Every House Rule a Resource or Relationship

I finished up a run of the Legacy RPG recently and am taking a break from GM’ing while I prep my B/X campaign. I am playing in a couple ongoing games though. The first of these is Ryuutama, which has me pondering resource management and travel rules, the second is Primetime Adventures, (our fifth series there?), which again has me thinking about the power of PC/NPC relationships in tabletop role-playing.

I like house rules because I dig hacking games to my own preferences and to those of the other players at the table. I enjoy the process of experimentation whether or not the ratio of success to failure is any better than 1:1.

A lot of the players in my community are interested in playing role-playing games “as written,” whenever possible. At least at first. Especially when it comes to old-school dungeoneering. Either they are around my age, want to revisit the game they played in their youth and have since discovered that they never actually played the game as written forty years back or they’re younger and are interested in the possibility of experiencing some “uncut taste” from a mystical “Golden Age.” In spite of my hacker core, part of me feels the same way. And what if my additions are nothing so much as baking soda?

There are convincing arguments that the "Golden Age” of old-school RPGs is all about adding and subtracting things. Tinkering with the form. Others have covered that thesis well.

I ultimately had several pages of house rules for the multi-year Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign I ran. It probably got to be a bit much for some of the players, but a lot of “extras” seemed a decent fit for that game with its various spell effects, critical and fumble results tables, etc. For a B/X game, I suspect fewer house rules would be preferred. Again, for the players I know and for initial sessions in particular.

Reading through The Nightmares Underneath recently, I was struck by its rules for developing social institutions for the civilized settlements adventurers return to. In TNU, as explorers spend coin at these institutions, the organizations grow in potency and become increasingly able to offer specialized goods, information and services. These rules, along with recent episodes of Daydreaming About Dragons and an old Against the Wicked City post (the hirelings bit in particular), got me thinking about ways I might add various game states and conditions I want to the campaign by adding them to the world itself rather than always to a house rules document. Employing exception-based design as games like Magic: the Gathering do, players get the benefit of a “purer” and simpler ruleset, but I get the house-rules I might want to try out. By tying game states to an NPC, a resource or an institution, one might gain richer world-building as well as further incentives for characters to explore, seek status & develop communities inside the fiction of the game. I’ll post in the future examples specific to my Lands of Khos setting, but here is a single case for a common hack:

Max HP at First Level

This house rule increases the survival rate for new PCs. It’s a long way to second level in Classic D&D. At 5 XP per giant centipede, many GMs consider this hack almost essential either to manage player frustration or to keep the game from dark comedy in a game that might otherwise be rules-as-written. Even Moldvay Basic nods towards a similar option where “the DM may allow a player character to roll again if the player has rolled a 1 or 2 for the number of hit points…” (B6). Max hit points at 1st level serves the secondary function of niche-protection. A Fighter with 1 h.p. doesn’t much feel like a character that can protect the others in their party relative to the high CON Cleric who starts with 7 h.p.

One could simply add this rule to a house rule document or mention it during character creation. It’s popular, common & few would bat an eye and/or feel they were being denied the hardcore mode of the original “old school.”

Some might though. And from what I’ve been reading and listening to lately, adding even this simple and typical house rule represents a missed world-building opportunity to create a relationship and/or a resource.

Nate Marcel.  Blood Caster,  mixed media on paper. From  The Nameless Grimoire , 2017, Metzger, Johnstone

Nate Marcel. Blood Caster, mixed media on paper. From The Nameless Grimoire, 2017, Metzger, Johnstone

What if everyone rolls their hit points and you get what you get? Or you at least employ the Moldvay option so there’s a slight chance a struck character yet survives? Now you’re playing on “Hurt Me Plenty mode.” The grognards and grogs-at-heart will smile.

But you, clever and secretly soft-hearted DM that you are, know there’s a Blood Caster named Zora who dwells in the forest somewhere near the keep where the campaign begins. You placed her there in this world. Zora is more-or-less on the way to one of the most likely destinations for adventurers. There are rumors about Zora among the keep’s villagers. They say she can bring you luck… for a price.

Zora wants something from the nearby Cave of the Unknown. If you swear you will retrieve it for her, she will quickly perform a blood sacrifice and you will receive Zora’s Boon. Zora’s blessing lasts for three days and nights and grants a PC one-half their HD +1 temporary hit points (i.e. 3, 4 or 5 hit points) every morning they wake. These daily temporary hit points are gone once lost, cannot be healed and represent a narrow miss or lessening of any damage otherwise received.

Consider how many birds may be felled by this design stone relative to “all PCs get maximum hit points at 1st level.” Should they decide to attend to the rumors about Zora and having met her, they agree to her terms, they’ve improved their chances to survive a single dangerous encounter each day as if they had near maximum hit points or better. They’ve gotten to speak with an enigmatic and hopefully interesting new associate. They’ve made a choice and expressed something interesting about their character; maybe the 3 hp acolyte of Freya is offended by something in Zora’s terms and decides to forgo her blessing! As a DM, you’ve eliminated a house rule and are playing closer to “rules-as-written.” Moreover, by making these hit points temporary you’ve thrown a wrinkle into the classic dilemma of the 5-minute adventuring day; Zora’s boon is time limited. The magic-user’s Sleep spell is exhausted, but should the party head back to the cave entrance and camp there or should they press on while they’re still under the aid of Zora’s sacrifice? Choices…

Unlike a house rule which, if changed, may exhaust both a GM’s memory and a player’s patience, Zora can always move along if you decide the “rule” is not quite right for your table. Or that it was fine while the PCs were 1st or 2nd level, but the extra hit points have outworn their welcome. On the flip side, the relationship with Zora holds the potential for further benefits and dangers, further experimental game states. "Zora the Blood Caster” contains more latent possibilities than a hit-point house rule. Zora can take care of herself, but she’s also a resource and a relationship that might be threatened in-game. More choices.

A popular modern house rule, All Shields Shall Be Splintered, operates under a similar design principle - how can we increase the survival rate for old school low-level D&D player characters while giving their players’ more choices?

Gary Gygax had his own list of house rules and began many of his campaigns at 3rd level. This may have been his way of molding the games he ran to the preferences of the players at his table. Some of his players may have tired of the ultra-high mortality inherent to playing 1st level characters rules-as-written. It’s a great house rule to that end! I wonder whether by examining every house rule through the lens of possibly converting it into an in-game resource or relationship, we might serve our own tables as well.