Saturday, March 30, 2019

5 House Rules I Wouldn't Recommend

Everyone's table plays a little differently. Even if you think of yourself as a straight, by-the-book sort of dungeon master, chances are good there are a few things you've altered for when you run your game. However, in all the tables I've been to, and in all the players I've spoken with, I've heard about some house rules that just didn't work. It was like the dungeon master popped the hood on the game, nodded at the engine, and then deliberately dropped a monkey wrench straight into the gears.

Just trust me, this will make it work better. MUCH better.
The more I listened, the more I've heard stories about house rules that are fairly widespread, but which I felt the need to talk about all the same. Not because they make a game unplayable, but because they just don't add the elements they're often intended to.

As always, if you like them, you're more than welcome to keep using them. For my part, though, I would recommend against the following...

#1: Critical Fumbles

Again? Goddammit, Dave!
I figured I'd get the controversial one out of the way first. And, to be clear, this is not addressing games where critical fumbles already exist as part of the core mechanics. It's expressly for games where it's something you choose to add over and above what's already in the game, say by using the Paizo Critical Fumble Deck, or a homebrewed chart.

The idea, for those not familiar, is that when you roll a fumble (a natural 1 on a d20, or having more 1s than successes if you're playing a game with dice pools), something bad happens to your PC. Maybe they accidentally stab themselves, dealing damage and have to fight at a temporary ability penalty. Maybe they break their weapon. Maybe they fall prone. Whatever it is, through pure, random happenstance, you now find yourself at a disadvantage. In some cases, a disadvantage you might not be able to come back from (such as breaking your only weapon, or falling prone with no way to stand up lest the crowd of thugs beat you to death from all the attacks of opportunity you'd provoke).

Why I Don't Recommend It...

Aside from making it feel like players are being punished for something that is completely out of their control (which they are), it's important to consider lasting damage. If your party's fighter breaks their longsword fighting a door guard, they are now out their primary weapon, and have to face the rest of the dungeon that way. That could greatly affect their ability to use feats or class features, for the rest of this arc if they don't have a way to replace that weapon. Compare that to a monster breaking their weapon, and look at the difference in impact.

Your monsters are supposed to lose, and so anything that affects them only matters for one fight, more often than not. Something that can permanently affect a PC will last for the rest of the session, if not the rest of the arc. Even if it's something they can repair (cast make whole on a broken weapon, lesser restoration to undo ability damage, etc.), that still uses resources. More importantly, though, it feels like you're being punished for trying to participate in the game. Especially players who, like myself, can roll half a dozen critical fumbles in a row, which can make it feel like you'd be better off just not playing at all when you get your wrist slapped for trying.

If you want critical fumbles to feel like they matter, without being a punishment, I'd recommend checking out Want Your Games To Be More Engaging? Then Make Failing Interesting! for some advice on that subject. If you're really tied to the crit fumble mechanic, though, then just make sure none of the punishments last more than a round or two, and that they don't result in permanent problems that can be a drain on party resources.

#2: Damage Caps

Meh, worst he can do is 6 health levels. Bring it on, chump!
The nature of raw chance is that, sometimes, you deal a metric ass ton of damage. You typically see this in games with dice pools, where it's possible to keep rolling "exploding" as long as they keep coming up with their maximum value (Chronicles of Darkness and Savage Worlds are the two games that come to mind). When a storyteller feels that one character can do too much damage, they attempt to level the playing field by instituting a damage cap.

In short, it means that a character can only deal a maximum ceiling of damage, no matter what the dice say. Sometimes the ceiling will be determined based on your stats (a cap equal to your weapon's rating or your attribute score, whichever is bigger, for instance), and other times it will be a flat cap.

No matter which way you're going, though, I wouldn't recommend it.

Why I Don't Recommend It...

The goal of a damage cap is, typically, to make it impossible to one-shot-kill a character. That sounds like a noble goal, and the mechanic is perfectly functional as a mechanic. However, it drastically limits the ability to play certain concepts, and it's hard to get away from the meta-knowledge that no matter how big and burly that ogre stalking toward you is, he has to hit you at least twice to take you down. Even if you aren't a tank.

