I am a huge fan of the elegance and simplicity (and play value) of John Harper's Lasers & Feelings.
In a nutshell, L&F is a one-page game inspired by Star Trek and the music of The Doubleclicks. Character creation takes only a minute or two, each player choosing a few descriptors and setting a single character stat on a continuum between 1 (Feelings) and 6 (Lasers). This effectively means the character has two stats, because you have to roll under your number to succeed at Lasers (science & reason) and over your number to succeed at Feelings (rapport & passion). You get extra dice to roll if you are an expert or prepared to do the thing you describe, and the number of success you roll matters. There's a bit more to it than that, but not much.
Game play is a bit like a Powered-by-the-Apocalypse game in that there are multiple shades of success, all rolls are player-facing, and the GMing advice echoes PbtA - play to find out what happens, use failures to push action forward, etc.
I have no experience with the game in long-form, but as a con game you can run in as little as 2-3 hours, it's fantastic. I've probably run it two dozen times that way. It's also a great game to hack and has inspired numerous derivations. I am going to write about some of the better ones in another article, but I want to go into the why and how and hacking L&F here.
Why is Lasers & Feelings so hackable?
- It's fast and light, so it's a perfect way to play a setting that attracts you but either doesn't have a system yet or is tied to a system that's too heavy for your taste. Especially if you only want to experience the setting for 1-6 sessions.
- The text is short and most of it is universally applicable (e.g. GM advice), so you only need to re-write bits and pieces.
- John has kindly released it under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license, so you can make your hack public as long as you give John credit, don't charge $ for it, and share it under the same license.
- It's a really fun game! (Who wants to hack a game that isn't?)
What do I have to change?
There are two levels to hacks, "re-skins" that just change the setting and "derivations" that mess with the mechanics.
To re-skin L&F you need to change three things:
- The dice poles. You do this by asking yourself how characters in your setting cope with challenges. You are looking for two complementary/opposite methods of dealing with the world. For a fantasy game it might be Might (fighting, feats of strength, hardiness) and Magic (lore, spellcasting, charisma). For a Lovecraftian horror game it might be Books (scholarly pursuits) and Bullets (action-oriented stuff). Keep in mind that your character will always have at least a 17% chance of succeeding at their worst pole. So a warrior in the aforementioned fantasy game could still attempt Magic (e.g. spell-casting or maybe just trying to use magic items). Honestly, setting your dice poles is probably the hardest bit of hacking you will do. You want something intuitive, meaningful, and cool. By setting your dice pools you are literally deciding what your game is about and what characters do in it.
- The character descriptors. This is really several things in one. In L&F you have descriptive characteristics: Style, Role, and Goal. Each is represented by a list of choices, e.g. "Choose a style for your character: Alien, Android, Dangerous, Hot-Shot, Intrepid, Savvy, or Sexy." You also have a few lists that describe the characters as a group or their key asset, the ship. The important thing is that these are all just lists of descriptors. Re-writing the descriptors and possibly changing the labels for the categories will give you a whole different feel. Think of this as the chrome of your setting. Want to create a L&F hack loosely based on the videogame Joust? Your roles might be: Knight, Bird-Tamer, Daredevil, Scout... Want a Fast & Furious hack? Your styles might be: Family, Sexy, Smart, Fearless... Be careful about descriptors that are vague or broad. You may find that they apply more often than not to actions, which can make them boring.
- The adventure generator. In L&F you have four random tables of six items each. Together they form a sentence that is the thesis or central problem of each session. Rewriting these tables (and possibly how they fit together to form the idea) describes some of the possible narratives in the setting, so it's worth taking some time here to think about variety. Try to make the combinations take you down a number of different story "types." A bad fantasy generator, for instance, would just tell you when and where you fight monsters. A good fantasy generator might have you intervening in a lover's quarrel between warring tribes in one game and digging up a dangerous artifact in another.
That's pretty much it for a re-skin! You can repeat John's excellent advice text or modify it to suit your tastes.
Some things you might change if you want to go deeper and make a derivative game:
- Add "levels" or some other support for long-term play.
- Mess with Laser-Feelings so that when you roll on (not over or under) your number something happens other than gaining insight.
- Swap out the adventure generator for something that works differently. I have seen some neat collaborative map-building things in this slot.
Some things you probably don't want to mess with:
- Adding more ways to get dice. Adding dice dynamically ups the character's success rate. It's already fairly easy to get at least a mixed success, so keep it challenging.
- On a related note, adding skills or stunts or spell lists or magic items. Essentially anything that would undermine/trump the descriptors as the thing that makes your character an expert or prepared.
- Having more than one stat/two poles. Once you go with a third stat, you have essentially broken one of the game's core concepts. I have toyed with the idea of a second continuum that is "perpendicular" to the first. For instance you might create an Avatar hack that forces you to set a number between Fire and Water, and one between Earth and Sky (air), for instance.
- Adding damage (hit points and weapon damage).
In any case, derivations need play-testing. The base L&F system is a tight design. If you monkey with the bones of the game you might throw the game play off kilter. Just be ready to re-balance the mechanics to keep the game fun and true to the original spirit. Or, if you are departing from the spirit of the original, think about where you are headed and how you are going to get there. Don't just bolt on mechanics from your favorite games. L&F is so lean that it could be like putting a snowplow on the front of your bicycle.