January 16, 2018

Lasers & Hacking

Originally prompted by some of the ideas thrown around on the SomethingAwful Traditional Games forum (registration possibly required), I’ve fallen in love with hacking John Harper’s Lasers & Feelings. It’s a very nice, very light system that’s I’m using as the basis for a rough sketch of an urban-fantasy game with possibly-obvious inspirations (currently a pre-alpha; I’ll write about it here when it’s done).

But that’s not all I’ve done. I have committed hackery1, to tune Lasers & Feelings to different styles of game.

Sanity & Sorcery — Lovecraftian horror

Shaken & Stirred — Stealth action

Power & Responsibility — Silver-age superheroics

Swashbucklers & Scoundrels — Pirate adventures

How to Hack Lasers & Feelings

L&F is a deep game to hack, and it’s a pity that a surprising number of hacks half-ass some of the most important bits of the game. A good hack has to reflect all the moving parts of the game:

  1. Axis
  2. Traits
  3. Goals
  4. Frame
  5. Tables
  6. GM Rules

People look at the Axis — the names and descriptions determining roll high/roll low as the main bit to hack, but often it’s not exploited to its full potential. Every genre has a range of fundamental conflicts as part of the characters, but it can be very hard to identify that. If you’re going to hack Lasers & Feelings, you need to spend a lot of time identifying the conflict you want to emphasise and working out it is going to express itself in play.

For example, Power & Responsibility is very silver-age in that it plays with the idea of what characters can do as people vs. what they can do as heroes. Hence, the conflict being between solving problems mundanely, even if that involves throwing billions at the problem” and solving things as a superhero”2. A superhero game focusing on iron-age heroics might go for lethal force” and traditional heroics”, highlighting the conflict between characters like Deadpool, Lobo, and Punisher against Captain America, Superman, and Professor X.

Finally, figure out some appropriate questions to suggest a player act when the player rolls equal to their number. This all goes towards the aim of making the players think of things appropriate to the genre they’re playing in.

Traits often get glossed over. These are steps 1 and 2 of character creation, and it’s very important to make them genre appropriate. Both of them can weigh towards how you can describe how you help and whether you’re prepared or an expert — which gives you bonus dice.

Likewise, it’s important to figure out what equipment and possessions the characters have, and to make those genre-appropriate. Without that, you’re stuck with a generic equipment list that may mechanistically define whether a character is prepared, but does nothing to reinforce the style of fiction you’re trying to create.

Both player and character goals likewise need tuned for the genre. Player goals are a direct statement of the kind of things the characters need to do that are appropriate to the fiction — without them, or with a bland and generic set, the game doesn’t say what it expects its protagonists to do. In turn, that leads to a weaker story.

Without a strong Frame, you don’t have a Lasers & Feelings hack. It’s that simple. The Frame is the single paragraph that tells you what’s going on at the very start of the game. It’s what the players and GM have to deal with first. The GM may want to make the frame interact with the results of their tables, but the frame is the first thing everyone has to interact with.

So what makes a good frame? It has to be short — no more than a paragraph, ever. It has to introduce an immediate prompt, something the characters have to interact with right now. Shaken & Stirred uses a double-agent, Sanity & Sorcery has things beyond human ken3, and Swashbucklers & Scoundrels uses a treasure map. That’s the immediate call to action, something that the characters have to interact with. Without that, they’ve no prompt to start the game.

The Tables are an instant plot generator for the GM, and they need careful tailoring to the genre — every outcome needs to produce something that makes sense for the genre. If your game doesn’t include magic, don’t have it show up in the tables. On the other hand, if it does include occult elements, make them obvious in the tables. Don’t rely on the GM to include bits of your implied setting. The tables are a way to create a plot when you’ve not got much time, and half-assing them does a disservice to the GM and to the group.

It’s only a personal preference, but which will…” should always include Fix Everything as the 6. It’s tradition or an old charter or something.

As with everything else, a good hack must tailor the GM Rules to reflect the desired fictional genre of the game. It’s little details like this — giving a specific goal that one should play to find out and adding some appropriate questions to ask that will put the players in the right mindset and bring out more details to use in the fiction.

This is also where genre-specific rules crop up, some of which are just story-focused (such as the collateral damage of Power & Responsibility) and some with direct mechanistic impact (the Mythos encounter system in Sanity & Sorcery).


The ultimate output of any Lasers & Feelings hack is the fiction — the story as it unfolds through play, and everything in a good hack has to focus on creating that fiction as a priority. L&F is not a heavy system at first glance, it doesn’t do anything funky with dice and the whole damn thing fits on a single sheet of paper. But it’s a story-game4 — a game focused around producing a story as a direct result of play — and a whole bunch of the less-obvious moving parts focus on keeping play laser-focused on the genre and style of that fiction. They’re just as (if not more) important than the Axis in creating a hack that does what it should.

  1. But that was in another country, and besides the die is dead

  2. Power & Responsibility also caps a character’s number at 4, because no matter how good you are at solving mundane problems you’re not going to totally suck at being a superhero.

  3. Honestly, this is the weakest part of Sanity & Sorcery. If I were to do it again, I’d firm up that initial threat — maybe a cult captures someone important to the characters.

  4. Which I’m aware some idiots use as a pejorative, but they can get tae fuck.

Previous post
Stepping Back As Rich Thomas revealed at GenCon, I stepped back as developer of Werewolf: The Forsaken and Werewolf: The Apocalypse developer at Onyx Path a year
Next post
Abuse in the Industry I’ve had to think quite a bit about this post. Some of you may be aware that the tabletop gaming community has been having its own #metoo moment,