Hello students. This week, faculty member Andrew Young (@ThatOneGM) and I start a series that should prove exciting and useful to you all. Enjoy!
Unlike most board games, role-playing games thrive on the creative input of their players. Not only do players take actions and make decisions as their characters, but they also define the game world that their characters inhabit. Typically, everyone at the table, whether player or GM, helps tell a story and create a world in which to play pretend. This creativity is supported by the rules of thegame system. Rules typically define the interaction between players and the fictional world. Sometimes, they help in creating the world itself. Rules can range from extremely detailed to extremely vague. No matter their shape, rules are the tools that make role-playing games possible.
But these tools are flexible. At some point in everyone’s gaming career, they get the creative inspiration to change a rule. Or add to rule. Or make up an entirely new rule. This adds a whole new layer of fun to gaming. This is when players realize that their game is completely customizable.
Sometime, rules just need to be adjusted because they don’t work exactly right, or maybe players want to use a rule in a different way based on how they are playing their game. This type of adjustment is typically called a “house rule.” In general, a house rule is a change to the rules, and it is typically created and used by a single gaming group. Of course, the wonderful internet allows players to share and discuss house rules at length.
Some players enjoy working with the rules so much that they jump into the deep end and start designing their own role-playing games. But there is a middle ground that more and more players are exploring: “hacking” and “reskinning” existing game systems.
Hacking and reskinning are different methods for achieving a similar outcome: transforming game systems. In general, reskinning is taking an existing part of the game (maybe even the entire system) and changing the flavor, but not the mechanics. Hacking is changing some or all of the mechanics (and probably the flavor) of a game to apply them to another setting or genre.
Let’s look at some examples.
In a fantasy game, I could reskin the statistics of a generic thug to use for a town guard or a pirate. The stats for a dragon could be reskinned into a living spell construct controlled by an insane wizard. Or I could use reskinning to change genres. For example, I could take a dragon from a fantasy game and reskin it into a robot that is equipped with a jetpack and a flame thrower for a cyberpunk game.
Reskinning means that ultimately, the thing in question is performing the same mechanical function. A human with a sword and a cyborg with a retractable katana both deal slashing damage, even if they’re fundamentally different on the outside. A dragon and a robot equipped with a jetpack and flamethrower are both big, tough-skinned enemies that can fly and set things on fire.
Reskinning can go even further and be used to change an entire system. For example, I could use the rules for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition to play a game set in a futuristic science-fiction world. Functionally, the rules would be the same. But I would need to rewrite the names of classes and abilities. I would redefine spells and magical items as special weapons or cybernetic equipment. Monsters would become aliens or mutants or robots. But mechanically, an auto-aim laser pistol would work exactly the same as a magic missile spell.
Hacking, on the other hand, means taking an established system of game mechanics and making changes and adjustments—up to and including creating new mechanical subsystems—so that it better fits your setting or genre. It can be as simple as changing all magical healing so that it heals 1 point per die in order to create a darker, more dangerous world. Or it can be as complex as adding an entire subsystem for Honor or Corruption and changing the rules for armor and defense in order to transform a high-fantasy medieval game into a game of politics and personal duels. In both of these cases, the base rules of the game systems remain, but big changes have been implemented to better make the system work for the game the players and GM want to play.
At their core, reskinning and hacking are about manipulating an established game to better serve your unique gaming needs. Mastering these skills is a great way to grow as a GM and learn the trade of game design and development.
This part of the role-playing hobby is intriguing and exciting. In an effort to explore this further, we will be publishing a series of articles that about the process of hacking and reskinning several different game systems. We will transition these articles into the development process of new mechanics for an original role-playing game system.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for next week’s article!