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Or, how much documentation should your "campaign world" provide?

This is a fairly generic (and subjective) question, but there is a genuine purpose behind it: I have a set of "house rules" for Tales from the Floating Vagabond, which I've documented fairly well. However, for the group which will be adventuring in it (initially designed as a one-off), I've taken the liberty of adding items, shticks, skills and rules from other TF2V supplements which were released after the core set.

The "House Rules" and "Errata" portions of the document are about 5.5 pages long.

The new stuff, shticks, skills and optional rules are over 15 pages long and counting (likely to be about 20 - 23 by the time I'm done).

How much is enough? How much is "too much?" Should house rules or campaign setting even be documented at all?

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12 Answers 12

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Documentation for house rules is not only important, it's convenient. Remembering everything is hard, and having to repeatedly explain/rediscover things takes more effort then writing it down and making it available for everyone.

As for the level of documentation, I've found that minimalism works best. Everyone knows the context, and you don't have to explain terminology. Official system documentation has to be very elaborative because it's written for people who might not have any relevant background. Your house rules are only written for a small group of people who you already know. A summary is easier for you to write, and easier for them to read.

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Wonderful answer! –  BBischof Sep 19 '10 at 8:18

It's "too much" if the house rule document is so daunting that the players can't be damned to learn it. But I do think it all needs to be documented, and if you have a core book that gets passed around the table, the parts that are changed in the house rules should be marked somehow -- whether that's a short version of the new rules added via pen, sticky note, or taped paper over the old rules -- or just a note that the Burst Fire rules have been modified on p. 3 of the House Rules document.

On the compilation of other stuff: what's easier for the players to reference and keep track of -- all of the supplements, or your 20-page compilation? Obviously, the compilation.

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I'd say they need to be documented just to avoid future disputes. IE: This is how the rule is written.

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You should definitely document as much about your game as possible, especially additional rules. A wiki is best. Not only does it make things easier for the players, as they can just look things up instead of having to ask, but it also preempts possible rules arguments by having a definitive text.

The other benefit of documenting everything is that your game will actually produce something. Maybe after you have played enough your wiki will actually be equivalent of a new campaign world book, or even a new RPG in itself. Then you can share the wiki with the world, or even edit it all into an actual book.

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+1 for wiki, which is what I was going to say! –  gomad Sep 23 '11 at 16:19

In my personal experience, I say:

  • yes, document them. Don't document rulings tho, which I prefer very much so :)
  • once they're too many, you might edit/taylor/rewrite the whole ruleset, excluding the rules you don't use, to have a concrete ruleset fitting your gaming style (I'm in the process of doing so, it's actually worth it).
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If you're playing with the same guys all the time, there are few house rules, and no one's a rules lawyer, it's a non-issue.

Otherwise, it's helpful to write them up.

Rules are a social Contract
When you say, "I'm Running Pathfinder," you're effectively saying, "I'm running a game where the Pathfinder rules determine the way the game universe runs." It tells players what to expect and experienced players will be able to judge actions based upon those rules prior to your actually defining the individual rolls. Saying "I'm running the Warhammer world using GURPS" says a whole different set of paradigms; what kinds of characters by the setting, and how well they work by the rules.

If making changes to core elements, its best to write those changes up and give everyone a copy.
If you have new classes or class options, write them up for clarity. New skills, keep a list. New races, write them up just like any other race in the game. New ship design options, alterations in combat, advancement, character generation, or magic all should be written up and shared prior to play.

If making setting changes, include anything that the PC's should know about.
If playing Ravenloft, and Strahd doesn't exist, no big deal. If playing Ravenloft, but it's an area one can walk into/out from on the prime plane, that's a huge change, and players need to be aware of it.

If using a rules hybrid, note which rules are in use from which sources.
NB: This is extremely common in Traveller players. It's not uncommon in pre-3.0 D&D groups, too.
This solves a lot of arguments over what X book says in Y circumstance.
For example, in my last Traveller game: Tasks - Mega; CGen - Mongoose Playtest; Combat - Mongoose; Misjump - variant Mongoose; Psionics - Mongoose Psi Book; Trade - not used; equipment - Mongoose CR and S4; Ship Combat - mayday movement, Mongoose damage; Ship design - Mongoose Core plus house rules which see.

