On Tabletop RPG Hacks

There are a number of tabletop gamers that started off with video games, and for them, the idea of taking their favorite video game characters and putting them (or something like them) into a tabletop game is a major appeal. I’ve also met some old guard gamers (classic D&D-era) that do similar things after being introduced to a new game, book, or movie.

There’s just something about taking something fun that exists in one form of fiction and transplanting it into another.

This is where we get RPG Hacks.

For those who don’t know, a hack in a tabletop RPG is a way of turning an already existing RPG into something more of what you want, like another setting. These also go by other terms like fanbook (when it’s a full book, anyway), extension, mod, or a plethora of other terms.

Sometimes, a hack is just a simple “I want to play this class but it doesn’t exist. Let’s make it!” Other times, you’ll be tweaking a number of rules, making new skills, and converting your source material into tidbits that will fit with the game.

So why am I bringing all this up? After the last few weeks of talking about RPGs (a review of the Mimic dice pouch, 7th Sea’s 1st and 2nd Edition setting and mechanical differences, and a plethora of Free RPGs), it just seemed fitting. Doubly so because some of the games I mentioned last week are hacks themselves, while others are easily hackable.

Another reason is Tim. Yes, I can blame Tim this time. Once Dishonored 2 was shown, he and a group of my other friends began raving about it, which lead to a discussion about how cool the setting of Dishonored would be as a tabletop RPG.


While I’m still early on in devising my hacks for Dishonored (yes, plural), it got me to thinking of the entire process, which I thought would be fair to share with anyone else considering undertaking such a project.

==Step 0: Decide Your Goal==

This should be self explanatory, but I’ve worked with people that just don’t grasp the idea of having their goals mapped out from the beginning. Are you looking at just designing a single class, or are you looking at converting an entire setting? The last thing you want to do is start out with a class and then have to built an entire setting to go with it and get burned out in the process. Think before you start.

==Step 1: Decide On Your System==

For some gamers, they already know the EXACT system them want, because that is what they are running or know best. Go right ahead to step two in that case!

But what about people who are looking at a game and saying “Huh. . .what would REALLY get the essence of this?” These are the people I like working with, because I do the exact same thing every time I am asked to run a specific type of game.

In this example, I’m working with the video game Dishonored, so I want a game that has tough heroes, quick and exciting combat, and a mechanic that can handle assassinations (or at least make progress on it). I also want a game that can handle social interactions (looking at the various NPCs here that help Corvo and how they get their intel), and doesn’t fall apart when you have someone with special powers fighting someone without them. It’d also be nice to have a mechanic that isn’t level-based, as the progression we see in this game is more speed of plot (and finding objects) than a level grind.

My two current winners here are Fate (any version, really) and 7th Sea 2nd Edition. Other games are workable and I have a plethora of ideas as to how to do it, but I don’t believe they have the right feel for what I would expect. Added bonus: I did an Assassin’s Creed style session using Fate, so I know full well that a chunk of what I want is already here.

I swear, you can do just about ANYTHING with this game

Note how I completely omitted the d20 system. This is mostly on purpose as I’m not a fan, but it’s also the issue with class and level-based systems (more on that in Step 2).

==Step 2: Do Your Homework==

The next step, once I know which game I want to work with, is to do some basic searches. Some of these are as simple as “<Inspirational Game Name> RPG” or something along those lines. Sometimes, other fans have jumped on the bandwagon and have already done the work in such a way that any personal effort is moot. Other times, another fan has done some work but it’s clunky in parts that you know you can fix. If you can rely on someone else’s work to build off of, why not use it instead of reinventing the wheel?

There’s also the need to know your source material. What are you trying to pull from the source material? What specifics do you need to know about the setting? How does it all fit together with your goal?

In my case, I want a hack for Dishonored. Searching for a hack using Fate, I didn’t find much that was still out there. Someone was working on something close to it, but it has just as much (if not more) inspiration from the Thief games, and they changed the setting to be more colonial instead of psuedo-Victorian whalepunk.

As 7th Sea 2nd Edition just went live to backers only, there’s not much in way of hacks yet. In fact, most of us are more concerned about ensuring we understand the nuances of the rules and are discussing how to bring back old concepts from the 1st Edition.

As I mentioned before, I didn’t bother with d20 or any D&D or level-based game. Why? Because it’s a headache. There are multiple threads about how you’d have to build a character like Corvo, and it’s a 15-20 level endeavor with lots of tweaks. At that point, you’re spending more time building the character than playing what you want. I’m not saying you can’t do it, but as someone who wants to play a specific character sooner rather than later, it’s a deal breaker.

==Step 3: Know Your System==

This is another thing I cannot emphasize enough. Read the rulebook(s) of the game you are planning to hack. Know the rules, understand their limitations, and see what you can do with them.

Again, I cannot emphasize how important this is.

On one hand, this is a good step to see if the game you selected actually is a good fit. Does it meet the necessary criteria for your goal? Does it have the necessary mechanics, or at least the bones of them, to complete your task? Is it still fitting to the feel you are going for?

There are times you’ll find pitfalls in your chosen game. This is where you’ll need to focus some of your efforts when you’re working on your hack, as you’ll either need to shore up these issues or come up with alternatives. If you are rewriting the entire game, you either have the wrong game or you will be better off with building from the ground up (and no longer making a hack).

