In previous examinations of works adapted to gaming, Lost in Translation focused on just one original work being turned into a game. This time around, multiple original works are being adapted into just one game system, the Cortex and its successor, Cortex Plus.
The ideal works to adapt as tabletop role-playing games provide a larger setting, one where the original provides for a larger setting than what the main characters there experience. This is the case in three previous game adaptations examined, Star Trek, Star Wars, and 007, where players can take on similar roles as the main characters in both franchises. Even the Buffy RPG could delve into both past and future, allowing players to take up the mantle of the Slayer in a different time. At the same time, if players want, they can still take the roles of the existing characters. RPGs need to keep that flexibility and allow for new characters with similar capabilities as existing ones.
The Cortex system debuted in its early form with the Sovereign Stone Game System, which was based on Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Sovereign Stone novels. Since then, the Cortex system was refined and was used as the base for a number of licensed games published by Margaret Weis Productions – Serenity, based on the movie*; Battlestar Galactica, based on the rebooted series; Demon Hunters, based on videos by Dead Gentlemen Productions; and Supernatural, based on the CW TV series. A stand-alone version of the Cortex rules, the Cortex System Role Playing Game, came out in 2008, after Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, and Demon Hunters had been released.
The works adapted share some common features. Both Serenity and Battlestar Galactica are science fiction set far from Earth and have characters who spend much of their time in spaceships. Demon Hunters and Supernatural both deal with supernatural threats. All four original works have a devoted fan base, one that is likely to play RPGs. At the same time, each of the original works has its own tone. Serenity, the movie, was based around a government cover-up that affected one of the core characters. Battlestar Galactica showed the last of humanity escaping a relentless enemy intent on exterminating every last human. Demon Hunters is a comedy. Supernatural is the story of the Winchester brothers fighting against destiny, Hell, and Heaven.
Fortunately, game mechanics don’t always set the tone. While there are games where the mechanics were written to support the tone of the game, a more generic system can be adapted to the desired result. The Serenity RPG presents the game in terms of the players being the crew of their own small ship trying to make a living while staying true to themselves. Battlestar Galactica focused on survival in an environment that is inherently deadly, with the push to find the lost planet, Earth. Demon Hunters focused on comedy, with additional writing from Dead Gentlemen contributors and bonus orientation DVD. Supernatural placed the focus on the players being a small group of supernatural hunters that banded together. Each release added rules needed for the setting. Serenity and Battlestar Galactica had rules for starships, with Galactica having expanded rules for dogfighting in space. Demon Hunters added rules for creating demons and spending plot points to summon the Purple Ninja. Supernatural also had rules for creating the supernatural and exploiting their weaknesses.
What helped Cortex be flexible enough for the range of adapted works is its simplicity. The core mechanic involves using dice – the full range of regular polyhedrons – for attributes, skills, traits, and complications. Players roll the dice from appropriate attribute, skill, and, if any, trait against a difficulty number set by the GM, modified by dice from the character’s applicable complications, again, if any. Skill lists can be modified by setting; where Pilot would be a given for a Colonial Warrior to have in Battlestar Galactica, a group of hunters in Supernatural might just have the one character who can fly a small plane. Adding setting-specific rules, such as details about the Cylons, builds on top of the existing core rules, allowing for specialization.
Cortex worked well for settings that focused on action. However, not all settings focus on action. Gaming has seen a movement to expand towards a more narrative-driven focus, moving away from the hobby’s wargaming background. The intent is to tell stories, not chop down opponents. While Cortex might not have been able to take advantage, its successor, Cortex Plus, was developed to do just that.
Cortext Plus developed into three streams – Cortex Plus Drama, focusing on the relationships between characters; Cortext Plus Action, looked at what the characters did; and Cortex Plus Heroic, which combined the Drama and the Action. The core die mechanic remained but was heavily modified as needed. The game also added more details for characters, including character distinctions that could help or hinder depending on the circumstance. Traditional hit points fell by the wayside. Instead, characters could suffer from stress or complications imposed on them. If either got too high, the character would be forced out of the scene, either because of injuries, exhaustion, or escaping.