When consolidating Supplement Material, just list the source.
You don't need to list the whole thing, just where to find it.

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'Enough' house rules is the point at which you are all comfortable with the game that is being run.

Document them to help new players and keep consistency. You might also think about sharing them online - perhaps your house rules solve a problem others are having?

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On principle, I'd say house rules should always be documented, unless they are few and short enough to just be said.

The rules are "what we're doing at the table tonight" and the players need access to that in the same way they need access to the main rules.

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…Which means, for some games, not having access to houserules is normal. For example, the To Hit tables in AD&D 1e were DM-only material, and until 4e the magic items were as well. Even modern systems such as Apocalypse World keep custom rules unrevealed. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 27 '10 at 3:45
    
Most experienced players had read the DMG. Then again, I discovered a rule I'd not known about in a 1E DMG just last year... having run the game many many times. –  aramis Sep 17 '10 at 19:59

All our campaign wikis have a house rule page or section. People can either trust the GM or they can read up on the house rules. They are only important when we're not sure of how we did it the last time. When thisncomes up, however, we need to be able to look them up. Thus they need to be documented somewhere even if none of the players read them all. In fact it would be better if they are organized such that important stuff is easier to find. Conversely, new random encounter tables, new magic items or new spells can be added on a need-to-know basis. Players don't need access to information only the GM is ever going to use.

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This likely depends on the familiarity with the rules that the players possess going in. If they wouldn't know house rule from book rule then it's less important to know it all up front. In the majority of folks that I've GMd they prefer to play the game with a general understanding of the rules and trust me not to hose them if a rule that they didn't know would do so. Keeping rules brief also helps players focus on the role-playing and not the rule playing.

If you find that the campaign is gaining momentum and players are wanting to delve deeper into the rules, then that's a good time to publish them for the group. You may also find that one or two players really want / need to read through all the rules and that's a great opportunity to leverage. Share them with that one player and they can be the one to inform their team of these modifications as they arise in play so you won't disrupt your GMing with rules explanations (as much).

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Start slowly with house rules if youre gaming with unfamiliar players, and bring more house rules in once you become comfortable with each other.

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Let them discover

I'd say you should write them down for yourself only at first, for the sake of consistency. Nature itself has rules and they aren't written anywhere but they are consistent. And one of the nicer things about being sentient is being able to discover those rules.

The same holds true for your campaign world. The rules should always be there, and be consistent, but players do not need to know everything about the rules. They can discover.

Beware though. They can also discover if the rules are inconsistent, and that degrades the experience for everyone. Stick by your rules and be fair about using them. And if you find out that a rule(house or canon) is not working for your game, do tweak or change it even mid-session but then let your players know that you changed the rules for a better game.

Then after you see that the new rule is improving the game experience, you can share it online with fellow gamemasters.

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I'd disagree with this approach for an established setting. If players aren't aware of house rules already in effect, not telling them will only serve to harm the group experience. If you roll a character with the express purpose of being able to, say, be a pole-arm fighter, and there's a secret house rule about pole-arms being nonexistant in the world, you need to know this. Unless the system depends on the players not knowing the rules, they should always be available for perusal. –  Logan MacRae Sep 9 '10 at 12:09
    
Guess I'll have to clarify... I'm not saying that the rules have to be secret, but they can be discovered when needed. Your would-be polearm fighter would discover that during the first minute of character creation so he could react and adjust. (by the way, I don't consider a no-pole-arms rule a real rule, it's a setting/background thing. A house rule is something about the game mechanics, like what's the damage dealt by the said polearm) Besides, some people grow up aspiring to be ghostbusters, yet find out there are no ghosts anywhere to bust. That discovery may even make a good story. –  edgerunner Sep 9 '10 at 22:14
    
+1 for a unique and useful perspective, though not something I'd ever do! –  Adam Dray Sep 17 '10 at 15:31

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