homebrewGamemasters (GM’s) love to tinker. At some point, probably almost every GM has thought “I could do that better.” If you plan on venturing away from published systems, several choices present themselves. In this article, we’ll look at the options of homebrew, hacking, and using a toolkit. Let’s define some terms (just for this article, anyway).

A HOMEBREW is a game built (mostly) from the ground up. Though homebrew games can use dice mechanics and systems from other games, they wouldn’t be mistaken for those games. Let’s say that a homebrew is more than 50% different from a published setting. A HACK is like a homebrew, but differs from a published game by less than 50%. For example, you might bolt a skill system onto an old-school fantasy game, or replace a clunky combat system (FASA Star Trek, I’m looking at you). A TOOLKIT is a published system that requires you to decide which features to include in your games. You’re not creating or changing any mechanics, just deciding which ones work for your game or genre. GURPS, FUDGE, FATE and Risus are some examples of toolkit systems.

Consider a homebrew system if:

  • No published system quite meets your needs.
  • You’d like the challenge and satisfaction of creating your own game.
  • You’d like complete control over the mechanics and complexity of your game.
  • You’d like to eventually market your game.
  • You like the idea of a free game.

Some concerns:

  • It takes a lot of time.
  • You’ll need to playtest it yourself.
  • Any issues with the system will reflect on you.
  • It may be harder to find players for a homebrew system.

Consider a hack if:

  • You like most of what your published system does.
  • You want to keep the game more familiar for your players.
  • You don’t want to buy or learn a new system.
  • You’d like to have the original rules to fall back upon.

Some concerns:

  • Players familiar with the system may not like your changes.
  • Hacking some rules may have unexpected effects on other rules.
  • Not all systems are easily hacked.
  • Not all systems are easily adapted to different genres.

Consider a toolkit if:

  • You’d like a custom game but don’t want to start from the ground up.
  • You want a system that may work with multiple genres.
  • You don’t mind learning a new system.

Some concerns:

  • It may take time to learn the new system.
  • It may take several sessions to “adjust the dials” of your components.
  • There may be additional expense for rulebooks or settings books. (Though some systems are free or offer free starter rules).

There’s certainly overlap among these three options. You’re free to homebrew, hack, or use toolkit elements in whatever way you’d like (or even make a Frankengame). Keep what works, scrap what doesn’t. As long as everyone is having fun (and you’re not violating copyright laws), the sky’s the limit.

What other strengths and weaknesses are there for these options? Are there other methods or variations that you can recommend? Let us know below.