The first Cortex Plus game released was the Smallville Roleplaying Game, licensed from the Smallville TV series. The RPG used the Cortex Plus Drama system, reflecting how what the characters on the show were driven by their relationships with each other. Instead of rolling attribute and skill, players rolled value and relationship, adding in relevant resources and assets, and keeping the best two dice rolled. Players wouldn’t always be rolling against the GM; sometimes, two characters could work at cross purposes, coming into conflict. Character creation was a group effort; relationships between player and non-player characters were set up in the first session. The main drawback with the game was that a large number of players meant that the relationship map grew complex, It also meant that all the players had to show up for the first session, something not all groups can handle. That said, the system reflected the show; the values, replacing attributes, went to what motivated the characters. Clark Kent’s highest rated value, Justice, and lowest, Power, were true to his appearance on the show.
The first Cortex Plus Action game released was based on the TV series, Leverage, which was about a group of five con artists and thieves using their skills to help the average person who is being run over roughshod by the powerful and corrupt. Leverage used the same attributes that were in the Cortex games above, but instead of skills, characters had roles. The roles came directly from the TV series – Mastermind, Grifter, Hitter, Hacker, and Thief. Every character would have a key role, a minor role, and roles that would make things interesting for them. Each attribute and role had a die type assigned, which would be added to the player’s dice pool when it came time to raise the stakes. Characters also had distinction, which could work for or against them in the dice pool. For example, if Parker, the thief of the Leverage crew, needed to break into an office on the 34th floor of an office tower, she could decide to repel down the side of the building from the roof. To do this, Parker’s player would her Strength die, her Thief die, and could add her “Crazy” distinction and her “No – Really Crazy”, giving her four dice, though only the highest two would be added together. Parker’s player could decide that “Crazy” merited the usual d8 for the distinction, but then say that, because she’s going down facing the ground, “No – Really Crazy” would add just a d4 and provide a plot point.
The Leverage RPG added rules to reflect the show’s episode structure, which included flashbacks to show the characters setting up twists to defeat the Mark. The game allows for players to set up their own flashbacks, allowing them to get an advantage when needed. This allows the crew’s thief to place a convenient smartphone in a drawer where the crew’s hacker can grab it later without the players spending two hours of gaming working out all the contingencies before committing their heist. The Leverage RPG works to keep the story flowing; there’s no real need to spend hours on a plan when the players just need to work out a general idea of what they want to do.
The next Cortex Plus game out was also the first to use the Heroic approach. The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game featured the characters from Marvel Comics and was the fourth licensed game based on the Marvel Universe. The game pulled in ideas from both Smallville and Leverage, adapted to reflect the needs of the new setting. Instead of Smallville‘s values and Leverage‘s attributes, Marvel Heroic used affiliations, or how well a character worked with others. There were three types of affiliation, each getting a different die type – Solo, for characters like Daredevil and Wolverine, who worked best on their own; Buddy, for characters like Spider-Man who often works with another hero; and Team, for the likes of Captain America and Cyclops, who work most often with a large group, such as the Avengers or the X-Men.
Marvel Heroic also uses the stress system from Smallville, again, modified. Instead of taking six different types of stress, Marvel Heroic characters only have three sources – physical, mental, and emotional. It is possible for Spider-Man to keep up his constant wisecracking to force an opponent to break down and give up, a result that the previous three Marvel-based games didn’t have a mechanic for. Skills were replaced by specialties, though their use is similar. The mechanics remain the same; a player builds a dice pool and takes the best two results and add them together.
