Today’s guest article was stitched together by Robert Neri Jr. of Ranger Games Publishing and talks about cobbling together games to make something wholly unique. We’ve inspected the lab equipment and found it up to Gnomish standards. – John A.B. Normal
Game-Masters are already like mad scientists when through either in-play rulings (e.g. building precedence) or directly fabricating rules or guidelines they modify their current gaming system to patch deficiencies or fill in gaps discovered during play regardless of the potential for unforeseen consequences. However, GM’s can go further without blindly stepping onto the unsteady ground of game creation from scratch but still achieve something very similar.
Modifying existing systems is the gateway to creating one’s own full-on tabletop rules-system but like Frankenstein’s monster, missteps and using the wrong parts can lead to disaster or reveal inherent flaws that hamper gameplay. All GM’s who’ve ever spent a fair amount of time running a game in a particular system know of the vicious cycle of modifying the modifications in an effort to keep a current game limping along.
The Frankengame exists in the realm between the patchwork game and game-creation as a sort of gateway. Here, like Doctor Frankenstein in the graveyard, a Game Master can get closer to being the creator of their own system starting not from scratch but from the constituent parts dug-up and snatched from sundry and various places. They will know the system more intimately, allowing them to avoid the vicious cycle when running a pre-fab system and be better able to patch up any flaws in play.
A Frankengame, like its namesake, is created by taking the operative portions of a game system referred to here as Modules and slamming them together to create a functional homebrew mash-up. This in an effort to maximize your enjoyment around the table regardless of whether you or your group are more interested in a more simulationist or storytelling gaming mode or if you and they enjoy a simplified set of rules or rules-heavy systems.
Frankengames are tabletop roleplaying systems cobbled together from the bits and pieces of other games with the bits taken from a minimum of two other unrelated game systems. The newly assembled game should function reasonably well-enough to be used as its own standalone tabletop RPG system. Basically, a Frankengame is a mash-up of bits and pieces from disparate gaming systems built as a sort of custom engine for any given roleplaying group. Similar to the human corpses used by Frankenstein to build his monster, a Frankengame is stitched together from the working organs of other games given all tabletop RPG systems have functional organs which allow them to tick. They have an anatomy.
Basic RPG Anatomy
A roleplaying game system as a unit is a collection of interacting rules that help to determine the in-game actions of characters, at least according Wikipedia. It is also a system of interacting modules, each being a subsystem which allows for the construction of in-game items and resolution subsystems, sometimes even adding to a core resolution system modifying it to some extent based on circumstance.
The Base Modules of an RPG Game System are the Combat System, Skill System, the Mystical Engine (the governing mechanic of the magic & psionic systems as well as any similar such ideas), and the Object Subsystems (governing such in-game objects as weapons and armor). The Character Creation system or mechanic can also be included in these especially if there are several different methods presented for players to create characters in the materials.
Base modules are subsystems found in an RPG system that handle a specific portion of the game but still have a wide enough reach as to be able to have further subsystems within them depending on their complexity, the more complex the longer it takes to make a rule-call or task-determination. As stated before, these Base Modules handle a limited but still broad aspect of the game. This includes such things as Combat that for example can be further divided into such aspects as Vehicular, Barehanded, or even Armed, or can be expanded with smaller sets of rules or increased in complexity by adding a subsystem built off the Base Module to handle one of the different and more specific versions of combat.
At the heart of the game system from which these modules branch is the Core Mechanic. The Core Mechanic is the principle that all the rest of the system works upon. A Core Mechanic is easily expressible as a simple formula for conflict resolution, conflict in this context being an in-game occurrence where an impartial decision is required. Core Mechanics often rely on a single die roll with certain modifiers added and may even rely on looking up that result on a table or even the number of dice rolled as in a Dice Pool. Most systems wear this on their sleeves so it’s easy to get right in there and cut it out so it can share its beat with your homebrewed monstrosity.
Core Mechanic Examples:
- D20 (d20 roll + modifiers vs. a target number)
- Talislanta (d20 roll + Skill or Attribute Rating – Degree of Difficulty; check result to Table)
- World of Darkness (character attributes and skill “pips” together determine the Dice Pool of D10’s vs. a target number)
- Fudge (uses 6-sided plus/minus dice and elevates character attributes rated in an adjective scale (terrible, poor, good, etc.) which is lowered or elevated based on the number of pluses and minuses rolled)
A Game-Master or potential Doctor Frankenstein can simply add in or swap certain Base Modules or subsystems in one system with those from another, although as compared with assembling a completely new system these count more as transplants – but even mad doctors need some practice. A true Frankengame needs to be an actual fusion of at least two other games and be recognizable as apart/different from either of those.
Why would you ever do this!?
Most groups already modify and patch together isolated bits to their favorite systems, and taking that farther into Frankengame territory can not only enrich the Game-Master’s knowledge of tabletop roleplaying systems but can help to build a custom engine that fits perfectly with their style of play as well as answer any needs and wants. The reasons to begin such an endeavor are manifold.
