I’ve always said that house rules were a product of simply not knowing the core rules. After all, why go to all the trouble of reading a book to figure out how to resolve a situation when you can just pull it out of your @$$? I am, of course, speaking of myself back in the day when I was first learning how to referee tabletop games. But those days are over and I have since learned the core rules for every system I run. One thing I am proud of, however, is that my house rules were not peculiar or outrageous in any way. They never angered the players and didn’t strive to place arbitrary restrictions on them, they were simply silly shortcuts. But now I'm older. Wiser. Fatter, but a better GM.
Perhaps what angers me most about the majority of house rules I've seen is how inhibiting they are. I've met dozens of players who have a hard time finding a group that plays their system, when their schedule allows for a game, and when they finally find one they learn that the moron GM has a stack of house rules he expects them to learn. You may as well learn an entirely new system each time you join a group. It’s stupid! If you don’t like a certain mechanic, write your own damn system, stop making changes to something that is already universally accepted in its current form!
The following list comes from stories I’ve heard players tell, both in person and online. These are my top ten worst house rules that I'd ever seen, and when I say worst I mean they are simply bad. More bad than anything that ever sucked. They are horrible, they are nasty and pathetic. In no particular order...
#1: In a previous article, I wrote about the worst GM I ever had. This stupid oaf never bothered to learn even the most basic rules and would default constantly to D&D 4th edition, which I think is the only RPG he was ever forced to learn. What was funny was he kept bashing 4th edition, lauding it as the worst thing to ever happen to gaming, like every other puppet out there who jumped on the anti-4th edition bandwagon. I like 4th edition, but the things he would bring into our Pathfinder game were highly unnecessary and rather broken. For example, he initially wanted us to use the 4th edition saving throw rule, which is that you simply roll a d20 and if it lands on 10 or higher, you successfully overcome whatever status ailment is afflicting you. Thankfully, the other players flatly refused to do this as it imbalanced our characters quite a bit.
I would leave it there, but as a special treat I would like to include another stupid house rule, one that ended our campaign…though not quickly enough. Healing magic only worked on humanoid creatures. That meant our Druid’s dying dragon mount was out of luck, but its death sparked our revolution and lead us to abandon the tyranny of that game for good.
#2: I once heard a guy describe a house rule in which he banned books from his table, except for his own, naturally. Instead, he demanded that his players bring only a character sheet and a list of notes for things like special abilities and spells. What was more, if he caught a player looking in a book, he caused their character to lose HALF of their experience points. Seriously, how is this fun? I suppose it was meant to be a contingency against meta gaming, but in all honesty, who cares? You play the same game for ten or more years, you’re going to learn about every monster you fight sooner or later. You know what I do? I create my own monsters! That way the players can’t possibly meta game! There was also the possibility it was meant to shut down rules lawyers, but in my experience, rules lawyers have never been a problem at my table. They clear up a lot of bull crap and make it harder for other players to cheat! You can't fudge around when you have that one guy who has every rule memorized.
#3: This little gem comes from a gamer whose GM was somewhat in the same camp as #2. Essentially he required all spell-casters, even sorcerers, to write up all of their spells for the day on a stack of 3x5 cards. You’re probably thinking “hey, that’s a great idea!” And it gets better! When you cast a spell you hand the card over to the GM. Now I hear you saying “well that makes sense, you cast the spell, it’s gone, but you can get it back after the end of the encounter, right?” Wrong! The GM tears up the card and throws it away as part of some kind of weirdo obsessive compulsive ritual. As if this wasn’t wasteful enough, you had to write down the spell’s particulars on each 3x5 card EVERY SINGLE TIME. And I need to stress that even sorcerers had to do this. But sorcerers can cast whatever spell they know, does that mean they have to write multiples of each spell? No, they are required to prepare their spells like a wizard, because this particular GM felt they were too “over-powered.” Similar to this, there was another DM in Germany who had a similar ritual in which he would tear up the character sheets of dead PCs. The player who dealt with this fellow had a brand new printer paper character sheet (these were harder to come by back in the 80s) and he refused to let the DM tear up the sheet as he intended to reuse it for a new character. The DM pitched a fit and tried to forcefully remove it from the player's hands. Psychotic.