The most recent game from Margaret Weis Productions was the Firefly RPG. The license for the Serenity RPG had expired, but the company had worked with Fox to get the license for the TV series*. The Firefly RPG uses Cortex Plus Action, modified from its first incarnation as the Leverage RPG and taking some ideas from Marvel Heroic. Firefly has attributes, but only three; Mental, Physical, and Social. The skill list is shorter than Serenity‘s, but are broader. The game introduced rules for spaceships, since the TV series was set on one. Players could not only create their characters but their own ship, turning the vessel from a stat block into something that the players and their characters could care about. The game also modified the distinctions. Instead of just giving a bonus die for the player’s dice pool, distinction had some extra mechanical bits that helped players distinguish their characters. The rule book also uses scenes from the TV series to illustrate how the mechanics work, giving players a way to follow the action.
With four licensed games using Cortex and another four using Cortex Plus, how did the adapting fare? At its core, Cortex is a simple, flexible system, in the same vein as the Cinematic Unisystem rules used by the Buffy RPG. This allowed the developers to tailor the mechanics to the adapted setting by changing skill lists and adding and removing talents and complications. It is possible for characters from one of the published games to be used in another; it would be odd to see a member of the Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch on board the Rising Star, but less so if that same member met the Winchesters.
With Cortex Plus and its different streams, adapting the mechanics to the setting was a design goal. This means that characters from the different games wouldn’t interact as easily – Spider-Man has no relationship ties to anyone from Smallville, for example – but the games reflect the TV series they’re meant to portray. Smallville is a super-powered soap opera while Leverage is a series of heist mini-movies, and their games reflect those realities. The key is to choose the correct Cortex Plus stream to reflect the core of a work. So far, the developers have been able to do just that.
Speaking of the developers, Cam Banks, has licensed Cortex and Cortex Plus from Margaret Weis Productions. The end goal is to create a game, Cortex Prime, that takes in all the prior work mentioned above and produce not just the rules but settings that aren’t necessarily licensed works. His studio, Magic Vacuum Design Studio is running a Kickstarter, with stretch goals that will include a number of pre-made settings with the new game.
* The Serenity and Firefly licenses had an inherent problem – different studios held the licensing rights. Fox has the rights for Firefly, but Universal had the rights for Serenity. This split meant that information in one work could not appear in the licensed game of the other. Players, however, aren’t restricted and can pull in characters and ideas from both works, but any work needed to stat up something not covered by the game fell to the GM.
Like the previous two gaming adaptations looked at, Star Wars and Star Trek, today’s is also based on a franchise. Unlike the previous outings, though, Victory Games’ James Bond 007 Role Playing Game, released in 1983, is set in modern times.
007 is an older franchise than either Star Wars or Star Trek, beginning with the release of Casino Royale in 1954, followed by thirteen more books, including two collections of short stories.. After Fleming’s death, other authors continued writing about Bond, including Kingsley Amis, penning Colonel Sun as Robert Markham, and John Gardner. Naturally, Bond’s adventures became popular enough to become adaptation fodder. Casino Royale was the first adapted; the first adaptation of the book was an CBS TV movie featuring “Jimmy Bond” in 1954, followed later by the 1967 parody with Woody Allen, and then in 2006 starring Daniel Craig. The latter was a reboot of the film franchise started by Cubby Broccoli in 1962 with Dr. No. All told, the franchise has seen six actors portraying James Bond, each bringing a different interpretation of the character. 007 has had many imitators, from Matt Helm to Danger!! Death Ray, and has also been the basis of many parodies, including the 1967 Casino Royale, the Austin Powers movies, and the Reboot episode, “Firewall“. Bond is an influence.
A role-playing game based on a franchise featuring a sole main character may seem odd, but Bond is just one agent of several with a License to Kill. The franchise also has recurring characters, including CIA agent Felix Leiter and fellow MI6 agent, Mary Goodnight. The novel Moonraker mentions agents 008 and 0011, and the film franchise shows agents through to 009. Goodnight represents the lower ranked agents in MI6, allowing for players who want to work towards becoming a 00 agent.
