It’s my weekly Scrum style standup for the audience. Which is you.
This week saw a lot of stuff with fanime, so let’s get to what’s up?
In previous examinations of works adapted to gaming, Lost in Translation focused on just one original work being turned into a game. This time around, multiple original works are being adapted into just one game system, the Cortex and its successor, Cortex Plus.
The ideal works to adapt as tabletop role-playing games provide a larger setting, one where the original provides for a larger setting than what the main characters there experience. This is the case in three previous game adaptations examined, Star Trek, Star Wars, and 007, where players can take on similar roles as the main characters in both franchises. Even the Buffy RPG could delve into both past and future, allowing players to take up the mantle of the Slayer in a different time. At the same time, if players want, they can still take the roles of the existing characters. RPGs need to keep that flexibility and allow for new characters with similar capabilities as existing ones.
The Cortex system debuted in its early form with the Sovereign Stone Game System, which was based on Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Sovereign Stone novels. Since then, the Cortex system was refined and was used as the base for a number of licensed games published by Margaret Weis Productions – Serenity, based on the movie*; Battlestar Galactica, based on the rebooted series; Demon Hunters, based on videos by Dead Gentlemen Productions; and Supernatural, based on the CW TV series. A stand-alone version of the Cortex rules, the Cortex System Role Playing Game, came out in 2008, after Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, and Demon Hunters had been released.
The works adapted share some common features. Both Serenity and Battlestar Galactica are science fiction set far from Earth and have characters who spend much of their time in spaceships. Demon Hunters and Supernatural both deal with supernatural threats. All four original works have a devoted fan base, one that is likely to play RPGs. At the same time, each of the original works has its own tone. Serenity, the movie, was based around a government cover-up that affected one of the core characters. Battlestar Galactica showed the last of humanity escaping a relentless enemy intent on exterminating every last human. Demon Hunters is a comedy. Supernatural is the story of the Winchester brothers fighting against destiny, Hell, and Heaven.
Fortunately, game mechanics don’t always set the tone. While there are games where the mechanics were written to support the tone of the game, a more generic system can be adapted to the desired result. The Serenity RPG presents the game in terms of the players being the crew of their own small ship trying to make a living while staying true to themselves. Battlestar Galactica focused on survival in an environment that is inherently deadly, with the push to find the lost planet, Earth. Demon Hunters focused on comedy, with additional writing from Dead Gentlemen contributors and bonus orientation DVD. Supernatural placed the focus on the players being a small group of supernatural hunters that banded together. Each release added rules needed for the setting. Serenity and Battlestar Galactica had rules for starships, with Galactica having expanded rules for dogfighting in space. Demon Hunters added rules for creating demons and spending plot points to summon the Purple Ninja. Supernatural also had rules for creating the supernatural and exploiting their weaknesses.
What helped Cortex be flexible enough for the range of adapted works is its simplicity. The core mechanic involves using dice – the full range of regular polyhedrons – for attributes, skills, traits, and complications. Players roll the dice from appropriate attribute, skill, and, if any, trait against a difficulty number set by the GM, modified by dice from the character’s applicable complications, again, if any. Skill lists can be modified by setting; where Pilot would be a given for a Colonial Warrior to have in Battlestar Galactica, a group of hunters in Supernatural might just have the one character who can fly a small plane. Adding setting-specific rules, such as details about the Cylons, builds on top of the existing core rules, allowing for specialization.
Cortex worked well for settings that focused on action. However, not all settings focus on action. Gaming has seen a movement to expand towards a more narrative-driven focus, moving away from the hobby’s wargaming background. The intent is to tell stories, not chop down opponents. While Cortex might not have been able to take advantage, its successor, Cortex Plus, was developed to do just that.
Cortext Plus developed into three streams – Cortex Plus Drama, focusing on the relationships between characters; Cortext Plus Action, looked at what the characters did; and Cortex Plus Heroic, which combined the Drama and the Action. The core die mechanic remained but was heavily modified as needed. The game also added more details for characters, including character distinctions that could help or hinder depending on the circumstance. Traditional hit points fell by the wayside. Instead, characters could suffer from stress or complications imposed on them. If either got too high, the character would be forced out of the scene, either because of injuries, exhaustion, or escaping.