#4: This one is just dumb. I mean, all of these are dumb, but I met a prospective GM who informed me that, once we had our characters created, we were to exchange character sheets with each other. And he excitedly told me this like he was giving me an inside peek at his genius. Maybe if I were playing in some kind of intense tournament with a cash prize, this could be an interesting teamwork challenge, but never enjoyable. You pour your heart and soul into character creation, making something that YOU want to play as…if I’m in the mood to play a bard, the last thing I want is to play someone else’s barbarian. This just pisses me off the more I think about it. Honestly, no. This isn’t musical chairs. This isn’t Russian Roulette.
#5: It seems like one out of every 10 GMs fancies themselves as some kind of math wizard who thinks they know how to fix everything. Funnily enough, none of these GMs that I’ve met have even graduated with a bachelor’s degree, and yet they see it in their delusional state of mind to “fix all the broken rules” by adding their own. One in particular threw out the leveling system in D&D, replacing it with his own extremely arbitrary point-buy system in which magic was way too easy to buy and you could cast spells without meeting the level requirement. Because there were no levels! But don’t worry, if you’re wondering how he got around spells that improve as you gain levels, he said to simply use your Intelligence score in place of the level. So right off the bat I could cast a magic missile spell that does 8d4+8 points of damage. Brilliant!
#6: Now we’ll talk about those GMs who had a bad experience with something in the system, so they just cut it out entirely. For example, I knew a kid back in high school who was in a game where one player played a Kender (Dragonlance Halfling), and this Kender annoyed everyone with his endless antics and plucky shenanigans. Also, he was a rogue, so guess what he banned forever at his table? All Halfling Rogues. He also banned gnomish thieves for good measure, because by the time 3rd edition came out, gnomes apparently also became really annoying. But he didn’t stop there. As new players played new race/class combinations that were obnoxious, he started banning those too. And spells! If you used a spell wrong, he banned it forever! I can appreciate his being annoyed with the way certain players choose to act at the table, but you ban the player, not their character builds. Why make everyone else suffer for the acts of an individual clown?
#7: A GM on Facebook once whined about how fighters were able to hit things too easily (giggity). This was in 2nd edition, so he asked everyone what they thought about placing a ceiling on the fighter’s THAC0 progression so they cannot improve their to-hit chance past 10th level. For 3.5/Pathfinder fans, this is roughly the same as saying a fighter’s base attack bonuses stop after 10th level. Honestly, why not cut off their hands as well? Along these same lines I heard another idiot say he wanted to ban anything heavier than banded mail because he felt like it made the warriors too hard to hit. THAT’S THE POINT! That’s why players dish out mountains of gold for better armor and weapons, because all they can do is hit and not be hit in combat! They’re the front liners! They protect the squishy players! They don’t gain spells, they don’t gain special abilities, all they have are fighting styles and these are no match for other classes at higher levels, so you may as well kill them during character creation if you’re going to clip their wings down to the stubs like that.
#8: GMs who allow side-questing, especially for their close friends. I’m talking about the kind done between sessions while other players may be studying or working. There was a game referee who allowed this, conveniently for his buddy, and during cliffhangers! Like where the party is in the middle of a huge battle and they have to cut it short because of schedules, but while everyone else returns to their real-world responsibilities, the GM secretly runs a side quest for his friend, allowing him to go up a couple of levels and obtain new magical items. Then, when the group picks up where they left off, suddenly this other character is better than them and starts kicking serious @$$. This leaves the other players to ask “if you had that +5 vorpal flaming longsword, why didn’t you use it last time?”
