A framework for seamlessly introducing House Rules
Everybody’s doing it
House Rules, we all have them. I suspect that most, if not all, GMs apply one or more House Rules to their game. The next iteration of D&D is heading towards making the entire rules something of a selection box, for GMs to pick and choose the rules that they want to apply at their table, to capture the feel of their chosen version of D&D. This looks like institutionalised House Rules.
My Tales of the Hero Wars campaign is full of House Rules, and I am sure that your game is too.
So what is it?
The Rules Widget is a way of framing a House Rule, in an attempt to approach the process with the right mindset. Effectively, by introducing a House Rule, we become co-Designers of the rules that we run at our table. As a House Rule could have a significant impact on the game, we need to approach the process with care.
The term Widget is drawn from computing, and was suggested to me through my use of WordPress for this site. Computer Widgets are mini programs that plug into a larger piece of software to perform a specific, narrow function. The parallels with House Rules are very clear to me.
Widgets in your Game
What are the elements of a good widget?
This is the crux of the matter, and speaks to the heart of why I believe that this is a useful term in connection with House Rules.
A Rules Widget may contain one or more House Rules, but these rules should all be addressing the same issue. If you feel the need to address multiple areas of your main rules, then it helps to produce a separate Rules Widget for each area of concern. Even if you write them all at the same time, it is best to think of them as separate Widgets, as they each address a different issue within the game.
A good Rules Widget should have the following features;
To ensure a House Rule is easy to manage, it should be self-contained. This inherent focus will limit any unforeseen consequences. Overlapping House Rules are likely to generate unexpected results, or contradict each other, which can only cause confusion at the table.
Confine House Rules to specific subsystems of the main rules, such as a new Initiative system. Tinkering with a tightly defined subsystem keeps a tight focus to the House Rule and keeps it easy for the GM to manage.
- Specific Function
A Rules Widget should have a defined purpose. If you recognise a specific issue with your game, or the way that you are running the game, then this is a good time to create a targeted Rules Widget. While it is possible to instigate a good Rules Widget just to make the game more fun, the best Widgets will correct established problems.
Likewise, as the Rules Widget only has a narrow focus, it is simple for the GM to review. So long as you know what it is that you are trying to solve, or the effect that you want to achieve, then it will be easier to design a Widget that does what you want it to do. Furthermore, such a Widget would also be easy to monitor during play.
Thus, if you change the way that Initiative works, and suddenly combats are running a lot smoother, then this clearly shows the impact of the Widget. However, if combats are consistently worse, then the Widget is failing. Return to the original rules, or create a new Widget.
- System Compatible
All Rules Widgets work alongside the main rules, and thus they need to be compatible with them. Work within the design philosophy of the main rules wherever possible, to ensure the smooth integration of your Widget. Many times I have begun designing a rules-heavy subsystem for the rules-light HeroQuest 2 that I use, only to discard them. Do not waste your time like this.
Assuming that you want to keep playing your main rules set, then design Widgets accordingly. If you are designing Widgets in the hope of turning Game A into Game B, then maybe you should save yourself a lot of effort and just play Game B.
The best House Rules will be simple to introduce and explain. No Player wants to read more than a paragraph or two of rules text. Keep the House Rules short and to the point.
A sprawling set of House Rules, such as spell points in D&D, is likely to be confusing to explain and slow down the game. What you need is a House Rule that can be smoothly introduced and does not interrupt the flow of the game.
- Add to the Game
Finally, a Widget needs to add to the game. Ideally, the Widget should be solving a problem that you perceive, or perhaps fixing an omission in the rules. All groups work a little differently, or have unique demands or expectations. A good set of Rules Widgets can tailor an off-the-peg set of rules into something bespoke for your group.
But, if a Widget is disrupting play, then it needs to be discarded, or at least redesigned. Sometimes this can be a difficult assessment to make, if you love your shiny new Widget, but the Players are finding it tedious or unfair. The game needs to be fun for everyone, so try to stay unbiased when considering the impact of a new Widget.
Keeping these principles in mind when designing and monitoring your Rules Widgets should ensure that your new rules add to your game.
Widgets at the Table
I have applied multiple Rules Widgets in my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign. Much as I love HeroQuest 2, I have still found the need to tinker with areas of the rules. Initiative, experience points, narrative techniques and more have all had Rules Widgets applied.
Yet, by following the principles outlined above, I believe that my game has been enhanced.