I’ve run into too many people that had great ideas but refused to even understand the rules they were trying to change and why they existed in the first place. Such is life, but I want to try to get people to avoid doing that.

With my project, I know my rules pretty well. There are a couple of spots I can refresh myself on (I know I’ll need that), but anything I don’t know, I can look up pretty quickly.

==Step 4: Start Small==

Another hurdle most people face is the simple concept of “biting off more than you can chew.” I’ve seen many a great idea fall apart because they want to do ALL THE THINGS.

Start small. Trust me. You’ll thank me for it later.

You’ll thank me for this later.

Pick one element of your project. Are you converting the entire setting over? Then start with one of the mechanical quirks, like specific powers. Only converting powers because the setting is moot? Then look at the simplest one, or whatever one is “first” that builds up the rest.

By doing this, you can once again see where your selected rules stand out and fall flat. By catching some of the smaller issues, you can build up and fix the bigger ones once you get there.

Let’s look at my example of Dishonored. My main concern is getting the powers translated, as most of the equipment is easy to work with in the games I’ve selected (mostly narrative), and the setting notes are just background.

Fate uses a mechanic of Aspects and Stunts. Aspects are descriptive things to give you bonuses, so we don’t need to worry about that as they are selected by the character. Stunts are where we get crazy, because stunts either allow you to do something you normally couldn’t or give a flat bonus when doing a specific thing. In this case, I’d pull out my list that I’d need to ensure was in the game (stealth, assassination, the various powers like Blink and Wind Blast) and compare it to what already exists. There are already a number of stunts that meet the bill, so I’d just need to use current stunts as guidelines for new ones (like the Blink power). Depending on which version of Fate I am using (Fate Core, Dresden Files RPG, or Fate Accelerated, in my case), I might even have more ready to go that just needs a minor rename. From there, it’s just adding some setting specific details like objects and monsters, and we’re ready to go.
It helps that I did some Assassin’s Creed inspired stuff before, so I have plenty of notes and tags to pull from to make this process even easier.

“Marked by the Outsider” would totally be an awesome Aspect, and Dresden Files Fate already covers this with “Marked By Power.” Sweet!

7th Sea, on the other hand, is going to be a bit more in depth, as there is little support for the game at the moment (the final draft of the book did, literally, just come out for backers, and will be released for everyone to purchase in the coming months), so we only have a core rulebook to go off of.

7th Sea’s character creation rules use Backgrounds to give characters skills and special abilities. As some of these are Nation specific in 7th Sea, new ones would have to be created to match the various islands in Dishonored, and a number would have to be omitted or tweaked to better fit the setting. This would be a good first place to start. Afterward, I’d have to get into the Advantages; a number of these are great as-is, but some of the things I’d want for the setting are missing (more assassin or whaler specific options), so I’d have to create them. The final necessary tweak is in the supernatural abilities, as the current Sorcery options wouldn’t be compatible with the Outsider’s gifts (but they do offer some guidelines to work off of, though!).

As you can see with both of these, I’m not really reconfiguring many rules, but adding new things to the game to expand it’s versatility. Think of it like a campaign setting book for Dungeons and Dragons; you get new classes, new gear, new spells, and new feats (in newer editions, anyway). Only this time, you’re making them all up yourself.

==Step 5: Testing==

Before you let loose with this at your gaming table (as either GM or player), sit down with people and get their input. Run a few mechanical tests by building characters, adding whatever progression bonuses it allows, see how it handles in most situations, and general get people to offer input on whether or not you are missing something.

This step can take as little or as long as it needs. I’ve seen some groups hammer this portion out in just a few hours (i.e. I’ve DONE playtests for rulebooks in a similar fashion within 3 hours, not including reading the book), while others can take months. It’s really a matter of what you feel is missing and what you feel needs to be improved upon.

For my project, a part of this is sending it out to my Dishonored-loving friends that know the rules and seeing what they think of it. As I’m working with mostly narrative games, it’s just ensuring that what I write is scaled with the rest of the material, and I’m good to go.

==Step 6: Finishing==

This is the last step, and it is actually entirely optional. This is the point you add in whatever else you need for your hack. Do you need some blurbs on the setting, or how your new abilities will fit into the campaign world? Are you going to edit your formatting a specific way to make it look like an in-setting document? Are you adding artwork?

Again, most of these are optional, but there are some hacks that pull out all the stops and really get you into whatever it is you are looking at.

==Step 7: Play==

This is everyone’s favorite part: getting start on the game and having fun. Isn’t that why we went through all this work?

Time to roll the bones!

==Final Thoughts==

This sort of project isn’t for everyone. It can be time consuming, takes an almost complete understanding of the rules, and is a true labor of love. That does’t mean you shouldn’t try it, just be prepared for a long process.

Some of you may be wondering “Where’s your hack, then?” Well, the one for Dishonored isn’t done. In fact, I haven’t completely finished a hack yet due to either not having the right amount of time (real life gets in the way) or having access to the right systems for the idea (and trying to make a system that doesn’t work fit is a waste of time). I normally finish the powers/rules stuff, then lose the interest in transferring all of the necessary setting stuff for whatever reason (again, mostly time), so my hacks are never truly “complete.” At the moment, I have the ideas to finish the Dishonored hacks, and I’m slowly working on them, but there are many irons in the fire at the moment (both literally and figuratively), and writing up a hack isn’t a fast process. Hopefully I’ll be able to share it in time for Dishonored 2!

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