The first Cortex Plus game released was the Smallville Roleplaying Game, licensed from the Smallville TV series. The RPG used the Cortex Plus Drama system, reflecting how what the characters on the show were driven by their relationships with each other. Instead of rolling attribute and skill, players rolled value and relationship, adding in relevant resources and assets, and keeping the best two dice rolled. Players wouldn’t always be rolling against the GM; sometimes, two characters could work at cross purposes, coming into conflict. Character creation was a group effort; relationships between player and non-player characters were set up in the first session. The main drawback with the game was that a large number of players meant that the relationship map grew complex, It also meant that all the players had to show up for the first session, something not all groups can handle. That said, the system reflected the show; the values, replacing attributes, went to what motivated the characters. Clark Kent’s highest rated value, Justice, and lowest, Power, were true to his appearance on the show.
The first Cortex Plus Action game released was based on the TV series, Leverage, which was about a group of five con artists and thieves using their skills to help the average person who is being run over roughshod by the powerful and corrupt. Leverage used the same attributes that were in the Cortex games above, but instead of skills, characters had roles. The roles came directly from the TV series – Mastermind, Grifter, Hitter, Hacker, and Thief. Every character would have a key role, a minor role, and roles that would make things interesting for them. Each attribute and role had a die type assigned, which would be added to the player’s dice pool when it came time to raise the stakes. Characters also had distinction, which could work for or against them in the dice pool. For example, if Parker, the thief of the Leverage crew, needed to break into an office on the 34th floor of an office tower, she could decide to repel down the side of the building from the roof. To do this, Parker’s player would her Strength die, her Thief die, and could add her “Crazy” distinction and her “No – Really Crazy”, giving her four dice, though only the highest two would be added together. Parker’s player could decide that “Crazy” merited the usual d8 for the distinction, but then say that, because she’s going down facing the ground, “No – Really Crazy” would add just a d4 and provide a plot point.
The Leverage RPG added rules to reflect the show’s episode structure, which included flashbacks to show the characters setting up twists to defeat the Mark. The game allows for players to set up their own flashbacks, allowing them to get an advantage when needed. This allows the crew’s thief to place a convenient smartphone in a drawer where the crew’s hacker can grab it later without the players spending two hours of gaming working out all the contingencies before committing their heist. The Leverage RPG works to keep the story flowing; there’s no real need to spend hours on a plan when the players just need to work out a general idea of what they want to do.
The next Cortex Plus game out was also the first to use the Heroic approach. The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game featured the characters from Marvel Comics and was the fourth licensed game based on the Marvel Universe. The game pulled in ideas from both Smallville and Leverage, adapted to reflect the needs of the new setting. Instead of Smallville‘s values and Leverage‘s attributes, Marvel Heroic used affiliations, or how well a character worked with others. There were three types of affiliation, each getting a different die type – Solo, for characters like Daredevil and Wolverine, who worked best on their own; Buddy, for characters like Spider-Man who often works with another hero; and Team, for the likes of Captain America and Cyclops, who work most often with a large group, such as the Avengers or the X-Men.
Marvel Heroic also uses the stress system from Smallville, again, modified. Instead of taking six different types of stress, Marvel Heroic characters only have three sources – physical, mental, and emotional. It is possible for Spider-Man to keep up his constant wisecracking to force an opponent to break down and give up, a result that the previous three Marvel-based games didn’t have a mechanic for. Skills were replaced by specialties, though their use is similar. The mechanics remain the same; a player builds a dice pool and takes the best two results and add them together.
