all have their own excellent house rules, feel free to share them in the comments below.

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13 Responses to “5 of the Best House Rules for Your RPG”

  1. Comment by mordicai

    Recently impressed by this:
    http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2009/11/lucky-number-kung-fu.html

    Currently trying to minimize my house rulings, since I previously evolved 3.x into practically a whole new system. Using WoD’s very flexible system is working so far.

  2. Comment by Gavin O'Brien

    I love that action point idea.

  3. Comment by Gavin O'Brien

    Also, I should have nominated myself for hard luck last session. So what if Ryk got decapitated. My sorceress got BLOOD on her dress.

  4. Comment by mordicai

    Gavin’s sorceress is my new favorite character.

  5. Comment by ggodo

    I like the idea of burning action points to do something cool that isn’t simply another action. It’s sorta like using Edge in Shadowrun, or Fate in Dark Heresy. one thing my PCs discovered quick is that if you loot a group of soldiers, and one of them has an awesome hat, wearing it in public might make folks think you’re a part of that army. My Pathfinder players are new to the tabletop, so the concept of loot with connotations just blew them away.

  6. Comment by Nephelim

    I’m totally stealing the Action Points for Stunts idea. Hell 4 E already feels like a comic book. I don’t see any issue with making it more super-heroic.

    I also put together a set of rules that let players force their magic items into more activations than they would normally get, but risk feedback\burn and get a reduced effect. None of my players have used it yet, so I can’t really comment on if it WORKS exactly, but the “once a day” magic items in 4E I find to be really anticlimactic when everyone and their brother (even ostensibly non-magical fighters and rogues) has magic effects coming out of their ears.

  7. Comment by Megido

    I too can’t help but get into the idea of the action stunts. That could make for some truly kick-ass battles (or ways to end/get out of battle.) Ideas are already forming in my head for our characters. Such things could possibly, with a little imagination, lead to combo stunts. Since the actions could be custom made there’s potential for team maneuvers/attacks. I don’t know how we’d work it, but one idea that popped up in my head is Olivia casting a score of fire orbs in the midst of the enemy, then Arkus fencing them in with an extra thick fire wall. They could call it the, “Johnny Cash.”

    @Gavin – If Dowsabel actually got blood on her dress I imagine we’d have won that fight immediately afterward.

  8. Comment by Gavin O'Brien

    Well, sadly Dowsabel got blood on a bit more than her dress. There will be Hell to pay though. Hell, I say!

  9. Comment by Ed Grabianowski

    The action point thing is mainly meant for non-combat. 4E gives you plenty of options for dealing damage and controlling enemies in combat rounds.

    Now, if you wanted to use fire spheres and a wall of fire to control a rioting crowd, that would be more like it.

  10. Comment by Megido

    I love it when they have to pay Hell! So entertaining…

    @Ed – Ah, I see. I guess the bit about non-combat didn’t stick in my head when I was reading. Yeah, action points in combat do well enough, and like you said the idea I had could be translated to non-combat pretty easily. I still like the idea just as much.

  11. Comment by Ryk Perry

    Sadly Eric, I don’t think Arkus will be hemming in any more foes with the wall of fire. I understand its hard to cast spells with your head ripped off . . . Still I do like the action point synergy concept. It might be worth exploring.

  12. Comment by Megido

    Aw damn… I already forgot that he died. Now I’m sad. :’(

  13. Comment by Gavin O'Brien

    Before tonight’s session, Dowsabel uses an action point, someone else’s Nature check, and her knowledge of blast and burst spells to create a potent, flammable herbicide.