#9: Sudden inexplicable death! Where the GM simply says your character dies. No warnings, no saving throws, nothing. Poof, you’re gone. I give you an example from my post-mission years: I had a GM who lead the party to a ring of standing stones that resonated with a low-pitched hum. My gnome fighter decided to tap one with his hammer after the mage was unable to detect magic. By doing so, a surge of energy goes through my gnome’s body, instantly vaporizing him. The group’s jaws dropped after I asked the GM if he was serious, to which he simply nodded. The table erupted: why didn’t he get a saving throw? What evidence was there that these were so powerful? How come the detect magic spell didn’t reveal anything? The answer was stupid: d20 Modern’s Future supplement had come out and the GM decided to throw in some elements from a science fiction setting. I still can’t find where the came up with it specifically in the rules, which means he probably just pulled it out of his night time delusions, but then this wasn’t the last time he’d done this. About a month later we had a full new party, starting out at level 15 because he thought it would be fun to run an epic-level campaign. This proved too convoluted so he decided to party wipe us when we stepped on a trap, which the thief couldn’t detect with his 50+ roll. We were all launched into the ceiling and then crushed to death by the mountain collapsing on us. He later explained that he was just tired of the campaign and wanted to start a new one. I stopped playing in that game and began hosting my own games, which drew people from his table and put him into a cranky mood.
#10: I had another GM who required us to describe everything, and he was the biggest stickler if we left out ANY details. For example, gnolls attacked us and we suddenly found that we were all suffering from gastro-intestinal pain, which made it harder for us to attack and easier for the gnolls to hit. When we asked what was going on he explained that none of us had gone to the bathroom in over a day. He expected us to tell him when our characters needed to go. It didn’t stop there, however. He also expected us to mention when we ate our meals, when we changed our clothes (because there were huge penalties if we tried to sleep in our armor), and we had to make damn sure we signified when we were speaking as players or in character, because if we asked him anything as a player without distinguishing, he would weave it into the narrative, which mostly included NPCs saying things like “what is this dice roll thou speakest of?” or “why dost thou refer to thine self as a PC?” Needless to say, this got old really fast, and after we told the GM as much he threw his pencil and informed us we were making it hard for him to create a proper sequence of events. Oh yes, and this GM liked to calculate what percentage of experience points we earned based on our effectiveness in battle. This was one of those games where a five minute walk lasted an hour and combat never ended.
#11: As a bonus I would like to relate one more thing. Not quite an issue with house rules, but I met a GM who had obviously never been with a real girl before. This proved problematic when an actual female joined in his game (this was on roll20) and he had the hardest time keeping it in his pants. Every NPC, every monster encounter, everything would inexplicably be aimed at her. Mind you, there were other “female” characters in the party (played by guys, of course) but her character was the only female character played by an actual woman, so she seemed to stand out to him as a beacon of that which he had to annoy with childish and downright misogynistic antics. Every male NPC hit on her, every monster wanted to grapple her, every time she spoke or asked anything there was an immediate and annoying response that inevitably lead to some form of awkward sexual harassment. She got fed up after almost an hour and dropped out of the game. This genuinely shocked the GM as he couldn’t possibly understand why she left. His idiot head came to the conclusion that she must have been on her period, and he told us “this is why I don’t like having chicks in the group, they’re so emotional all the time.” He then started his sob story on why he would always remain single because women are so "picky" and "superficial", etc. I dropped out of the chat and ignored his message asking why I left. Honestly, what an embarrassment.
So, there you have it. If any GMs out there see these rules and think “hey, that sounds like it would be fun to use in my game,” please seek mental help as soon as possible. Or at the very least, find someone to put their foot up your @$$ until the terrible lessons garnered from this document sink in. Just learn the rules, you stupid putzes. Stop changing what people clearly smarter than you have worked hard at developing. Better yet, design your own system and watch as nobody wants to play it.