Hacking the System: Why Do It?

Have you ever sat back and wondered why there are so many role playing systems out there?  What is the purpose of having so many and which one do I pick?  I know I have had these thoughts many times.  Of course there are a lot of systems out there because people just can’t fine “the one” that suits them but what else leads to new systems being used?  Or more importantly, what if you want to run a game to explore a setting or a topic that interests you?  Surely it would be a Universal system wouldn’t it?  Maybe, maybe not.  Maybe the best thing to do is hack a system that will give you the experience you are looking for.

A regular reader of my blog and posts, Ian Borchardt, sent out a post yesterday about running a post human sci-fi game and was talking about the systems that he would use to do it.  He did this as I have picked up Eclipse Phase recently, an RPG about post human horror/sci-fi.  You are probably thinking, “why does he not use that RPG then?”  Well, the answer is complicated but it revolves around what Ian is trying to achieve with his game.  You see, Ian wants to explore the idea of what is it that makes us human?  He wants to have the sci-fi trans-human trope to be the focus that makes the players and the GM explore this idea.  What can we do, what forms can we hold, and still be considered human?

system hack
Hacking the system involves twisting your mind to see systems in a different context

Eclipse Phase to me so far is a game that focuses on sci-fi and horror in space with an added set dressing of the players playing trans-human characters.  They can inhabit various morphs (biological) or synthmorphs (robotic/android) and pretty much take on whatever form they would like to.  But what I have read of the system (so far – I am only up to combat) kind of treat the morph/trans-human material of the game as set dressing rather than an in-depth exploration of the human condition.  Thus, Ian is looking at other systems to run the style of game that he wants to run.

When you are a new GM you probably just grab a game that kind of suits what you want to run.  A sci-fi fan might grab a version of Traveller, a fantasy fan might grab Pathfinder, a supers fan might grab Mutants and Masterminds and so on.  You are probably more worried about “how am I going to run this game” as opposed to “what experience are my players getting”?  Those two questions have some similarities though, the latter being something that you will question the longer you run games for.

That is the reasoning to why I come at hacking a system.  I read a lot of games.  In fact I read probably three to four times the amount of games than I have ever actually played before.  The reason being I like to see what experience that a games system is good at delivering.  As a games developer you must ask yourself “what experience do I want to recreate with this game?”  After all, if I was creating a game about the film Terminator and I spend a lot of time developing a system for psionics and the socio-political interactions of the 1980’s in India you are just not going to get a Terminator experience from the game, regardless of putting a picture of Arnie on the front of the book.

But if I want to run a game that supports a free roaming narrative style then I know I could use the system in Michtim, FATE or Apocalypse World for it.  If I want to make a game seriously realistic with a lot of realistic trade influences set in space then I might go GURPS.  For a free-form magic style I might hack myself a version of the Maelstrom rules and so on.  Most RPG’s come with two parts.  They come with a setting, the material that makes the game like the big brother computer in Paranoia and a set of rules that realise that setting.  The rules is what I like about reading an RPG (though setting is fun too) because I am always looking for rules that I can steal and use in an existing game or a better setting that I can hack into the game that I have been thinking of running.

Hacking can be as complex as taking only a couple of rules from a few different RPG’s and cobbling them together to create a full system or it can be as simple as taking the whole system from a single game and applying it with a different setting, your setting.  You will make these choices based on the feel of the rules and what they support.  I mentioned that Eclipse Phase seems (so far) to use trans-humanism to be set dressing while a game like Shadowrun to me offers mechanics that explore those differences but not specifically related to the trans-human network.  So what I could do is grab Shadowrun‘s rules and use them to run Eclipse Phases setting if I want to explore what it is to be human.  The Shadowrun rules look at having a statistic (Essence) that measure physically what level of humanity you have and they have a good supported level of mesh (decking) access.  It supplies a great system that I can turn to the investigation of humanity with a little work.  Shadowrun as a whole by the way, fails to explore these in their own modules but you can use it that way.  I always say that Shadowrun tells the wrong stories and that is exactly what I mean.

So, once you have GMed for a while it really pays to think about what you are GMing and why you enjoy it.  It is also good to talk to your group about what they like about the gaming and what they would like to explore.  If you have some extra time, read some other RPG’s and think about what they would be good to run.  Look past the supplied setting and think about how you would use it if you could apply anything in your mind to it.  Do not take for granted that the system that comes with a certain game is the best system to run that game by any stretch of the imagination.  Also, get to know Ian Borchardt on Google + and others like him.  It is rare to not receive a beautifully argued comment from Ian and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of games, both board and RPG’s that you can learn a lot from.  I know I have.  Until next time, keep rolling!

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