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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:

Some concerns:

Consider a hack if:

Some concerns:

Consider a toolkit if:

Some concerns:

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 [1]). 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.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "HOMEBREW, HACK, or TOOLKIT?"

#1 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On November 14, 2016 @ 6:54 am

I would add that there’s a definite progression of usability too. Toolkits have presumably been pre-tested and while no one may have noticed that combining subsystems A, B, and Q produce a horribly broken mess, those setups should be fairly rare. Hacks, as you note, can have impacts beyond the system you’re changing, but by and large if you completely break something it’s usually limited in scope. Homebrews in addition to all the work you put in, have the capacity to come out a hot mess all around.

#2 Comment By John Fredericks On November 15, 2016 @ 5:24 am

I’ve had my fair share of homebrew and hack hot messes. Hopefully I’ve learned a LITTLE from them over the years.

But don’t put too much money on it!

Thanks for the reply.

#3 Comment By zielperson On November 17, 2016 @ 12:44 am

A friend and me are moving from hacking an old system (that we used 20years!!) to homebrewing a toolkit … and loving it.

Since this is just for us, the joy of creating it is where it is at.

#4 Comment By Ray Case On November 14, 2016 @ 7:24 am

Why no reference to HERO as a toolkit? It seems like the ultimate toolkit system to me and I am considering it as the toolkit for my new fantasy campaign.

Also, the real (and big) downside to a toolkit system is that you would need to build EVERYTHING for the adventure/campaign with the toolkit system. Nothing is pre-made.
That is the whole point, no?

#5 Comment By John Fredericks On November 15, 2016 @ 5:39 am

I’m just not familiar with HERO. However, if it is working for you and your group, enjoy!

#6 Comment By Kingslayer On November 14, 2016 @ 7:27 am

As someone fairly new to the GM side of things (I’ve only been running the show for about 18 months), I’d also suggest that you spend enough time with a system that you understand why something is the way it is before you try to hack it. I’ve made that mistake twice.

I first started GMing for Savage Worlds, and I remember thinking “No hit points, that’s weird, I’m going to change it this way and that way”, and of course it ended up being a mess because that’s now how Savage Worlds is designed.

Fast forward to about 8 months ago I switched over to Dungeon World and had a “Class Based Damage, what the heck???” fit and used Savage Worlds and other sources to make the weapons “the way they should be”, but of course that, too, was wrong for Dungeon World.

Veterans should feel free to hack and slash (no Dungeon World pun intended) all they want, but for if you’re new to the GM side of the game, OR running a system that’s new to you, I suggest you play it for a while as written before you try to hack it.

#7 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On November 14, 2016 @ 5:01 pm

I 100% agree. Excellent point. I’d also add that some parts of some systems are esoteric enough that even with experience with the system, discussion with a group or forum might not be a bad idea (ex: surprising impact of encumbrance on early and mid level DnD) and that a passing to mid level understanding of probability can be almost essential.

#8 Comment By John Fredericks On November 15, 2016 @ 5:42 am

Agreed. James Levine (famous opera conductor) once said in an interview that when he strays too far from a composer’s original work, he suddenly realizes WHY they did wrote it that way. In gaming, I agree that it takes time to see how all the pieces fit together and wouldn’t advocate hacking right from the start.

However, that doesn’t mean I won’t be foolish enough to try it in the future. Thanks to both of you for keeping the discussion going.

#9 Comment By Kingslayer On November 15, 2016 @ 6:33 am

Group discussion is a HUGE help. I have made more progress in the last month since joining a Dungeon World Google+ Community than I did in the previous seven. Being able to bounce your ideas off of several other like-minded people is much better than design in a vacuum.

Discovering an aspect of an idea that I would have NEVER considered really helps drive creativity too.

#10 Comment By Joseph Collins On November 15, 2016 @ 9:21 am

Another pitfall is constantly chasing the ‘perfect’ system. I once tried to fix Pathfinder hit points by creating a mutant hybrid of True 20 wounds and HP. I must have tweaked it every week until my players banned me from making any more changes.

I think systems play in a carefully crafted style. If that style isn’t right, better try a whole new system.

These days I tend to only play a homebrew system.

#11 Comment By NikMak On November 20, 2016 @ 4:48 am

I am regular wielder of the ‘Pencil-o-Doom’, and most if not all of my game books have scribbles and side notes in them (I tend to look out for system books that deliberately have a broad margin and plenty of white space – they have thought about the ‘house rules rule’ ethos that a lot of gamers play with IME).

But that said its always worth while to introduce changes gradually. See how they go before you introduce a load of them. Also a key point is to talk it over with your players. Most recent case in point – in my marvel super heroes game (aka the FASERIP system); there are formal rules for performing multiple attacks if a character has a high enough fighting stat. But it does place extra dice roles into each action taking place in the existing combat system. we have modified the rules to reduce the number of dice rolls (so far so good by the way), and this is a significant departure from the system as written. But before implementation at the gaming table we held a formal vote to make sure every one was on board with the change. I think that is a good guideline to take for any rule changes you are thinking of introducing as GM; player buy-in is critical