(Mike Monaco left a really great comment over at Cirsova’s blog, but being a nerd on the internet I will ignore the context and the overall sense of his point and merely rant about a throwaway line that has very little to do with what he’s saying.)
House rules are basically done.
Now I know you can’t tell anyone to knock it off. Not when they know better. And everyone really does know better. They don’t care about the sort of things that guys like Steve Jackson and Alexander Macris fret about. They don’t want to let a top tier designer solve problems for them that they haven’t even anticipated. That’s just how people are. Roleplaying is something everyone has to figure out own their own and that most people insist on learning the hard way and there’s nothing I can say that will change that.
But the thing is, game mastering a group of crazy roleplayers is intense. When I do it, I get in this zone where I’m making one ruling after another. I constantly have to make this call of whether to err on the side of keeping things moving or else pause the game to look something up. Every session I go into it with the intent of doing one thing better. I’m constantly juggling contradictory feedback. And it’s aggravating, but sometimes I find out I’ve been doing something almost religiously for a half dozen sessions only because I was trying to accommodate the preferences of one dude that quit showing up months ago.
It’s insane, really. None of this should work. And yeah, most people will look at this kind of chaos and then reach the conclusion that rules don’t matter. But I disagree.
You see, the difference between whether a session of a roleplaying game feels fun in retrospect or not hinges entirely on how much friction there is between the players and the game master. Now, a certain amount of that is inevitable. Great roleplaying game sessions are really focused on exploring what lies outside of the rules proper, and figuring out how to deal with that is half the fun. But every house rule I add requires me to take a few minutes to explain it every single session forever. Every time a new player shows up, I have to explain my own damnably brilliant game design ideas rather than something pertinent to the actual campaign. It’s just not worth it.
There’s something to be said for being able to lay a single book on the table and simply tell people, “this is what we’re running.” There’s also something to be said for the players and the game master to both pretty well be on the same footing with regards to the rules. When I’m in the heat of the game, the players don’t always have time to ask me my opinion on something. If they can look something up on the sly, formulate a plan based on the rules, and then have confidence that I will have respect for rules even that I’m not immediately familiar with, then everything just runs that much more smoothly.
I’ve said elsewhere that the rules are largely just a prop. There’s a point I’m making there, sure… but the truth is, I depend on the rules to highlight what really matters at the game’s particular level of resolution. I depend on them to convey a whole range of implied setting, implied physics, implied reality. Honestly, getting in there and monkeying around with anything that isn’t an obvious error just spoils that. And to a great extent, I get a real kick out of exploring what a given game brings to the table right alongside the players.
But mostly, I do not see that the sort of things people tend to house rule as being worth the hassle. It takes a certain amount of friction to sell the players on them and to continually remind them of it and educate them. And to me it’s just not worth it. Because in my experience, all it takes is just one iota of friction to turn a great game session into one that leaves a sour feeling. Why then would I do anything to intentionally raise the friction levels in my game…?
And we don’t have to. This is not 1977. There are right now so many games on the market, that surely one of them is a decent enough fit for you and your group. Why not just pick one and see how it goes…? And why would I pick one that has such a glaring flaw that it thrusts me into the position of having to do the game design work that I’m paying someone else to take care of for me? No amount of glossy pictures and advertising hoopla is going to make that sound like a good deal. Sorry, but that’s just how it is.