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House Rules for the Holidays
Confessions of a Full-Time Wizard
by Shelly Mazzanoble

When we were kids, my brother and I used to play Monopoly by our own rules. Or rather, his rules.

He could borrow money from me without penalty or interest and use it to build hotels on properties I would later land on. If I managed to build one house, it was always on Baltic Avenue (the only property I could afford), but my dear brother would always repossess it when I couldn’t afford the nightly rate in his hotel (that I helped build!) on Marvin Gardens.

My only rule was to pitch a fit, throw the board off the table, and shower the repo man in little red hotels, top hats, and silver shoes. That and step on one of his dreaded red hotels as I was stomping out of the room, which made me cry all the harder. It is considered a “rule” if it happens every time, right?

Dungeons & Dragons has long been perceived as a game that involves a labyrinth of rules. I can only imagine what madness my brother would have made out of it had he played. These so-called “complex rules” are often the reason people shy away from learning how to play D&D. Certainly, when you’re trying to explain the game to a new player, you’ve probably seen the glazed-over expression similar to the one my 7th grade algebra teacher, Mr. Thames, saw on my face.

It’s odd, then, that so many people actually have the gall to add more rules to their games. You know the old expression: Everyone’s a game designer! It appears to be true, judging from the people I’ve talked to about their home games. Granted, most of them really are game designers, since my focus group testing almost always takes place by the microwave in the third floor kitchen. You’d be amazed by how much microwave popcorn is consumed by the people in R&D.

Today’s focus group consisted of Peter Schaeffer, RPG Developer; Mike Mearls, D&D Lead Designer; Andy Collins, Manager of RPG Development and Editing; Jefferson Dunlap, Prepress Manager; Greg Bilsland, RPG Editor; and “Kay,” who won’t let me use her real name or title because she’s embarrassed about some of her group’s house rules. Why, I’ll never know, because I’m incorporating the rule I’m revealing below into my game immediately.

Before I started to collect house rules, I wanted to discover why people felt the need to add rules to their games.

Kay explained it this way: “House rules are modifications that come into use because players feel they make the game easier or more fun.”

“They’re not so much about adding rules as much as about enhancing rules,” Peter said. “Or even sometimes subtracting one rule to add a house rule.”

“And you’re OK with that?” I asked him.

“Of course!” he said. “D&D is meant to be customized! It’s all about being creative and imaginative.”

Again with this “customizing” and “creating” and “imagining!” I know I’ve had that conversation before with various members of R&D, and still, it eludes me. They spend all that time writing books full of rules only to send them out there for people to add, subtract, and enhance. They’re not just OK with it, they encourage it! I’ll drop into a full-blown tizzy if someone so much as adds salt to a casserole I labored over. Salt?! The damn thing is perfect! I guess that’s another reason I’m not a game designer.

But I do get the desire to make up rules or even new games. Heck, we did this in college every Monday while watching Melrose Place. Drink every time Billy looks dumbfounded. Do a shot for every scene where Jake is wearing chaps but is nowhere near his motorcycle. Shotgun a beer every time Kimberly’s maniacal face is shot in extreme close-up. (By the way, the ad agency where Amanda Woodward worked was named D&D. Maybe Aaron Spelling was a closet gamer.)

Since so many people will be returning home this holiday season, many to game groups they haven’t seen in a while, I’ve decided to celebrate by going home as well—home brewed, that is. (And home for real—don’t panic, Mom.)

The Wyld Stallyns play it pretty much by the book. Maybe it’s because we’re sometimes playtesting and that’s our job, or maybe it’s because New DM doesn’t want us to have any fun. I was inclined to think it was the latter until he gently reminded me of a house rule I play every Tuesday—Mr. Oso de la Fez.

You might remember that Oso began his quest for familiar fame as a wee mini in my dice bag. Today he’s a real live familiar you can find in the D&D Character Builder. Neat, huh? I wondered how many other house rules became actual rules, so I put the question to R&D.

“Dungeon Masters are instinctive game designers,” Andy answered. “They’re always looking to tweak the system to better fit their group’s needs.”

Andy went on to say that he didn’t know for sure, but he’s willing to wager that a significant percentage of “real” D&D rules started off as house rules.

“I’d bet the first person to decide that characters needed the negative-hit-point buffer was a Dungeon Master tired of TPKs.”

A Dungeon Master sick of TPKs? Right. Like that ever happens.

One might think that if it’s your job to design and develop the rules for D&D, playing with house rules would be less like playing and more like playtesting. Kind of how they say that if you work at an ice cream parlor, you get sick of ice cream—which is complete bunk because I worked at a pizza place in college and ate pizza every day for 329 days.

