Games are good. But sometimes games can be better, and for that, we have homebrew rules.
Homebrew refers to tweaking an existing game to better suit your needs, whether through overhauling the system or implementing smaller house rules. House rules are specific rules you use in your game that are different from those of the official rules, making the game your own.
So how do we feel about homebrew? What are our favorite house rules? Let’s find out!
What single homebrew rule is your favorite?
Melissa Brinks: I don’t have an answer for my own question. Probably that you can pretty much make anything happen with your tabletop character. I do mean anything. My players frequently break the game because I’m too lenient a DM. Such is life.
E. Forney: My favorite homebrew rule is to ignore whatever mechanic board games provide for who goes first. I know in Ticket to Ride, for example, the rule is supposed to be whoever was most recently on a train. In Hanabi, it’s whoever is most colorfully dressed. Instead of getting into a mini-debate and wasting time, my friends and I usually use the Chwazi Finger Chooser, a simple app available on both Android and Apple. Everyone can put a finger on a phone screen and the app will choose who goes first (or assign you randomly to teams).
Joesph Langdon: When my friends and I play tabletop games, our goal is to have a good time. It’s less of a homebrew rule and more of a spirit that fills our games, but anything that helps us reach that goal is on the table. If that means our bard in D&D is allowed to do a 12-foot vertical backflip onto the roof of a tavern, then so be it. If it means that we allow Melissa Brinks to play “me-e-e” as one word in Scrabble because that’s how Taylor Swift and Brenden Urie sing it, then that works. Usually this means that every one of our games devolves into chaos and laughing fits, but that’s alright because we’re having fun.
Kaitlyn Lyons: I definitely agree with the general rule of fun, Joesph. Listen, I’m sure your intricate grappling rules are really cool, Pathfinder, but I really don’t want to get into a 20-minute rabbit hole of “can our druid trip the bad guy.” She’s a catfolk. She can trip people. Find a stat to roll and let’s get on with it.
Do you also incorporate homebrew canon? Or, when it comes to established universes, do you prefer to play things as they’re written? If not, what do you like to change?
Melissa: Here’s what I have to say: fuck D&D canon. There’s a lot I love about the D&D universe, but there’s also the construction of the drow, and the history of orcs and tieflings and basically anybody who isn’t sufficiently white or “fantasy white” and humanoid. Why adhere to that when we can play with these harmful ideas of othering in different ways? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of my queer friends gravitate toward orcs and tieflings; yes, of course, many of us are lovers of buff monsters, but there’s a reason for that that goes beyond, “hnng, horns hot,” right?
E. Forney: My friend group is very strongly in the “everything at the table is a suggestion” mindset. We do a lot of GM-less games, so usually we’re writing our own canon, and sometimes that involves overwriting or ignoring canon that games have set down for us. In a Pathfinder campaign that my GM will FINALLY SCHEDULE TO FINISH ONE DAY (Zach, plz), we have multiple gods/patrons, some of whom were suggestions from Pathfinder resources, others are just made up to fit our needs.
Joesph: I read the Dungeons & Dragons comics long before I started playing the game. I was an amateur Dragon Age historian before I even knew it had its own tabletop. I read every player’s handbook front to back before I even think of running a campaign. And I could not be happier to throw all that out the window. The way I look at it, everything I play takes place in my own alternate universe. I feel no guilt throwing out canon and adding my own, and my favorite games have always been when the DM took the narrative in their own hands and everything went off the rails lore-wise. So what if that tiefling is the highest-ranking scholar in Neverwinter? Life’s like that sometimes.
Kaitlyn: First, most importantly, I also wholeheartedly reject all of the “these races are evil!” tropes found in D&D and Pathfinder lore. Fuck that bullshit. In a larger scale, I also like to homebrew large parts of the lore and canon. In the Pathfinder game I run, we treat Paizo’s Golarion setting as a sort of soft-canon. It’s there to create the world and the backdrop, but if there’s a conflict in canon, whatever I just said is correct. I know that Golarion doesn’t, canonically, have an all-consuming army of clockwork surging from the depths of the underworld, but that’s the bad guy I wanted to play with so that’s what lurks in the depths of my world. I’m taking it a step further in a one-shot that I’m writing for another group. It’s going to be our group’s first time playing in 5e, and the one-shot is a sequel to a Pathfinder game set in Golarion, but 100 years later. All told it’s a future AU played in 5e with Pathfinder lore, at least one homebrewed race and one homebrewed class, and who knows what else will be layered in by the time we play.
What games are more fun when played with homebrew rules?
E. Forney: A recent example I can think of was playing Viticulture, a worker-placement game about running a vineyard. My friends recently played with the full six players, and we found that having that many people vying for only so many spaces made the outcomes much more uneven. I think especially with worker-placement games like this one, where you don’t have the option to place a worker to become the first player next turn, it’s nice to have some homemade rubber-banding. Our thought for Viticulture in particular was: you can use two regular-sized workers to make a big worker, who is better because he can go to any space, whether or not there is room for him. So, you’re essentially playing with one fewer worker that turn, but you don’t have to go to a cop-out space just because the board is crowded.
