Thursday, December 30, 2010

House Ruling IS Game Design

This may come across as a bit ranty, but hey, I said this week was going to be a bit lighter on the material, so why not? Anyhow, a few days ago a friend of mine was at our FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store for those not in the know), and ended up in a conversation with a game designer who was passing through the area. Now, I only have second hand accounts of this conversation, but from the sounds of it I doubt I would have liked the person too much. Sure, we both view ourselves as game designers, but I have issues with outright elitism (despite the fact I can be elitist myself at times...), and one of the things this person reportedly said just kind of bugs me.

Again, this is second hand for me, so third hand for you, but reportedly part of the conversation went like this.

"Oh, you do game design? A lot of my friends are in to that too"
"Well, I guess house ruling is sort of like game design, kinda..."

Now, first, there is the immediate assumption that my friend is speaking about House Ruling, which he's not. Friends of ours have published several full on RPG products (like these ones here), and I've ranted here enough about M.A|C.C and play testing it, that we're not "just" talking about House Ruling for this.

Second though, is how is House Ruling not Game Design? You are changing the rules, therefore you are changing how the game is worked. You are modifying its design to fit your needs, which means you are designing it to work differently. I'd be surprised if I found out that most of the people who read this blog haven't been in a game with some truly terrible house rules, and some truly good ones. What is the difference between the two?

Well, much like with over all design, a good house rule is one that takes the entirety of the game, its feel, its scope, its context, etc, etc into account when making it. It makes a shift that increases the enjoyment of the game overall for the entirety of the group, and what that group likes. A bad house rule is generally just a reflexive swipe to destroy/remove something that a person doesn't like, without considering the consequences.

For example, in Warhammer 40k if you don't allow every army's top vehicle, you have made a bad house rule that unbalances the game. Why? Because an army with strong troops will/should have a weaker top tier vehicle than an army with weaker troops. So, by removing that vehicle, you have favored the game towards the armies that are more troop focused.

On the other hand, if in an RPG the DM reduces the XP cost for something, doing so specifically to encourage the acquisition of something, or to help the PCs progress faster. They're doing a better - I won't necessarily say good - job of house ruling, because they've considered the consequences of their action, and their motion is more meaningful than just "I dislike that, so it goes away without thought to the consequences."

House Ruling is game design on a similar scale to mod making for computer games. Sure, you're not starting from scratch (hell, who is these days with all the Open Gaming License stuff, Cortex System, True 20, etc, etc), but you are still designing and changing things. Besides, everyone has to cut their teeth somewhere, and how are people supposed to find out that they like designing and modding game systems if they never try it?

So, I hope I heard wrong about what exactly was said Mr. professional game designer, as if not...well, you're kind of doing your industry a disservice.


  1. I suppose it all depends on the scope of the design, and by scope I mean how many people will your design reach. Likely the "designer" views rpg design as changes made that will be seen and used beyond your living room.
    I suppose there are graduations of design levels and he was thinking of a "higher" level, one targeted at a wider audience.
    I guess a question to be asked is, 'Is simply designing a new rule enough to call a person a designer?' or 'Is a designer someone who creates a new and usable rule?'

  2. I think the act of designing a rule makes you a designer, and in turn a designer is someone who makes/creates things (in this case, rules).

    Now, I get the difference between "Hah, I made this card game we play at work" versus "Hah, I made Magic: The Gathering" but the fact is, both are designs made by designers. One just had a better marketing push/attempt behind it.

    I suppose my real problem here though is people looking down on those who are on the first steps of a similar path. Will most people move beyond House ruling their campaigns? Likely not. But you never know when one of those people is going to be the person to make the next big thing either, and those who have already 'made it' should respect the roots of the tradition.

    I could just be bitter though as a self-proclaimed designer with nothing (aside from a free bare bones system on the top right of the page there) to show for it currently.

  3. I'm going to disagree in a general way about house rules. House rules as you, or I, use them are very different from the common form of house ruling used in many groups.

