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My Love/Hate relationship with Homebrews

I once watched a documentary on the early days of video games, and the particular part that has stuck with me was two brothers who started their own company right out of high school selling their games on floppies in plastic baggies through mail order fliers. They said (to my recollection): “We slept in shifts. I’d sleep while he programmed and when I woke up, we’d switch places. It was always a treat waking up and discovering what he had done, what new features he had added and how he had made them work.”

While the video game industry has progressed far beyond two teens working on a single computer in their bedroom, (at least for the most part), one of the most compelling aspects of the RPG industry is that every RPG fan out there can sit down at the keyboard and write his own homebrew setting or system. In fact I’d hazard a guess that most of us DO at some point. While it’s true that our industry has it’s fair share of proverbial 800lb gorillas, and that having a 30 man production team helps, we also have our fair share of excellent products made by enthusiastic individuals or small teams.

But as cool as I think the ease of entry to our hobby is and as much as I think it adds to the experience and improves RPGs as a whole, I always do my best to keep my enthusiasm in check when someone presents me with their home brew setting or system, and I’d like to talk about my particular pet peeves that make Sad Matt sad.

I’m sure not going to call anyone out for not making a product I like so don’t expect examples or names. I realize that much of what is below is my personal opinion, and it takes a lot of guts and imagination to put your ideas out for the community, and I’m not in the business of stomping on people’s dreams.  However, stick with me because once I get done crapping in everyone’s collective cornflakes, I’m going to talk about some stuff I really love to see in homebrew settings and systems, and then I hope everyone can chime in to tell me why I should jump off a cliff, or what their pet peeves are, or what they really like to see.

So without further ado, here’s my list of pet peeves.

Not looking beyond DnD:
It’s always a little sobering to read a document that someone obviously put a lot of time and effort into only to accidentally replicate an existing system or produce an “innovative new system” that was, in fact, innovative when someone else did it a decade or more ago. Granted, there are only so many ways to make a game, but it’s hard not to feel bad for someone who spent numerous man hours on a game when they could have gone to an RPG forum and said “Hey guys, I’m looking for a game that does X Y and not Z. Any suggestions?”

Math that doesn’t work:
Yes, I’m a bit of a probability nut, but homebrews that simply can’t work, either because there are rolls that are impossible (5-6 is a success. Roll 2 successes on your single die to accomplish a  simple task) or nearly so make it seem like no one has actually ever played them.  Less, but still irritating are systems that are counter-intuitive, unnecessarily complex, or that don’t remotely model what they’re aiming for.

Using your old PCs as NPCs in your setting is perfectly fine, but characters, cities, races, whatever, that the author obviously has a love affair with, gushes over for pages and pages, tries to make invulnerable via author fiat, and other such nonsense in a sort of mass Mary-Sue turns my stomach.

Blatant Rip-offs:
We’ve all heard why you have no business naming your wizard Gandalf, but similarly you shouldn’t rip off names for your big cities directly from World of Warcraft, and you especially shouldn’t directly rip-off both names and descriptions.

Channeling 12 year old boys:
Yes, we all know that Rifts has a huge fan base and is essentially nothing BUT channeling 12 year old boys (O.K. ONE cheap shot then), but for the most part it’s a bad idea. Granted, this is subjective, but dropping Jedi into your fantasy setting (or, God help me, the Predator), creating rival countries each populated exclusively by a different character class, or overshadowing everything else in the game with your totally awesome pet class, is just generally a bad idea.

To be fair though, there are plenty of things I LOVE about homebrew systems and settings.I just wanted to get the negatives out of the way first and end with a positive note. Here are just some of the things I love:

New Ideas:
I said it was sad when someone inadvertently spends a lot of time and effort re-producing an idea that’s already been done, but it’s fantastic when they spend that time and effort producing something really new. Cool new settings, interesting new mechanics, or nifty new character options are always welcome.

New spins on old ideas:
Even if a homebrew doesn’t produce anything entirely new, a new spin on an old idea or subject often sheds new light on an old subject which can extend far beyond the homebrew in question, even backwards as you reinterpret material in light of the new spin, giving new life and new possibilities to stuff that had already “gelled” so to speak.

Serving the community:
Every homebrew appeals to some segment of the population, or it wouldn’t have gotten made. Given that, it’s unlikely that ONLY it’s creator appreciates it, and that’s fantastic. The more options available, the more likely everyone can find something they like, and the happier our community is, and the more likely it is to retain users.

