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Home brewery vs Failed Game Designer Syndrome

 ·  ☕ 7 min read

In a continuation from my last post let’s discuss from whence home brewery arises and why.

As stated there, games (and their rules) offer certain play experiences. This is a combination of their explicit offer that is used to sell the game and the implicit offer, which is what the game actually delivers at the table when played rules as written. In a perfect world, these are in harmony but that doesn’t always happen. However, there is a third offer to consider. The campaign offer. This is what the referee desires to offer their players. It is also split into two parts. These are the pitch and the actuality. These parts are analogous to the rules' explicit and implicit offers. The pitch is what the referee tells potential players the campaign will be about, and the actuality is what the players actually experience at the table. They are only named differently to help keep things separate. What this means is that when a referee wants to start a campaign, he should have an idea of what sort of a game he wants to run. Otherwise, he won’t be able to give the players a pitch. And since he knows that, he should select a set of rules whose explicit offer matches or closely matches what he wants to run (this doesn’t always happen for various reasons but that’s for another post).Astute readers will have already spotted the two major pitfalls. The first being what happens when a game’s implicit offer does not match it’s explicit offer? Next, what if the closest game still is not very close at all? It is these twin sources from whence home brewery wells up.

The first situation is likely more common among new referees. Those with less overall exposure to the hobby, who might have trouble extrapolating a games implicit offer just from reading the rules. You don’t know what you don’t know after all, and sometimes it just takes playing a system to understand that it might not fit what a campaign is going for. However, this does lead to some secondary issues. If the campaign has been going to any reasonable amount of time, changing to a new system may simply not be possible. This is where home brew comes in. A new referee reads the section of his current system that explains the tenets of Rule 0 and his might becomes a whir of activity. He attempts to mold the game that he wants out the skeleton of the system that he has. This in truth is a noble goal, and that exact process is how Strategos was morphed into the Napoleonic war game that would eventually lead to OD&D. Most referees have at least some amount of game desire in them, just like they have some amount of storyteller in them. Though designing games and telling stories are not the referee’s job or purpose, those who become referees generally get some enjoyment out of both activities.

The second situation is likely more common generally. A referee decides he wants to run a specific campaign with a specific feel and tone, and no rule set matches that exactly. This mismatch may be just among rules he owns, but he desires not to buy more. Or, it could be that the game he wishes to run is simply so niche there are no mainstream rules for it. So he picks a system that is “close” and generic and uses home brew to fill in the cracks. This tendency, however, is dangerous if done without caution. It is what leads to the stigma of 5e players wanting to run every genre imaginable in 5e. It is also why the OSR is overrun with B/X “clones” that are really just someone’s home brew rules stapled onto B/X. For my own part, I still haven’t found a system that handles sailing in a way that generates the feeling I wish to with the oceans in the Flooded Realms. The Flooded Realms oceans are semi-sentient and merged with the elemental plane of water. Lot’s of magical BS that can happen if one sails them without a proper navigator (think of a guild navigator from Dune). This is not something that can simulated withe the normal B/X Ocean Encounter rules, so the ocean encounter system is entirely home brewed. However, B/X get’s everything else right as far as I am concerned, and I am not interested in reinventing the wheel. I am acting, with my players full knowledge, in the capacity of a game designer when it comes to the sailing mechanics in the Flooded Realms game.

This is the crux of the mater though, this tendency can be a problem. It can lead to mother-may-I games, where even though a table has a rulebook on the table, there’s a large tome of house rules negating half of what is in the system you are allegedly playing. This is Failed Game Designer Syndrome and it is as much of a disservice to your players as Failed Novelist Syndrome. Now, there are plenty of tables who exists happily story gaming away. There are many tables who play many sessions with a failed game designer referee and are no worse for wear. I would place my regular players under that umbrella. I enjoy tinkering with rules and seeing how they play out on the table, it’s fun for me. It’s why I run B/X instead of something crunchier like Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. But the BrOSR is correct in that my Flooded Realms campaign will never scale past a single table. There is too much uncertainty and the rules are too fluid to easily have more than one referee. That is why I say it is a disservice to my players, they may desire to play in a massive 50 player campaign. But I can not run such a campaign by virtue of the rules changes I’ve made.

Not all home brew falls within this category. Dungeons, settings, locations, etc can all be constructed by a referee without fear of straying into Failed Game Designer territory. It is also different and distinct from home brew monsters, spells, or magic items. Those fall within the rules of the game, as they use existing game mechanics to function. Failed Game Designer Syndrome begins when a referee makes major modifications to a system’s rules. It can be identified when the campaign experience no longer matches the implicit offer of the system being run. Custom races and classes are on the borderline, as they can run the gamut to innocuous to severely game altering. This also does not apply to the “rulings-over-rules” attitude, when that attitude is applied correctly. If the rules a campaign is using do not cover an action or situation, the referee should make a ruling and stick too it. Or pull from a system in which that situation is covered well. This is technically home brew, but it’s not failed game designer syndrome. The rules are new, not extant in the system and being replaced.

Now, having said all of that (and given this tendency a disparaging name) I don’t think referee’s with tendency are bad referees. They are not doomed to never have players, not consigned to the outer darkness of never running a satisfying game or campaign. As stated above, all referees are part game designer and part storyteller somewhere in their souls. But neither of those parts are the primary job of a referee. The referee’s primary job is rule adjudication, not rule creation. It is simply something that a referee should be aware of as a possible pitfall. Much in the same way rail-roading and Failed Novelist Syndrome are something to look at for.

There might be another follow up post and I compile some more thoughts on this. But, in the words of Gump, That’s all I have to say about that.

Sail On!

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