The most recent game from Margaret Weis Productions was the Firefly RPG. The license for the Serenity RPG had expired, but the company had worked with Fox to get the license for the TV series*. The Firefly RPG uses Cortex Plus Action, modified from its first incarnation as the Leverage RPG and taking some ideas from Marvel Heroic. Firefly has attributes, but only three; Mental, Physical, and Social. The skill list is shorter than Serenity‘s, but are broader. The game introduced rules for spaceships, since the TV series was set on one. Players could not only create their characters but their own ship, turning the vessel from a stat block into something that the players and their characters could care about. The game also modified the distinctions. Instead of just giving a bonus die for the player’s dice pool, distinction had some extra mechanical bits that helped players distinguish their characters. The rule book also uses scenes from the TV series to illustrate how the mechanics work, giving players a way to follow the action.
With four licensed games using Cortex and another four using Cortex Plus, how did the adapting fare? At its core, Cortex is a simple, flexible system, in the same vein as the Cinematic Unisystem rules used by the Buffy RPG. This allowed the developers to tailor the mechanics to the adapted setting by changing skill lists and adding and removing talents and complications. It is possible for characters from one of the published games to be used in another; it would be odd to see a member of the Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch on board the Rising Star, but less so if that same member met the Winchesters.
With Cortex Plus and its different streams, adapting the mechanics to the setting was a design goal. This means that characters from the different games wouldn’t interact as easily – Spider-Man has no relationship ties to anyone from Smallville, for example – but the games reflect the TV series they’re meant to portray. Smallville is a super-powered soap opera while Leverage is a series of heist mini-movies, and their games reflect those realities. The key is to choose the correct Cortex Plus stream to reflect the core of a work. So far, the developers have been able to do just that.
Speaking of the developers, Cam Banks, has licensed Cortex and Cortex Plus from Margaret Weis Productions. The end goal is to create a game, Cortex Prime, that takes in all the prior work mentioned above and produce not just the rules but settings that aren’t necessarily licensed works. His studio, Magic Vacuum Design Studio is running a Kickstarter, with stretch goals that will include a number of pre-made settings with the new game.
* The Serenity and Firefly licenses had an inherent problem – different studios held the licensing rights. Fox has the rights for Firefly, but Universal had the rights for Serenity. This split meant that information in one work could not appear in the licensed game of the other. Players, however, aren’t restricted and can pull in characters and ideas from both works, but any work needed to stat up something not covered by the game fell to the GM.
It’s my weekly Scrum style standup for the audience. Not a lot of Sanctum relevant stuff here but hey I’m including it for now – wondering if i need to?
Well bluntly this week also was nuts, with assorted work events, a friend having health concerns (resolved) and of course occasional allergies. It’s not been the greatest week – but Agile method are about adapting. So where are we?
No post today. Lost in Translation will return next week.
And it’s time for another Scrum style standup! What am I up to?
Well bluntly this week also was nuts, with assorted work events, a friend having health concerns (resolved) and of course occasional allergies. It’s not been the greatest week – but Agile method are about adapting. So where are we?
This week taught me a lot about adapting. I cancelled writing a chapter to have time to actually develop the book outline. I was willing to cancel a marketing idea because, simply, I needed the proper “mood” to do it. I also caught a few missing things and got on top of them fast. It’s likely I overplanned this month a bit, but hey live and learn!
After last week’s look at works that adapt characters instead of stories, it’s a good time to examine such a work. Today, Deadpool.
The character Deadpool was created in 1990, with his first appearance in New Mutants #98, written by Rob Liefield and Fabien Nicieza. Deadpool’s main ability is much like Wolverine’s, a heightened healing factor, though with the Merc with the Mouth, it’s offset by cancer. The two characters are linked through the Weapon X project, the one that gave Wolverine his adamantium skeleton and Deadpool his accelerated healing. This combination has seriously unhinged Deadpool to the point where he thinks he’s a comic book character. His appearances are marked by his ability to break the fourth wall and talk to the readers directly. In his video game appearances, he has cheered on the player.
Deadpool’s first cinematic appearance was in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The problem there, though, was that his mouth was sewn shut, so he couldn’t speak. He was also decapitated in the movie, though a post-credit sequence shows him picking up his head and telling the audience to “Shh.” Ryan Reynolds, who plays the Merc with the Mouth, admitted that it was wrong, so was eager to play him again, this time properly. Thus, the Deadpool movie released shortly before Valentine’s Day, 2016..
