It has been suggested that a series discussing House Rules, how to write them and what they mean would be a help for potential GMs and for the players in various Diplomacy games. Thus, I will attempt to give you my viewpoints about House Rules. Contributions will be most welcome, as will contrary viewpoints.
I plan to divide this into five parts. The first part (this one) will cover the reason for House Rules and some important items to be included. The second will cover press. The third will deal with order formats, "how to" submit them and other information on the mechanics of House Rules. The fourth is planned to cover variants and other games often played in the Diplomacy Hobby. The last will be a wrap-up, touch on Tournament Rules and anything that I may have to add.
Please note I will usually refer to postal play. This is for convenience only and, for the most part, also apply to fax or EMail based games.
II. WHY HOUSE RULES
Diplomacy was originally conceived to be a boardgame to be played face-to-face. The Rules as Written (RAW) are designed to cover that type of play and, without some modification, are ill suited to postal play. For instance, sections on writing orders and conducting Diplomacy can't be used as written in postal play.
The GM routinely makes other modifications to the RAW. For instance, most postal games allow draws which is not allowed in the RAW. Also, the concept of press is not detailed; but which is an important part of the postal games.
The use of House Rules allow the GM and the players to know what the changes to the printed rules are and how the GM will oversee the game. Of course, situations may arise that are not covered under the House Rules and, which, may mean that they will be rewritten for future games.
III. WHICH RULES AND A REALITY CHECK
The first, most important, portion of House Rules deal with which version of the published rules are being utilized to GM the game. Published rules exist in the United States in three versions. There are also a number of other versions of the rules as published in foreign countries. It is vital that everyone uses the same set of rules so that every nuance in them will be known to all.
For those players who have earlier or later editions of the rules, sometimes the GM will provide a summary sheet of the differences. However, in the end, it is the players responsibility to know the set of rules used by the GM. The most common rules used are the 1982 (2nd Edition) and the 1992 (3rd Edition) published by The Avalon Hill Game Company in the US.
By "Reality Check", I'm referring to something I've put in my House Rules for Rambling WAY (RW). Other GMs have used comments akin to it, and I may have well taken the concept from one of them. However, I've had more feedback (and all positive) about this single one:
"16) FINAL WORD: Diplomacy, and all games associated with RW, are played for fun, and that is the primary reason for RW. I welcome any thoughts on increasing your enjoyment and participation in the newsletter. Also, keep that thought in mind when you conduct your negotiations and write letters or press to other players; after all, it's only a game."
HOUSE RULES, PART II -- Press
In PBM games, press is the replacement for general public discussions between players and the GM that usually occur over the game board. In Gunboat games, many times this is the only way for the players to communicate. Also, for some players, it is another enjoyable aspect of the game where they take on a persona (either historical or hysterical). They then conduct their diplomacy in that guise and/or provide storylines for the enjoyment of all participants and observers.
In your House Rules, it is important to identify the types of press normally allowed in your games. This allows every player and observer to know the style of the press. Of course, in the specific guidelines for a game, your usual practice may be revised. In these cases, it is advisable to include the type of press in the header of each game report; such as "Black-Press Gunboat" if you normally use only white press in your games.
It is also an acceptable practice to put limits on the press. For instance, most house rules include a statement that says, in effect, "press may be edited for vulgarity and/or space by the GM". This informs writers ahead of time that their press may be edited; and allows them to indicate whether their press must be run unedited or not at all.
There are primarily three kinds of press that are allowed in games. Called White, Black and Grey, each has its advantages and disadvantages; and there are players that won't play with certain types of press.
WHITE PRESS: All press is identified by who wrote it. Usually this is the country name, country capital or abbreviation of one of them.
GREY PRESS: Anonymous press is allowed. This press may be from Switzerland, Washington DC, the Moon, etc. Usually the only protected press bylines are the various countries/capitals, player names and a location for the GM to write from (such as having all press from Geneva originating from the GM).
BLACK PRESS: Anything goes! All press bylines are open for use and if it says it is from Berlin, it may or may not be. This allows quite a bit of freewheeling conversation between the players. However, in a Gunboat game, makes every single communique suspect at best.
There are some variations, or shades, of the three types of press. For instance, I use what I call "off-white" press. The only grey press allowed must come from Switzerland or Geneva. There are almost Black press games which protect a limited number of bylines for each player to conduct actual press. This may be allowing black press from every where except from the country names. Only the actual country can use their name to write press (and, thus, is the only press that can be "trusted").