Additionally, instituting a damage cap doesn't stop the arms race to see who can be the biggest badass (since some DMs use it as a way to curb aggressive tendencies from players who want to use their ability to crush a foe's head like a grape as a negotiation tool). All it does is change up which things get boosted, and what becomes more valuable.

As an example, if you knew that your character could only inflict a maximum of X amount of damage per attack, then instead of trying to get one big hammer, you'd instead max out the number of attacks you could deliver, thus making sure your storm of swords got the job done another way. Alternatively, if you limited everyone to a single attack per turn, or made the cap total damage in a round instead of per attack, then the new arms race would be to beef up defense and health as high as possible to merely outlast your opponents. In either case, the behavior will probably be the same as someone knowing they were ripped enough to just one-shot-kill an enemy. And that's without the option of hiring on your own goon squad to act as a private army, which is something else you may see as a strategy to deal with getting around a damage cap.

You get much better results by making players' actions matter. Sure, you can kill that guy, but will doing so mean you're now wanted for murder? What about his 17 kinsman who are going to want revenge? And so on, and so forth. When you add in the fact that a damage cap means that players are less likely to feel threatened, since they know that one lucky shot from a random NPC can't explode often enough to put them on death's door, it's just not a great solution unless you're looking to remove the feeling of danger from a scenario and draw everything out.

#3: The Initiative Shuffle

It's all right... I'll get him next round!
Initiative is one of those fundamental building blocks of combat in most games. Because even if everyone is acting at the same time as they bob and weave, firing arrows and slinging punches, you need to decide in what order people get to resolve their actions. Sometimes rolling a high initiative is the difference between getting that all-important spell or sneak attack off before the villains do something to screw with your plan. Sometimes it's just routine, and doesn't matter much in the end.

There are some storytellers out there who want to roll for initiative each round. Again, if you absolutely love this mechanic, then you do you, but I just can't see where you're coming from.

Why I Wouldn't Recommend It...

As folks who read my post Avoid Shoelacing Rolls, and Watch Your Game Improve know, I'm generally not a fan of adding even more randomness to a game when it has no real impact on how we're telling the story. And given that people's bonuses to initiative are probably not going to change significantly from one round to another, this feels like a serious drain of energy that could be better spent elsewhere.

Because sure, Ragnar might roll a 16 on the second round instead of the 2 he rolled initially, but Chorus the diviner still has a +15 bonus on his roll. So, in addition to just adding more randomness (and making one more thing for you to keep track of), it doesn't actually make that big of a deal in the long run. It also ignores mechanics that tend to be in place, such as readying actions or delaying, which will move your place in the initiative order anyway.

A lot of DMs argue that this is for realism, but game mechanics aren't meant to be realistic. They're meant to act as conflict resolution tools within the story we're all telling. Shaking the initiative up every turn does no one any favors, and draws out what is already one of the longest parts of the game.

#4: Every Missed Shot Hits A Party Member

"Will you guys chill? I haven't shot any of you in, like, five turns."
Ranged combat is a part of almost any game. Whether it's the elvish longbowman, or the cyborg sniper, someone always wants to get comfortable and provide support fire. Nothing wrong with that. Most games even take into account the fact that shooting into a frenzied melee is more difficult than just shooting at an enemy standing in an empty field, and so they give you some kind of penalty to your shot (typically something you can overcome with the right class features, merits, feats, etc.).

However, there are a lot of people out there who feel that doesn't go far enough. So they make it a rule that if you fire into melee and miss, well, then your round still finds a target. Problem is, that target is almost always an ally of yours.

Why I Wouldn't Recommend It...

