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GM Advice: House Rules

“That’s not how it works!” “Yes it is.” “No it isn’t.” Every campaign and game needs house rules. Beyond mere mechanical tweaks they often handle crucial aspects of the session. Having a list of house rules minimises disagreements and maximises fun.


(Art: William McAusland [Outland Arts])

In my experience, almost every game has house rules, but few GMs take the time to write them down. That’s a shame as producing a house rules handout is an excellent idea. Such a document lets the players know exactly where they stand and reduces misunderstandings and arguments.

Beyond system specific rules tweaks, several subjects are excellent topics for house rules.

  • Absent Players: What happens when one or more players can’t make the game? Is the session cancelled? Does someone else play the missing player’s character or does it mysteriously disappear? Can a character die while under the control of another character? These are subjects well worth addressing.

  • Character Death: Character death is part of the game. If the party don’t suffer a TPK, what happens to the unfortunate player? Should everyone have a backup character ready to go with minimal effort or does the game stop while a new character is generated? It is also worth considering (if the game allows it) how easy it is to be raised from dead. Finally, what happens to the deceased’s equipment? Is it buried with his body? Can the survivors share it out? (In one campaign I played in, for several adventures the main source of treasure was the equipment of slain adventurers! That was a tough campaign).

  • Optional Rules: Does the GM use optional rules or allow supplemental feats, spells, races, classes and so on. Listing the approved sources and/or rule items enables players to craft their characters without bombarding the GM with questions about this feat or that spell.

  • System Tweaks: A GM should list all the system tweaks he uses so players can study and learn them.

  • Dice: Dice are at the heart of most role-playing games. The group should decide what happens if a die is cocked or if it falls off the table. Does it count or should the player re-roll? Who decides if a die is cocked? Should all rolls be witnessed?

  • Start Time: In a busy world, we all have to make sacrifices to attend the weekly game. Turning up on time and then sitting around waiting for the perpetually late player is frustrating. State a start time and stick to it.

  • Dues: Is the game free to play or does everyone contribute to a fund used to buy snacks, gaming materials and so on? If so, note how much everyone should pay and who administers the fund. (In my own group, we have a fund for gaming materials – modules, figures, gaming paper and so on – as it seems unfair the GM should pay for everything; we also use it to buy rulebooks for everyone).

Having made a list of house rules, a GM should make certain everyone has a physical copy. The GM should also update and review them at the start of every new campaign.

Do you have any other (system neutral) house rules you think are crucial to a successful game? Let me know in the comments below.


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