Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hacking the Hacker

People have been talking about ways to hack Leverage to play games of a similar style in different settings. There are a lot of possibilities for this - there are very few genres which can’t support a good caper (or at least a team of awesome folks executing on plans) so there’s a lot of potential different places to take it. This introduces a lot of questions for how to support these other genres, especially when they don’t quite match up with the roles of the core game.

Four of the roles are pretty portable - Hitter, Thief, Grifters and Masterminds are pretty universal. You might want to change the names for tone - Soldier, Burglar, Charmer and Leader - but the basic functionality is just about the same. The problem comes in the form of how you handle the Hacker.

Now, yes, some Hacker skills, such as forgery, are nicely portable, the thematic core of the role revolves around computers, networks and such fun things. That demands a fairly narrow band of time, either the reasonably recent past (say, post War Games) to the near future (think Cyberpunk) with brief side jaunts into alt-history where the goggles and gears annoy Charles Stross. So when you step outside of that sphere, what do you do with the hacker?

The first option is to see if there’s a setting equivalent for technology. This may take the form of magic, but only if the magic is fairly low key. For example, Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora has magic, but it’s so powerful that making hacker into mage would be simply overwhelming. However, the setting has very interesting Alchemy, and that would probably be a much better match. It makes a good match for some of the sort of things the hacker does, especially producing gadgetry.

Similarly, you could easily enough use a kind of “low magic”[1] stand in for hacking (in my mind, I’m imagining Egg Chen from Big Trouble in Little China as an example of this). In some ways it’s an almost perfect match. You can produce little relics, scry for information and so on. This is just one way to handle magic in the Leverage system, but that’s a topic I’ll get into more some other time.

The other possible approach is to treat hacking as a signature of the genre. That is to say, hacking is a signifier for a certain time-range and style of play, and in other genres, the signifier might be something else. Consider, for example, the Pilot in a game based loosely off Firefly - it’s a role that is very important to that sort of group, and while it may not have any similarities to the hacker in terms of what the character _does_, but it’s similar in term of how it fits into the group. Of course, the one problem with using Pilot as an example is that you need to make sure that it comes up as often as the other roles do in play. Pilot tends to be a little bit rough in actual play because the ship just sort of goes most of the time.

This approach takes a little more work (especially because it means rewriting the talents rather than simply reskinning them) but it’s the sharp point for how to start making a more drastic change to the system to capture other genres and ideas. And that’s almost certainly where the path leads next.

1 - As contrasted with the Fireball tossing magic of the usual D&D mage.


  1. I like where this is going. I look forward to more of your formal thoughts on the topic.

    In my initial try at fantasy-skinned Leverage, I'm going with Bard(Grifter), Mage(Hacker), Leader(Mastermind), Warrior(Hitter) and Thief. In my world, I think the Mage role will cover a wide range of magic of many stripes: Primal, Divine, dragonmark, Elemental, fey, vampire voodoo. The alchemist dwarf paladin will be a Warrior/Leader with Alchemy specialization added to Thief since that's how he uses his concoctions.

    Some re-skinned talents actually work well in other roles (ie, How YOU Doin' works well to emulate characteristic combat style of a 4e Wild Sorcerer when attached to Warrior or Mage)

  2. Rather than concentrating on the toys that the hacker uses, why not concentrate on the effect. In that regard the Hacker becomes someone who acquires information, with the secondary role indicating the character's preferred approach to being a detective/investigator.

  3. I am not entirely convinced that the slot of the Hacker role is a necessity. I say this because it could have been handled as an amalgam of Roles and optional specialties. In many ways the Hacker is little more than a Thief with an emphasis on the hi-tech. Both roles are a focus on access and displaced ownership; their methods and orientation differ. Some other elements of the Hacker fall to the Mastermind. So I agree that it’s a thematic application of the genre, but is it needed as a Role? Combinations of the core four seem to cover all the bases pretty well once Talents get sufficiently spread out.

    I am working on a Shadowrun/Leverage mash-up and have pretty much decided to have Magic as a specialty with a Talent for the Magical Schoolings (Hermetic and Shamanistic) Distinctions for Totems (ala Smallville mechanical layout, with d12 in a more open interpretation) and Cyberware being a Talent: Primed for Chrome and then actual pieces of cyberware being treated as signature Assets. Some of the off the wall Cyber may be stated up as Talents though(Wired Reflexes come to mind).

    Now obviously there are other ways to go, but since Shadowrun is not strictly about the conflict between man and machine as Cyberpunk is nor is it really about the secret cabals of mages that run the world I did not want to use a Role for Mages on its own nor deny the cyberware meme from any of the roles. Adapt I am still in debate about since it could be handled much like the Mage, but since their abilities guide the methods it is much more suitable for Role status…. Then again it’s not truly a thematically appropriate role either… unless all three are... From my perspective, Shadowrun is a Western meets Espionage style game with Magic and Cyber elements thrown in for flavor. I wonder what your thoughts are on the different Stresses that Smallville uses? There inclusion could help focus play towards some of those themes.

  4. @rev The Egg Chen model moves away from the toys while keeping the capabilities, and it's a good approach, but I don't want to abstract things away entirely, partly because the toys are fun, but also because the system's abstract enough that going much higher risks it losing structure.

    @dave A more drastic change is entirely possible too, but making the hacker "slot" the one you can rotate in and out for other things (pilot, scholar, priest) has a certain elegance in my mind. That said, it clearly won't work for Shadowrun since Shadowrun is really Leverage PLUS stuff, not "like Leverage, but different"


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