Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Achilles, the Industry, and the End...

Gaming is fun.  Yeah, we totally get that.  As far as hobbies go, this one puts the "P" in participation and gets everyone involved in a way stamp collecting can't touch.  GMs build their own adventures, run their own campaigns, and devise new content.  It's a timeless refrain: the GM can add or change anything.  The rules are just a guide offering tools for the creative workbench.  And the players have their own creative options...  

So yeah, gaming is an all-hands-on-deck sort of affair.  And while this is the hobby's greatest strength, it's also the industry's Achilles heel and self-limiting.

Remember, the typical RPG is a set of written rules where the GM is free to add or change anything, going as far as creating original content and house rules to turn the source material on its head.  And all in the name of fun.  You can't do this with Monopoly any more than you can buy a Coke and turn it into a Mountain Dew.  Gaming is unique in this way; miniatures be damned, the action takes place inside the participant's collective heads.

Now gamers are a creative, intelligent lot, so they eat this stuff up and ask for seconds, preferably, served with a side of d20.  People are lining up to buy new stuff, and Drive-Thru RPG does a brisk business.  But the industry has a "competitor" in its own customers, although not in any mean-spirited or adversarial way.  Simply put, creative people quickly figure out how to develop their own rules, and since they're already happy to imagine whole worlds (if not entire universes), many inevitably drift to game design... 

And with self-publishing and print-on-demand options, it can surely happen.

Now, this is wonderful news for a hobby which, in my opinion, thrives on creative and enthusiastic amateurs making their own fun.  A nice rulebook is a wonder to behold, don't get me wrong.  But the action, indeed the adventures, take place inside the player's heads and ultimately wanders from the rulebook.  Attractive, professional production is essential for creating atmosphere, communicating information, and just makes it easier to read and absorb the rules.  But we don't live or play in the rulebook.  We play in our imagination...

And sooner or later, it's the players, not the product, doing all the heavy lifting!

The concept of the game is the game.  One player provides the setting and supporting characters and everyone else runs a character.  It's all decision making, exploration, and role-playing, as we're fond of saying.  Rules don't matter at this point, and when we eventually decide we need them, it can be as easy as saying "roll 7 or better on 2d6" with modifiers for difficulty.  And we can have all of this (and more) free of charge. 

Of course, people can devise awesome rules based on great ideas and wrap them up in a gorgeous package for sale.  Nothing wrong with that.  But when the most creative enthusiasts can make and share their own stuff in the social media universe, you realize that buying anything is a nicety and very often non-essential to enjoying the hobby.  Tabletop gaming as an industry is therefore self-limiting.  And long may it be.  It's really better this way.  

How far can the industry go?  It has a ceiling.  I went three years buying nothing more than paper, pencil, and the occasional replacement dice.  And Robyn and I spent close to a decade playing a game we sort of worked out around some simple mechanics and the social contract.  Social contracts are free, and P&P's content came from various adventures I judged over that time.  And God knows, we absolutely appreciate the folks who've bought and played our little ruleset.  We appreciate it because we know you really don't have to buy anything at all.  And we mean that in the most literal way possible.  Thank you...

The demand for games is out there.  But some will inevitably satisfy their urge to play and create by whipping up their own materials while the small-press industry absorbs many others.  Indeed, the two go hand in hand.  Remember, play happens outside the rulebook, and I've never seen a game that played better because it came in a slick package, even though I've certainly enjoyed these products and like having something physically nice for the bookshelf or the gaming table.  And when you can can tailor a favorite system to whatever purpose, there's absolutely an upper limit to the industry's maximum possible growth.     

Put another way, the gaming industry grows sideways more than it grows upward.  How many are living off game design?  Really?  But that's good, because the people in it tend to be those who love it, and this is reflected in their products.  We have a ceiling too, dear reader, because we make rules-lite games.  Blood of Pangea (plus its two supplements) covers everything from the ancient world to the far future, and its narrative emphasis pretty much ensures that you'll never need anything else to get what you want from it.  

We've sort of written ourselves out of the equation, and we know that at some point we'll have said everything we want (and need) to say.  Probably sooner than later.  And then, dear reader, the ball will be in your hands.  The industry may be inherently self-limiting as a rule, but the hobby (very happily) is a genie that won't let itself get put back into the bottle...


  1. You can say all that but I bet you won't stop creating!

  2. Pits and Perils was the catalyst for me. It came along at a time that I was searching for a style of game play that fit me. Since then, I've grown more comfortable taking games apart and using the best of what I've seen and also adding my own. It is how I want to play, and it's only getting better. Thanks for what you and Robyn have done, and I know that the desire to imagine and create will contine for you both.