There is only one game I've ever played where, "Miss the bad guy, hit a friend," was an actual, in-the-book-rule, and it was in Deadlands. In order for that rule to take effect, though, your character had to have the Major Drawback "Grim Servant O' Death" on their sheet. So, the only occurrence of this being a core rule in a game I've come across admitted that it was a huge burden, and something players should be compensated for having to deal with. Note that we're referring to regular ranged weapons, here, not grenade templates whose actual trajectory matters on a missed attack.

Partly this is because most games already have a penalty associated with shooting at targets engaged in melee, and that penalty is the challenge they're overcoming. Making them attack their party members if they fail is just adding insult to injury, and stripping your players of the ability to fight at long-range as long as someone is a melee brute.

Just like with the critical fumbles, you can argue all you want that this affects the monsters just as much, but your monsters aren't supposed to survive the fight, so it doesn't matter if one or two of them get shot in the back by mistake. Those monsters only matter for the half a dozen rounds they're a threat. The sheer amount of times a PC archer will miss is way more significant, and will have a much bigger effect on the other players, and the game.

#5: You Can't Hit Him, He's Already Been Attacked!

Ah ha! The day is mine!
Generally speaking, if you can reach an enemy in an RPG, then you can attack them. You may not succeed, but you can at least make a go of trying to bust their chops, smash them with your mace, or put a bullet between their eyes. However, there are some storytellers out there who have put forth a system that, essentially, says a target can only be attacked a certain number of times per round. After that, you either need to hold your action, or pick a different target.

All I have to say to this one is, "Huh?"

Why I Wouldn't Recommend It...

This one is a lot like damage cap rules, in that I can see what it's supposed to do, but it accomplishes that goal in the most ham-handed way possible and destroys your immersion in the process. Because the goal appears to be to draw combat out, while also providing some measure of safety to characters so they don't just get their heads smashed in right off the line.

The problem is that this rule flies in the face of logic.

Let's take a WoD game as an example, since these games tend to be where this particular house rule crops up a lot. You have three big, nasties come bubbling out of a lab, black muck and acid blood flying. The first uses its turn to close with the pack of werewolves that have broken into said lab. It attacks. Now the leader returns that attack. Then his beta, coming around to the side, gets a swipe in. Even though there's plenty of sight lines straight to the thing, and there are several more pack members in the rear guard with high-powered rifles, they now can't concentrate fire on the monster. Not because they can't see it, or because they can't shoot it, but because this rule says they have to pick a different target, even though strategically it would be smarter to blow away the one monster before picking a new one to chip away at.

This rule has all the subtlety of a big, flashing red wall in a sandbox video game that tells you you're out-of-bounds. All it does is break immersion, and limit your options for no reason other than drawing out combat (something that should definitely not be a goal of any storyteller), and providing a kind of rules-based plot armor.

For my two cents, if you can reach the bad guy, or they can reach you, then it should be game on until one of you drops or legs it. Even if that means all 25 members of the enemy SWAT team are drawing a bead on you because you stepped out of cover.

Miss Any of Your Least Favorite Rules?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I tried to stick to the most general rulings I've heard and seen that I considered bad decisions beyond, "The DM banned X race and Y class," though I have plenty of arguments there, too. If I didn't include your favorite (or least favorite) house rule in this week's Crunch topic, then please leave it in the comments below! Other readers might have a story of their own to share.

Also, if you're looking for the opposite of this post, you might want to check out 5 of The Best House Rules (in Pathfinder). Most of them aren't really that edition-specific, though.

For more of my work, check out my Vocal and Gamers archives, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio! Or if you'd like to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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  1. I'd agree with these, except for the Critical Fumbles. The epic fails are as, if not more memorable than the epic wins, especially because much hilarity ensues. I would make sure that the players aren't crippled by their natural 1s, but it may slow them down to their win. Also, a win shouldn't be guaranteed because otherwise it feels fake. The players should fail on occasion, and certainly feel like they can, so that survival or a win can feel hard earned. It's also not always about winning.

    1. To each their own. I've never found critical fumbles to be amusing, or to add anything to the game other than pointing and laughing at the person who rolled the 1. And, given that I'm more often than not that guy, I've reached a point in my career where using critical fumbles is a deal breaker for me as a player.