Further, some GMs allow non-players to submit press. Except under Black Press, all guest press is anonymous. However, a regular contributor may adopt a nom-de-plume to signify their particular writings.
There is also a variation to many games. No-Press variants always have had some following, as the games usually are tactical in nature. This allows players to hone their performance (as opposed to negotiating) skills. A few No-Press games allow tacit communication, such as permitting an impossible order "A BUR sends a peace envoy to Russia" or "A BUR s ENG A Stp-Mos". However, most GMs will convert such orders to "A BUR holds".
Knowing the type of press allowed in a game is important. It provides the perimeters of public negotiations between the players and, in Gunboat games, can be critical in successfully winning. The House Rules (as modified for an individual game) should be the best source of information for the player and all questions about press should be directed to the GM early in the game's course. Press can be a pleasure or a curse, and in a number of cases one of the most enjoyable parts of the game.
HOUSE RULES, PART III -- Orders
It is important to let every player know how you wish orders to be submitted and the conditions on using them. It should be clearly stated about deadlines and whether you have NMR insurance. Lastly, in your house rules, you should include a section on what you, as the GM, do with ambiguous or poorly written orders.
Order submittal has to do with how you expect your players to send their orders to you. All GMs (except those running EMail only games) accept player orders by post. Ensure that you let all the players know what address to use (if you have multiple addresses) and, it is best, if you include the zip+4 to speed the letters along.
If you accept EMail, fax or phone orders, let the players know when and how to use them. For instance, if you only want orders sent to one EMail address make sure that your house rules specifically state that. For phone orders, it is recommended that you include the hours that you want calls (otherwise you may get calls at 4am). Further, if you don't want your family members or housemates involved in taking orders, clearly state that.
Many GMs that accept phone orders have a caveat in the house rules akin to "however the orders are written (or transcribed from the answering machine) is how they will be used". This takes the burden from the GM in trying to understand orders spoken onto an answering tape while the speaker is chewing on a carrot; or the GM who can't read his own handwriting after scribbling down orders after being awakened in a deep sleep.
It is also recommended that you put into your house rules that orders for each game be submitted on a single sheet of paper, and that there should be writing only on one side. This allows a GM to easily file the orders for a game in its folder without cutting or, in the case of two games on opposite sides of the same sheet of paper, going to the copy shop. For EMail, depending on how you process the orders, you may wish to have the orders in one long file (with appropriate spaces between games) or in separate messages.
In each issue of the newsletter, make sure that your deadlines are clearly stated. If you have a set formula for the deadlines (such as the last Friday of every month), you can state that in your house rules. However, every set of house rules should include a statement that "it is the player's responsibility to ensure that their orders arrive by the stated deadline".
You may have different deadlines for different types of submittal. For instance, mail deadlines are typically "mail delivery of the indicated day" for the specific address. On the other hand, EMail, phone or fax orders may be accepted only until a certain time. There are some GMs that have a deadline of the evening before the mail deadline for phone orders; or a fax deadline (using the machine at work) being 5pm on workdays.
If you use NMR insurance (where the GM attempts to contact the player if orders are missing), make sure that the conditions for using NMR insurance are plainly stated in the house rules. This should include when you will use them, how you will attempt to contact the player and any costs that the player may incur if NMR insurance is used.
A common manner of using NMR insurance is to state that "one attempt will be made to contact the player by phone the evening of the deadline. Any time NMR insurance is used, whether they were contacted or not, the player will be charged the cost of one issue."
How the GM will handle ambiguous or poorly written orders is vital to have in your house rules. For instance, the use of NOR in a movement order could be to Norway, North Sea or Norwegian Sea (as in F Edi-Nor); F Por-Spa could mean either coast; or a player could give the same unit two valid orders, such as A Bur- Mun and A Bur-Par. Most GMs include a list of "approved" abbreviations to use and/or state something akin to "ambiguous or poorly written orders will be converted to a HOLD order for the unit involved." With this house rule, the all three units (F Edi, F Por and A Bur) would hold for that season.
By plainly stating how orders are to be submitted and what format to use in the house rules, the players know what the GM expects of them. Further, by explaining what will happen with ambiguous or poorly written orders saves the GM from pitfalls and complaints during the course of the game. Also, if there are any questions on how these situations will be handled or on how orders should be sent to the GM, they can be cleared up before a player NMRs or becomes upset with the GM.