Concluding Lost in Translation‘s look a adapting tabletop setting is Shadowrun. Originally published in 1989 by FASA, Inc, the game is currently on its sixth edition, called Shadowrun Sixth World and published by Catalyst Game Labs. The game is a cross between cyberpunk and high fantasy, with elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls being subspecies of humanity and dragons control major corportations.
The core idea is that magic returned in 2011 in an event known as the Awakening, an event marking the shift from the Fifth World to the Sixth as per Mayan calendars. This Awakening of maigc leads to a year of chaos across the globe and the first dragon sighted on Mount Fuji in Japan. However, this is just the topping to other problems going on. In the US, the Shiawase decision of 2000 allows for corporations to claim extraterritoriality, where a properly demarked site is its own corporate sovereign nation. With a pandemic in 2010, the economy is strained and governments collapse. In North America, the First Nations take advantage of the chaos to reclaim land, forming the Native American Nations. Naturally, Canada and the US take umbridge with that and strike back. What the military forces weren’t expecting was the use of the Great Ghost Dance to be magically backed.
In short, the world is hosed, governments have no power over corporations, and the threat of a new pandemic makes living look bleak. Relevant to our times.
In the game, players are shadowrunners, the cut outs and go-betweens as corporations use every possible advantage to get an edge over the rest. Shadowrunners are freelance deniable expendable assets, dirty deeds done for reasonable rates, taking on corporate security to extract valuable information or personnel for a paycheque. Characters can be magically active or they can be cybered so much they vibrate while standing still. Hackers, called deckers, can tear through intrusion countermeasure, or IC, like tissue paper. Riggers are the getaway drivers becoming one with their vehicles and capable of commanding an army of drones. Corporations, though, get the same access to equipment as player characters, possible more as business has the budget and characters have to find someone willing to sell or out and out steal the gear.
The default approach for a campaign is that player characters are shadowrunners, being hired for a number of jobs. The characters can come up with their own ideas, either for payback or to assist someone, but the typical game session will follow the same standard format. However, there are other possibilities. Characters can work for the main medical provider, Doc Wagon, as a High Threat Response Team, and be on the lighter side of grey. Or the characters can be members of a gang trying to protect their turf. Perhaps they could be corporate troubleshooters with a steady salary and medical benefits. There’s room for variation.
Adapting the setting shouldn’t be difficult. The presented game play is perfect for a movie; a heist along the lines of Oceans Eleven, Leverage, or The Italian Job provides the scaffold to build from, then add elements from the game. One of the characters is one of the subspecies. The muscle of the team has cybernetics. Use one of the Triple-A corporations in the game as the victim. Add the cyberpunk in, mix with the fantasy elements.
For television, follow a team of shadowrunners. Leverage was able to present a heist movie in about forty-five minutes in every episode. The draw was the characters and how they’d execute a job. Of course, the setting has its darker side, as if being a corporate-run dystopia wasn’t enough. With magic came beings beyond humanity’s ken. Insect spirits looking for host bodies. Blood magic. Magically changed viruses that lead to vampirism. Adding an episode or two to focus on the magical side of the setting allows for horror to be added to the cyberpunk/fantasy mix.
The main drawback to adapting the game is the setting. Describing it to Marketing would be trying to explain cyberpunk, Tolkien fantasy, heist movies, and then combining them. High tech and magic tend to sit in separate worlds, with exceptions such as Star Wars. Even that movie, A New Hope took time and effort before being picked up by a studio.
Once past the hurdle called Marketing, the next problem is budget. The different realms of the setting will have a different look. Reality is going to have contrasts between clean, glistening corporate enclaves and the grimy streets the characters live in. The virtual world is going to need its own look, with icons for everything without necessarily looking like a clone of Tron. The magical realm should look appropriate, beckoning, waiting, eerie, and dangerous.
Even the mundane world will require work. To reflect the game setting, the core metahumans – elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls – need to be seen. With how metahumanity came about, it’s possible to have a Caucasian dwarf, a Black elf, an Indigenous ork, or an Asian troll. Diversity is going to be needed; everyone gets downtrodden except the one percent. That said, unlike BattleTech, there aren’t centuries of history to choose from. It’s easiest to take the world as per the current edition. Shadowrun is always in the now, whether the now is 2050 like in the first edition or the 2080s of Sixth World. It may be easier to hand wave the technology in the setting by using the later date.
Shadowrun would be a challenge for a studio to adapt, but the setting is rich enough to make the effort pay off. As with all adaptations, the success depends on the effort made by studios to recognize why a work is popular and to keep that the heart of the new work.
Continuing Lost in Translation‘s look at adapting tabletop gaming settings, let’s jump into the future, a future where mankind has been at war somewhere in the galaxy for several hundred years. A future where feudal lords vie for control of all human space. Welcome to BattleTech.
Lost in Translation has covered the BattleTech animated series. While the series had issues, it did show off the then-current Clan Invasion metaplot the game was going through. In universe, the cartoon is anti-Clan propaganda by the Lyran owned Tharkad Broadcasting Company, with the characters based on real people in the setting. The BattleTech setting has several hundred years of history, providing a number of eras of play for players, from the Aramis Civil War and the end of the Star League in the late 2700s, the four Succession Wars, the Clan Invasion of the 3050s, the FedCom Civil War of the 3060s, and the Word of Blake Jihad of 3067. Conflict is built into the setting.
BattleTech has something few other tabletop games provide, giant stompy mechs fighting each other. No matter what form the adaptation takes, the draw will be war machines stomping their enemies into paste. The MechWarrior series of video games has focused on putting the player into the pilot seat of a BattleMech, controlling one of the engines of war. The recent BattleTech video game puts the action at the lance level, giving the player control of four `Mechs to fight against enemy units.