Unfettered creativity:
When you’re creating a homebrew, it’s usually for home use, or for small-scale sharing, so you’re not worried about marketing or what the critics will say. Instead, you’re free to make whatever damn thing you want, which means a much greater pool of material than a more formal market would support if we all had to worry about which demographics we appealed to and what the censors would say.

So those are my lists. Why are they wrong? What did I miss? This is all subjective stuff, so I want to hear what others think!

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "My Love/Hate relationship with Homebrews"

#1 Comment By fmitchell On July 5, 2012 @ 5:55 am

Maybe this is more of a “homebrew and small press” list of peeves, but here goes:

*”Realism”:* Just the word disinclines me to read further. Some systems balance playability with a feeling of realism: I’m reading RuneQuest 6, and it’s doing a bang up job so far. In most cases, though, it means lots of charts, tables, die rolls, and bookkeeping.

*Setting description logorrhea:* As I get older I get less patient with page upon page of imaginary history, religion, invented names, etc. especially with no index and no introduction. Give me the skinny on the world, continent, nation, region, city, or whatever FIRST and *then* tell me about the Blahblahs’ beliefs about their yadayadas and how the war against the Hamnu changed them forever. The author might be jazzed about these people and know their history backwards and forwards … but I don’t, and I’m not inclined to learn about it unless the authors meet me halfway.

*Heartbreakers:* The word gets bandied about a lot, but I’m using it in the sense of a game with one or two really cool ideas embedded in a cumbersome system ripped from somewhere else (usually D&D). Again, I don’t feel like trawling through page upon page of mud (or something smellier) looking for that one tiny gold nugget.

#2 Comment By Silveressa On July 5, 2012 @ 6:05 am

I’d say you’re pretty much spot one with most of it, and reminded me of some of the homebrew settings I’ve seen on rpg.net and Strolens.com over the years.

One of the things that annoys me with homebrew settings is when they try to do too much, and feel they have to include every single aspect of multiple genres to the point where none of it really flows together.

When a homebrew focuses on a specific theme or over all tone it usually comes across (to me anyway) as more engaging and playable then the ones that stretch the boundaries of plausibility and include everything possible (ala Rifts style.)

I also get frustrated when an otherwise decent Homebrews shoe horns in last minute additions, be they races, weapons/spells or advanced abilities.

While they sound cool on the surface, they often are hastily thrown together add-ons that are poorly balanced. (often to the point of being vastly over powered compared to the rest of setting.)

#3 Comment By Tomcollective On July 5, 2012 @ 7:35 am

Good article!

Personally I find my patience very low for new systems – period. I just don’t have time or inclination to learn a whole new set of rules I likely wont use more than a time or two. Not to mention having to spend the time and energy teaching others. If the game is truly innovative that’s one thing, but most times my first question is “why not just use rules people know”?

I’ve often wondered how well a systemless campaign setting would do if it were published. Im always more interested in fluff over crunch. Am I alone in this?

#4 Comment By Tomcollective On July 5, 2012 @ 7:43 am


YES! I see this in “comprehensive” city guides and settings. So much information and so little of it compelling or inviting.

When you say “meet halfway “, though, what do you mean exactly? I’m curious about the times when this is done well for people. What draws you in, and what just ends up an uninviting pile of stats and blah blah blarg?

#5 Comment By Razjah On July 5, 2012 @ 7:55 am

[2] – I would love to see a crunch less setting. When I make little homebrew settings and things for my games I have moved towards this so that I can use it with another system if I want to come back.

[1] – Are you looking for s brief summary in 1-3 paragraphs? Or something more like the sparknotes version of the kingdom of Underatha? Either way I agree and wish more people and companies do this. I want to get the gist of a setting when I pick it up in a store, not after I spend time skimming more than 20 pages.

#6 Comment By Alan De Smet On July 5, 2012 @ 10:24 am

*Rules the disagree with the premise.* The most common case is “This is a game about (high or pulp) adventure!” followed by incredibly lethal rules that actively penalize combat and stunts. Other common failures: “This game isn’t about combat,” followed by 30% of the rules being about combat; “This game isn’t about powergaming,” followed by rules that reward powergaming.

*World setting written like a terrible history textbook.* The purpose of telling me about your world and its history isn’t to show me how you’ve thought of every little detail. The primary purpose is to inspire people. A GM should read through and be constantly stopping to take notes on cool potential adventures and plots to entangle his PCs in. A player should read through and have dozens of awesome potential PCs fighting to escape his head and get into play. But instead I get a page dedicated to the creation myth in a game where the gods are basically irrelevant. Instead I get a chapter telling me about all of these super cool NPCs who have absolutely no reason to interact with PCs and vice versa. Instead I get details on the rituals or bureaucracy. Instead I get yet another ex-adventurer barkeep with a detailed menu.

