Posted by: markfender | August 20, 2014

Hacking in Games

Cyberpunk games suffer from a problem – hacking.

hackingeliteOne of the promises of cyberpunk games is the power to hack – the ability to make computers perform magic. “Magic” is probably the best word to describe this idea, as it often doesn’t bear a huge amount to reality.

And yet, the hacking in these game is always awful. It’s a whole minigame where the hacker goes off into a world where no one else goes and had his own adventures. Some games do various workarounds to make it pivotal to mission success, but most fail at this endeavor. And, if the player and GM are on the ball, and they manage to get through the layers of ICE without boring the rest of the group, then the information gained doesn’t seem like it was worth the effort.

I believe there’s one fundamental problem with hacking as its been presented in RPGs. It’s about “how” rather than “what.” To illustrate, we’ll return to magic.

There are very few magic systems in RPGs that are about “how does magic work?” The base mechanics usually interact with these elements some (spell points being expended, Drain rolls, etc), but then the spells get into “what did that spell do?” and you quickly move past the “how.” Hacking, on the other hand, is all about “how.” Maybe it’s because the first hacking systems were dreamed up by computer programmers, who know how this shit is supposed to work. Maybe there’s just too many IT people involved in RPGs to ever distance itself from reality. But the systems are all about making connections, brute forcing your way past passwords, and interacting with intrusion countermeasures – how, rather than what.

That emphasis needs to change in order to create a fun hacking system. I’m not saying that “magic” is the best approach, but I do think that the handwaving that magic normally gets is what needs to be applied to hacking to make it more interesting in games. Once you stop worrying about the method and start worrying about “what are the effects of doing this?” do you start to get into interesting ideas.



  1. A while ago, someone (on, maybe?) explained this phenomenon very well to me. (To paraphrase) There’s generally two ways to do things in RPG’s – results-based, and process-based. In results-based, like you said above, you don’t care how you do it, just what the results were. Conversely, in process-based stuff, you care more about the how than the what.

    Like you pointed out, in most magic systems, you care about the what (you cast a spell, what happens). However, in “Mage: The Ascension,” you had a process-based magic system (what spheres will you use to achieve the desired effect; in fact, you could achieved the same effect using many different spheres).

    For me, this is what killed WEG’s Star Wars (specifically 1st Edition): you had a nice little effects-based game mechanic, then they plopped this clumsy process-based Force mechanic right in the middle of it.

    I agree that someone needs to come up with some sort of “effects-based” hacking mechanic, maybe by abstracting whatever system’s combat-mechanic (you’re “doing battle” with the target system).

    • Oh, and don’t get me started on Shadowrun’s Matrix or Astral combat…

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