Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Lost in Translation has taken a look at a number of tabletop role-playing games, the most recent being Tails of Equestria. In those reviews, the goal was to see how well the source material was adapted as a game. Today, the goal is to determine what would adapt well as a game.

Tabletop RPGs bring together a group on a regular basis to play, to socialize, and to relax. Existing settings helps reduce set up time. Settings based on existing works allow the players to get a good idea of what sort of play is expected in a game. What makes for a good source to be adapted? The big thing is playability. There needs to be something for the players to do in the game. The goal doesn’t have to be all combat all the time. Investigations, intrigue, and exploration are all viable options. The implication here is that there is more to the setting than what is shown in the original work; that the main characters aren’t the only movers and shakers.

Related to the above, can the players have an effect on the setting of the same importance as the main characters? Sure, only Luke Skywalker can destroy the first Death Star, but can players in a Star Wars setting aid the Rebellion in a way that is just as meaningful? The effect doesn’t have to be achieved in the first session; the goal of an entire Star Wars RPG campaign could be to bring down the Empire in a sector, with the end taking place at the same time as the Battle of Endor. Star Wars: Rogue One could easily be a campaign, getting the plans for the Death Star into the hands of Princess Leia. Without that, the Rebellion would be destroyed.

Next, does the plot of the original work allow for expansion? Some works come down to the actions of one character. A hypothetical The Last Starfighter RPG* has the problem of every starfighter pilot except Alex being killed by a Ko-Dan sneak attack. The movie doesn’t show what happens afterwards, but there isn’t much detail to the setting beyond that needed to drive the plot. Few players want to play Dead Pilot #10. Likewise, a Rumble in the Bronx RPG, based on the Jackie Chan movie, doesn’t work; Jackie’s character is the critical one in the story, and there isn’t a way to expand the cast to allow for player characters. However, a tabletop RPG based on the entire Jackie Chan movie catelogue can and has been done.

The game publisher has another issue unique to the industry. Will the adapted game bring in something that a more generic game can’t? The generic game doesn’t have to be as broad as Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS; there are games that handle just one genre, such as D&D with fantasy. The goal, though, is to have the adaptation represent the original far better than the broader games in the genre. Take Victory Games’ James Bond 007 Role Playing Game as an example. At the time, its competition included TSR’s Top Secret, Flying Buffalo’s Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, and Hero Games’ Danger International, but the game had the draw of 007 himself. The result was a game with mechanics that could be seen happening on screen without having to be excessively house ruled to be playable, a game that reflected the source well. That’s not to say that a broader game can’t be used to adapt a work. GURPS has had a number of licensed adaptations, including The Prisoner and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Of course, game publishers can’t just adapt a work at will. The owners of the originals want to be compensated. Thus, the big question, the one that can make or break an adaptation – is the license available and affordable. Game publishing is still a business. If a license costs more than the expected return on investment, then it’s not worth pursuing. Likewise, if a license just isn’t available, like with the Harry Potter series, then no amount of money is enough. The game just won’t exist legally, and few game publishers have the money to afford a lawyer to fend off the inevitable lawsuit that would occur by ignoring the licensing needs.

In short:

  1. Is there something for the players to do?
  2. Can the players have the same impact on the setting as the main characters?
  3. Does the plot of the original work allow for expansion?
  4. Will the adapted game bring in something that a more generic game can’t?
  5. Is the license available?

How does this work? Let’s take Star Trek, which has had a number of RPGs based om it, the most recent being published by Modiphius. The players do have something to do – they can be officers on board a Starfleet vessel exploring new worlds and new civilizations, going boldly where no one has gone before. As Starfleet officers, the players can make discoveries similar to the ones Kirk, Picard, and Janeway have. Star Trek: Voyager showed that there are ships in Starfleet not named Enterprise that also explore the unknown. Each of the Trek RPGs was designed with the setting in mind; while Traveller could be adapted to the setting, the various publishers have made an effort to keep to the feel of the franchise. As for the license, Modiphius is the current holder for the purposes of publishing a tabletop RPG.

A potential licensed RPG shoould have these questions in mind. Let’s use a hypothetical Reboot RPG, since it’s fresh in memory. Players would have a wide variety of things to do, from fighting viruses to winning games to dealing with or even being software pirates. If in a different system other than Mainframe, the players can have a similar impact to the main cast, the exception being the events in Daemon Rising, where it took a small handful of Mainframers and a friendly virus to stop Daemon. The plot in Reboot, especially once the ongoing one begins in season 2, still allows for players to do their own thing, even during Daemon Rising. The key to the mechanics will be to allow for the range of characters seen in the show; binomes like the Crimson Binome, Binky, and Algernon, sprites like Dot, Bob, and big and little Enzo, and even benign viruses. Devices like the Guardians’ key tools, like Glitch, and the Code Masters’ staff will need to be worked out. As it stands now, a superhero game may be the best “generic” system to emulate the series, but a game that can reflect Reboot specifically would be ideal. The only question is, is the license available to a publisher? That can only be found out by a potential designer.

Licensed tabletop RPGs have a tightrope to walk, They have to be true to the source material while still being playable. If done well, though, the game can introduce a new pastime to fans of the original and introduce gamers to a new work that they might not have heard of before.

* Note that FASA released a wargame based on The Last Starfighter, where one player took the forces of the Ko-Dan Empire and a second played the Star League. One of the scenarios in the game was the final battle from the movie, complete with rules for the Death Blossom.

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