Your world, your game, your rules.
(No, this isn’t a terrorism site explaining how to build a rocket launcher, my apologies if you were misled by the article title. )
First off, go read this for context – http://www.neogrognard.com/article/352/bag-of-feats, as it’s full of good points I couldn’t make anywhere near as elequently.
Leaving feat mechanics aside, I’m going to focus on two specific thing touched on in the article: “the game as imagined vs the game as played”, and “most RPGs are designed with the idea that they are unified theories of what the game world looks like”.
RPGs tend to be written around how the developer(s) believe it should be played. That’s a fairly obvious and redundant statement, I guess, but there are often people that will poke through the rules, looking for any exploit they can find. These people usually try and pass this off as “optimizing” (admittedly there’s a grey area between the two), when they’re just annoying the hell out of everyone else. Well, they’re annoying the hell out of me, and that pretty much means the same thing in my book You can usually tell when the line is crossed when someone pulls out a rulebook and has to point to a specific rule to back up the incredibly stupid thing they just said they were doing. Generally, if it doesn’t seem right to the DM and the players, it’s probably not, whatever the rulebook says.
Sometimes, this isn’t such a bad thing. Sometimes it leads to ludicrous situations such as “druids being ridden by the gorilla animal companions decked out in full plate and a lance” mentioned in the aforementioned article. However, this is why we have a DM – if RAW (Rules As Written) really was enough, you wouldn’t need someone in the DM role to act as final judge on their execution and to attempt to ensure the game was fun and balanced.
Now, I’m not talking about House Rules here – they’re a great thing, and sit parallel to mods for computer games – they let people play the game they want to play as opposed to the almost-but-not-quite-perfect one they bought. I’m in danger of going off in a rant here on Rules Lawyers and the ninety-nine best ways to cause them to die painfully, so time to get back on track.
Lets take the other thing I pulled out of that article – the idea of the rules essentially being the “physics” of the game world. You can go a bit further, and take them as being the physics of a movie set in the game world, because the main characters (the PCs and the major NPCs) are often capable of things normal inhabitants of that world are not and will be focusing on non-mundane tasks. The rules often reflect this, either directly or implied.
You can see this in the differences between various game systems. D&D mechanics are geared towards combat, because it’s assumed you’ll be playing combat-orientated stories. Call of Cthulhu is written more towards the assumption that PCs will be utilising academic skills. The various Star Trek RPGs over the years tend to have focused on skills for operating starships and various other pieces of technology.
I’ve always loved taking a system and turning it on its head, placing its focus elsewhere than the designers originally intended. The various D&D versions over the years have spawned unofficial “Sage” classes, for example, that give players the option of a non-combat-orientated character. This may have been the polar opposite to the direction the game rules went with 4e, but it shows that groups have always been empowered to play the game they want, without having to throw the rules away and play something else. It’s also why a real RPG will always beat a computer RPG, at least until we have Star-Trek-style holodecks that allow us to give them instructions in plain english to modify the game rules.
The “bags of feats” idea from the article I mentioned at the beginning is a big step towards giving groups their game world, as opposed to the game developer’s one. I don’t think this actually goes far enough – you need a full “plugin” system of feats, skills, and optional game mechanics (including a “sanity” rule à la CoC is a good example of this) so the game can focus on the type of story the group wants to play. No matter what you may have been told, a non combat-orientated variant of D&D is not an impossibility. The more I think about it, the more I think d20/D&D 3(.5) went in the right direction here when you look at some of the innovative addons third-party publishers built into the system (just look at Mongoose’s d20 Babylon 5 RPG for an example), but at the cost of bloat and complexity. 4e is a far neater, organised system, but doesn’t have the flexibility. We’ve seen both extremes – maybe now it’s time to meet somewhere in the middle?