PVP - Published Content vs Personal Creativity in Tabletop Role-playing
Benefits of Published Content - One size fits most
Published content for role-playing games provides benefits to gamers in a number of ways. First and foremost, the majority of these works(particularly for large games like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder) are provided by some of the best creative minds in the business, with the added bonus of having art, marketing, and quality assurance functions that aid in providing a polished, approachable product. This pedigree and creative process normally benefits in game balance and presentation, providing an experience that strives to be scale-able for all members of any tabletop group.
But what if you don't have a tabletop group? Do the benefits of large publishing houses still hold true for those just starting their tabletop gaming journeys? In a word - yes. Having an established set of content that is available for prospective players at their nearest Friendly Local Game Shop provides comfort and access, and gives fledgling groups a universe around which to develop a mutual interest. To go a step further, the potential for having a shared level of knowledge and familiarity with systems that might be charitably described as "arcane" can generate great discussions and increase understanding when explored mutually by a group. To that point, many gaming groups can trace their origins back to their shared enthusiasm for a published setting or system, rather than a pre-existing relationship.
Gamers meet content, content brings gamers together - it's a love story as old as our hobby (and specific to it)..
Benefits of Homebrew - tailor-made for your pleasure
We've extolled the virtues of published content thus far in our musings, but what about our organic, independently sourced options from the homebrew sector? There are benefits there too, right? Absolutely. The hazards of published content are some of the core strengths of homebrew. Any product made for wide, generalized play aims to get most of it right, but stops short of getting it all right, because frankly, that is an impossible and unattainable goal. No system seeking a place at millions of individual tables is going to exactly match all the desires of the myriad unique personalities that show up week after week to adventure in the seats surrounding those tables. This is where homebrew content sees its first and most formidable benefit - adapting to a smaller core audience.
What does this look like in practice? Well, it can take many forms. For instance, I have known gamers that have struggled to find satisfaction in worlds steeped in magic. I know it sounds strange, but trust me, they are out there. Despite having a burning interest in tabletop gaming and shared narratives, they were hard-pressed to identify a published setting where magic was not featured front and center. Enter homebrew, the hero of the day, providing a tailored experience to meet the needs and desires of these groups.
Without homebrew, gamers like this may not ever find a foothold in our favorite hobby.
The above situation is a statistical outlier, but they do exist. But what about more traditional groups? How does homebrew benefit them in ways that published content may not? I've got 3 words for you - creative collaborative experience. Published content may do a great job of setting the stage for adventures with most groups, but at the end of the day, the majority of those adventures exist with a caveat - whether the players and their characters exist and participate or not, the setting exists. For most gamers, this is fine, but what about those seeking a deeper, more connected experience? Homebrew addresses this by allowing a group to collaboratively create a setting, be it a town, a region, or an entire world, that literally does not exist without them. Choice and artistic license become paramount in these instances. Perhaps all the players are not actually mortals, but demi-gods, adventuring in a world of their own creation. This opens a world of possibilities not often seen in commercially published products.
Homebrew's adaptability also allows for more focused or curated gameplay. Perhaps players are not interested in a particular facet of traditional tabletop games. Maybe the role-playing aspect isn't really there for them; they show up to spend time with their friends and sling dice to determine the outcomes of theoretically fights (Goku vs. Superman anyone? I know you've probably thought about it). On the other end of the spectrum is the role-play or intrigue heavy game, where a sword is never lifted "on-camera," and power is wielded via parliamentary procedure or omnipotent oratory. While published systems may exist for these focused gametypes, the reality here is that homebrew more often than not supports these specialized games.
Pitfalls of unchecked creative license
That's not to say that all homebrew ideas, systems, and games are paragons of quality interaction - far from it. In fact, for many gamers, the mere mention of the term "Homebrew" elicits a sharp intake of breath, the rolling of eyes, and everyone's favorite finishing move for the receipt of bad news, the deep sigh. Brushing the prevailing sarcasm aside, there is a reason for that. Most well-traveled gamers (those who have played a multitude of different games and systems with different groups and/or pickup games) have likely had a bad experience with homebrew.
Pickup games in particularly can suffer from this. As a former counterman at a Friendly Local Game Shop, I have both participated in and overheard no shortage of pickup games - stories whose origins were recorded via hastily scrawled text upon college-ruled parchment, and stuck unceremoniously to a bulletin board at a local rec center. Whilst the promise of high-adventure is ever-present in these adverts, the resulting adventures can vary in quality and outcome, particularly when "homebrew" is in the mix.
I have witnessed and experienced first-hand how off the rails this can go. A homebrew game, lodged firmly and solely within the mind of an intrepid gamemaster, becomes the stage for a group of strangers with different expectations to seek mutual entertainment. Where a published setting would offer some common knowledge to bind the group together and foster a level of comfort, a homebrew setting can potentially vest all of that knowledge (and power) in a single participant. This doesn't even begin to explore balance issues (they exist in published content - where there is quality assurance testing) that propagate in systems not tested and refined over countless refinement cycles.
While this certainly doesn't in and of itself spell doom for a game, the reality is that it does make that outcome more likely. The number of times I have observed, mouth agape, struck speechless, as a group disintegrated due to a disagreement regarding a homebrew game can be counted on two hands (and that is plenty).
"That's not fair!" "How is that even reasonable?" "But…why?" "That's not how it works in Edition X!" Bags packed, tables and birds flipped - Fin
Now, the above scenario can also happen in a published setting, and is likely more a treatise on immature gamemastery or the hazards of pickup games than it is on homebrew specifically. That said, homebrew gets a bad (possibly inappropriate) rep because of how frequently it features prominently within these horror stories. We all have that one friend who is waaaaaaay into tabletop gaming. Ask him for his worst tabletop experience sometime. Chances are, it has a homebrew element.
The salient point here is that homebrew content is a powerful tool - one that if left unchecked or untested certainly has the power to capsize a game and have players scrambling for the lifeboats.
By this point, you may be asking yourself "why in the world would I ever pursue homebrew ANYTHING!? You've completely ruined this for me." My apologies - that is most certainly not my intent. Beyond that however, role-playing fails to function meaningfully at the crazy level of success it is currently experiencing without homebrew. All published content was once someone's homebrew. House rules, like eschewing encumbrance and spell components? That's homebrew. Taking a class that might underperform, or otherwise not match the flavor and setting of your game, and modifying it? That's homebrew.
Drizzt Do'Urden, of House Do'Urden (or Daermon N'a'shezbaernon, if you're a purist), drow ranger, bucker of trends, protagonist of one hundred and eleventy published stories, hero since 1988? Homebrew.
I'm sure you get the idea.
What conclusions can we draw here? Well, to my mind, that's easy. There is room for both published content and homebrew hijinks at most tables. The two are not mutually exclusive, do not exist in a vacuum, and most importantly - they benefit from each other's company. For the widespread masses out there, published content offers great value. And for the times when it doesn't quite work, when we are in pursuit of of the Goldilocks Principal of making it "just right," homebrew will be what we turn to.