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.