    While you, or I, or Mr. Pro Designer will approach house ruling the same way we approach design, with an eye to the unified goal of the game/group in question, many gamers don't. Any time a rule is changed on a whim, I won't call that 'design' just for the fact that design does require some forethought and outlook before hand.

    I also understand the immediate response of a professional to someone going 'my friends and I do some of that, too!' as it'd be a similar feeling to an professional athlete or author getting that from just anyone on the street. The time to learning the skills and/or craft are so wildly different as to be completely incompatible experiences. Doesn't excuse being rude, but it does explain the attitude.

  4. I suppose the big difference in our arguments Pat - and I'm fine with agreeing to disagree, as your point is very valid - I see what you claim as not design as bad design, but still design. To be fair though, I've been very lucky in my life with GMs, and while I've heard of horrible house rule situations, I can't recall an instance where a GM made a house rule without some reason they could explain - even if just "I don't like how this works" - and not at some point been confronted with consequences.

    Course, those consequences could've been me pointing out holes and making them fix their $&@* too so...I think I'm going in circles now.

    Though, I do - also - disagree with your example. A professional athlete and a recreational athlete may both play hockey, and may both identify as hockey players, the levels of play are just different. So, different level, same tag. You are right though, it could explain the attitude.

  5. I'll say this, I like to blacksmith. I've made knives, forks, spoons, hooks and an axe. I've made my own tongs and ladles. Ok, ok, I've blacksmithed. I don't walk up to a master blacksmith and say "Hey I'm a blacksmith". Why? I am one but modesty would not allow me to try and put myself on par with a master or even a journeyman. Maybe I would identify myself as "a blacksmith" to an apprentice, maybe.

    So why the difference? Because I am verbally likening myself to the other person. By giving myself the same title, I am putting myself on par with them. Now if I say to the master, "Hey I've done some blacksmithing." that's totally different. I'm saying that I am somewhat like the master but acknowledging that there is a difference in experience.

    I think the amateur made the mistake of saying that the pro's experience was like his friends. If he really was talking about house rules then they are very different and a bit insulting because making a fully functional RPG takes a lot more dedication than figuring out a house rule.

    The error isn't in the title, it's in the comparison.

  6. But Emmet, the amateur blacksmith would tell the master that he is a smith. He would also likely tell you. Again, there is a difference between level of work (pro athlete vs amateur athlete, master smith vs. apprentice smith), but that is why we have the adjectives. If you met a Master Blacksmith, I think you would be silly to not tell him "Hey, I'm something of an amateur/apprentice smith myself" because you could strike up a very interesting conversation, and get some very good tips from the man.

    Now, for the issue at hand, the friend was actually talking about semi-professional game designing. Like, books that have sold and made the author about a grand - that I know about. Even if not though, I think many here are again confusing level with the act itself.

    You also see this on a lot of writing blogs. When are you a writer? Well, what does a writer do? They write. In fact, most writers will tell you that if you're in it for the money you have another thing coming. So, a writer is someone who writes and identifies themselves as a writer.

    Yes, it comes across as semantics, but in this situation I feel they are important. Not that other people's opinion on this aren't valid (maybe you don't identify as a blacksmith, despite being at the very least a hobbyist), but I just don't feel that the level of skill employed can take away from the action actually being done.

  7. House rules, homebrew systems, or full on games. To me they all count as levels of game design. It is like saying that just cause you make a mod for Fallout 3 that it is not game design. The Many a modding group have been turned to full time studio.

    To me this guy was just another ass to busy or full of him self to actually care about any one but. A shame really...cause at some point he will probably be outdone. And probably by one of those people he thumbed his nose at.

    Ahh and you may want to reconsider the general statements also. Not all of us use OGL game systems. :-) I for one am writing my own system since I could not find anything that suited my needs. You do what you must to make it simple, appealing, and different.

  8. Heh, I'm making my own system from the ground up myself too. But there is a lot of 'new' systems out there that have very heavily borrowed from other systems. And I don't mean inspiration, but actually using things.