Melissa: “All of them” is a lackluster answer, so I’m going to go with Cards Against Humanity. The game can be rightly criticized for a lack of sensitivity and making light of important social issues (as well as transphobia, racism, and other bigotry within the cards themselves), but, played with the right people and enough tweaking, it can be a fun and cathartic game. It also just kind of… lacks direction and fun when played for more than a few rounds, so having rules in place to spice things up (randomness is my personal favorite, though that’s included as an alternate playstyle in the official rules) can make it more fun for longer.
Joesph: I don’t care what Melissa says, I’m sticking with “all of them.” I don’t think it’s controversial to say that games are better when they consider the needs of their players. That being said, it’s unfair to expect a game designer to anticipate every need that might arise (which is not to say designers aren’t responsible for implementing accessible design). The magic of tabletop sprouts from those needs. Players aren’t constrained by the preset parameters the designer laid out—they can adjust the rules for both accessibility and to accentuate what they find most fun. All that being said, Tic Tac Toe is better on an 8×8 grid and Checkers is better with a resurrection mechanic.
Kaitlyn: I mean, yeah. All of them. Homebrewing is all about, like Joseph said, considering the needs of their players. Who doesn’t love a personalized gaming experience?
Is there a common homebrew rule you won’t play with?
E. Forney: This is becoming less homebrew and more intentionally included in tabletop RPGs: rules for deciding what is/isn’t appropriate topics at the table and methods for stopping play if someone’s uncomfortable. I appreciate that play manuals are taking the time to include these tips in playbooks—we probably can’t force empathy onto a shitty GM, but we can damn well try! However, I find that the mechanics are usually awkward, at least for me. I don’t need to flip a coin to the “bad” side or hold up a red card—I am fine to explain what is wrong (or that something is wrong and I don’t know why) on my own. But then again, I am almost always playing with people I know well enough to 1) know what is/isn’t a good idea and 2) feel comfortable saying if something is off without a hand-holding mechanic.
Melissa: This isn’t a hard no, but I previously played D&D with a DM who used a house rule that ignored ammo as a mechanic. And like, I get it, it’s hard to keep track of and enforce and can slow down combat. But also: I love it when players run out of ammo and are forced to do something creative. I played a ranger in that game and I wish I would have run out of ammo so I would have been forced to do something other than stand back and shoot. Could I have just taken the initiative and done something fun myself? Of course! But I didn’t, because I wanted to fulfill my role in the party, and if I’d run out of ammo I wouldn’t have been able to, and I think that’s fun.
Joesph: I’m pretty open-minded when it comes to rules, probably because I’m not the most experienced tabletop player. That being said, I don’t love rules that abstract away from the action too much. This is more the case with storytelling games like D&D and Pathfinder, but if I’m juggling too many numbers, my brain automatically starts to min/max, and that’s not what I love about tabletop.
Kaitlyn: I feel personally attacked at this suggestion that my archers should run out of ammunition. Okay, not really, and I actually do think that would make for a fun dynamic for both me as a player and our DM, who would probably have a much easier time balancing encounters if she didn’t have my angsty elf spewing 100-150 damage every round because I have so many arrows handy.
Do you ever look to outside sources for homebrew rules or material? What sources? Why do you like them?
E. Forney: We have occasionally sought out suggestions for enhancing games we are really enamored with. For 7 Wonders, we found some fan-made wonders you can choose as your tableau and tried them out. We also found out about the “low-ball” version of the game that way (instead of getting the most points, you try to get the fewest points). We usually turn to Board Game Geek for that.
Melissa: Frequently, especially in tabletop RPGs. I really, really love The Adventure Zone‘s magical item gachapon and shop from the “Balance” arc, so I’ve tried to implement variations on those in my own games. As you might have gathered, I’m really interested in giving players opportunities to do things in combat that aren’t roll to hit, roll for damage. Magical items and rule-breaking have been at the heart of some of my favorite TAZ moments, and I like to give players the opportunity to similarly exercise agency over not just the encounter, but the world itself by permanently tweaking the dials and stretching the internal bounds of reality.
Joesph: Despite having DMed only a handful of times, I follow around eight different homebrew blogs on Tumblr, like Kor-Artificer and DnD 5e Homebrew. I keep a folder on my bookmarks bar that collects some of my favorites, and I try to bring one of them in every time I get a chance to play. My current favorite is a set of expanded cooking mechanics for D&D. It adds various benefits to cooking at camp, a method of collecting and combining ingredients, and a chance of failure determined by your experience with the cooking skill.
Kaitlyn: I have multiple Pinterest boards of interesting homebrewed items and mechanics I want to try out, but the place I’m most likely to turn to for homebrew inspiration is my actual play podcasts, especially The Broadswords. The DM and players have included so many wonderful additions, from implementing the plot point rules (which grants significant agency to the players) to going out of their way to make sure their game is a welcoming place for players to play in and an audience to follow along with. I’m still a fairly new DM, and anything I can do to make sure I’m not overpowering my players with my own idea of how the story should progress sounds ideal. Right now I’m looking to implement the “I Know A Guy” rule, which lets a player declare that they know somebody relevant to the location they’re going to, or relevant to the MacGuffin they’re currently chasing. Essentially it’s to recreate the moment in Empire Strikes Back when Han, Leia, Chewie, and Threepio land on Bespin to meet Lando.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.