Deadpool set out to correct the problems with the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Where the character had his mouth sewn shut previously, this time around, he talks non-stop, to the point of providing narration even into the post-credit sequence. The core plot hinges around Wade Wilson, Mr. Pool himself, trying to get the experiment that turned his Ryan Reynolds good looks into something that repulses people reversed. The man responsible, Francis, credited as Ajax*, played by Ed Skrein, provided the a treatment that halted the spread of cancer through Wilson’s body, but didn’t remove it.
However, the core plot isn’t the only part of the story. There’s a romance as well, with Wade getting engaged to Vanessa, played by Morena Baccarin. Vanessa is the reason why Wade went into the Weapon X program – he didn’t want to leave her mourning him. This connection, though, puts Vanessa in danger near the end of the movie.
The movie is a superhero comedy that, instead of taking refuge in audacity, revels in it. Deadpool is also one of the most comic book movies made, alongside Scott Pilgrim vs the World. The film opens with the cinematic version of a two-page splash page. The credits that appear wouldn’t be out of place in one of Marvel’s lighter titles, like What The–?!, credits like “A Moody Teenager” – Negasonic Teenage Warhead played by Brianna Hildebrand, “A CGI Character” – Colossus voiced by Stefan Kapicic, and “A British Villain” – Francis. Deadpool himself narrates the story, stopping the action several times to address the audience directly. Not only does he break the fourth wall, at one point, he does so while breaking the fourth wall during a flashback.
Deadpool is an origins movie, though the character’s background isn’t as well known as Superman’s or Spider-Man’s. The movie retells Deadpool’s background. However, remember that cinematic superhero universes are a thing. The movie isn’t accurate, but given it’s Wade narrating it and he believes he’s a comic book and, for the film, a superhero movie character, variances are allowed. Deadpool is structured much like a comic book. The opening shot, as mentioned above, acts as the two-page splash. Flashbacks fill in details. Narration adds extra information. The opening splash is revisited several times, once in the regular narrative flow, and at least once with a flashback.
The writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, pulled together the information on Deadpool’s origins and focused on his personality. Deadpool is more about the character than getting details of his history correct and presents Wade as the unhinged mutant seen in the comics. Any problems from X-Men Origins: Wolverine were erased, even called out and ridiculed by Wade himself. To emphasize that he believes he’s a character in a movie, Deadpool often comments on the film. A scene at the X-Men’s mansion has him commenting that, “It’s a big house. It’s funny that I only ever see two of you [Colossus and Negasonic]. It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man.”
The main potential point of failure was not getting Deadpool translated over to film. The movie managed to take the character concept and bring it from the pages to the silver screen while still keeping the core that made Deadpool popular.
* The name Ajax is used once. Even the DVD subtitles refer to him as Francis.
And it’s time for another Scrum style standup! OK it’s weekly, and I prefer them daily but that’s a bit much.
First a note – I had a nasty allergy attack around Thursday which held a few things up. I’m overall on time/ahead of my plans but it was annoying
Most of the works analyzed here at Lost in Translation have been the a partial or full adaptation of the story in an original. While the degree of success may change from work to work, the intent was to take the whole of an original work and move it to another or, in the case of remakes and reboots, the same medium. However, not every adaptation aims for that goal. A small few don’t use the story so much as the main character or characters. The most recent analysis featuring a character being adapted is the 2007 Nancy Drew film.
For the most part, when a work gets adapted, it’s because the adapter wants to bring the story over to the new medium. With movies, the studio wants to bring in the fans, and the safest way is to remake the story in the original work and place it on screen. Tinkering can cause a backlash, especially with the speed of today’s social media. Warner Bros. would have been crucified if they had altered the Harry Potter films in any way from how the novels presented not just the characters but the setting.
