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.