The question becomes, what level should an adaptation look at? Will the adaptation follow a lance of ‘Mech pilots getting in over their heads? Or will it take a top level approach, using the different Houses and their machinations to become the one ruling the known galaxy? Are the Clans threatening to invade, a threat not yet looming, or a pacified enemy that is now in competition with the Great Houses?
At the lance level, the best choice of unit is mercenary. House units tend to be in garrison unless either the war arrives on their world or they’re sent to the front. Mercenaries have more choice on what sort of job they take. In film, it’s almost traditional that the hired guns aren’t told the full story about what they’re getting into. The plot could be taken from other genres, from heists to Westerns. The smaller cast allows for more focus on just the unit, not worrying about the politics going on at the galactic level.
However, with the Great Houses, it’s possible for a BattleTech version of A Game of Thrones, The five Great Houses – Steiner, Davion, Kurita, Liao, and Marek – along with some Minor Houses such as Centralla of the Magistracy of Canopus, Calderon of the Taurian Concordat, and O’Reilly of the Marian Hegemony. Not only is there conflict between the Houses, there is conflict within the Houses. Conflict that bleed out to the battlefield, fought by BattleMechs. To continue the comparison with A Game of Thrones, the Clans can represent the White Walkers, lurking, ready to strike.
The Clans provide yet another approach to the setting. The Clans themselves are alien in thinking to the Inner Sphere, but they are still human. The differences is how Clan culture evolved, with scarcity, ritualized combat to prevent unnecessary losses of MechWarriors, and a stratified caste structure placing warriors at the pinnacle. Following a Star, the Clan equivalent of a lance, of new MechWarriors as they fight for position in Clan society, figuratively and literally, and dealing with how the Inner Sphere does things provides a conflict to build a plot on.
Suffice to say, BattleTech provides a wide range of potential for adaptations. The catch, like with most tabletop games, is that the game isn’t widely known. The video games, however, give the setting a boost in recognition. The other problem is the expense of special effects. The animated series had a limited number of BattleMechs for use during the enhanced imaging portions of a battle. Granted, the cartoon came out when CGI was in its infancy; it’s possible to have more models available for scenes now, especially if there’s assistance from the video games. Introducing the setting to a new audience shouldn’t be difficult; all works need to go through that, especially genre fiction, original or adapted.
BattleTech has a rich setting to plunder for adaptations, with the only common factor being oversized walking tanks ruling the battlefield. The BattleMechs are the draw; the story is what will keep the audience. Getting the existing fans onside shouldn’t be difficult, especially with the volumes written about all the factions that exist within the setting. A studio just has to choose an approach.
Lost in Translation has covered a Dragonlance adaptation, the 2008 animated film, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, based on the novel by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, which itself was based on the DL-series of modules released starting in 1982. The published adventures and the novels covered the War of the Lance as the heroes, Tanis Half-Elven, Raistlin and Caramon Majere, Goldmoon, Riverwind, Flint Fireforge, Tasslehoff Burrfoot, Sturm Brightblade, and, later, Tika Waylan, work to unite the nations of Krynn and recover the fabled Dragonlances, magical weapons capable of killing dragons. The story is an epic battle between good and evil, where gods walk the world.
The animated film showed the problems of trying to fit a novel into a ninety minute movie. The movie was accurate, but lost details and depth trying to get as much story on screen as possible. However, the world of Dragonlance, Krynn, has much more to it than shown in the novels. Game settings need a world for players to adventure in, even if the novels’ heroes are doing the heavy lifting. The setting includes two elven nations at odds with each other; the Silvanesti being insular and hidebound compared to the Qualinesti, who are hostile to outsiders. Yet, there’s room to deal with the corruption of the Silvanesti by the green dragon Beryl. Evil isn’t just afoot, it’s on the march.
There’s several ways to adapt the Dragonlance setting. The obvious one is to adapt the novels and learn the lessons from the 2008 animated movie. The core of the novels is the interaction between the characters; this draws from each character being played during playtesting of the modules. Film run times, even the longer ones at 150-180 minutes, don’t have the space for deep characterization, especially with a large cast. Add in battle scenes and there’s even less time for character moments. However, as A Game of Thrones demonstrated, television has the time to delve into a larger cast of characters. Unlike A Game of Thrones, the War of the Lance is complete. No waiting for the next book to be written.
Another option is to have new characters in a different part of Krynn as they fight in the War of the Lance. The drawback will be that the adaptation won’t have the characters fans are familiar with. However, DC Comics did have a short-lived Dragonlance comic in 1988 that featured new characters. Again, the best route would be television; a movie’s run time won’t be enough to get the background info across without taking away from screen time for the main plot.
If a film adaptation is needed, the best approach would be to break down each book to find good break points. This will turn a three book series into a six movies or more, but the loss of what the fans want will be minimized. The large cast will still be an issue, but might be handled better with the run times of half a dozen films.
The setting has a history and a future. Works have been set before the Cataclysm that marked the withdrawal of the gods from the world; others have been set after the War of the Lance. Dragonlance Legends involved magical time travel, so there are possibilities. The drawback is introducing the setting to a broader audience. Fans will know what the Cataclysm is; someone new to the setting won’t.
Dragonlance is a popular setting, with a greater success through the novels released, There is a fan base, but the setting can be closed to a more general audience. A successful adaptation will have to take the characters fans love and introduce the plot in a way that doesn’t leave the broader audience scratching their heads.