Wednesday, May 1, 2013

How the Best Houserules Work

Of all the hundreds (thousands?) of houserule posts I have read from the OSR, one stands out in my mind as undoubtedly the best I have ever read and used in play. Trollsmith’s “Shields Shall Be Splintered” is a masterpiece of house ruling. The simple option of allowing a player to sacrifice his character’s shield (or weapon, armor, and even limbs if extended far enough) is the type of minor modification that immeasurably improves the gaming experience.

Why do I think so? I can give five reasons that “Shields” is so excellent, each of which help define the “Less is more” aesthetic that makes “Shields”, and by extension the best products of the OSR, such an improvement over the rules-bloat and unnecessary calculus of industry editions of Ye Ole Game:.

1) The best houserules are easy to implement. “Shields” requires no extra calculations, charts or tables. Every time I see an OSR post about an “easy” houserule that includes 3 pages of tables or formulas, my teeth hurt. This is not to say that a good houserule can’t be a table or involve calculations (“Tao of D&D” provided great materials for figuring out agriculture and building structures, similarly Hill Cantons has great world-building and reaction tables), but they must not be jarring to whatever practice is underway. In the blur of combat a splintered shield fits perfectly, just as a table of geographical features would fit when world-building and calculations of acreage productivity when heavily into a domain game. Context is everything, and a houserule that fits the context is a good one.

2) The best houserules make the game feel the way you want it to. “Shields” give the feeling of the fantasy literature from which D&D takes its cue, and having a broken shield, weapon or bone adds much more dramatic possibilities than a mere whittling down of Hit Points. A player whose character is left unarmed or even maimed may feel more of an inclination to surrender, sue for peace, bribe or run away from a fight, instead of gambling on rolling a few criticals before his hit points run out and going down fighting pointlessly as is often seen in hack-n-slash games.

3) The best houserules give more choice to either players, DM, or both. “Shields” gives choice in two ways. First, the entire gaming group can decide how far to extend the rule – can only shields be splintered, or does the option cover swords and armor as well? How about an arm or a leg? Second, the individual player whose hit points has been whittled down dangerously must decide in the heat of combat what to sacrifice and when. In both cases, both agency and investment/immersion in the game benefit from the houserule.

4) The best houserules use what is already there or give it more meaning. The game has rules for taking damage, and it has rules for the benefit of shields. “Shields” simply links the two systems mechanically, which heretofore had only been related thematically. Consequently, both theme (fluff) and mechanics (crunch) are deepened by its addition.

5) The best houserules blend seamlessly into the existing game, campaign or setting. Doing an Arthurian campaign where shields and swords need to be broken occasionally? Use “Shields” and you’ll be pleased with the dramatic surprises it offers, especially since no time is needed to look up the rules’ effects. Doing a Jason & the Argonauts campaign where characters are always outnumbered 3-to-1 and a broken shield would be a death sentence? Leave “Shields” out of your final ruleset.

What houserule, OSR or otherwise, do you think adds the most to your games? Does it fit the five conditions above, or is it better for some other reason entirely? Drop us a line in the comments section.

PS: You wouldn't believe the weird stuff I saw when Goo-oogling "shattered broken pierced shields" for this post...


  1. Ah, "easy" is such a hard word to use. Every time I think the house rule I came up with is easy to remember and implement into every game, I realize, as soon as I start writing it down, that "easy" might be true for me, but not necessarily for everybody else. Or, at least, that my capability to explain a rule does not reflect how easy a rule might in fact be. Example (other than me trying to explain my point...):

    For me, it's totally fine. I wrote it, I know how it works. For others, I'm not that sure.

    So maybe one more point on your list could be "The best house rules are well explained and easy to access". Now that I think about it, wasn't that one of the claimed advantages of OSRIC and (or?) S&W? That they were able to present the rules in a way people could understand easier than the originals?

    Other than that I believe you're spot-on.

  2. JD - Yeah, it's all subjective isn't it? Whatever works and is 'easy' for me might be incomprehensible or unwieldy or just lame for others. "Well explained and easy to access" sounds good enough for starters, but people will be getting different mileage out of whatever rule. This is why I like 'Shields', but extending it to breaking swords and bones makes sense to me, but not some of the people I played with.

    Vive la difference!

  3. Thanks for reminding me about Trollsmyth's "Shields Shall Be Splintered" house rule. I remember reading about it ages ago, but forgot where it came from and what it was called. Bookmarked now, and forever.

    Thanks again!