A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer


Excess Houseruling

I don't mind houserules most of the time because there are certain things in the core mechanic that, to me, make no sense, are not covered or may not translate well to the format I normally participate in ("play by post"). I personally have houseruled things like critical hits, tough minions and skill challenge handling (DC 10 + 1/2 level for an assist... at high levels, work for it guys!), just to make it a little more interesting.

But recently I've been exposed to what I call "excessive houseruling". In other words, the DM has elected to lay down so many new rules that you have to wonder if you're playing D&D at all.

For example, in ONE recent game there are the following houserules:

  • New rules for swimming: you move slower, or even sink to the bottom, depending on the armor you are wearing. If you're wearing scale or plate, you sink pretty much no matter what; you get a save after which you can shift two squares and become dazed, but if you fail you start to drown.
  • If you get pushed over the side of a dock in to the water, you get TWO rolls: a "safety roll" (Athletics/Acrobatics, fixed DC) and a saving throw. Now don't ask me what happens if you fail one or both, but as far as I could tell there is no way to avoid being dazed, even if you succeed on both rolls. When it happened to me I somehow wound up dazed, prone and hanging off the side of the dock.
  • Complete redefinition of the surprise round #1: No opposed check to see if the other group is surprised. Post surprise round and first round actions right out of the gate, regardless of whether the enemy can act or not. There is no initiative order, so act at your discretion (and the enemy acts or moves at will as well). You can take full round actions until you "make contact" with the enemy, after which the surprise round ends immediately and the initiative order takes over.
  • Complete redefinition of the surprise round #2: In the surprise round, you get a full set of actions and every time someone attacks the enemy makes an opposed Initiative roll. If their Initiative roll beats yours, the attack does not take place. Note that this is a complete subversion of the initiative and surprise round mechanic in the first place... This rule was so confusing that it nearly wiped half the party on the first round, despite us already standing there, literally two squares from the enemy, weapons drawn an sensing danger. Most of us posted initiative rolls and nothing else (as is normally the case in PbP, so we know what order we attack in and can coordinate. Not to mention a warlord in the party makes things more complicated), and the DM assumed that was all we were going to do in the first round, so we stood there like idiots while the enemy proceeded to smash our brains in with a barrage of attacks (four Thunderwave attacks at least, not to mention several melee hits). The result was half the party dead (my character - the warlord leader - took a total of 74 points of damage at level ONE. For those keeping score, that's 2.5x my actual HP) and the rest bloodied in the first round before any of us even made a single attack roll. It caused such an uproar that the whole scene was retconned by the DM.
  • You can now use an action point as a free action at any time, even if it's not your turn. And forget about milestones and need to keep track of APs; you get one per encounter no matter what.
  • New rules for invisible targets: Cannot attack an invisible target with a "lucky" melee attack EVER, and the houserule has been worded in such a way that I currently have no idea if it can be hit with a ranged attack. Note that none of this has anything to do with whether a character is "hidden" or not; I could roll a natural 20 on a Perception check and pat the invisible gnome on the head, but so long as he's invisible I can't smack him with the warhammer that's bigger than he is.
  • Skill challenge rules that I know I can't explain (I posted the link to the thread on Twitter once; three people read it and only reacted by saying "my head hurts"). Basically we're walking through a city and we need directions, so we ask people. So each character has to pick a race we want to target, then make an opposedĀ skill check of some sort. There's also a bunch of modifiers or something that I don't understand or know how they apply. And the end result is that I have to do 9 successes before 5 failures. Or something. Who knows.

There came a point when I didn't know what game I was playing anymore; I spent more time trying to make sense out of the rules than I did anything else. The story elements became lost in the mess, and every other post was asking for a rules clarification. There came a point when I stopped roleplaying and posted actions because I could not intelligently roleplay when I had no idea what was going on. It was no longer fun... it was work!

So I withdrew from the game.

Until that point, I don't think I'd ever withdrawn from a game in my life (well, except for games in which DMs disappear off the face of the Earth... Hey, it happens in PbP). It was a play by post game that was supposed to be all about roleplaying, but I read the thread a dozen times and didn't know what was going on. I had sensory overload, being hammered with so many rules that I couldn't focus on being the character I wanted to be. And I liked my character, too (one was a dwarven warlord, other was a shardmind psion).

I play PbP a lot, and I use it to tell a story and roleplay with the players. The rules are sometimes secondary, and if the players want to do something dramatic that bends the rules so be it. I have a monk in one game I DM that bounces all over the place, jumping over enemies and the like... Is that allowed in the rulebook? Probably not "as written", but I have him make a skill check and life goes on. I don't completely redefine what it means to take a move action.

D&D 4e has the potential issue of not being specific on certain rules, but that's by design. It's not like earlier versions, where you have five pages of grappling rules or six different ways to cast the same spell. In some ways it's simplistic and I think that's a good thing, but when a veteran player who is use to having a phone book of rules to go by starts playing it, they find themselves filling the apparent gaps.

So I'm curious...

  1. Have you ever been a player in a game where some houserules were absurd, or there were too many to keep track of?
  2. Any special houserules you've put in to effect as a DM?


On an unrelated note, I am taking a brief hiatus while I leave town on business, so this blog will be silent until the 19th of July. How I'm going to handle this trip and GenCon shortly thereafter is beyond me, but I'll figure things out as I go along.

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  1. good job withdrawing from the game, no point in putting up w that crap

  2. Our 4e DM has a number of house rules which I think are unnecessary and add nothing to the game. He is, otherwise, a decent DM so I put up with it and end up playing the RAW unless someone reminds me of a house rule.

    We have:
    *1 hour extended rest, not limited to 1 per day.
    *A system where critical hits on PCs inflict wounds instead of damage. Wounds impose penalties that last for days in-game and can become permanent with too many failed Heal checks.
    *1 Action Point per *level* with additional AP granted sparingly as rewards. Milestones do not exist.
    *Force movement provokes Opportunity Attacks.

    There are probably others.

    For myself, I run games so rarely that my stated intent is to use the RAW. However, the ‘Rule of Cool’ is always in effect and I allow action points to be spent in other ways that bend the rules.

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