Thursday, August 22, 2013

RPG Hacks: Threat or Menace? aka "Stop Me Before I Port Again..."

I can’t leave well enough alone. And judging from the posts I see on “The Interwebs” other GMs can’t either. A couple of weeks ago I played 13th Age in an online demo run by Aaron R that sold me on the game. I loved the bits and pieces I saw, especially the Icons. These significant figures anchor the details of the setting and also have practical mechanical effects in the game. So immediately I started thinking about how you could rework them- port the concept to another system, rewrite the Icons to build a different game world, or modify the system for interacting with them. This before I’d even finished reading the rule book. I’ve seen posts up already for Owl Hoot Trail with new races and roles, likely before those GMs have actually sat down and played the game. 

What’s wrong with us?

I’m considering this because our next Play on Target recording will tackle the undying gaming debate: Does System Matter? In the last week I’ve seen posts on both sides of this issue- from "Joe the Lawyer’s" suggestion that game design’s a fraud to "Walking in Shadow’s" assertions that system is crucial. Bouncing around I’ve realized that hacking games necessarily buys into the premise that system, at the very least, does something. Rules revisions, reworkings, and reskinning isn’t a question of Rule Zeroing the game, but rather retooling the system before we even get to the table…often before we’ve even finished reading the book. I recall Ken & Robin podcasting about the odd responses they’d get from draft materials. More often than not, these came from people who’d read but not played. They hadn’t seen the actual dynamics of the game. When Laws asked for best practices articles for the DramaSystem supplement Blood on the Snow, he had to specify he only wanted submissions from those who’d actually played the game.

I’ve been trying to think of another form of entertainment where I start deconstructing and revising right out of the gate. Non-interactive media like novels, movies, and comics don’t and can’t elicit that reaction. I can decide to stop watching/reading it maybe and come up with a lovely idea about how the rest of the story ought to go. I can write fan-fiction about it, but that feels different. Some people do rework/recut these products later- and I think that’s the closest. But usually that comes from a love of the core ideas rather than the knee-jerk “hmmm…I’d do that mechanic differently” I engage in. I don’t do the same thing with board games- reading rules and immediately deciding that won’t work and changing it. In fact, single-play suggestions that something’s broken bug me. My gut says you need to play a board game several times to come to an assessment like that. But I don’t follow that with RPGs. I guess the closest analogy would be Legos. There’s a cool model with instructions, but maybe I really wanted the set to create something else. So I don’t end up building the model or playing the game I’ve bought.

For example, consider my weird relationship with Legend of the Five Rings. I’ve always loved samurai stuff. When the CCG came out in ’95 I convinced many in the group to buy into it. I stayed with it for the first several expansions, trying to collect complete sets more for the chance to figure out the world than anything else. I worked on how we might play the setting with GURPs or another generic system. Eventually I developed a set of miniatures rules to play out L5R skirmishes. That became Ge Koku Jo, the first thing I published.

Then the Legend of the Five Rings rpg came out (and later the Clan War miniatures game). I liked having the setting details in one place, and appreciated the splat books, but the system didn’t grab me. So rather than sitting down and trying it out and working with it, I went an entirely different direction. I completely rewrote the material to make a Rolemaster Standard System version of the rules. And I ran a full campaign with it. It wasn’t a great fit, but the game ended up with a nice arc. Some years later I decided I wanted to run L5R again. By this point AEG had moved on to the 2nd edition rules and the d20 Oriental Adventures version. I picked those up and read through them. And then I completely rewrote the system as a Storyteller hack. And I ran a long campaign using that which was pretty fun. But it wasn’t great and some interesting bits about the original setting didn’t work through as well. Last year the group decided they wanted to play L5R again. I’d picked up most of the lovely and striking L5R 4e books. So of course I decided not to run using that. Instead I opted to work with the homebrew we’d been playing for over a decade, Action Cards, combined with some elements from FATE. That’s what I’m running right now.  There's a cost: AEG keeps putting out interesting supplements for L5R, each now requiring translation into the system I’ve settled on.

What sickness is this?