Anyway, because of this, many of the developers and designers in R&D don’t use house rules often.

“If a house rule worked really well, wouldn’t you be tempted to add it to the game?” I asked.

“Strangely, the ability to write the actual rules means that your ‘house rules’ become ‘official rules’ much more quickly,” Andy explained.

The same was true for Mike.

“It feels like cheating to bend the rules to fit my game, and it’s important that I have a good sense of how the game works as written.”

But that’s not to say the R&D folks don’t use any house rules. And if you want to add some new rules to your home game, why not playtest a few of R&D’s? Who knows? They might end up in a book someday, and you can say you saw them here first.

Oh Come All Ye XP

The more I talked to Greg about his home game, the more I believed he missed his calling. I’m sure he’s perfectly happy editing and writing, and darn good at it too, but I could see him thriving as a kindergarten teacher. In fact, I’m so convinced of this, I’m having a hard time not calling him Mr. Bilsland. He’s all about helping his players get to the next level. Like every session. Regardless of combat encounters or skill challenges. New DM really makes us work for that XP, and Mr. Bilsland just dishes them out willy nilly. How cool is that?

Retraining Around the Christmas Tree

Apparently R&D wouldn’t have had an issue with Bart changing classes in the middle of a campaign, even though he was hired to play a cleric! OK, OK, only because it’s Christmas will I let that one go. For now.

If you were struggling with your character’s life choices and Andy was your DM, fear not. He would let you swap out elements of your character, such as old feats with new ones or ranged attacks for melee attacks between levels. Even sooner if you’re really laboring. Instant build gratification!

“Just as long as they don’t do it in the middle of the dungeon,” he said.

Mr. Bilsland is the same way. Of course. It’s all about nurturing and growing and self-confidence with this guy.

“Players can re-spec their characters as much as they want,” he explained. “They don’t have to follow the retraining rules. They can change any powers or feats they want between sessions.”

They probably get a cookie and a nap too.

Magic of the Season

Have you ever gone shopping with a friend, and you both spy the same Marc Jacobs quilted nylon bomber jacket at the same time? On sale. And it’s the only one left in the store, probably in existence. And lucky you, it’s your size! But so is your friend.

No? Really? Allow me to enlighten you then. It will go something like this: You sneak sideways looks at one another and pick up your pace, each trying to get to the rack first, but without making it obvious that you’re in a race. You try to distract your friend by carrying on an inane conversation about the merits of owning a car with all-wheel drive versus simply going with all-weather tires up front on your front-wheel drive, and demand that she give you her opinion on the matter. What do you think the best option is? Tell me! But it’s no use. You both want that coat and only one of you will emerge victorious. This, my friends, is why I view shopping as a solo sport (and why I have so many winter coats).

Even if you haven’t found yourself in a similar showdown at a department store, you may have in a dungeon when your DM announces the party unearthed a 9th-level magic item. Oh boy! But who gets it?

In our game, we use an equation handed down to New DM from many games ago. Every party member adds up the levels for every magic item and weapon they own. He or she with the lowest total number gets the new toy.

Simple math and voila! Time to go shopping. Alone.

If Mike were our DM, then some of those magic items we unearthed might be custom magic items, like a crown, a sword, a book, or even a suit of elven chainmail—all of which will play an important role in our campaign.

“It lets me give out goodies that the players can’t find in any book.”

And by “customizing” he means customizing. Like he’s not just handing you a sword, he’s giving you a rich physical description, backstory, history, and properties. You’re not just scoring a one-of-a-kind designer gown at a sample sale, you’re getting one custom designed just for you by Valentino.

Custom Spec

This weapon was created by Mike for a character in his campaign played by James Wyatt.

The Iron Sword of Elemental Power
This strange weapon is crafted from a single piece of iron ore. From what you can tell, it was carved into shape rather than crafted at a forge. You know a few bits of information about the weapon, based on your (and your companions’) knowledge of history.

The sword is a weapon of elemental power. Weapons like this one are key parts of ceremonies and rituals used by the priests of elemental evil. The mightiest champions of elemental evil receive these weapons as marks of skill and favor.

Your sword was a normal weapon until you drove it into an altar dedicated to elemental evil found in the crypts beneath the moathouse. The altar was infused with earth, air, fire, and water in equal measure. Those energies flowed from the altar and into your weapon, imbuing it with a number of magical properties.