Character creation in James Bond 007 is point-based, as opposed to random dice rolls as seen in Dungeons & Dragons*, allowing for players to create an agent to their taste. The points, the number of which depend on the experience of the character, can be used to buy attributes, skills, and appearance details. The attributes – Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Perception, and Intelligence – are more or less standard across the majority of tabletop RPGs, and are the base for skills. The twenty-four skills are those seen in the 007 books and movies, from Boating to Gambling to Seduction. Need to outrun a number of SUVs filled with mooks working for the head of a Columbian drug cartel? Driving. Need to shoot at those same mooks? Fire Combat. Need to convince the cartel head that you wanted to get his attention to become one of his lieutenants? Charisma. If a skill doesn’t quite cover what a player wants to do, there’s also the optional Fields of Experience, which provide some flavour on what an agent knows, from being able to ski to understanding a toxicological report on a rare poison. The Primary Chance of a skill is based on one or two attributes plus the number of levels bought for the character.
With the appearance details, the game introduces an interesting concept that works in the context of an espionage RPG – the more average a character is, in height, weight, and looks, the more it costs to buy the appearance. An average looking character is harder to identify, which is handled in the game with Fame points. Fame is further increased depending on the initial experience level; Rookies, like Goodnight, aren’t known while a 00-level agent, like 007, has had missions that have become known. Agent-level, the middle tier covering people like Felix Leiter, may or may not be recognized, but word of their exploits have gotten out. Bond, who is known through out the espionage world, has a high number of Fame points that even dying, as seen in the film adaptation of You Only Live Twice, still doesn’t help avoid recognition. Also affecting Fame is gender; female agents get a reduction because women aren’t as represented as agents as men are; Holly Goodhead, the CIA agent from the Moonraker movie, isn’t recognized by Bond because of this factor.
The core mechanic of the 007 RPG is based on the roll of a percentile die, or d100. However, it’s not a simple pass/fail system. Instead, the game uses Ease Factors ranging from 10, the easiest, to 1/2, the hardest. The Ease Factor is multiplied by a skill’s Primary Chance to determine the Success Chance. When the percentile dice are rolled, the result is checked against the success table, not only to see if the character succeeded, but how well, through the determination of the Quality Rating. The QR ranges from 1, best, to 4, worst but still a success. If the roll was to see if a character hit using Fire Combat, for guns, or Hand-to-Hand Combat, for melee, the Quality determines how much damage is done.
Dice, though, can be fickle. Bond seldom fails when he knows he must succeed. The 007 RPG has one more mechanic that helps, the Hero Point. Today, most games have a hero point or drama point mechanism to help players when needed. Prior to the 007 game’s release, the only hero point mechanism seen was in TSR’s Top Secret, with optional Fame and Fortune points. With 007, the hero point mechanic was part of the core. Players had to declare the use of a Hero Point, though not how many, before rolling. Hero Points improved the Quality Rating by one per point spent. A QR of 1, though, was the best possible, with no further improvements possible**. However, that Hero Point isn’t lost; getting a QR1 gets the player a Hero Point, turning the expenditure into a wash. That does mean that more experienced agents, like 007, will be getting more Hero Points on average than a Rookie, but a 00 will also be facing more challenging opponents. A Rookie shouldn’t be going up against Scaramanga on his or her first mission.
All of the above may seem complex, and the game does front-load the complexity at character creation, but once an agent has been made, the mechanics are easy to use. The provided character sheet includes all the skills and and how to calculate their base chance and even has a multiplication table for Ease Factors. All rolls are based on Ease Factors, giving players an idea of their chance of success. The game includes examples of play that show how the mechanics work using scenes from the movies and books. While the core rulebook doesn’t have room to detail all of 007’s gadgets, the supplement, Q-Manual covers everything that has appeared in the books and movies.
With weapons, vehicles, and gadgets, the core philosophy of the designers was that the character still had to be the focus. Almost every item detailed in either the core rules or the Q Manual provides a Performance Modifier, a bonus or penalty to the the task’s Ease Factor. The only exception is the automatic safecracker from the movie version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a suitcase-sized device that did the work while Bond read a magazine. The Performance Modifiers give the GM room to throw added challenges to players. A chase sequence that’d be too easy with the Q Branch provided Lotus becomes a tense scene when said Lotus explodes and the player needs to borrow a non-player character’s aged Peugeot, as seen in For Your Eyes Only.
