Smash the System!


A “smash-up,” also known as a mash-up, bootleg, blend, cut-up, crossover, or powermix, is a song or composition created when a producer blends a pair (or more) of previously existing songs, generally by combining the vocal track from one song with the instrumental track of another. Smash-ups have been around a long time but became a renewed cultural phenomenon with 2004’s Grey Album, a smash-up by Danger Mouse of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album.

Mash-ups are not confined to music, of course. Videogames have smash-ups (often called “mods”) and so do tabletop RPGs. Smashing up RPGs has been defined as “replacing major rules components with components from different games” or “taking two games in your collection and mixing them together.” However you define it, it’s a lot of fun; indeed, one of my favorite pastimes as a gamemaster is blending systems and settings to create something unique.

The amusing thread on linked above takes a humorous approach to smash-ups, leading to games like Skyrealms of Tekumel (combining obscure fantasy games Empire of the Petal Throne and Skyrealms of Jorune) to create a “world so weird no one goes there at all.” Obviously the writers are doing it just for giggles, but the key to any smash-up is to notice how two systems or settings fit together. I call this “finding the hook,” and it’s the first step in a three-part process:

  1. Hook – You notice a rule mechanic or setting element from one game that somehow fits into the framework of the rules or setting of another game
  2. Blend – You adapt the rule mechanic or setting element from the first game into the second game
  3. Double Check – You review the adjacent rules or setting elements to make sure the smashed-up game is still coherent

It’s easiest to explain in practice, so let’s start smashing.


Let’s begin with Steve Jackson’s Car Wars, a widely played simulation of automobile combat in a post-apocalyptic future. While Car Wars is mostly about car combat, it features the skeletons of a role-playing system: Characters are rated with skills like “Gunner” and “Mechanic” with ratings from 0 to +5, while task resolution is resolved with a roll of 2d6 plus the skill level to meet a difficulty number. For instance, to hit with a machinegun requires a roll of 7 or greater, with the character’s Gunner skill level added to the total of the dice.

As it happens, both this skill system and this task resolution are precisely mirrored in GDW’s Classic Traveller, the influential science-fiction RPG. That’s right – in Classic Traveller, your PC can die during character generation. In Classic Traveller, characters are rated with skills like “Gunner” and “Mechanic” with ratings from 0 to +5, and task resolution is resolved with a roll of 2d6 plus the skill level to meet a difficulty number. This is our “hook” – we’ve noticed that the core mechanics of the two systems are identical.

What makes this interesting is that Car Wars offers virtually no character development around this system; on the other hand, Classic Traveller is famous for its character generation system, in which characters must go through a career path that can have them enter military, gain promotions and commendations, earn rewards such as weapons, armor, or starship, and even die in the line of duty! The obvious mash-up, then would be to adapt the Classic Traveller career path system to Car Wars, replacing e.g. Space Marines with Autoduelists, Scouts with Outriders, and rewards like spaceships with automobiles. That’s our “blend” – we’re adapting the character generation from Traveller into Car Wars. We cleverly call this new system Driver.

Once the blend is written, the “double check” would be to assess what this would do to the adjacent rules. We note that Classic Traveller produces characters with on average 4 to 6 skills at +1 while Car Wars starts characters with 3 skills at +0. So our smash-up is going to create characters that are more competent than starting Car Wars characters. We make a note that to challenge characters created using our Driver system we’ll need to make sure major NPCs are rolled up using a similar system.

As it happens, someone has actually done this smash-up; you can find it implemented at The Daemon Mechanic.

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As our second smash-up, let’s turn to Mike Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk 2020. Cyberpunk 2020 defined the cyberpunk genre in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of its most widely-imitated mechanics is the concept of “cyberpsychosis” and “humanity loss.” Each character in Cyberpunk has an Empathy attribute (abbreviated EMP), which controls persuasion, seduction, diplomacy, and other social skills (similar to D&D’s Charisma score). As characters are upgraded with cybernetics such as Boosted Reflexes or Grafted Muscles, they incur Humanity Loss, which permanently lowers their EMP. The more cybered up a character gets, the less able he is to interact with fellow humans. Characters whose EMP drops to 0 become “cyberpsychos” and are generally killed by elite Blade Runner-type cops. While EMP is not directly useful to combat or action-oriented characters, it serves as a cap on how upgraded such a character can become through cybernetics.

If you’ve played a lot of Cyberpunk, it’s impossible to read the rules to Chaosium’s Runequest without comparing that game’s POW mechanic to Cyberpunk‘s EMP. In Runequest, each character has a POW attribute (short for “Power”) that measures their psychic strength. Characters need POW to cast spells, but they can also permanently sacrifice points of POW to bind demons, create magic items, and join cults. This is our “hook” – the similarity of EMP and POW. What if we had magical “cybernetics” that drained POW?

To “blend” them together, we sketch out the form of these “cybernetics.” Inspired by the edgy aesthetic of Cyberpunk, we’ll make them “flesh runes” (tattooed glyphs on the flesh) and “soul jewelry” (like magical rings and amulets, but they must be pierced through the flesh to have permanent effect). Like cybernetics, flesh runes and soul jewelry can augment a character’s strength (Grafted Muscles) or speed (Boosted Reflexes), provide natural armor (Subdermal Armor), the ability to see in the dark (Nightvision Optics) and so on. Each of these upgrades will require a permanent sacrifice of POW, based on the benefit gained; if a character’s POW drops to 0, he becomes soulless zombie (the equivalent of a cyberpsychos).

Now we’ll “double check”. We note that a character’s current POW is the basis for his magical resistance, meaning that characters which have “cybernetics” will be very susceptible to all forms of magic. Since this is very punitive and would make the flesh runes largely useless, we’ll have to adjust the magic resistance rules – the easiest method probably being to have magic resistance be based on the character’s POW plus the value of the POW imbued in any “cybernetics”. Voila! Runepunk.

Like Driver, a version of Runepunk does exist – I ran it as a campaign in 2008. Message me privately if you want to check out the rules.

Smash the System!

Hopefully these two examples have demonstrated what smashing-up is all about. To prompt some discussion, I thought I’d end this column with some systems that I think are ripe for a smash-up:

  • Dragon Age RPG and GURPs
  • Barbarians of Lemuria and Star Wars D6
  • Marvel Super Heroes and Warhammer Fantasy Battle

Let me know if you see a smash-up hook in these ideas – and be sure to share your own. Once you know to start looking for smash-up hooks, your collection of RPGs transforms from “games you probably won’t ever play” to “systems for the smashing!”

Next column, I’ll be turning from the practice of game-mastering to discuss the theoretical considerations underlying the art of game design and game judging. Having reviewed much of the commentary on my columns, I’m coming to realize that bad RPG theory is for many people leading to bad GM practices. In the meantime, happy gaming!


Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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