    2. The problem with critical fumbles is that they are WAY out of proportion. You have the same chance of rolling a 1 as a 20. Now, what do you get for a 20? Extra damage. And that's it. What do you get for a 1? Break your sword? That's a a reduction in damage ALL THE TIME plus a financial penalty. Far more significant than a bit of extra damage. Hurt yourself? Aside from the fact that you're claiming a SKILLED fencer will injure themselves every twenty swings, it's still objectively far worse than "extra damage" is better. It's equal to giving an enemy a free action (which is huuuuuge) and having that automatically succeed (even more huge).

      Ultimately, you're arguing that every twenty swings, a trained fencer will fuck up royally. And that, as they become better, they actually get worse! A level 1 fighter will fumble roughly once every twenty rounds. A godlike level 20 fighter with 4 attacks will fumble every FIVE rounds. WTF? How do you justify that?

    3. Totally agree about critical fumbles. In addition to the points made by the author and J, critical fumbles mainly target the classes that throw a lot of d20s, e.g. non-casters. As a player who used to play a lot of physical combatants under a DM who used critical fumbles, it felt more than a little unfair that my fighter had multiple chances a round to break his weapon or fall prone or take damage whereas the equivalent-level casters could throw fireballs without worry when my fighter should presumably be as much of an expert with his weapon as a caster is with his spells.

    4. J March:
      Good example regarding the fencer. The critical fumble might still have a place, but it requires a healthy enough relationship between GM and players for a situational approach: i.e. an announcement at the beginning of combat (or after a major event mid battle) this is a formal duel, so fumbles are off or the floor is slick with blood and you've all been at it for an hour...

    5. How do you feel about a 1 causing you to have to roll a Strength or Dex save to avoid accidentally dropping your weapon or similar? That seems to give you the best of both worlds... missing critically has the potential to result in a problem, but it doesn't immediately guarantee that you will, while also not potentially gimping the character or making the character spend funds they otherwise wouldn't have to.

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Least favorite rule is on your sheet: critical fumbles. I also dislike critical hits. PCs and their entourage are in every combat and therefore are subject to the most crits. They turn unfun fast.

    I don’t use initiative at all. It works fine.

    1. I dislike critical hits that are wholly dependent on what number came up on the die.

      I'm perfectly cool with critical hits because your skill roll exceeds their defense by a shit-ton. I love those rules.

  3. Great article as usual sir. Only thing I would like to comment on is the hitting party members from ranged. I have always used this house rule but on a common sense scale.

    Say the target has an AC of 16 and the party member adds coverage penalty of +4 to AC of target. I like to describe how the miss happens. Dex or under you move out of the way and they miss. dex and armor it deflects off the armor. Armor and shield it deflects off shield. So in case of 16 AC if they miss but it falls between 16 and 20 the obvious result would be hitting the person. I have never had problems or complaints with the system.

    1. What happens when it fails to hit the target because of the penalty, but wouldn't be high enough to hit the other person?

  4. I only damage cap exploding dice for NPC Mooks. ie Regular Joes and Janes don't get unlimited exploding dice. It's a great way to make Savage worlds way less deadly. Only allow NPCs on the PC's level of power (ie SW's Wild Card characters) to have unlimited exploding dice.

    I tend to be more willing to Limit NPC power than PC power.

    1. Savage Worlds Adventure Edition introduced a wound cap as a core rule purely because of infinitely exploding dice on a system with small numbers. the reason is because players whined about being hit by a 26 wound attack by an 8 year old with a spork or some other exaggerated nonsense.

  5. I use fumble in my Dark Sun-ish game for weapons made of sub-optimal materials. And even then players must roll Save for weapon in order to break it (or they can willingly destroy it in exchange for Attack reroll). It's important for setting and I wouldn't use it otside DS.
    Yes, it can cause bunch of troubles and make some heroes useless, but it's risk they take only until they get steel or magic weapons. And I also let them make backup weapons from materials around if they break something.

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