All the above discussion about character creation and game mechanics, though, doesn’t answer the main thrust of Lost in Translation – is the game a good adaptation of the source works? The answer – yes. The game’s mechanics were pulled from the books and films. Reading the novels or watching the movies with an eye to seeing the mechanics in action reveals that the rules cover everything that happens. It is possible to see when Bond gets a QR1 result and when he spends a Hero Point. The robustness of the mechanic means that players and GMs can apply them to the 007 films released after the game went out of print. The game’s designers ensured that the rules reflected 007’s exploits.
The only lack that the game has is the hole caused by litigation over Thunderball. EON Productions, the licensors of James Bond, didn’t have the rights for SPECTRE, thus could not grant Victory Games permission to use the organization. Victory Games created a new villainous group to fill in the gap, TAROT, using the organization to fill in SPECTRE-sized hole, particularly in adventure modules based on the older movies. Characters with ties to SPECTRE were transferred to TAROT.
While the James Bond 007 RPG is out of print, and the Avalon Hill Game Company has folded the Victory Games imprint, the game itself is again available. A retro-clone, Classified published by Expeditious Retreat Press, was released in 2013. The game doesn’t have the /007/ license, but the core mechanics will allow for Bond and his contemporaries and successors.
* Point-buy in D&D has been around as an option since second edition AD&D, but was explicitly made so in the third edition.
** Except when using the Gambling skill, depending on the game of chance being played, allowing a player to beat an opponent’s 8 with a 9 in Chemin de Fer or Baccarat or an opponent’s straight flush with a royal flush in Poker.
Any work with a large geek following is fodder for being adapted as a tabletop role-playing game. If that work has a setting that allows for other groups to live in without being affected by the events of the work, it becomes prime, whether fan-created or licensed. Star Trek is such a work; popular with a setting that spans the galaxy. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there have been three Trek RPGs published over the decades.
Star Trek introduced Star Fleet with its main mission being exploration. Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise boldly went where no man had gone before, finding new life and new civilizations. The series showed a number of first contacts, some more dangerous than others, and introduced Klingons and Romulans to the audience. The original Trek lasted three seasons, but remained in syndicated reruns since leaving the air in 1969. The popularity of the show in syndication led to two season of an animated adaptation in 1973, featuring most of the original cast*. The animated series led to an aborted second TV series that turned into the 1979 movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the film franchise that followed.
Trek returned to television in 1987 with Star Trek: The Next Generation. The new series introduced a new crew and a new Enterprise, helmed by Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The Next Generation ran seven seasons, then went into its own movie series. Meanwhile, a third Trek TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, began in 1993, showing a different aspect of the Federation. Instead of exploration, Deep Space Nine focused on life on a space station as the Federation helped the Bajorans recover from being occupied by the Cardassians. When The Next Generation wrapped up, a fourth TV series, Star Trek: Voyager, began. Voyager chronicled the story of a lost Star Fleet vessel, the USS Voyager under the command of Captain Kathryn Janeway as the ship tried to return to the Federation. When Voyager came to a close with the ship returning home, another series was ready to go. Star Trek: Enterprise looked at the history of the setting, from Earth’s first steps into space to the birth of the Federation. Fatigue and story quality, though, meant that Enterprise was the first Trek series since the original to not last seven seasons. No new Trek production would be made until the 2009 film, Star Trek.
Even working from the original Trek, the germ of a roleplaying game already existed. Players could be Star Fleet officers, commanding a starship and exploring the galaxy. This was the basis of the first Trek RPG, FASA’s Star Trek: The Role Playing Game, released in 1983. FASATrek had only the original series, the animated adaptation, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture to work from, with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan coming out during the game’s production. Character creation in FASATrek assumes that players will be Star Fleet officers, though later supplements allowed players to play merchants, Star Fleet intelligence agents, Klingons, and Romulans. The core rules, though, took characters through Star Fleet Academy, their cadet cruise, and their previous experience before embarking on their new mission. The core mechanic was a percentile, or d100, roll, with players trying to roll underneath their skill rating used. The skills reflected what was seen on the TV series. Available races included Vulcans, Andorians, and Tellerites, all from the TV series, plus Caitians and Edoans, both from the animated series**.
