Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Hazards of House Rules

In this post I am talking about my feelings on house rules. I am in a bit of a purist mood right now. What follows isn't a judgement or indictment of anyone else's style of playing or refereeing. I'm just examining my own feelings about this topic. It is not meant to be taken personally.

On with the show . . .

As you probably know, I was busily working on my house rules not long ago. Mr. Finch was kind enough to provide us with document files of S&W WhiteBox and Core, to allow us to seamlessly insert our idiosyncrasies into his most excellent games. So, I decided to take that route.

Then, I had the idea for Kalagris. I decided that I may as well rewrite class descriptions, racial descriptions, and so on, to directly reflect that setting. Somewhere during that process it occurred to me that I would enjoy finding and inserting art that I wanted to see, so I did that. At that point, I figured I may as well give it a name of my choosing. I fired up the GIMP and whipped up a cover. Then, reality hit me like an icy fish-slap:

This wasn't D&D anymore. Not in any form or fashion. I had changed too much. Of course, that isn't a deadly sin. It isn't even particularly a sin. Unless, that is, you truly want to be playing D&D. By the way, for my purposes here, S&W and D&D are pretty much interchangeable. Refer to this for insight into how that works.

I was changing things that ultimately made D&D into another game, one that addressed my unique desires. There's nothing wrong with that, it is done all the time and always has been. The word of the rules not only encourages it, the sparsity of the rules demands it. Back in my day, any referee that didn't house rule must have an underdeveloped imagination.

Then, of course, there's the argument that anyone playing Original D&D isn't really playing D&D at all. It demands so many house rules that it becomes specific to the table it's played on almost immediately, and thus, ceases being D&D. This was one of the reasons for AD&D in the first place; to get people all playing from the same book.

Whatever. I'm not against house rules, but I think there are only a few reasons to do them:

1) When there is something missing from the rules. If there is a situation that arises consistently, like exactly how much control a magic-user has over the subject of a Charm Person, it needs a house rule to keep it consistent.
2) To create a mechanical tie to the campaign world. Things like changing how magic works, or adding backgrounds that grant certain skills/abilities/bonuses fit into this category.
3) To clearly state any variants or alternative rules that may, or may not, be permissible.
4) Ignoring certain aspects, such as demi-human level limits.
Of those, #2 is the trickiest and has the most potential to turn a game into some bastard hybrid. There are certain things that are the very essence and charm of D&D. Love these or hate them, they are D&D. Things like Vancian magic, hit points, armor making you harder to hit, these are D&D and without them, you are playing something else. Which isn't really a problem . . .

Unless you want to be playing D&D. D&D is an experience, a shared experience. The whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts. It is full of clunky systems, numerous subsystems, and arbitrary balancers. Yet, at the end of a session, it is also fun, sometimes moving, and most often memorable. It is D&D and it is what I want to be playing.

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