Under the Hood – Borrowing Parts: Licensed Borrowing


Borrowing Parts: Licensed Borrowing
By The Warden

You may want to use an existing engine, but that doesn't mean you have to use it for the same purpose. The same goes with choosing to work with an existing RPG system.

You may want to use an existing engine, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it for the same purpose. The same goes with choosing to work with an existing RPG system.

One of the perks I’ve been able to enjoy over the past year is talking game design with other game designers. Online and locally, it’s been great to have some one-on-one-on-one time with others who suffer the same plights as you and have quirky creative habits of their own. It’s also a different conversation than talking about your favourite games with other gamers and especially with fellow dungeon crawlers/space marines/vampires from your group. Kind of like talking politics with your friends versus someone who works in government or talking cars with someone who knows how to change their own oil and someone who rebuilt a hot rod in their garage on weekends. At the same time, there are similarities from a different perspective. The biggest one? Gamemasters and game designers are a fussy bunch.

If you want to get a game designer to talk and never shut up, try asking them about the inspiration for their game’s mechanics. Ask my wife, I never shut up when I find an excuse to sneak it into conversation. Everyone has their origin story of when the mechanics came to light, whether it’s the simple tale of the businessman catching the train to work (“I just decided to go with d20”) or the adventurous college student backpacking her way across Europe (“the idea came to me in a dream”). Whether the mechanics are batted out of the park before any of the setting or the other way around, every designer has that moment when the central idea for the mechanics hits them.

What you create depends on your history with roleplaying games, game design, and many other personal objectives and viewpoints. Your experience as a player, a Gamemaster, and a reader will shape what you want your game to become and how you want people to play it. If you’re creating your own system, your design goals and outcome will be shaped by everything you’ve played, run, and read before. There are many times when you can see who played D&D as a teenager versus entering the genre with Savage Worlds or being introduced to Vampire by a roommate in a designer’s personal projects. (I say “personal projects” because work completed for an employer is influenced by the goals of the publisher. Anyone hired to work on a Dungeon World game is not going to open up their first meeting with a discussion on why it should be more like Traveller. No way.) There are aspects of certain games we adore, some we abhor, and others that may not mean anything until we suddenly find a need for a similar type of mechanic down the road. When the time comes to draft up our own game, we draw from these experiences and impressions in what I like to call “borrowing parts” from another game.

There’s nothing wrong with it and it happens in every single design, even the very first ones. The first tabletop roleplaying game was inspired by the mechanics of wargaming and was adapted to suit dungeon crawling as found in Lord of the Rings. Mr. Gygax and Mr. Arneson borrowed pieces from their wargaming experiences – detailed movement and ranges, as just one example – and found a way to make it work in their own. As a personal example, my last game was heavily inspired by the character option heavy style of D&D‘s 3rd edition. Why? That answer was a lot harder to discover than I had anticipated, but I think it had a lot to do with those countless nights away from the table spent reading through all the feats and plotting out what my next level had in store for my feared fighter. These were characters who trained long and hard in a certain style all their own and I wanted that in my own creation.

That door can also swing both ways, because I also clearly remember many nights after the game wrapped up for the night wondering why the hell it wasn’t possible for characters to break this initiative mold and find a way to cut in front of their attacker rather than get stuck with their place because of one bad roll. Some borrowed parts arrive in a game in spite of fundamentals from another game. Hey, it happens. Some things are made with as much spite as love. I can admit to it.

The trick is blending in the borrowed parts to the proper mixture and that all depends on how you plan to market your game. Designing the core mechanics and planning our your marketing may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but it’s something you have to think of very early on in any serious game design. If you’re just whipping something up for fun, don’t worry about it as much. If you’re planning to publish this sucker, then yeah, you want to think about how you’re going to market this. Better yet, how will you pitch this game and how it’s played? Anything that is directly trying to tap into the fantasy market could benefit from stating that it uses the d20 system. Another game that’s trying to find a niche within the indie market could explain it as a hybrid between Fate and Dungeon World, while those trying to make their own name in the crowd would want to tone down the direct influences altogether.

Collectively, I think of these three strategies as licensed, related, and the lone gunman. Each one carries its own risks and challenges and it’s the focus of this three-part saga into the mind of the mystical science known as game design. Because I seem to have taken extra long with my introduction, let’s start with the less cranially consuming strategy.


Every system has an existing fan base and a familiar voice connected to the mechanics. Savage Worlds is fast and furious dice rolling, Fate provides character, Fiasco drives the story, and so forth. When your game directly uses an existing license, your decision making is far from over (but you are a lot further ahead than the other two strategies). The first question you want to ask yourself is just how similar and different your game will be in the pile of other games using the same system.

Think about it. If the system already exists and the only thing that’s missing is your world played out on their table, do you really need to bother producing a massive 250-page rulebook? Or any kind of rulebook? You’ll end up putting together a list of new equipment, NPCs, and new maps to be picked apart and ravaged by GMs the world over; they won’t actually play in your world. So you have to give them something different to provide incentive to play in your creation rather than simply grab the scissors. If your world is savage and harsh, you could convert the system to account for damage steps instead of hit points or scrap magic altogether and adapt a revised look at the system without mystical energies to guide the players.

The reason why I’m bringing up the importance of wanting to see your game played is because you’re reading a column about game mechanics. You’re reading this because you want to see what you might be able to pick up about mechanics and that involves players playing a game, not just reading it and listening to the GM voice your read-aloud text. When you’re a game designer, experienced or aspiring, you want people to play your game. If mechanics is not your thing or if you’re happy producing a support product as an equal part of a noble line, cool. I’m here to talk to those who want to contribute something mechanically in their game.

How much you can get away with depends on the extent your setting varies from the system’s original source. For example, Dias Ex Machina’s work with the GSL (D&D‘s 4th edition license) really breaks away from the standards set – and demanded – by the original source. From first hand experience, I can tell you GSL publishing comes with a certain amount of risk because of the strictness of the mechanic’s balance. Every number and its impact by range, duration, and more has been fiercely tested and any variations made in any fantasy offering will be harshly challenged. What DEM has done with Amethyst and Neurospasta is carve their own mold by stretching the setting and the mechanics. These games take place in the future or in a fantasy/modern hybrid, far from the true fantasy origins of the system’s source, D&D. Because these games forged new territory (plus they had lasers and they always help), the mechanics behind many powers and other character options, such as ladders, were up for grabs, allowing the designer an opportunity to put his own spin on how the game works and is played.

(As a side note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention DEM is running a Kickstarter to reboot and expand their Amethyst setting for Pathfinder, D&D, Fate Core and 13th Age. It’s running until November 1st and I highly recommend checking it out if you’re into any of these systems.)

Using a licensed system for your engine is not a default choice because it’s not just about what’s familiar when it comes to creating something unique enough to capture an audience attention; it’s about what’s unique in style and gameplay. A game has to feel like it belongs with its style and setting. Plus, unless you’re producing a setting that’s very similar to the original source for that system, odds are you’ve already created an expectation of something different in your game’s use of the system. It’s how we ended up with many different versions of d20, including True20. Designed for another fantasy setting, A Song of Fire and Ice, it’s tone and style were remarkably different compared to its source material and the rules had to reflect the emotional intensity of gameplay.

It’s an important consideration and if you find yourself requiring so many alterations that you might as well make something from scratch, then you’ll want to click here again next week. We’ll talk about related borrowing, or how to cut and paste what you need from other systems and still make it your own.

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