While the original Trek emphasized a peaceful approach, there were starship battles, most notably in the episode, “The Balance of Terror”. The developers of FASATrek wanted to keep to what was shown in the series, avoiding turning starship battles into a board- or wargame. FASATrek broke down responsibilities by position. The captain gave the orders, the helmsman piloted the ship and fired the weapons, the navigator managed the shields, the engineer tried to balance the power available to the needs of each station, the science officer ran sensors, and communications maintained damage control. Security officers were the only ones without a duty during a starship battle, provided shields didn’t fail allowing boarding parties. A second edition came out before Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, with an update after the movie was released to take into account the events shown. The new edition cleared up problems found in the first and took into account the film franchise. The core mechanic was kept, with some clarifications, and starship battles still used a console for each position on the bridge. The end result was a game system that kept the flavour of both the TV series and existing movies.
FASATrek was published through to the first season of The Next Generation, with two supplements released for the new series. Paramount, however, wasn’t pleased with what FASA was doing with the license and pulled it after the first season of The Next Generation was complete in 1989. FASA, though, had other game lines to fall back on – BattleTech, the miniatures wargame involving giant mecha, and Shadowrun, a role-playing game crossing cyberpunk with Tolkein-esque fantasy.
FASATrek worked to maintain the Trek flavour as seen in the original series, then expanded the setting based on what was known. As will be seen below, the game established a feel that would be repeated by later publishers. FASATrek managed to replicate the feel of both the TV series and, with the second edition, the movies.
The Trek RPG license lay fallow for a decade, In 1999, Last Unicorn Games obtained the license and released Star Trek: The Next Generation Role-playing Game. The Next Generation had wrapped up in 1994, with Deep Space Nine wrapping up its seventh season and Voyager still boldly going. The new RPG used LUG’s Icon system, using six-sided dice and target numbers instead of FASA’s percentile system. Character creation, though, still followed the same lifepath, going from youth to Star Fleet Academy to prior experience before the new mission. Starship battles also ensured that all the characters on the bridge had something to do. By focusing on The Next Generation at first, the game was able to feel current, especially with Trek available on TV and in theatres. LUG released several supplements, covering the Andorians, the Vulcans, the Klingons, and the Romulans, as well as core books for the original Star Trek and Deep Space Nine. A Voyager core book was planned but never released. The license was transferred to Decipher before the book could be created.
LUGTrek had a different feel from FASATrek, thanks to the change in mechanics. However, the change in mechanics helped reflect the change in tone from the original series to The Next Generation. The tone of the each series was reflected in the writing; but each core book was still Star Trek.
Decipher wasn’t a new game company, but had focused on collectible card games, including one based on Star Trek. However, when it received the license, the design team from LUG moved over to Decipher. A new mechanic was devised, called CODA, which would also be used in Decipher’s Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game. The Star Trek Roleplaying Game used the CODA mechanics, two six-sided dice instead of LUGTrek‘s dice based on the attribute. Decipher also split the rules between the Player’s Guide and the Narrator’s Guide. This did allow DECTrek to incorporate all the existing series, including Enterprise, into the core rules, instead of splitting them over several books as LUGTrek had. DECTrek also used a lifepath for character creation, but characters weren’t restricted to being Star Fleet officers unlike both FASATrek and LUG’s Next Generation core rules, The end result is a character with a backstory as detailed as the player wants.
Aside from some layout issues, DECTrek still aimed to achieve the feel of Star Trek, with the added difficulty of trying to be all eras of Trek. For the most part, the game succeeded. Decipher ended publication of RPGs by 2007, leaving material for both the Trek and the LotR games unpublished.
