Pax East 2011: House Rules and Stealing from Other Games in RPGs

Prior to this year’s PAX East, we pitched three panels about RPGs. One was accepted, with the following description:

Most Game Masters do it. Hacking your favourite RPG is as old as the hobby itself. However, one can often get bogged down with rules that defeat their intent and make the game less fun. Others have so many house rules that players and master alike get confused and lose sense of what game they’re playing. That’s why we invite you to join 3 well-known RPG bloggers from Critical-Hits and At-Will to discuss how to design, test, and organize house rules. They’ll also tell you how to explore other classic and modern RPGs to “borrow” their best ideas into your games and give you tangible examples.

Panelists include: Dave Chalker [Editor-in-Chief, Critical-Hits], Phil Menard [Featured Bloggers, Critical-Hits], Quinn Murphy [Editor-in-Chief, At-Will]

We were happy to have our panel accepted, but it wasn’t until we got there that it sunk in how big this was. While we’ve all done panels before, nothing would prepare us for something of this size. Pax has a much more limited seminar schedule, which means there’s more attention on each panel. People lining up in advance is common, as is getting turned away.

While to our knowledge everyone who wanted to get in did, we still had well over 300 people in the audience. That’s by far the biggest seminar I’ve ever been on, and we even were up against the also excellent Game Design is Mind Control panel.

I am happy to say that I thought the panel went quite well, despite largely being planned during dinner right before the panel (on the plus side, Phil, Quinn, and I invented a game during that same dinner.)

Mike Shea of Sly Flourish recorded the panel and was kind enough to share the recording with me, so I thank him for letting us share the seminar with everyone.. There are always difficulties in recording seminars, especially between audio levels and audience members who don’t have a microphone, but I hope that doesn’t stop you from learning something.

House rules and stealing from other games in RPGs seminar at Pax East 2011 (58 minutes, 28 MB)

[Download iPod versionDownload MP3 versionPodcast FeediTunes Link]

I’d also like to invite everyone, whether you were at the actual panel or just listening to it now, to ask us any questions about the topic, and we’ll do our best to answer. Thanks again to everyone who came out to support us on the panel, and maybe we can do another seminar next year!

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. I have often referred to myself as the House-Rule King, as there have been several campaigns that simply did not make it past my “rules demolition.” It’s taken a lot, but I have finally gotten to the point that I have to leave the tinkering to the better GMs, as I now know that I simply don’t have the smartz to pull it off.

  2. I try and give a games rules a least a shot at playing them straight before adding house rules . . . except in the matter of genre conventions I wish to emphasize. Those I will house rule from the beginning.

  3. Hey Dave. First-time poster, long-time reader. I just wanted to quickly say thanks to you, Chatty and all the contributors here for all the inspiration. I always look forward to the next post and I’m glad you were so well-received at PAX.

    I’m one of those DMs who’s about to brush the dust off their collection of books and revisit a world we played somewhat religiously some 5+ years ago. I’m advancing the setting by 15 years and using tools like Obsidian Portal and my (somewhat) friendly lappy to plunge into the 21st century. I’m sticking with 3.5e due to nostalgia/rules familiarity/my obvious tendency towards self-flagellation. That being said, I was wondering if you know a good resource for handling 3.5 combat. I’ve scoured the interweb for some house rules to borrow. I’ve primarily found programs designed to speed it up but no house rules to this end. I know you’re dealing with 4e these days but I thought maybe you had something handy that may apply here as well. Much appreciated!

  4. Hey Jonathan,

    Combat speed seems to be the ongoing issue in D&D, especially at high levels. Many of the non-rules fixes for 4e can also help. For example, not having every fight go to the death and instead coming up with non-death ways for combats to end (what I’ve called elsewhere as “outs”) work for every system. Additionally, the reason sort of the same thing that software covers, try to have a really good organizational system. Have the players make reference cards for anything they do regularly in play, particularly spells, so there’s no book flipping during turns.

    One of the more drastic rules, and one that I’m not a big fan of but other groups love, is to impose a real life time limit on a player’s turn. If that turn doesn’t finish before the time limit, the player loses a turn.

    Hope that helps a bit!

  5. I give a game a few sessions before I try to fiddle with the rules. I’ve got an eberron game running under pathfinder coming up that I’m experimenting with changing full attacks to standard actions to buff the non-spellcasters.

  6. SpectacledBear says:

    I was at this seminar and enjoyed it very much. It was good to hear how direct and easy it is to modify elements of the games, bring in things I like about other systems and borrow from things that inspire me.


  1. […] can follow the story of it just here (and even listen to it). Suffice it to say that we went from nervous, to terrified, to engrossed, […]

  2. […] types of games as well. I managed to make it to two really excellent panels. The first was about house rules and stealing from other games, run by the fine folks from Critical Hits and At-Will. (You’ll find the audio of it at that […]

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