For those game writers, designers, and developers reading this, let me put your mind at ease by saying that this is not about why you’re doing the wrong thing. To be honest, over the last 20 years of GMing, I’ve written custom rules content for basically every single campaign I’ve ever run. So believe me when I say that I am by no means opposed to outside ideas and inspiration for both players and GMs, I celebrate it and I’m extremely proud to live in a day and age where it’s easy to find inspiring ideas.
No, this article is not about why third party content creators should give up, it’s more of a question which I’m hoping you (yes you!) the reader can answer for me.
What I’m really wondering is how well that content goes over at your gaming table, whether you’re a GM or a player.
For a very long time, I played in D&D games where third party content was looked upon with ambivalence by the GM. I can empathize with those GMs; they know that by opening the floodgates and allowing all content, they almost guarantee that players will find weird loopholes in the game that will make life difficult for a GM striving to run a game where the players are challenged, but not bored by continual victory that is easily achieved. So what is a GM to do? Banning all third party content seems to be a more rare approach as it comes off as being quite draconian… I mean, we are playing a game here, right? But if the GM doesn’t ban all third party content, it seems to me that there are only two remaining options. Option 1 is to ban content only from certain third party publishers. The problem here is that all of a sudden, we live in a world where third party content is the norm and it’s gaining popularity very quickly, so the number of sources and publishers is increasing exponentially. Reading all of that content to make a judgment call about which should be banned seems daunting. Option 2 (and I think perhaps the most common) is to allow any third party content, but only after GM review and approval.
For me, Option 2 has been the de facto standard in games I’ve participated in, both as a GM and a player. The problem with Option 2 is that while it gives the GM a lot of control over her own game, it’s been my experience that GMs often want to massage or tweak rules so that players don’t get carried away. We as GMs cannot let the lunatics take over the asylum!
The next step in the process, and one that’s been frustrating for me, is arguing over the minutiae of how the character class / feat / ability / spell works mechanically. I’ve found these conversations draining and seem to take away from the fun of the game for both GM and player, and if I’m being honest, I’ve probably spent more hours of my life than I care to think about engaged in lengthy email debates trying to strike a bargain in this way.
Life has become busier for me as I’ve assumed more responsibilities as life progresses, and I find I have less and less patience for those kinds or righteous crusades. What about you?
If you came here looking for an answer, I apologize, I really only have questions regarding the best way to handle this in the RPGs that you’re currently playing.
The good news is that I do have some thoughts about an alternate solution, though tragically, it’s not one that will fit into your current campaign unless you’re inspired and don’t mind doing a bunch of work.
I wrote Open Legend with a hope of solving this type of problem. I wanted to create a game where the rules only stepped in very briefly and in a much less opinionated way (most of us should already know how draining and painful these rules negotiations can be). There are lots of games out there with a “rules light” approach, but the problem with them is they have a different ability to generate arguments, debates, and hard feelings. Instead of being hyper-focused on mechanics and game balance, what can happen is one of your players says “Hey, this challenge is no match for my Time Traveling Barbarian! I’ll just reverse time 4 rounds and run away before the whole group gets killed.” Obviously that example is intentionally blown out of proportion, but if the rules do little in the way of quantification, then it’s very easy for the game to head down that path.
With Open Legend, I tried to take and create quantifiable answers to only the strategic elements of the game. This includes questions like “What is a fair amount of damage for a level X character to be capable of?”, “What level do I have to be to make an attack that instantly kills an opponent?”, and “If I specialize in a particular attack style, how much more damage will I do than others who haven’t specialized?”. For an RPG to be fun (and viable as a long-term vessel for telling the GMs story that they pour themselves out into) it’s important that it provide a reliable and clear answer to these questions. For gamers with zero interest in strategy, these questions won’t matter, but it’s my guess that a majority of gamers are looking to scratch a strategic gameplay itch when they play tabletop RPGs. We don’t really do a “Blazing Inferno” feat for spellcasters that makes them immune to fire and deal out more fire damage. You would simply take “Attack Specialization: Energy” to be better at dealing fire damage. The loss is that you don’t get to write that cool feat name on your character sheet. The huge win is that you don’t have to spend 20 hours scouring 50 books to find that feat in the first place.
*Retreats from soapbox dodging a hail of eggs and rotten tomatoes*
Anyway, while there’s no denying that I’d love for people to find joy in what Open Legend has to offer, I’m genuinely curious to hear (in the comments below) what your experience has been like when it comes to integrating third party content into your Pathfinder, D&D, Shadowrun, GURPS, FATE, Vampire, Cthulu, or 13th Age games. Do my woes sound familiar to you? Has your gaming group found a clever solution that brings peace and harmony to your gaming regarding third party rules? Do tell!