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GM, Thou Art Not A Game Designer!
Posted By Patrick Benson On September 29, 2008 @ 12:41 am In GMing Advice | 11 Comments
I’ve been working on my own RPG system for years now. How hard can it be? I’ve played RPGs, and I have GMed RPGs for over 15 years. Plus I’m good at RPGs. Really. I can run kick ass home and convention games and I am diverse in the systems and genres that I run. My players like my games, whether they are long time friends or total strangers that just bought an event ticket.
So I decided to take the plunge and to write my own RPG. I have since learned that just like being a great race car driver doesn’t make you a great mechanic, experience with running and playing RPGs does not make you a game designer. Setting is one thing but combining setting, mechanics, unique qualities, and overall purpose together into a fully functional RPG that people will want to play? That my friends is something completely different.
And yet I’ve met tons of GMs like myself who think that they could design a great RPG. That may be possible, and the point of this article is not to convince anyone not to try, but I’m just letting you know that your experience on either side of the screen only prepares you for a small part of the overall experience of game design.
As GMs we tend to focus on what doesn’t work in a game when creating house rules, or on creating a setting that is more to our own liking. We are also usually very successful in these attempts, because we are not designing a game but instead are customizing an existing game to our own tastes.
This is the difference between adjusting the engine and adding a sweet body kit to your automobile and designing a new vehicle from the ground up. Yes you may have tweaked the engine to give you better performance where it matters to you, and you might turn some heads because of the unique body style, but you probably never thought twice about how to run the electrical system so that it complied with government safety standards or how thick the gas tank’s seals are. These are incredibly important details that engineers and designers have to consider while those who customize their cars look more at whether or not the vehicle meets their own personal expectations. We GMs sometimes miss what it is that the designers did right when we complain about a game system, because we tend to focus on the parts of the game that do not match our own personal style of play.
And you don’t just buy any car to customize, but instead you buy one that already offers you the majority of the features that you desire. The same is true with RPGs. You play the systems that you enjoy, and tweak them to enhance that which you enjoy even more. That is a great thing to do, but that doesn’t mean that the game was “broken” before you modified it to your own liking. If the game is truly broken and has no merit whatsoever you probably will stop playing it. If you spend hours customizing it though that just shows how much you must really enjoy the game to begin with.
Being on the other side of the pen/keyboard has given me a new found respect for game designers. I’m willing to play the rules as they are written for a longer period of time now before creating house rules. I also tend to question myself more before I change something. Is the system actually broken, or am I desiring something else from the game other than what the designer intended the game to deliver? I find myself tweaking the games I play less and less, and I find myself improving my own interpretation of the rules more and more. All because now I start by questioning my reaction instead of questioning the game’s design. And when I do tweak the rules now it is with a much clearer objective and much better results.
Yes, there is always room for customization. Just make sure that you understand why it is that you feel the need to customize your game. Sometimes it is not because the game is flawed at all, but because you and your group just need it seasoned a little to your own unique tastes.
That is my opinion on the matter, so what is yours? Leave your comments for others to read and share your own experiences with me and other members of the Gnome Stew community. And no matter what happens, don’t forget that the GM is a player too! Have fun with it!
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