There is no licensed Trek RPG currently in production. However, there is Prime Directive, a role-playing game derived from the universe created in Amarillo Design Bureau’s wargame Star Fleet Battles. The wargame, originally published by Task Force Games, was licensed, not from Paramount but from Franz Joseph, who had created blueprints of various Trek ships and had written The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual. As such, the wargame, and thus Prime Directive, does diverge from canon. There have been four verstions of the Prime Directive RPG. one from Amarillo using its own mechanics, one published by Amarillo that uses Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS rules, and two D20*** editions. A Mongoose Traveller version was announced in 2011, but it appears that the development of the base game’s second edition has delayed production on Amarillo’s end. Prime Directive is centered on “Prime Teams”, Star Fleet officers who are specifically trained for landing party duty so that senior officers would not be endangered by beaming down to new worlds. The system allowed players to create connections to events as needed, reflecting how in the various Trek series that a character would know someone in an episode, from Kirk’s rivalry with Finnigan to Dax’s many lives. Prime Directive, though, wasn’t as reflective of Star Trek as the other games, in part because of limitations in the licensing.
It is possible to adapt an existing role-playing game for Star Trek. Licensed games remove the work of adapting from the GM, having already made the effort to get the details down. Each of the games mentioned above has done the hard work, setting down in mechanics a work where writers will create new solutions without having to worry about the ramifications in a game. With this work done, the GM just has to create situations to send players through, without worrying about what damage a phaser can do.
* Budget considerations meant that Walter Koenig didn’t return as Chekov, but he did write the episode, “The Infinite Vulcan”.
** The Paramount-mandated requirement that licensees not work together hadn’t come in yet. This can be seen with the 1983 supplement, The Klingons, which was in part written by John M. Ford, who also wrote the tie-in novel, The Final Reflection, about the Klingons around the same time. The two works build on each other.
*** The D20 system was Wizards of the Coast’s core mechanic for the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Wizards released an Open Gaming License version of the rules to allow other companies to focus more on setting than on mechanics.
A few weeks back, Lost in Translation looked at adaptations of tabletop RPGs. While there haven’t been many RPGs adapted to other media, the reverse is far more likely. Many popular franchises have been adapted for gaming, from Star Trek to Supernatural. The result is a licensed property created by game designers who are also fans. With The Force Awakens turning into a powerhouse beyond expectations, now is as good a time as any to look at the Star Wars roleplaying games past and present.
Role-playing in an established universe is more than just letting the players take the roles of existing characters. With a setting as vast as the Galaxy Far, Far Away, there’s room for any number of characters, from scruffy rogues to naive farmboys to dashing conmen to dangerous bounty hunters. Adding to the complexity, Jedi and Sith lurk, depending on the era. The goal of the games is to provide an experience that would fit in the Star Wars setting but still giving players the flexibility to play what they want. There have been three published RPGs for /Star Wars/, detailed below.
Star Wars: The Role-Playing Game, West End Games
The first Star Wars RPG, released in 1987, used WEG’s Ghostbusters: The Role-Playing Game‘s core mechanic, modified for the new setting. Determining success or failure was based on rolling a number of six-sided* dice based on the rating of a character’s skill, with a differently coloured die designated the wild die. The wild die could allow for amazing successes or crushing failures, depending on its value. Players could use character points to add dice to the roll. To account for the Force in Star Wars, players also had Force points. Spending a Force point allowed players to double the number of dice they could roll for a skill, allowing feats such as firing a proton torpedo into a two metre exhaust port without the aid of a targeting computer.
Because it was released three years after Return of the Jedi, there was little information about Jedi, beyond that they were rare after the Emperor destroyed the Order. At the time, Star Wars wasn’t the big franchise that it is now. The Expanded Universe consisted of the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian trilogies; Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire would be published in 1991, a year before the RPG’s second edition. Jedi were limited to what was shown on screen and what the WEG writers could extrapolate and get approved by Lucasfilm. However, the more earthier characters, like Han, were supported, with all starships, from starfighters to Star Destroyers, being written up. The Revised and Expanded edition, released in 1996, became the definitive version of the RPG.
