Sometime back, Lost in Translation looked at the intricacies of adapting tabletop role-playing games to a different medium. There haven’t been many such adaptations. Lost in Translation has looked at three, the Dungeons & Dragons movie and the animated adaptations of Heavy Gear*, and Dragonlance. There aren’t many more; Fox aired a short-lived Vampire: The Masquerade series called Kindred: The Embraced, and Dungeons & Dragons and BattleTech both had their own cartoons.
The usual approach with adaptations and tabletop games is that the RPG is adapted to a video game. From the earliest Rogue-like games to massive multiplayers like World of Warcraft owe a lot to Dungeons & Dragons. But adaptations in other media are next to non-existent. The failure of the Dungeons & Dragons movie may have a role, but other factors are at work.
The biggest factor is name recognition. D&D is the 800 pound gorilla in tabletop RPGs, with name recognition outside the hobby. Few games even come close to the sales figures or the longevity of D&D. In the 80s, TSR even bought television ad time for the game. D&D, though, is atypical. Marvel tried releasing a game, Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game, but cancelled the publication when the RPG did not see the returns of D&D or Marvel’s own comics. RPGs are a niche market; the built-in audience is not enough to risk a budget on.
Next, the nature of a typical RPG means there aren’t many iconic characters and next to little plot to adapt. Most games allow players to create their own characters, with the Games Master creating the plot and adjusting it in reaction to the players’ actions. A few games, including D&D, don’t come with a setting, though they are in the minority; even those games have published campaign supplements for groups that don’t have the time to create their own world. Even the published settings take on different lives once the players and GM start playing. The Traveller fandom even has acronyms for this phenomenon – OTU, or Original Traveller Universe; IMTU, In My Traveller Universe; and IYTU, In Your Traveller Universe. Movies, books, and stage plays all need characters and a plot. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a typical adventure for RPGs. The classic D&D adventure involves exploring an underground structure fill with monsters while a Traveller adventure has the players travelling the space lanes earning money through speculation and working for patrons. It just takes more effort to come up with a plot and characters that fit a setting than adapting a work that falls under a more traditional form of storytelling.
Game play may be the most difficult part of adapting a game, though it may not be as important as the above. The main goal for a gaming group is to have fun, whether through mindless mayhem, intense angst, or delving into the unknown. It’s a gathering of friends who can take the time to catch up with each other and josh around. There’s banter both in-character and out, with inside jokes coming up. Action in-game can take less time than it does for the players to resolve the action. Combat taking less than a minute can eat up most of a gaming session. Conversely, some actions that would take hours can be resolved with a die roll or two. The pacing is different to traditional storytelling. The dice introduce an extra element; chance. There isn’t a sure thing in RPGs; sometimes, the dice just roll poorly. In a narrative, random failure is jarring. Failure has a purpose in a plot, and doesn’t come up otherwise. An adaptation, though, can throw the equivalent of a failed die roll as a setback for the characters. Failure isn’t always fatal.
Game mechanics, however, do need to be adapted well. Not necessarily the die rolls, but the appearance of details such as spells, weapons, and opposition. The Dragonlance animated movie has a scene where the adaptation got a spell detail wrong; Fizban in the novel cast fireball but, on screen, the spell shown looked more like flaming sphere. While the two spells sound similar, fireball is the more potent of the two, being more explosive and damaging. Details are the devil that make or break an adaptation; getting something like a spell’s appearance wrong can lose a knowledgeable audience, leading to poor word of mouth.
Given the above, it is still possible to adapt a game well. As mentioned above, tabletop games have been adapted and adapted successfully as video games. D&D was one of the first with the gold box series of computer games and both Vampire and Shadowrun have had success in the electronic realm with Bloodlines and Shadowrun Hong Kong. The ability for a player to create a character is a plus in the video game realm, allowing the player to personalize the experience. There have been tie-in novels for several game lines. But of the existing adaptations, only one, the BattleTech cartoon, came close to having the right feel. Even Kindred: The Embraced had issues, such as vampires out in broad daylight, and lasted eight episodes.
Adapters need to understand the source material, no matter what the original work is. With tabletop RPGs, the nature of the games have a different focus. The storytelling in interactive with rules acting as framework and setting physics. Failing to take the mechanics into account leads to characters that don’t quite fit the setting, a setting that only has superficial resemblance to the original, and action that just isn’t possible in the game. The result can be much like the D&D movie, disappointing to fans of the game and incoherent to the casual audience. Adapting a tabletop RPG well will take an effort that may be more than potential returns, leading to the dearth of adaptations made.
* Technically, Heavy Gear was written to be both an RPG and a wargame when it was first released.
** Not all, but, in general, audiences appreciate at least a token plot even in a character piece. Something needs to happen.