A Few Reasons to Start a Frankengame
- To adapt the rule-set to the group’s play-style and wants, or to better suit the theater of the game (its world and/or setting including era).
- To reflect the level of involvement in certain aspects of the tabletop RPG hobby, i.e. skewed more to story-telling mechanics or to combat and tactical based mechanics.
- To expand the scope or potential of a desired setting or world to include things that an existing system has (probably that already designed for it), exceeding its current limits.
This last point can be satisfied, and usually is, by simply expanding the rules or transplanting specific bits or modules from other systems. You can use your own invented rules or those taken from elsewhere to patch an existing system beyond a simple transplant, birthing something more of a hybrid system rather than a genuine Frankengame. A true Frankengame pushes a bit further.
A Frankengame can maximize your vision for your game world, allowing a deeper level of believability (suspension of disbelief) thus allowing for deeper emotional ties and freeing you and the players to role-play more within comfortable and familiar bounds – bounds better fitted to the tastes of the group. However, this is reliant as much on the conduct of players and the GM as a function of system mechanics.
A Step By Step Guide To Building a Frankengame
To begin the process you have to start with the most vital point of any roleplaying game system from which all else circulates – its core mechanic. From here you can move on to the other points of concern. All other aspects of the game from character creation to all of the modules and subsystems rely on it, they may modify or use it in slightly different ways but all require it to function. There can conceivably be more than a single Core Mechanic but that leads to rules conflicts and expands complexity exponentially, so it is ill-advised to try to add more than one unless absolutely necessary to your vision.
Next, try to decide which subsystems or modules will be necessary for your game to both function and include those aspects which you desire. Note that a module can include more than a single subsystem as well as ‘patch rules’ to shore it up. You also have to figure out what modifications are necessary to fit these subsystems to the Core Mechanic. The subsystems and modules needed for most RPGs are: Character Attributes, Skill System, Item Generation, and Combat System, with the Mystic Engine coming in as optional. Most other tertiary systems are a combination of the aforementioned mechanics such as Character Generation and Monster/Creature Generation using rules and systematic processes connected to the subsystems to produce an in-game character and their abilities.
A word of advice in these first few steps, keep in mind how disruptive players might take advantage of the system and its components to break the game. Also, stay aware of any gaping holes or gray areas in the rule-set as well, though you may want to build-in some gray areas allowing GM rulings to take precedence in these areas, but this should be mentioned where there are gaps.
Once you have all of the guts for your monster you should begin to organize them by taking note of what parts need to be rewritten and/or modified to work with the Core Mechanic and with the other smaller parts, and how these may interact. Compile a list of each mechanic and notes on how to deal with any inherent flaws, along with any original bits you have to help stitch it together. Drawing a crude diagram of inter-system connections will also help. You should also, while dissecting the desired parts from your material RPG-systems, throw out any patch-rules that act as connective tissue to other subsystems that you are not taking and make sure to keep any for those that you are.
Stitching it all Together
After you have all of the raw material on the table and have a good idea via a list, possibly a diagram of how to put it together, all it takes is stitching it up and possibly making a few test rolls and quick scenario runs to make sure that at least initially it’ll work. Your sutures to stick these bits and pieces together are patch-rules.
Rule Patching is a fundamental aspect to creating the Frankengame. It is adding in clauses often based on certain situations to plug up a “hole” in the rules or clear up any unintended gray area. These patches serve not just to patch flaws but also serve as the connective material between the subsystems so that they can function in unison.
Essentially the process for writing a Frankengame is as follows:
- Decide on a core conflict-resolution mechanic (e.g. D20, D6 etc.)
- Pick the Core Stats or Character Attributes (the first subsystem) also note that attributes may multiply based on connections to the other subsystems (they are a function of these systems after all).
- Decide on the other necessary subsystems (skill, combat, weapons & armor, etc.)
- Mind interactions across the subsystems as surprises both unpleasant and extraordinary are within these in-between places. The rules-lawyer’s attentions are usually focused here as well.
- Compile a list of the modules and subsystems (a connection diagram is helpful).
- Make notes on what modifications and patch rules you will need to apply and where.
Creating a Frankengame helps to create a custom system for your group with several potential benefits but does take some trial and error even after doing the work piecing it together. Sometimes it’ll rise up and be super other times it’ll just strangle you. The main benefit of participating in this activity is that it can teach you about the construction of a roleplaying game system, maybe inspiring you to create your own original system, but with a firm grounding in the basics of RPG construction.
Also exploring a new system with parts that are already familiar can be fun inside of itself, especially when probing for flaws, gray areas, and holes. Even on a dry run of the system, the group shouldn’t be totally lost even initially having a familiar base from which to explore confidently gaining genuine surprise when they stumble into unfamiliar territory. Being the mad scientist type and patching together a Frankengame can sharpen your understanding of how RPG systems work, putting you on the road to possibly writing your own original game later on.