#7 Comment By Gamerprinter On July 5, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

In an effort to avoid the problem areas described above, my published homebrew setting, Kaidan: a Japanese Ghost Story for PFRPG, is an imprint under Rite Publishing. This gives me access to high quality and recognized authors, game designers, editors and illustrators, as well as the industry recognition of a top 3pp to make a more sellable product line. Also being a graphic designer and a professional fantasy cartographer allows me to save money on illustration, page layout and necessary maps (lots of them.)

This helps me avoid many of the homebrew design issues described above.

Using Pathfinder rules, instead of a homebrew system, lets me rely on a recognized ruleset, that is acceptable to a large number of potential customers.

Being both feudal Japan based and horror based, I can attract two distinct genre niches widening its marketability, while giving it a unique position as a mash-up of two genres that have previously not been catered to before.

More than just a game setting, the Kaidan product line includes a 3 part introductory mini-campaign, a free one-shot adventure, 3 race guides, 2 faction guides (so far; samurai and yakuza) and a haunts supplement specific to the setting. Only now am I fully developing the setting handbooks and bestiary through a Kickstarter project that will begin on July 14 (very soon.) So there is lots of GM material, PC options, ready to use adventures and more coming soon.

Despite not being a ‘crunchless setting’, some are using Kaidan material for L5R campaigns, D&D 3.5 as well as Pathfinder which it was designed for. There are many setting specific rules from an easily usable Honor system to a twisted reincarnation mechanic. New monsters, magic items, and many character options (traits, feats, spells, archetypes, prestige classes) further provide the kind of crunch that many PF players and GMs seek.

As a definite design goal and agreed upon by many of the product reviewers, Kaidan is a very unique setting so everything feels fresh and new. Because of my unique heritage and familiarity with Japanese concepts that have never seen the light of day in previous oriental settings, Kaidan reflects authenticity in source material that most western game designers have no knowledge of and never presented in an oriental setting before.

I think I’ve successfully avoided all of the problematic issues in homebrew design, at the same time including most of the positive points described above. Working with other professionals have greatly helped making that so.

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 6, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

Y’all pretty much nailed it, but my pet peeves include:
Lingo that is chosen just to be ‘different’. Don’t make me learn new words for old concepts. (Ahem, Planescape.)
Obvious rip-offs of published or established works. A laser sword is fine for a space opera game, but a group of robed knights trained in their use whose job is to pursue truth and justice? No.
Overpowered techniques, weapons, or spells. I don’t care how much you can argue that the katana was the pinnacle of weaponry, making them so in a game just about guarantees that everyone will have one, making them not-so-special.
Confusing quality with quantity. A 500 page book of rules is not necessarily ten times better than a fifty page book of rules.
Serving multiple masters. You can have pulp, or you can have realism. You cannot have both. (Insert disparate elements as you see fit.)

#9 Comment By BeZurKur On July 8, 2012 @ 4:13 am

You know what I hate? Articles that are merely common forum rants but pretend to have authoritative weight behind them by publishing it to a GM blog but offer no real meaningful content for a GM. That’s what I hate.

What would have been more useful is guidance on taking derivative ideas and adding enough personalization to make them easily referenced but still original. That could have been a meaningful article.

Oh, and the cheap shot… it was cheap, and further cheapened the “article”. Badwrongfun much?

#10 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On July 9, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

[3] – Sorry you didn’t care for it. To be fair, I did say it was my personal opinion, and it IS labeled as “Hot button”, but I will certainly take your criticisms into consideration for future articles. 🙂

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On July 9, 2012 @ 11:21 pm

I lean towards learning new systems for new worlds, instead of creating a new setting and stretching/twisting existing rules for a new setting. As much as I enjoy Dogs in the Vineyard, I don’t think it’d be half as enjoyable underlain by another system. Similarly, if I’m going to play melodramatic superheroes, I’d rather try With Great Power than tweak Champions to match its feel.

That said, that’s mostly a new condition. Throughout my teens and most of my twenties, I was all about building worlds, creating histories, and adapting familiar rules to match the differenced setting. (Heck, the last big D&D game I ran was a collaboratively built homebrew world.) I suspect it’s mostly a case of viewing coherent games and wanting to order it as a complete experience–combined with being lazier (or trusting authors more).