Welcome to Lost in Translation‘s quick series about the ins and outs of adapting games to television and film.* As seen since the first post, if something is popular, someone else will want to adapt it to a different medium. Today, 2013, the most likely medium to adapt from elsewhere is the Hollywood film.
Tabletop Role-Playing Games
A relatively new form of gaming, tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) evolved from fantasy wargaming. The grandpappy of RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons came from adding elements to the Chainmail rule set allowing for individual characters to gain experience. From those humble beginnings, RPGs have spread to cover almost every conceivable genre, from swords & sorcery to space opera, historical romance to post-apocalyptic horror, Wild West to hard science fiction. Players take on the role of their character, unravelling the Game Master’s (GMs) plots.** The simplest and oldest of plots is the dungeon exploration, where a group of specialists go into a structure to kill the inhabitants and take their belongings.
For the purposes of this week’s entry, I’ll be including tabletop wargaming. RPGs were originally an offshoot of wargaming. Several franchises, such as Warhammer and Battletech have related role-playing lines. Other franchises, such as Traveller had tactical and strategic wargames based off the RPG’s setting.
I’ll return again to the four elements noted in Part I – plot, setting, characters, and gameplay. Each of these need to be acknowledged and included for an adaptation to succeed. With RPGs, though, the plot and characters are created by the players. Some games, notably Steve Jackson’s GURPS and Hero Games’ Champions, come without a setting in the core rules. Gameplay may be critical; players will want to be able to duplicate what the characters do on-screen.
If plot is player created, then what can the writers do? Ideally, they can figure out the sort of adventures player characters (PCs) are meant to go on. A fantasy game tends to imply an epic. Dungeons & Dragons should also include a dungeon*** and a dragon; some items are just expected. Meanwhile, the cyberpunk/Tolkien-esque fantasy fusion Shadowrun should involve a group of specialists hired to be expendable assets who break into a mega-corporate facility to retrieve the plot coupon, as in the shadowruns the title implies. Not all RPGs provide such inspiration, though. The various editions of Traveller allow GMs to create a huge sandbox for the players to wander in, to find adventure both in space and on the ground. The writers will have to pick a potential plotline out of supplemental material. Other games, such as TSR’s Boot Hill and R. Talsorian’s Mekton, bring their genres to the table to play in; in the examples given, Westerns and giant mecha anime, respectively. At this point, why license (other than to get the name)?
For games that come packaged with a setting, most of the work is done. Typically, there’s still room left for GMs to add their own twists, but basic facts are provided to help out. Catalyst Game Labs’ Shadowrun and Battletech and Alderac Entertainment Group’s 7th Sea are good examples, coming with a well-formed setting in each game mentioned plus numerous supplements that expand options. In Shadowrun‘s case, the history of the world from 2012 until 2070 is given, including the return of magic, the fragmentation of nations, and the rise of the mega-corporations. Battletech provides the background of factions, the different types of gear, including the game’s king of the battlefield, the BattleMech, and the various fronts of the wars between 2375 and 3072. 7th Sea shows a fictional Earth, called Théah, its history, and the political alliances that form the backdrop to a campaign. An adaptation needs to remember these details; players will be looking for them. Some items, such as history, can be glossed over, be referenced in throwaway line, or even forgotten about if the characters don’t care about the matter. However, ignoring the fracturing of Canada and the US in Shadowrun/ or dropping an alliance from 7th Sea because it’s inconvenient to the plot will have players complaining, killing word-of-mouth.
Characters for an RPG adaptation gives the writers room to maneuver. In some settings, there are a number of key non-player characters, such as Elminster for the Forgotten Realms and Seattle Governor Kenneth Brackhaven in Shadowrun. They don’t need to appear necessarily, but their existance may provide some inspiration for writers. Ideally, the characters created for the adaptation should be possible under the game’s character generation system. That said, most games try to make it possible for believable characters. Even when the power level is stratospheric, there needs to be room for character improvement. The other question is how experienced the characters of the adaptation are. Level based games such as Wizard of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons and Palladium Games’ Rifts start new PCs as youngsters heading out to adventure at the beginning of their career. Even games that aren’t based around levels can start PCs as rookies; White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade had PCs start as recently turned vampires. Other games, the various Travellers in particular, had PCs begin play with a years of experience under their belt. Still other games allowed for a variety of prior life experience, from the hot-shot rookie to the world-weary veteran, before play started. The key here for writers is to make sure that the main characters reflect what’s possible. A D&D-based movie can have a mid-level**** character as the hero as long as his or her abilities match what they should be for a PC in a game of that level.
The last, gameplay, is going to be a sticky point. Game mechanics do try to represent the genre, but abstraction does happen. A PC in D&D can keep going without a drawback as long as his or her hit point total remains above zero. Loss of hit points represents minor scrapes, twisted ankles, fatigue, and luck, but there is no mechanical disadvantage for being wounded. On screen, people may have trouble setting aside suspension of disbelief and believing that the fighter who just took an arrow to the knee can still run. Some mechanics may have to be set aside. However, if the game system uses Vancian magic+ and a wizard in the adaptation keeps casting Fireball multiple times without stopping to pull out his or her spellbook, there’s a problem. Writers need to keep the mechanics in the back of their mind to prevent glaring mistakes.
There hasn’t been many movie and TV adaptations of RPGs. The main factor is that tabletop RPGs are a niche market. Many exist to let players play in a specific genre, so adapting one of those games can seem silly. The best known RPG has had two adaptations; Dungeons & Dragons was first adapted as a Saturday morning cartoon, then later as a movie. Vampire: The Masquerade was turned into an Aaron Spelling nighttime soap called Kindred: The Embraced, lasting eight episodes. Over in Japan, the fantasy RPG Sword World became the basis for the novel series and anime Record of Lodoss War, based on the creator’s home campaign. The mecha wargames and RPGs Battletech and Heavy Gear have been turned into animated series. At one point, Rifts was optioned by Jerry Bruckheimer, though that seems to be at least stuck in development.
Record of Lodoss War may be the route to use, at least for a TV series – base the series off an actual campaign that has been played. The characters will have been developed, the setting is already fleshed out, and plot lines will have flowed from events naturally. For movies, the best way may be to give the game a test play and see if the results were both fun and lead to exciting visuals.
Next week, part IV, adapting games as games.
* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** Like a cat unravels a wool sweater.
*** Or other underground structure.
**** Levels 5 through 8 or so. Enough to start dealing with serious threats without becoming responsible for a town’s security.
+ Magic where spellcasters memorize a spell, then release it later, “forgetting” the spell afterwards. Named after Jack Vance, who used the method in his works.