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Bending the Game: Shadowrun 4th Edition House Rules

August 26, 2013


Please welcome our guest blogger, Brian Braddock:

No game is made perfect. Everyone hits a bump in the road in their gaming lives where the rules are getting in the way of the action. Maybe you’ve been in the middle of a major combat, have come up with a great improvised move that would be brilliant, but has no mechanical effect. Maybe you and your troupe find a great game with an amazing world, but the rules are just for the dogs. Maybe you’re happy playing your wizard, except for that one rule about conjuring that just doesn’t make sense. We’ve all been there.

When the rules get in the way of the fun, it’s time to reach in the GM toolkit and break out house rules. House rules are powerful tools that, if used correctly, can improve the flow of any game and tailor a system to meet your needs. For example, if your player has put in the time, energy, and engagement to come up with an inventive combat move, and there are no rules to back it up, make something up. Give them a penalty to do the amazing thing, but a bonus to damage if they pull it off. In some cases, it’s just that simple. Your player feels like their work is rewarded, and other players feed off the example and become more invested. When that happens, everyone has fun.

When creating house rules, however, you have to be careful. Most popular game systems are playtested rigorously and refined to maintain balance. When you create a rule that fundamentally changes the game, the balance can be changed as well. Let’s take the wizard as an example. Your player is running a Pathfinder Conjurer. Based on the style of play within the troupe, the Conjurer can’t summon anything without being interrupted. You could shorten the casting time from a full round action to a standard action. This fixes the first problem (interrupted casting), but opens a whole new can of worms, with the player able to exploit a host of loopholes. As a general rule, I’m conservative with the number of house rules I make, especially if I’m in a system I’m not familiar with. You pay people good money to refine the rules–change only what you need.

When you use house rules you learn more about the rules in general, which becomes a self-perpetuating process. Eventually you get a deep enough understanding of rules systems that you know what you can tinker with and what is best left alone. When you do this with multiple games, you start to recognize rules trends that can apply across systems. You may have a house rule for rewarding inventive combat, and then you see a better version of it in the Exalted system–which happens to be close to your system. This kind of house rule understanding ranges from intermediate to advanced, and prepares you for the biggest challenges.

Sometimes you find games that have great stories, great worlds, and rules that are tougher than a UFC fighter. This may be fun for troupes of rules lawyers, but not for the general group, and especially not for new players. This is when house rules take another step. If you like the world but not the rules, and you really want to play, then change the rules.

One of the most iconic examples of this is the Shadowrun system. Shadowrun has a detailed setting that is imaginative, inventive, and unique. It also has a rules system that is massive, ponderous, and daunting to new players. Even GMs with strong rules understanding have difficulty with Shadowrun. I’ve played every iteration of the game, and while it’s gotten easier, it is by no means user friendly. However, I love the game, and I want my troupe, a mix of drama gamers and old school dungeon crawlers, to play with me. So, in an effort to make things easy on them, I streamlined a rule here and there, over and over, just to keep the action running. One player even went so far as to talk about the ease of Matrix rules online, not realizing that the smooth rules weren’t the game makers, but mine. Eventually I created an entire set of house rules that presented different degrees of play for Shadowrun. One set works for newbies, one for intermediate players, and the advanced level is the core game as written. Since creating these rules we’ve told some great stories and had some great combats, all within the Sixth World.

All of this, however, came about for one reason alone: we wanted to have fun. Rules are there to give us structure and to keep fights from breaking out. Dice add that flavor of fate that keeps things interesting. But in the end, they’re all tools for you to tell stories and have fun with your friends. If the rules aren’t working towards this goal, then it’s up to you to make them work. Once you do, you’ll be working within a game system tailored to you—and frankly, there’s nothing quite like it.

Here are some House Rule suggestions for the Matrix 4.0 and more! ShadowRunHouseRules

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