Chad Perrin: SOB

12 September 2008

The Hacker GM

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , — apotheon @ 01:46

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

I’m a multifarious geek. I read a lot, I’m addicted to learning, I write extensively (even professionally), I run an open source operating system on my laptop, I program, I theorize about ethics, I play RPGs, I play at an electric bass, and I make occasional attempts to change the world with logic and reason, one mind at a time — among other geeky pursuits.

A common thread through all these things is the hacker‘s impulse. I like to examine, tinker with, and understand stuff. I like to change stuff to suit my preferences and beliefs, to learn, and just for the sheer joy of it. I seek to innovate and improve in pretty much all things, including the state of my own mind.

This has a pretty significant impact on the way I think about roleplaying games. Some people use such games mainly as a way to escape the concerns of mundane, everyday life for a few hours now and then; some as a response to a creative drive akin to that of a compulsory sketcher; some as a way to act out fantasies; and some for other reasons as well. I’m sure I subscribe to most, if not all, such common motivations — but I am also motivated by my urge to hack, to fiddle, to experiment, learn, and improve, and even to write RPG related software.

As a result, it doesn’t take me long once I’ve started playing a game to start thinking about how I can change, add, or subtract rules to improve on what I see as flaws in the game mechanics. My recent SOB entry on Special Item Advancement — a means of dealing with magic items such that they advance with the character in a fairly believable (in terms of in-game justification) and well balanced fashion — should be a pretty good indicator of that.

Of course, the irony of this is that, generally speaking, the way one introduces house rules to an RPG is by running the game as its GM. Meanwhile, the changes I make are changes that suit what I would like to be a part of the game if I were playing it. Other GMs tend to be a little more reticent to incorporate such changes, sometimes because their vision of the game is different, other times because they don’t want to have to deal with incorporating variant rules and are happy enough with flaws in the rules they may never have even noticed before, and still other times because they might actually believe that the only way to play the game is strictly according to canon, as presented in the books, with no exceptions.

Regardless of the reasons, the end result is that — as much as I’d love to be able to play character concepts that are inspired or enabled, or perhaps just subtly enhanced in their depth and playability, by my own variant rules — I often have to settle for experiencing these enhancements from a player’s perspective only vicariously, through the people who play the games I run. It is the core irony of the hacker GM, I suppose.

Some variant rules, of course, significantly alter the flavor and game play experience. Such variants may be wholly inappropriate for some games, and I don’t begrudge that. For instance, it looks like my SigO will start running a Pathfinder RPG campaign from one of Paizo’s Adventure Paths within the next few weeks — and while I’d dearly love to play a particular character concept (his name is Baran Cole) with the rules I cooked up for special item advancement, that set of rules is probably wholly inappropriate for that adventure path. On the other hand, some critical hit rules I cooked up should be able to fit in quite well, if the GM’s amenable to it.

I spec out new rules systems for fun — and, ironically, I don’t usually get to experience them as a player. I guess it’s funny how things work out.


  1. This is also true of a GM’s style. I’ve always lamented that I never get to play in the sort of game that I run, but for rules changes what I’ve done in the past is offer someone a co-GM position in a game I was already running. It’s a bit sneaky but it works; we traded places as GM every time a chapter in the story or adventure ended and the other GM keeps the same rules for continuity’s sake.

    Comment by Mina — 12 September 2008 @ 07:44

  2. I’ve never really had success with trading off GMing. I’ve tried it twice — one time, it just kinda fell apart because of scheduling issues, and the other time it failed to really grab me the way a game I’m running usually does when it goes well. Of course, it could be a coincidence: once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a trend. I might even give that second time a try again (it has been on hold recently — not officially terminated), with a different character in the game than the one I started out using (it may just be that my character didn’t do it for me).

    As for gaming style . . . I’ve been lucky, generally, and had GMs whose style have fit me well enough that I never really missed my own style very much. The only exception was the times I just disliked the other GM’s style enough to either quit the game or treat it as an excuse to waste time while eating Cheetohs and hanging out with friends rather than actually thinking of it as much of an RPG. In neither case did I really miss my own GMing style much — I just figured I’d get back to a GMing style that really worked for me when I got someone better to run a game for me.

    Yeah, I guess I’ve been really lucky. During those periods of my life that I was doing a lot of gaming, it seems I’ve never been long without an excellent GM or two (aside from myself).

    Comment by apotheon — 13 September 2008 @ 12:36

  3. […] me — The Hacker GM? I wrote another program that provides support for GMs like me, this time to fulfill the need for […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » Attractiveness Score Calculator — 11 February 2009 @ 10:30

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License