I have never understood game-hacking, because for me, if I’m going to spend a lot of time making something, I want it to be MINE, and I feel like the idea of hacking conflicts with that. Of course, that’s really a false dichotomy; things aren’t so simple and clear cut because inspiration comes from all around us.
I may not set out to hack myself, but I can respect the fact that deliberate hacking is part of many larp communities and the indie gaming scene, and it’s something a lot of people enjoy. I have many friends and acquaintances who revel in a good hack, for whom it is a form of corrective love or just an awesome play experience. Surely, I thought, I must be missing something. So I set out to unravel some of the ins and outs of hacking for you, dear readers.
What is a game hack?
It’s where you tweak the rules, setting, or other aspects of an existing game to make something slightly or drastically different. As Alan De Smet point out on my Facebook page, “‘Hack’ covers a lot of territory.”
It’s helpful to think of hacking along a spectrum. On one end you’ve got house rules, where a game master alters rules in a minor way to suit their group and style of play. A common one for Dungeons & Dragons, for example, is to make 19 and 20 both count as critical successes, rather than simply the latter. At the other end of the spectrum you’ve got stuff like Joe Mcdaldno’s Monsterhearts, about teen monsters in love, a game published in its own right and popular in its own right, but based on system from Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, or Martin Bull Gudmundsen and Ole Peder Giæver’s Itras By, a surreal 1920s cityscape, shares a simple resolution deck with Matthijs Holter’s Archipelago.
Like most middles, the center of this spectrum is squishy, encompassing customized one shots, and probably a lot of other things I didn’t come across in my limited research.
What are setting hacks and system hacks?
A setting hack is what happens when you alter the setting for a game but leave the system otherwise intact. For example, Kira Magrann recently took the Norwegian high school larp drama Play the Cards by Tyra Grasmo, Frida Jensen, and Trine Lise Lindahl and did the work to transform it into a Game of Thrones larp. That sounded kind of awesome.
A system hack is what it sounds like, I think–it’s a hack of the system of a game to permit different sorts of play. I don’t know too much about these, because while rulebooks have their place, they’re not my jam, so I don’t play games with strong systems very frequently.
Isn’t hacking a game just like plagiarism?
Not if you consider the movie Clueless plagiarism of Jane Austen’s Emma. There’s kind of a fine line between getting inspired by something and just lifting it, but in the indie community, at least, hacking seems to be like DJ dance sets–remix it, switch it up, and you’ve got something new.
As indie designer Vincent Baker told me, “Game design is a conversation between designers. Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week, Dungeon World, the rest of them–they aren’t ‘hacks,’ they’re answers to Apocalypse World. And then, because game design has to be evident to be played, every game is an invitation to join the conversation.
As I said above, the line is fine, fuzzy, and may not exist at all. Different people have different thresholds for when a game becomes its own thing. Fiasco creator Jason Morningstar thinks it’s a marketing question–when it’s published, it is its own thing, commercially at least. Baker says, “I think every game is a hack of the games that came before[…] Maybe another way to say all this is that I don’t see where you could possibly draw the line between hacking games and designing new games. Wherever you draw that line, games exist that will defy it.”
Morningstar agreed. “I am with Vincent on this, all games are hacks (including original D&D). But the impulse to very specifically build on somebody else’s work at a high level is, for me, the result of a straightforward heuristic – does a game exist that does what I want? (play that) If not, is there a game that is very close? (hack that).”
Why hack a game?
My friends, it will come as no surprise that there are eight jillion answers to this question. I’m a particular fan of the idea that hacks lower the barrier to design for new designers. I heard from around 10 designers on various social media and email. Here’s a summary of the most common reasons why they hack games:
- We want to play a particular thing and there’s not a game about it yet. “Because sometimes I want to play in a setting, genre, or mindset that a current game doesn’t provide me. So I take that game’s mechanics, and I tweak them for the setting or characters I want to play.”–Kira Magrann
- It lowers the barrier to game design. “For a newcomer, it’s hard to design a game from scratch, but easy to hack Apocalypse World or write a Fiasco playset. So I’m immensely supportive of all that.”–Graham Walmsley
- Why reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to? “[Hacking is] building a game without starting from scratch. Hacking games is like using a recipe. Maybe you don’t know how to balance probabilities. It’s okay, someone has done that and you can just use their system.”–Tim Rodriguez
- Someone else solves your design problem. “”I have a great idea but I run into a stumbling block and table the idea. Later, someone releases a game with a mechanism or technique that gets at the very thing that was holding me up. So, I use that system to test out my idea.”–Marshall Miller
- You can “fix” things. And that’s satisfying. “combining things I love. And making a system I already love applicable with more variation, maybe even ‘fixing’ a thing I didn’t care for. And also because I’m learning so many things in this process. And I find satisfaction in sharing and completion.”–Rachel Walton
- It’s a love letter. “There’s also an element of wanting to claim something you love, just like musicians cover songs. There, it’s not so much adding new context as putting your own spin on it.”–Jared Axelrod
- It teaches you to design. “When you’ve created a hack, you’ve reconsidered each design choice and affirmed or replaced each element of the game. Therefore, hacking is a chance to gain mastery of a game/system by studying it, disassembling it, and re-engineering it. On a base level, hacking also gives you some proven design widgets that you can feel confident about and thus a stable platform to build out from.”–Marshall Miller
What makes a game more hackable?
