How many people have been in a game where they or someone else says “Hey, I’ve got this cool idea for a setting. How about we use D&D?”
It can go one of several ways, but usually it ends up with one person (typically the DM) going down a rabbit hole of home-brewing every class, race, weapon, monster and spell in their world, spiraling into an immense project whose size and complexity is at risk of collapsing under its own weight. Sometimes this succeeds, but there’s always that risk of it going otherwise…
Using D&D as a base isn’t a bad thing, really. Most people who get into the hobby play D&D first, since it’s popular enough that new players generally know what it involves. It was my first experience too, both as an intro to the hobby and as the first game I played with friends.
It’s increasingly common for people to want to create their own settings, and personally I love it! Escaping from the same old stories and settings is an important part of a growing creative hobby. People branch out and try new systems with unique settings and rules. When this sort of curiosity starts, that’s when The Decision tends to come up:
- “Hmmm… Unique settings tend to have their own RPG books and systems. Should I buy a new game every time I want to run a different setting?”
- “I want to run a different setting; should I just hack one of the games I already own?”
A difficult decision to make, certainly.
On the one hand, I fully support independent game publishing and design. Getting away from the mainstream systems and into the weird ones (dice pools, exploding dice, narrative mechanics, irregular dice curves, strange character attributes, etc.) is always rewarding, but there are two problems with that in my option:
- It can get expensive. There’s a lot of games out there, more and more every day. You can’t buy ’em all, unless you’re a profoundly rich and charitable person with infinite time on your hands.
- Because there are so many, you’re gonna see a LOT of overlap. How many systems are out there which feature many of the same ideas as D&D, just renamed (if at all)? Elves, Dwarves, Spell-casters and a magic system with huge spell lists, Character Classes with a level-based ability system, d20 rolls for skills, the list goes on and on. And even if the mechanics are different, the setting rarely is. And this doesn’t apply to just fantasy either; Cyberpunk settings tend to suffer this problem as well, post-apocalypse to a lesser extent. Sci fi has a few core systems, but is nowhere near as over-saturated (35,222 entries as opposed to 83,912 for fantasy).
There are certainly many unique systems out there which differ from D&D and its legacy: Mouse Guard, Toon, FATE, Blades in the Dark, Ars Magica, and Zombie World are great games with unique and interesting mechanics, and that’s not even getting into the plethora of amazing Micro-RPGs which boil down a unique setting into a concise package!
But let’s say you want to go your own way, make up your own Unique Lore™, and have more creative control of all the moving parts in the system. You want to HACK.
Hacking RPG systems is a mixed bag, just as much as just buying unique games; they both have a ton of options. Personally I recommend hacking over buying a new rule-set, but that comes with the important decision: Which system to use?
My recommendation is this: go with a system whose rules aren’t too tied up in it’s own world. Of all pieces of advice I have picked up, that’s the biggest one.
A system which is “Hackable” is one where the “Feel” of the game mechanics came be easily moved from one setting to another. Universal Systems such as Cortex Classic (sadly out of print), GURPs, Erwinian, FATE, d20, Savage Worlds, etc. do their best to be as adaptable as possible, though they still carry their own flair to every setting. Rules-Lite is probably the best way to go.
Systems like D&D, The Conan RPG, and Eclipse Phase, whose central systems are so closely tied to their settings, tend to be harder to hack; they require more work in order to adapt them. Often this is because of skill and class systems, but sometimes it is a result of core mechanics as well.
Imagine trying to take D&D, whose rules are primarily based around skirmish combat (particularly melee and short range), and adapt it into a social intrigue post-apocalyptic sci-fi. You’d have to rework almost the entire skill system, remove or change the spell system, and probably find a way to adapt its binary pass/fail system into something with more of a gray area to reflect social intrigue. And at that point, you’ve hacked so much you can’t even claim to be using D&D anymore!
In contrast, RPGs like Vaults of Vaarn, with a simple skill resolution system and minimal detail character creation, can be easily adapted. Most of the game mechanics are light enough that they can be excised without much difficulty. Most of the ‘zine books are world flavor tables anyway! It’s rules-lite, a good mix of potentially deadly and easygoing, and serves very well as a hackable system.
In the end, go with what’s comfortable for you and your group. I’m just here to advise the easiest path. I’d be lying if I said I never did extensive hacks of unhackable systems in my spare time… and no, I’ve almost never gotten a chance to play them either.