So, I was dreading this moment. We’ve finally got to the point of my articles about universal terminology in the RPG community, where we need to talk about the term ‘homebrew’.
The problem is, I need to talk about this one in a completely different way before I can even engage with it.
Maybe I am a snob or whatever but the way the term is deployed in everyday conversation about our hobby really, REALLY irks me. At a level where it makes my skin itch every time I hear it used in a certain way.
So this is going to be a fairly tongue-in-cheek account of how I personally think we might be misusing a term and how we need to be careful how language evolves. And bear with me; I am about to get deep in the weeds.
What all the wrong people think homebrew is
So, as you know by now, I conducted a survey of a lot of players. When defining the term ‘homebrew’, there was a lot of different definitions that were close to each other, but the clearly agreed definition was as follows:
Made up rather than from an official source. Thus could be a world the DM has designed rather than an existing adventure path, or a custom class, weapon or race.”
Some even threw in storylines that weren’t published by an official company as homebrew. I nearly had a heart attack that this view was so prevalent. Now, bear with me; I am aware that this was an overreaction. But hear me out.
I don’t think that creating your own world or storyline is doing anything additional. This is literally what the game is telling you what to do. It is an act of creation, but you aren’t stepping outside the established game to add mechanics and systems.
You are just playing the game as intended. You haven’t actually ‘brewed’ anything new.
This might seem small, but I think it does something to the way we perceive RPGs going forward because language helps shape perception.
If we think of creating worlds that aren’t supported by RPG companies as ‘homebrew’, then we are saying that deviations in fiction are a thing we have to think about quantifying. That people outside of the GM and players of a game can dictate what is ‘important and we begin to think about things outside a very specific IP as worth less. And this is beginning to have a big impact.
Recently Wizards Of The Coast announced that it had a very specific repository of lore for fifth edition D&D, and anything else, even previously published by them, didn’t count as ‘canon’. And while it isn’t going to affect me, where I have worlds in which Warforged are sort of fey souls in power armour and where Changelings are all grown in vats, I wonder about the impact it would have on newer GMs. Ones who might feel like it is their responsibility to get canon ‘right’ rather than make a thing themselves. Deviating from the path counts as ‘other’, as ‘homebrew’.
That’s my opinion. And I am sort of aware it’s reactionary. And if I take the almost 50 to one outnumbering of everyone on my survey, maybe and need to admit it’s me who is wrong. But if I am, I feel my understanding of the term has missed a fundamental shift in thinking.
So what is going on in this version of ‘homebrew’? How might that show how the RPG community is shifting?
Well, I would conjecture a few things are going on.
Firstly, as some comments on my articles would back up, I am pretty sure not everyone is as semantically obsessed as me.
So there’s been a relaxed approach to the idea of how far a term is stretched to the point that the term has become a massive catch-all category.
There’s definitely an interesting investigation to be had in this direction. Is the term so broad as to be a pointless affectation? If you said ‘in my campaign world’ rather than ‘in my homebrew campaign world,’ would it actually denote different things? Again though, I am arguing semantics.
The other point is that communities evolve. When I first learned the term ‘homebrew,’ it was in the pages of GM magazine, a hobbyist publication only ever printed in the UK. It referred to ruleset and specific changes made by the GM. But when I think back, GM magazine also had lots of advertisements for the now-defunct play-by-mail and play-by-telephone RPGs. By now, evidence is mounting that I need to let go of the past a bit and realise ideas can change.
Once upon a time, we used to have publications like GM, or Dragon Magazine, or Traveller’s Digest, or White Wolf Quartley that told us what terms were in use and how to use them. Our culture was shaped by individual publications dictating terminology.
Now our hobby is a diaspora of thoughts and ideas, and terms. We can have an idea that is thought about only by some sub-communities. What the people in the OSR are discussing is different to the Storygame community, and both are probably alien to a more mainstream player base.
The use of these terms and the invention of new ones create various small communities with their own phraseology. In this context, the fact that I use the word homebrew differently from everyone else is not only not a problem, but it’s also irrelevant.
So, is it all pointless? Has my three-month quest for a shared terminology all been in vain?
Am I attempting to make everybody speak the same language for no reason? Am I trying to smash people into using an accepted phraseology that I dictate like some kind of colonial language oppressor? Have I lost my way? Were the last five articles just me going slowly mad?
I did warn you I don’t like talking about homebrew. It often leads to an existential crisis.
In the next article, I will pull myself together and show how this new way of talking about our hobby is a really constructive thing. We’re going to take a moment to examine the progression of an idea from grassroots to superstardom when we look at our final term from the survey – Session Zero.
Creative Commons credit: Commission 84 by Snook-8, The Last of the Warforged by Captdiablo and The Mother of All Monsters by Dystoper.
Share your thoughts on this article in the comments below.
“So, is it all pointless? Has my three-month quest for a shared terminology all been in vain?”
Don’t worry Robert. If you don’t like this series of articles, the next arc is Completely different. Some people have gotten good stuff out of it but if you aren’t one of them, that’s OK. I talk in the next about how I’m going to recommit to more practical advice. Hope you are finding the new stuff more useful.