Based on what I’ve seen, I suspect this syndrome has infected many GMs. But at the same time, I read posts on Reddit and other places from DM’s terrified about a scenario they’ve come up with or fearful about changing the least little detail in their world. They’ve made an ancient curse the heart of their story but the cleric’s going to level and get Remove Curse which "will break their story." They see the rules as written, with any slightest deviation as a violation. So we have gamers on both extremes- does one approach dominate? I blame my upbringing for my endless desire to cut, snip, and rewire. We moved away from D&D pretty quickly, with the few instances heavily modified or done with extra 3rd party books. Our fantasy system of choice for many years was Rolemaster. RM might seem like an elaborate and rules-dense system to the outsider, a massive and gothic structure. In truth it offered a ramshackle, sprawling, and leaky construct closer to the Winchester Mansion. Even the core books had tons of optional systems. Each RM Companion added new rules, meant for the GM to pick and choose. By the third volume they had to have checklists printed so playgroups could track with of hundreds of often contradictory mechanics could be used. Outside of fantasy my formative experience came from systems which encouraged hacking at restructuring: HERO and GURPS. The lack of a strong default setting meant we could twiddle and tool endlessly.

I remember doing this with many other games over the years. I spent a couple of months working out a GI Joe comic book adaptation for Danger International. The same trying to figure out a way to get Ninja HERO to simulate the epic martial arts of the Jademan Comics. We crafted a fantasy framework for Champions before Fantasy Hero came out. When I first ran Changeling the Lost, I used our house system instead of World of Darkness. That was a bunch of work, but I wanted to run it with a system I enjoyed and thought could handle the game better. I ran a Scion campaign with the original system, but the next campaign I did a FATE hack.

Is this pretty common? Do most GMs find themselves reading a new game book and immediately think: nope, we’ll need to change that; this’ll never work at my table; or I could steal that concept to use somewhere else? Is that a shitty and arrogant response on my part to the text?

I mean here’s the thing: clearly these games have some viability. The authors have played and playtested it and gotten something out of it. I take that as a basic assumption for any professionally published game. And yet my first instinct going in is a critical one. Not the classic reviewer critical one, but like someone walking through a house with an eye to refurbishment. Sometimes I’m walking through the rooms describing to someone who’s lived in there for years all the walls I’m going to knock down. I had this experience the other day with 13th Age. I’d only played it once so by rights I shouldn’t have had an attachment. Yet when Derek, reading through the book for the first real time started talking about how he didn’t care for the backgrounds mechanics and might tweak those up…weirdly, my reaction was a defensive one. That’s karma I suppose for the times I’ve ripped the guts out of a game someone likes to get a different effect. Or perhaps they didn’t care…I’m not sure.

Note here that I’m not necessarily talking about the games meant to be eminently hackable- the rules light and modular games available on the market. The most archetypal those today would be FATE. Now FATE Core’s the new default, but consider all the other flavors of FATE (and its predecessor FUDGE): Legends of Anglerre, ICONS, Diaspora, and Strands of FATE. They’re radically disparate reworkings of the basic DNA of a standard system. Apocalypse World’s the other new hack of choice for gamers as well- generating completely new approaches. These aren’t just about coming up with a new setting using the base rules- but really retooling the system or else porting over completely a game from one system to another.

Of course sometimes you need hacks to make the game work for you. My Changeling hack came from loving the concept, but wanting a streamlined game. The way we played GURPS for years- dropping options, cutting the modifiers, discarding reaction rolls, and other sub-systems- came from a desire to speed things up. I’ve mentioned my players’ split reaction to GUMSHOE: love the investigation side, hate the standard resolution one. That means I have to figure out how to split the difference- hopefully while maintaining some elegance to the game itself. My group likes many of FATE’s concepts, but they hate the dice- so I have to figure out something to solve that.

On the flipside, if I’m running with people online, my instinct is to play as straight as possible. I mean I might pay less attention to the crunchy bits of the system, but I’m not going to do a radical rewriting. I’m not going to present a large-scale cobbled together new game. That scares me a little- hence my choice to run Changeling online with pretty straight WoD (for better or worse). When I ran M&M I made modest changes- mostly to accommodate map scales. Because we’re not in the same room, I don’t want to slow the game down with rules explanations. And perhaps I’m a little afraid that hacks open me up to “why would you do that?” arguments at the table. I’m not sure if it’s a question of courtesy to the players or fear of having someone spot the lynch-pin of my cobbled together system and yanking on it. I can get away with these hacks at the f2f table mostly because I have a group of non-purchasers.

I should stop there. I got the new Iron Kingdoms recently and I’ve been looking over it. I like the setting and the options, but the system doesn’t quite work for me. Maybe I could do it with FATE, but with a different set of dice, like 2d10. Or perhaps I could completely rework things and use 13th Age as the basis…national leaders could be Icons...backgrounds could be further developed into a skill list…

Tell me I'm not the only one doing this...