With some works, though, chosing an iconic moment to tell is difficult. This becomes especially true for long running series. The tendency for non-comics media versions of superheroes to go off in their own directions has been discussed before; the short version is that the needs of the new medium, either a film with limited time to delve into the intricacies of the character and plots or a TV series with time to fill, will cause the adaptation to veer in a new direction. Even Marvel Studio’s offerings and Fox’s X-Men films, based on story lines in the comics, have their own take.
It’s not just superheroes, though. Supers are noticeable because of their popularity in theatres. Other long running series have been adapted. The original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories ran from 1930 until 2003, with 175 titles released in that time. With all the titles available, the 2007 movie still created a new mystery for her; the character is better known than any one of her published books. Even James Bond, with Ian Fleming writing 12 novels and 2 collections of short stories, has been adapted as a character. While the first three Sean Connery movies, Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger stayed close to the original novels, though with some changes, later works, including The Man With the Golden Gun and Octopussy, both with Roger Moore, and the entirety of the Pierce Brosnan run, featured new stories about Bond*.
That’s not to say that anytime a character with a series gets an adaptation, the work is automatically a character adaptation. The 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve and 2013’s Man of Steel are both about the same character, but they also both retell the character’s story, just through different interpretations. Likewise, the 2011 remake of The Mechanic told the same story, just with a different approach, an action movie instead of a character piece.
The flip side to the above is that a work doesn’t have to focus on just one character to be a character adaptation. The exemplar here is The Addams Family from 1991. The movie showed the Addamses coping with life among the mundanes. Each character was recognizable, not just in appearance but in action and personality. The movie extrapolated from both the original one-panel comics and the 1964 TV series to explore what they would do outside the comfort of their home.
At what point does an adaptation become more about the character or characters than the original story? The main difference is having a new plot created for the character, as with Nancy Drew, The Addams Family, and the sequels to the Tim Burton Batman film. This approach works well when the character is better known than any of his or her existing stories, which tends to happen with older characters. Pop culture osmosis means that a younger generation will know of the character in general without having experienced the original work first hand, if at all. Nancy Drew is a teenage girl detective who can get herself in and out of trouble. The Addamses, as the song says, “They’re creepy and they’re kooky.” James Bond is a suave British agent with a license to kill.
Another way to tell that a work is a spin-off. Spin-offs are works that are related to an original or even an adaptation, based on a character or situation that was minor in the original but got attention from the audience. The Ma & Pa Kettle series of movies came about after the hard luck characters in The Egg and I became breakout hits despite being supporting characters. The Angel spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer followed the tortured vampire to LA after leaving Sunnydale. After Cheers ended, Frasier followed the character to Seattle. In each of these cases, the character’s/characters’ story continued. Note that not all spin-offs are popular. There are times when a studio misreads the audience’s desires; this was the case with the Friends spin-off, Joey. Friends was popular, lasting ten seasons. When it wrapped up, fans still wanted more, so NBC spun off the character of Joey. The new show didn’t maintain the ratings the parent show had, and only lasted two seasons.
Like full works, characters can also be adapted. While adapting a character for a new medium is part of the process of adaptation, it is possible for a character to be adapted without the rest of his or her story. The degree of success lies in how well the adapters – whether studio executives, comic artists and writers, or even fanfic authors – understand the character and can portray that understanding to the audience.
* Special mention here for the Timothy Dalton outing, The Living Daylights, which re-told the short story of the same name, then expanded on it. The full 007 series deserves to have its own project as it covers not just simple adaptation, but character adaptation and expansion into a franchise.
Let’s get to my weekly Scrum style standups – and this is a pretty big milestone!
So for a month I’ve been using a lot more Scrum/Agile techniques, and that includes these weekly reports. Now I can assess how it went!
The answer? Pretty damn good.
More done, less stress, better sense of what I’m doing, more adaptability. There’s a lot of blog posts about to come on this (which is also good as my blogging is erratic and I want to fix that). These posts should also help you get up to speed as well, and after I tweak my methods I’ll probably do a roundup.