  • This weapon was once wielded by a hero named Kelren.
  • Kelren fought the denizens of a temple dedicated to elemental evil that arose in the southwestern regions of the Flanaess.
  • Kelren stole the sword from the cult and turned it against them.
  • The sword was a key component in destroying nodes of elemental power.
  • Crippling each of these places in turn allowed Kelren to smash the cult.
  • +2 enhancement bonus
  • Weapon of Arcane Power (Property): You may apply the sword's enhancement bonus to implement powers.
  • Weapon of Elemental Might (Daily): Minor action. Until the end of the encounter, you may apply one of the following effects at the start of each of your turns.
    • Fiery Rebuke: Each foe adjacent to you takes 2 fire damage.
    • Buffeting Winds: Slide each creature adjacent to you 1 square.
    • Watery Step: You may shift 2 squares.
    • Earthen Grasp: Until the end of your turn, each foe you hit with the sword is slowed until the end of your next turn.

Deck the Halls (and by “Halls” I Mean “Bad Guys”)

For some, it’s just not enough to know that you hit the monster. They need to know where they hit the monster. If that’s you, you’re not alone. Co-worker Kay has disclosed one of my favorite house rules.

In her game, when someone hits their target, they will roll a d12 to see where they hit. This matters because certain locations do more damage. The breakout is as follows:

  1. Forehead (normal damage)
  2. Back of the head (normal damage)
  3. Neck (double damage)
  4. Left shoulder (normal damage)
  5. Right shoulder (normal damage)
  6. Heart (double damage)
  7. Gut (double damage)
  8. Groin (triple damage)
  9. Upper leg left (normal damage)
  10. Upper leg right (normal damage)
  11. Lower leg left (normal damage)
  12. Lower leg right (normal damage)

Even if no one will use this in my game, I’m going to secretly play it at the table. And in my car when someone cuts me off. And in the movie theater when there’s a loud talker. And, well, pretty much anywhere I’m pissed off and within reach of a d12. Thanks, Kay!

Music of the Season

Clearly music plays a big part in D&D games, and my co-workers are no exception.

Jefferson’s game rivals that of a Quentin Tarantino movie in the soundtrack department. For instance, his Eberron game has a “pulp-sounding” soundtrack (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pirates of the Caribbean, Sky Captain, and so on). Once the party wound up in a huge pirate bar. Then he played James Brown. Obviously.

Mr. Bilsland struck again with this doozy. Everyone in his game has a character song which is included on his four-hour “combat playlist.” Whenever combat breaks out, the music plays. If a character’s song comes up, he or she gets an additional action point to be spent during their next turn. What would Tabby’s be? Burning Down the House? Light My Fire? Hot Hot Hot?

Silver and Gold

Remember how in school the really good teachers made sure that everyone in class got a Valentine’s Day card? Well, Mr. Bilsland makes sure that everyone’s character goes home with something useful that they can use next session. He doles out treasure each session “with reckless abandon.” I bet he also gives out full-size candy bars on Halloween. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (and a Shot of Tequila).

Guess who gives out fun points? That’s right—Mr. Bilsland! He has a “fun list” comprised of 100 bonuses your characters can get. When you accumulate 10 points, you can turn it in for a roll on the list. And how do you accumulate points, you ask? He has a system for that too.

  • Write up a character background: 10 points
  • Arrive on time to a D&D session and come prepared with character sheet, pencils, paper, books dice, power cards, and everything else you need: 1 point
  • Note-taking (anyone who takes thorough notes): 3 points
  • Bring snack food or drinks: 2 points
  • Bring props for your character—clothing items, weapons, trinkets, and so on: 1 point/session
  • Cover your mouth when coughing: 2 points
  • Look both ways when crossing the street: 3 points
  • Saying “please” and “thank you”: 12 points.

Maybe I added the last three, but you get the "point."

Mr. Bilsland also lets you give out up to two fun points per game to other players to reward them for things such as good roleplaying, creativity, and overall just being fun. Aw, Mr. Bilsland! Here’s 100 points for you!

And here is something that is not so much a rule but an unwritten curse according to Jefferson: “He who sitteth at the right hand of the DM, thou shalt roll badly.”

For the record, I always sit on the left, use my pink d20, say please and thank you, and continue to roll poorly. Maybe I do need a shot of tequila and some James Brown.

Wherever the holidays take you this season, maybe you’ll find time for a little D&D, and maybe you’ll be inspired to incorporate some new rules into your game. Personally I’m looking forward to a rousing game of Monopoly with my brother when I go home and adding a few of my own house rules. For example, whenever my brother evicts me from my bungalow on Baltic Avenue, he has to do a shot of Sambuca and dance like James Brown. I know he’ll do it too. The bitchin’ staff Mike Mearls has designed for me will see to that.

About the Author

Shelly Mazzanoble is visiting her family right now and probably crying because her brother broke her custom-designed staff.

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