Under the Hood – Borrowed Parts: The Lone Gunman


Borrowed Parts: The Lone Gunman
By The Warden

gun_in_sand-wallpaper-800x600Drumroll, roleplayers, because it’s time to reach the inevitable conclusion of the trilogy. Dark forces have conspired against our intrepid game designer. None of the existing systems have what it takes to make her concept of an intergalactic combat sports league leap from the table. Nothing in its entirety or even the scattered pieces of other systems seems to click within her mind, leaving her but one fateful choice.

She’s going rogue.

As discussed in the previous chapters of this saga (Part 1 and Part 2), game design is about sculpting inspiration. If we look at the study of art history, a progressive rise towards modern trends and methods becomes apparent, a common occurrence in all forms of expression. Whether you use an existing system as is, tweak in a few modifications, Frankenstein one from a few spare parts, or build it from scratch, inspiration has a part to play every step of the way.

The reason why I called this last method of borrowing “the lone gunman” instead of something more akin to the other two – licenced and related borrowing – is because this style doesn’t like to play by the rules. Everything’s up for grabs and the whole point is to take your stinkin’ rules and toss ’em out the window; we’re here to rewrite those rules (ironically enough for someone else to later toss out their window, but such is the circle of design). This style doesn’t like to share anything with other styles.

Seems like that about wraps it up, right? Sure, we could just leave it at that and I can get back to tearing through the final chapters of the Savage Worlds PDF burning a hole on my screen… or we could take the proper time to give this particular style of borrowing equal reading time. It’s only fair. Let’s consider the reason why a game design might decide to go it solo.


I have a secret to confess: when I designed Killshot, it was out of spite. For D&D. I had been playing a lot of it online with my friends back in Ottawa. They were all gathered around the table in the DM’s basement while I was trying to wheel myself under the desk with a giant cast around my leg. With more time to myself and less ability to whisper socially on the side between turns, I had an incredible opportunity to really get into the experience of the game and something was bugging me: initiative. It was so locked in stone and rigid compared to so many other facets of the game that it felt ignored. I’ve always been a big believer in the possibilities for initiative in D&D, even to the point of writing a d20 supplement back in the day with options like an initiative skill and feats, feats, feats.

The more games I played, the worse this itch to fix initiative became and it was eating at my ability to enjoy the game. Not the interaction, the game itself. What was there made sense, but I became obsessed with figuring out a way for a system to handle flexible initiative in combat, something where your actions can simultaneously determine if you get the drop on an opponent. That obsession lead to the discoveries that became the Optional System and it was inspired by spite for another system’s failings (from my point of view). And maybe a little frustration at having to play online against my will. Tiny bit.

I know spite is an awful word to use when you’re talking about inspiration, but invention originates in many forms. Perhaps a better way to look at it is design in spite of the absence of a particular mechanic. However you look at it, completely original designs can start from the lack of a design.


Designing a game from scratch is a challenge in every possible means of the word, but that’s not exactly what I’m going for here. I’m talking about the challenge of creating the system itself, rather than its completion. By that, I mean setting the goal to create something new and original in the same way an athlete’s goal in their career is to compete in the Olympics. The goal becomes the challenge and the primary fuel behind why you are doing this project.

Perhaps the idea came from a discussion with other game designers or your friends at the end of a game. Or maybe it was a random thought popping into your head during a shower, midnight walk, or the drive to work. At some point and time, a voice in your head informed you this particular concept has never been done before, followed by the question, “Is it possible?” Then again, maybe the basis for your original system stems from its core project, be it a setting, genre, or what have you. At this stage, you have an idea. A concept. In your mind, there is a way. It exists. Why wouldn’t it? You just thought of it and for a brief moment, you envisioned it working perfectly. You were like a kid in a candy store, your senses overwhelmed by the spectacle before you, too amazed to ask how much for a quarter and… BAM!! You’re back in reality. Welcome to weeks and months of piecing it all back together.

It can be a consuming challenge and one I personally can’t wait to take again. It all comes together and pats you on the back the moment that perfect playtesting session ends, where no one has any suggestions for revisions at all. Everything has gone smoothly and provided you and the players with exactly the right balance of mechanics, interplay, and fun. That drive to discover can itself be a motivating factor for going lone gunman on a game and can provide a massive boost countering the mediocre paying results for that hard work.


Each style provides its own certainties and expectations. With licensed borrowing, you’re certainly going to stand a better chance of attracting a potential customer’s attention when they see a familiar logo on your product and related borrowing can attract some interest from the online community eager to help spread the word and try it out. Lone gunmen have a very uphill battle ahead of them for the very reason why they wanted to design said game, one the typical roleplaying consumer may not agree or consider. Is this a missing piece in other roleplayers’ lives and/or will this unveil a lost secret of roleplaying once presented? While larger publishers and infamous designers may have some benefits through name association, releasing a new system is still a greater risk than going forward with either of the other two routes. Make no mistake about it.

What many lone gunmen have going for them is the concept of the game. That’s what turns heads and opens wallets. Sure, every game has that same opportunity, but many lone gunmen aim higher in this category. Take Monte Cook’s Numenera, for instance. What caught everyone’s attention is that it took place one billion years in the future and that it was a spanning epic of massive science fiction brought to you by one of the industry’s leading designers. While his name certainly helped, it was by no means a guarantee because that name is generally associated with D&D as far as original mechanical design. (Even if you think it had everything to do with it, would that be enough to become $200 on Kickstarter enough?) After that opening, Monte’s job was to educate the turned heads about how the mechanics will support the concept and how players will be able to experience and shape this world. Now that he and Bruce Cordell are working on The Strange, there’s no need to prove anything about the system other than how it will work for this… um, strange RPG.

Intense settings, genre mash-ups, and high octane premises provide ample opportunity for lone gunmen to gain some much needed attention for their fresh systems by offering the same incentive you had when the initial idea entered your mind. And it’s not just about gaining players; readers become your primary goal. You need eyes on the page before you can expect players at the table and that means providing one person – the right person – picking up a copy of your original system and diving head first into it. To entice that person and every other one of those right people, presentation is the key to any level of success.

That and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

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  1. Jacob Wood says:

    I always enjoy the way you phrase things. Great post!

    I’m certainly not a lone gunman. I seem to prefer the “licensed borrowing” approach. I really dig the Fudge system, but I generally hack it into tiny bits and then rebuild its pieces by myself. I wind up making something that resembles Fudge but feels very different, even to Fudge fans.

  2. The Warden says:

    Thanks, Jacob.

    Going it lone-gunman style is a thin line between the other two versions because there’s always going to be something you’re going to borrow from other sources in one way or another. Even in Killshot, I used traits to function very similar to feats and other unique exception purchases akin to numerous other games. I guess it really comes down to the core mechanics and how you choose to use them. In your case, you like to hack up some Fudge. Everything else is very much unique to Psi-Punk save for the core dice rolling and resolution. That one little difference can be all it takes, but the benefit for you in maintaining a familiar resolution like Fudge is that others will know how to play your game before they even play your game. For a rising indie game designer, that’s a smart move.

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