Major goals of this month:
But hey it’s the end of one Sprint and the start of a new, so let’s get to status!
Time again to try to fix an adaptation. Previous attempts to figure out what went wrong and how to fix the problems include the Dungeons & Dragons movie, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, and the 1998 American Godzilla movie. This time out, the 2015 Jem and the Holograms film.
The biggest problem the 2015 Jem had was obvious – it wasn’t the cartoon. Not that it wasn’t animated; the movie only shared names with with cartoon, going in its own direction, one that the potential audience wasn’t interested in. The obvious solution is to build a time machine, go back to 1986, and prevent the cartoon from airing. Of course, doing that means there’s no reason to adapt the series as a movie, thus the film is never made, so there’s no reason to go back in time. Depending on the theory of temporal mechanics, this could destroy the universe from paradox; create two timelines, one with the cartoon, the other without; or have some grumpy man in a blue police call box step in grumbling how amateurs shouldn’t mess with the space-time continuum.
Given the complexities of time travel, the obvious solution isn’t workable. Given that the audience was expecting something like the cartoon, what could have been done? Simplest, and doable barring problems with rights, is to just adapt the first five episodes of the series as the movie, with the music and technology updated to reflect what’s possible now. The episodes, “The Beginning”, “Disaster” (aka “Setbacks”), “Kimber’s Rebellion”, “Frame Up”, and “Battle of the Bands”, are one story, each but the last ending with a cliffhanger and set up the premise well. Along with Jerrica/Jem, the Holograms, and the Misfits, there’s a corrupt corporate executive in Eric Raymond as the villain.
“The Beginning” introduces everyone, sets up the relationships, shows the need that the Starlight Foundation has, brings in the love interests, and puts Jerrica in the position of having to fight to keep control of her father’s company. Even Synergy is brought in before the first commercial break, to introduce Jem. The difficulty may lie in the updates. Holographic technology is better understood now, but miniaturization will still let Synergy use Jem’s earrings as projectors. The fashions are dated, but with the likes of Lady Gaga performing today, outrageous outfits shouldn’t be a problem. The music needs a careful hand; Jem and the Holograms should have a different sound from the Misfits. In the cartoon, the Misfits had a harsher tone in their music, with Jem being softer for the most part, as the song “Click/Clash” demonstrates. Given that the sequel hook had Kesha as Pizzazz, the difference between the two bands would happen.
The last of the first five, “Battle of the Bands”, provides a natural climax, as Jem and the Holograms face off against the Misfits in a battle of the bands that will determine who owns Starlight Music and will live in Starlight Mansion, with the added threat of the life of one of the Starlight Girls in the balance, thanks to Eric. A race against time for the final act should pump up the audience, with the added benefit that the Holograms succeed thanks to Jerrica’s thinking and actions.
Casting the above is easy – keep the same cast, just let the actors playing Jem and the Holograms get a little older. They had chemistry with each other and deserve a proper shot. Ke$ha as Pizzazz had promise, and Juliette Lewis as Erica Raymond nice flipped the villain’s gender without losing any of the sliminess of the corrupt exec.
That isn’t to say that the 2015 Jem movie is bad. Unlike the other movies featured in the Adaptation Fix-it Shop, Jem‘s biggest sin was not being what people wanted. The movie did get a number of items correct. The writers understood that while the Misfits were rivals, Eric Raymond was the villain. He used the Misfits for his own ends. The movie also remembered Eric’s thug, Zipper, who played a supporting role in the first five episodes of the cartoon. The fan videos that appeared deserves a look just for how the creative crew managed to fit them in. The Jem movie deserved better than a two-week run in theatres. It may have been better served by airing on a family programming channel instead, where the expectations of the audience who will be paying for the fare would be low to non-existent. As it stands, the movie made only half its $5 million budget, a rounding error for Universal in a year that included Jurassic World.
The 2015 Jem and the Holograms wasn’t a bad movie. It was just not what people wanted, and fixing that happens not on screen, but in marketing. Sometimes, misreading the audience leads to missteps.