As several people pointed out to me, all games are hackable. But some of them generate more hacks than others. Fiasco designer Jason Morningstar told me that the most hackable games have, “transparent structures, easy to understand reward systems and mechanisms of play.”
American Freeform designer Evan Torner went a bit further, suggesting that the most hackable games “are built around a core mechanic that always produces interesting play (e.g., claims in Annalise, partial successes in Apocalypse World, bird-in-the-ear in jeepform games, fanmail in Primetime Adventures), and make it patently obvious what the mechanic is encouraging/incentivizing.”
Nanogame and Dungeon Starter designer Marshall Miller suggests that a system that’s good to hack has three qualities. Firstly, it “fit[s] your formal constraints,” whether that means play by forum or a 2-hour con game with strangers. It also “already create[s] the type of story you want to emulate,” meaning that if you want a coming of age story in space, pick a system that supports the coming of age part, rather than the space part. Thirdly, it “[has] useful structures you can capitalize on,” if you want to make a game with character classes, it makes sense to pick a game with character classes to hack. You can change out the names and use the underlying mechanic for your own purpose.
System is the story structure of the gaming world. Maybe.
In tabletop games, hacking makes a lot of sense, as most of them are built on some sort of “system.” System is a tool that shapes and supports narrative and story, but is not identical with it. To make an analogy to writing, I think system is rather like a story structure. In writing, although there are infinite ways to structure a story, we mostly stick to a handful–that handful truly taps into the collective unconscious or whatever it is we want to get out of reading. Narrative roleplaying games is a more recent phenomenon in human history–I’d suggest that these archetypal dynamics are still being discovered–but quite possibly, although there are infinite systems to create, only a handful of them will tap into that deep thing people seek from gaming.
If, as Baker opines, all games are hacks of previous games, then maybe there’s no way out of being a hacker. But to me that lessens the meaning of the word “hack.” I do think there is a difference between the ends of the hacking spectrum, and I think stuff on the far end of the spectrum, stuff like Monsterhearts is more “inspired by” then “hacks of.” And yet, something about the hard use of mechanics in games I think of as hacks, such as Dungeon World, seems more than “inspired by,” I think?
Maybe the way we use the term “hack” is just a little vague, like so much language. Maybe I’m drawing lines in the sand here, but I feel like this is more than a terminology argument, or a philosophical question like “how many grains of sand in a heap?”/”how many changes to make a hack?” After talking with many hackers, I have a better understanding of hacking’s siren song, but still haven’t quite wrapped my arms around it.
Freeform design, the ship of Theseus and the skin suit.
I think my problem might be my perspective. My experience comes from one-shot American freeform design, where a solid system for every contingency isn’t needed. Rather, freeform design relies on certain discrete elements that designers mix and match to produce the end experience. Sometimes, of course, just as in indie games, designers invent or discover new techniques along the way.
To me, in good game design, each element is carefully constructed to add a particular thing to the narrative at hand, and the narrative at hand is pretty specific, as it’s been scripted by scenario designer. (Indie games are a bit looser since so many of them rely on a third party–the organizer or scenario writer as distinct from designer, to create the narrative.) Change the narrative, and you have to change the elements added. You can’t meaningfully hack a game like The Curse, because the structure of the game and the narrative fit together tightly and support one another–they’ve been crafted together–it’s a scenario not a system. On the other hand, there’s little in The Curse that is original aside from the premise, the experience delivered to players (maybe), and possibly the constellation of mechanics used. I borrowed many of the warm-ups and meta-techniques from other games, but I sewed them together into my own monster. Does that count as “hacking” or just inspiration and remixing?
Perhaps, in the end, that’s my beef with “hacking”–to me it suggests derivative re-creation, and that offends my sense of self as a creator; but I’m unsure whether this is really a beef with the method or the term. You start with one thing and change it a little and then a little more and eventually your ship of Theseus is made of all new elements. Depending on the process, the new ship may look exactly as it began, or like wooden horse–something substantially different and only tangentially related to the original. This method is one path to creativity and new narratives, and it is a valid and worthwhile one, but it’s not mine. I prefer starting with my own concept and nipping a little off the pre-existing toes and heels until I can fit the foot into my shoe. Maybe, at the end of the day, that’s the choice and though the results may be indistinguishable, the process is different–do you want to tailor someone else’s suit to fit, or piece together a zombie skin that is then, uniquely, yours?
I’m still forming my ideas on this topic, which means that some of this information is likely incomplete and I reserve the right to change my mind. Got opinions? Stuff I missed? Feel free to post in the comments.
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