Posted on by Scott Delahunt

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.

Part I – Video Games
Part II – Boardgames
Part III – Tabletop Role-Playing Games
Part IV – Adapting Games to Games

Adapting Games to Games: Tabletop RPGs

Two weeks ago, I went through how to adapt boardgames and video games as other games, leaving tabletop role-playing games aside for later. A few minutes of quick, barely scratching the surface research later had me wondering just what, exactly, had I gotten myself into.

Back in 1974, Tactical Studies Rules released Dungeons & Dragons, based on a miniatures wargame called Chainmail. Since then, D&D has been the most popular and best selling RPG released, the 800 pound gorilla of the industry. When computer gaming appeared, many games, including Rogue and its imitators**, emulated the feel and, at times, the mechanics of the RPG. Similar adventure games, such as the Ultima series and the Bard’s Tale series, owe their existence to D&D. The influence of D&D is still felt today, with terminology*** appearing in games like The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, and Diablo, not to mention the concept of a Massive Multiplayer Online RPG (aka, the MMORPG). Two MMORPGS, Everquest and World of Warcraft eventually had tabletop RPGs released, both based on the Dungeons & Dragons third edition open gaming license. A third, Neverwinter Nights was an SSI-licensed game based on Neverwinter in the Forgotten Realms and was available on AOL in the early 90s.

TSR and Wizards of the Coast eventually did license official video games. Strategic Simulations Inc, now owned by Ubisoft, created a series of games based on both the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance settings. At least one project, Curse of the Azure Bonds was created as a video game, an adventure module for the RPG, and a tie-in novel, with all three having good reception on release. When WotC bought TSR and released D&D3E, Bioware received the license and released the Baldur’s Gate series of games.

D&D isn’t the only tabletop RPG, though. Other RPGs have been adapted as well. White Wolf‘s Vampire: The Masquerade has had two video games released – Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines and Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption. Hero Games’ Champions was the original inspiration for City of Heroes, which led to the Champions MMORPG. GDW’s MegaTraveller had two games, The Zhodani Conspiracy and Quest for the Ancients, both based on elements in the Third Imperium setting.

The goal, as it was back in Part III is to keep the feel of the tabletop experience. However, since many RPGs are simulating a genre already, care must be taken to avoid the added filter that the game might need. The game mechanics can be hidden away in the code; the player doesn’t need to know why he or she missed the dragon with the crossbow shot, just that the dragon’s full attention is now on the player’s character. Since there’s no guarantee on the type of character that will be played, since that will be the player’s choice, the writers will need to have the plot come from a non-player character, with the PC out to thwart the evil plans. If a game comes with a setting, the feel of the setting needs to be replicated. Fortunately, most RPGs come with illustrations, which should allow the video game designers to get a visual feel of the game. When done well, the game is successful. If not, fans of the game may avoid the video game.

This holds even if the RPG is being adapted as a boardgame. Vampire would not work well as a boardgame; the elements of the RPG include the struggle to keep the monster within in check, political machinations, and keeping the mundane world unaware that the supernatural exists and is hostile, none of which is easy to portray on a board. D&D, however, has had several boardgames based on the elements of exploring a subterranean maze and killing the evil creatures who dwell within. Ideally, an adaptation should fit within the setting, or one of the settings, of the game, feature iconic character types, and be representative of a typical game if possible.

Next week, the series wrap up.

* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** Known as “roguelikes”, and includes Larn, Hack/, Nethack. and Diablo.
*** A non-exhaustive list of examples: Class, Level, Hit Points, attribute names


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