Monday, June 1, 2015

The Glory and Wisdom of House Rules

I will be in Dallas for the North Texas Role Playing Games Convention from Wed. until Sunday, Jun 3 thru 7. Expect a full report within a few days of my return.

“House rules”, in one form or another have permeated my gaming from the very beginning. The first example I can remember was Free Parking in Monopoly. Everyone in my family, and the friends or relatives I played with, all played where all fines and penalties went to the middle of the board and you got them if you hit Free Parking. I really thought that was a rule; everyone played that way.
House Rules are the social grease that keeps games going. If not for House Rules, there would be no D&D.

Let me define, loosely, just what a house rule is; a rule, often modified, used by agreement. It does not matter what it does to the game so much as it defines the social contract between those involved in the game. An example might be if a game came out with a typo so obvious that making a House Rule was glaringly, apparently, necessary. Another would be the Free Parking example cited earlier.
It seems to me that miniatures game playing has more house rules than other forms of gaming, probably because of the minute attention to detail that some miniatures rules and systems pay heed to. It probably also has to do with two other facts: older minis rules were not examples of clarity, and secondly, minis players are a contentious bunch. Argue though we might, the game’s the thing and a quick house rule/ruling keeps the game moving. Keep in mind also that it is miniatures from which all other forms of war gaming derive.

Younger gamers might not be aware of the fact that old minis rules often necessitated a third-party arbiter, usually and most frequently called a “judge” (imagine that). Many older rules could not be played without one. When besieging a castle, for example, to fire a trebuchet, you called a distance from your engine and a distance left or right of center for your shot-fall. The judge (also sometimes called a referee or umpire—we were a contentious lot) would then make the measurement and spot where the rock fell. The judge would determine if a given unit could sight another unit, whether signal flags might be seen and other instances where impartial judgment was crucial. This was especially true for miniatures games at cons or other formal occasions. For minis tournaments at cons, a single judge could handle multiple games, only being needed when the two opponents could not reach amicable agreement.

It was often the judge/ump/ref that created and balanced the game to be played.

Having to find someone to be the cop for your game was often tough to do. Shoot, we all wanted to play, not ref. In the late ‘70’s I spent six months intensively studying the East Front of WWII in the last two years of the war. I analyzed Orders of Battle, Tables of Organization & Equipment and after-action analyses. I did this for the sole purpose of devising a set of tables using percentile dice to generate reasonably historic scenarios for playing micro-armor mini games without the need for a third party judge. I published them and they seemed to be pretty reliable about 90-95% of the time, producing a fun-to-play game for two friends to play. They spawned a lot of house rules.
House rules led directly to the invention of role-playing games. Here’s how it happened. (For the sake of brevity in some places, and privacy in other, this bit is somewhat paraphrased but accurate, nonetheless.) Some minis guys were setting up, or picking up after—it makes no difference, a game. One of them said to the other something like:”You know, this fancy blue knight never gets killed (removed from play). He must be some kind of hero or something.” “Oughta take two hits to kill him.” In short, this led to a house rule, which led to another house rule about super-heroes. This all led to the Fantasy Supplement in Chainmail, and as we all know, the rest is History.
House rules led to me introducing myself to Gary Gygax by Long Distance very late one night. We had played a Chainmail game at college and something came up; we made a decision and played on. I later cold-called him to ask what we should have done; he said ours was a good call. We talked for about 90 minutes, a friendship was born and the rest was fated.

House rules drove the creation of D&D (the 1st role-playing game). It was Dave and his Twin-Cities crew fooling with Braunstein and setting up duchies and stuff that led to Gary taking it and running.
Trying to contain the proliferation of unbridled house ruling led to the publication of the Supplements to what is now called Original D&D. House rules got really kinky and weird for a while in the late 70’s, at least as far as we could tell from the amateur press. They were going off the deep end with Girdles of Sex Change, and Girdles (turning you into a homosexual) and Girdles that turned a male character into a lesbian female and even weirder shit than that. We were appalled and tried to regain a semblance of steering control over where the game was going.

The renouncement of all house rulings led to the re-codification of the game that then resulted in Basic and Advanced D&D. Sadly, there came a time when, for various reasons, the free-wheeling spirit of the game had to be reined in. We had IP to protect; we had packs of religious zealots baying at our heels and fools grabbing headlines. Worse still, from our very personal point of view, we could not find enough DM’s that all “thought our way” so that we could continue to run D&D tourneys at Cons; those tourneys were huge money makers for TSR in those days bedore sales took off. Being a DM had become so subjective that judging which group did best in a round and should advance was just too dependent on that DM’s personal value system. Hence, the game got revamped. It was toned down, bloodshed and killing-to-succeed-wise for Basic; we wanted little kids to play and later become spending customers; that meant Mom could be assured she was not raising a modern-day Vlad the Impaler. We also knew full well that very few then-current players would “step back” and embrace anything tagged “basic”. Now tourneys could be built around Advanced, judging would be consistent and all was right with the world, or so we thought at the time.

Now we have come full circle through the increasingly didactic and dictatorial edition wars, the horde of knock-offs, derivatives, clones and niche-caterers, to playing how we like to play. Any of us that have been playing for any time at all have embraced the biggest, most important and fundamental house rule of them all: Enable the games to go on and fun be had by all. The group of friends I play boards with twice a month has a handful of house rules that we have devised for several games that we repeatedly enjoy playing. The “repeatedly” part often relies on that social gaming convention of house rules. Long may they be in force.


  1. Not everyone is privileged to sit on your back patio hearing these stories, so thank you for sharing this with all!

  2. To piggy back on what Marvin the Mage has written, thank you! One of the takeaways I got from this article along with your main points regarding house rules is essentially that without the reality of war in our collective history, we would not have role-playing games like D&D. Would that we settled our differences via role-playing than actual role assumption in this regard!