Thursday, July 19, 2018

Hacking Lasers & Feelings

TLDR: hacking L&F is easy, fun, and rewarding. Respect the system though! Change the flavor first and think hard before you change the mechanics.

I am a fan of the elegance, simplicity, and play value of John Harper's Lasers & Feelings (L&F).

The Game

L&F is a one-page game inspired by Star Trek. Character creation takes only a minute or two. Each player chooses a few descriptors from a list and sets a single character stat on a continuum between 1 (Feelings) and 6 (Lasers).

Choosing a single number effectively gives the character 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 an extra die to roll if your character is an expert and/or an extra die if they are prepared to do whatever action you describe. The number of successes you roll matters, so the more dice the better. There's a bit more to it than that, but not much.

Game play is a bit like any Powered-by-the-Apocalypse (PbtA) 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, and it performs unbelievably well. I've run it dozens of times that way. 

For many reasons, Lasers & Feelings is also a great game to re-skin and has inspired numerous derivations. This post is about how to hack the game intelligently, to get great, playable results.

Why Hack It?

  • L&F is fast and light. It's a perfect way to play a setting that attracts you, but either doesn't have it's own system yet or is tied to a system that's too heavy for your taste (especially if you only want to run a few sessions).
  • The text is short and most of it is universally applicable, so you only need to re-write bits and pieces.
  • John Harper graciously released it under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license, so you can make your hack public as long as you give him credit, don't charge money for it, and share it under the same license.
  • It's a really fun game to play, and given a strong concept for the fiction the game performs equally well when hacked.


In my estimation, there are two levels to hacks, "re-skins" that just change the setting and "derivations" that mess with the mechanics. I'll discuss them separately.


To re-skin L&F you need to change three things:

1. Dice Poles. Ask yourself, "how do characters in this 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, even at their worst pole, if you stick with the standard d6. 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.

2. Character Descriptors. This is really several changes 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." There are other 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. 

3. 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 simply echo L&F's excellent advice text or modify it to suit your tastes. 


Some things you might change if you want to go deeper:
  • Levels. Or some other support for long-term play.
  • Insight. When you roll on (not over or under) your number something happens other than gaining insight. 
  • Adventure Seeds. Swap out the adventure generator for something that works differently. I have seen some neat collaborative map-building things in this slot.
  • Dice size. Switching to d8s, for instance, gives the continuum more range, but it also changes the math. Let's say you use d8s and success happens on an 8. The minimum chance goes from 16.7% to 12.5%. Overall the whiff factor goes up. But if you make the success threshold a 7, the whiff factor is lower than L&F. I suppose the easiest change would be to go to d12s and set success at 11. This gives you the same basic odds with more granularity. But ... is it worth it? Six-siders are easy to find and read.
Some things you probably shouldn't mess with:
  • 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. Adding anything that gives more dice undermines/waters down the descriptors as the thing that makes your character an expert or prepared. 
  • Adding more stats. Once you add a third stat, you have essentially broken one of the game's core concepts, that the character's two stats exist in an inverted relationship. 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). If you really want more than two stats, though, you should just move to an exclusively "roll over" system and allow players to assign a fixed number of points among the stats equal to stats x 2.5 with a min of 1 and max of 5 for each stat. E.g. if you have 6 stats, players get 15 points to spend, but have to start with 1 in each (so 9 to allocate) and can't have a stat over 5. A typical array for such a character might look like 2, 4, 2, 2, 5. 
  • Adding damage. Hit points, weapon damage, healing, etc. The game relies heavily on narrative descriptors, so everything you mechanize will fight with that methodology or require additional tinkering. I've considered a simple level-chip system where characters get 3 poker chips at first level and one more for every level thereafter. Each chip would represent one major narrative wound they can take before going out of action. Chips feel less mathy than simply writing down hp, but you could go with a number too. Another method would be to impact stats (but you would have to separate them as per the paragraph above). Every wound would reduce a stat by 1. If any stat goes to 0, the character is out of action. Healing repairs 1-3 per day (d6 1 to 3 = 1 pt., 4 to 5 = 2 pts., 6 = 3 pts.).

Derivations require 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 a bicycle.


* I ended up making this game, Books & Bullets