This post is the third in a series acknowledging key influences on the development of Karma in the Dark. As part of my design post mortem, I want to highlight and acknowledge different (often unknown) contributions to the process.
Adam Koebel uploaded the first episode of Hack Attack to Youtube on Mar 27, 2015. I started my first game hack in June 2015. Almost exactly a year later, I began work on Karma in the Dark. Those events were all closely tied together.
What Was Hack Attack?
Back in 2015, Steven Lumpkin (a professional video game designer) was running a hexcrawl game called The West Marches with a rotating cast, using Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. Adam Koebel, co-creator of Dungeon World, played several times on the West Marches show. The combination of a non-traditional D&D set-up, a game designer GM, and a game designer player, resulted in conversations about the mismatch between the rules as written and how Steven wanted the game to play.
So Steven and Adam started streaming a show about how to hack a tabletop RPG, using Steven's West Marches campaign as their first example. They streamed a new episode whenever one of them had a relevant game design problem or question. It ran for a total of 7 episodes from March 2015 to April 2016. In the course of the show, they discussed gameplay loops, how to incentivize player behavior, the reward cycle, different approaches to hacking game mechanics, consequences of changing one system within an existing game, introducing new systems to an existing game, and non-traditional roleplay situations like running two groups within the same campaign world.
Years later, the show is still an excellent introduction to hacking games and fundamental design ideas. Familiarity with the games they discuss is helpful (and can all be watched on itmeJP's youtube channel), but is not necessary, as they do a solid job of summarizing the games and the current design problems. If nothing else, I'd suggest any aspiring game designer watch the first episode which focuses on core gameplay loops.
By 2015 I'd been studying video game design theory and principles for about four years. I had made half a dozen small video games and experimented with different gameplay loops and genres.
But it never occurred to me to translate those same concepts to hacking a tabletop RPG. Hack Attack showed me:
Starting in June 2015, I started a series of projects which would prepare me (unknowingly at the time) to make Karma in the Dark.
In June-July 2015, I hacked Kevin Crawford's Stars Without Numbers to play Shadowrun. The experience immediately showed me how core game systems change the feel of the game: this version of Shadowrun included a significant faction turn, which positioned corporations in the world as more dynamic than traditional Shadowrun.
In September-November 2015, I hacked Dungeon World to play Shadowrun. I chose this project because I found the existing Powered by the Apocalypse hack, Sixth World, and thought I could put a different spin using the same starting point. This project taught me how much even small choices within the same system can change the feel of the game.
(In November 2015, the sixth Hack Attack was actually about Adam's attempt to hack Shadowrun for his current campaign. They looked at how changing the xp reward system within Shadowrun 1E changed the entire dynamic of the game. It provided a third example of changing Shadowrun, which especially highlighted the impact of the reward cycle).
In the spring of 2016, I began to turn over ideas of how I would hack Blades in the Dark to play Shadowrun. This is was my third time iterating on the Shadowrun world with a different game system, and my previous experiments prepared me to consider factions, effect of for game mechanics, character creation systems, and to know how to sort out (in my own mind) the "feel" of Shadowrun with a different set of game mechanics.
My development as a game designer mirrored that of fiction writers who start with fanfiction. I started by iterating on Shadowrun in different "styles" by using different existing games. By the third version of Karma in the Dark, I moved onto trying to create a game beyond Shadowrun. By version 4.0, I feel confident in my game's specific gameplay loops, reward cycles, and new game systems. But all of that started with Steven and Adam on Hack Attack, encouraging that fan-like experimentation. Seeing designers not only encourage but also model hacking made it seem possible and fun.
I went back and watched the first episode of Hack Attack in preparation for this blog post. After more than three years since watching it the first time, I'd forgotten most the video. The conversation was an excellent reminder of core design principles as I move onto my next project. As it turns out, it's extremely helpful to start a new design project with the questions: "What is this game about? What are the core gameplay loops? How do we encourage players to engage with those loops? And what is the end or exit state?"
Multiple TTRPG designers now stream their game development process on Twitch and/or Youtube. I've seen John Harper take questions from a Twitch audience on his design process for Blades, Andrew Gillis had multiple Twitch streams related to Girl By Moonlight, and even now you can watch DC work on Mutants in the Night, Austin Ramsay work on Beam Saber, and Adam streaming his own game development on Twitch. When I check-in with various TTRPG design communities, I can find someone streaming or discussing their process pretty much any day of the week.
But it wasn't always that way. And Hack Attack was one of the first—if not the first—examples of game designers making the process accessible for everyone.
Even though Hack Attack ended, Adam Koebel and Steven Lumpkin continue to produce content on Twitch and Youtube.
Adam's Office Hours, a GM advice show, has clearly shaped my own philosophy of GMing to the point he practically deserves a design credit for my GM chapters. His show also opened my eyes to challenges and questions across a wide range of game groups, which influenced how I wrote GM chapters and how I considered the impact of mechanics on group dynamics.
Steven is currently running a Darkest Dungeon/Dark Souls flavored D&D show called the Sunfall Cycle on Jesse Cox's channel. He hacked D&D to create the flavor of those video games, but the changes are so elegant it feels like the game was always meant to be played this way. The show is entertaining in itself, but for a designer, it's a great case study in how to create a subtle hack based on some fine tuning vs. a total system overhaul.
Hack Attack Summary
Like I said, this show is still a fantastic resource. Below you can find a brief summary of each episode and the entire playlist is available on Youtube:
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.