The game played fast; the mechanics loose enough to let players swoop through space in a transport modified for smuggling while out running a flight of TIE fighters and maintain the feel of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. WEG’s RPG still has an impact even today; Dave Filoni, showrunner for both CGI-animated series, The Clone Wars and Rebels has stated in commentary that he and his crew have refered to WEG’s Imperial Sourcebook and Star Wars Sourcebook for details on vehicles and droids used in the series.
WEG lost the license in 1999 after having to declare bankruptcy when its parent company, West End Shoes, drained the game publisher to stay afloat. Speculation on the Internet on who would get the license next grew as the prequel movies were announced.
Star Wars Roleplaying Game, Wizards of the Coast
Wizards of the Coast, who also owned Dungeons & Dragons, picked up the license in 2000, a year after The Phantom Menace was released. Wizards used a modified version of the d20 System, as used in D&D 3rd edition. The result was a class-based system that covered not just the original trilogy, like WEG’s game had, but also the prequels and the Expanded Universe. A second edition was released in 2002, a year before D&D 3.5, cleaning up some problematic rules. The Saga edition came out in 2007, streamlining the d20 system more to keep the gameplay flowing.
As mentioned, the d20 System is class-based, meaning that every character falls into one of a number of character classes that define their abilities. Instead of using the D&D classes like Fighter and Wizard, the d20 Star Wars games used classes like Scoundrel, Fringer, and Jedi. The result was playable, but the sweet spot was between levels 7 and 12, where characters had the skills needed to pull off difficult but in-setting plausible stunts without becoming impossible to challenge without throwing a Star Destroyer at them. Thanks to the prequels and the Expanded Universe, Jedi had more options than in WEG’s RPG. Sourcebooks detailed the different eras of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, giving gamemasters (GMs) and players flexibility in play styles.
Wizards let the license lapse in 2010, after not just a large number of detailed sourcebooks but also a miniatures game that could tie into the RPG or be played as a stand-alone.
Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, and Force and Destiny, Fantasy Flight Games
Fantasy Flight Games picked up the Star Wars license with an eye to create both a miniatures and a role-playing game. The first of the RPGs, Edge of the Empire, came out in 2013, followed by Age of Rebellion in 2014 and Force and Destiny in 2015. Each of the games, while using the same mechanics, have a different focus. Edge deals with characters on the edge of polite society; smugglers, bounty hunters, colonists. Rebellion allows for characters in the Rebel Alliance, fighting against the Galactic Empire’s evil. Force focuses on Jedi and other Force-sensitives. The three games are set during the original trilogy, but can be adapted, with work, to other eras.
The FFG games need to use specialty dice marked for use in play. It is possible to use regular dice** and convert the numbers to the special markings, but it is easier with the specialty dice. The dice provide for more than just success and failure; they also add advantages and threats. A failure could come with an advantage and success could come with complications. Scenes from the movies, like Han stepping on a twig when right behind a stormtrooper in Return of the Jedi, can come from the mechanic, ensuring that the feel of the movies is kept.
Each game moves the timeline through the movies. Edge is set shortly after the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope. Rebellion is set just after the events in The Empire Strikes Back. Force is set after Return of the Jedi. However, players and GMs aren’t limited to those eras. /Force/ can easily be used for a group of Jedi padawans during the prequel era. All three could be used for a campaign set during The Force Awakens. Work would need to be done, such as re-skinning existing vehicles for the new ones seen in the new movie, but the amount of work needed is minimal.
Each of the above games had a different approach to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. While each one had some areas that needed work, overall, the games remained faithful to the source. Players could feel like they were part of Star Wars, which is the most important part of adapting to a game.
* Role-playing games use more regular polyhedrons than just the standard cube dice.
** Regular meaning six-, eight-, and twelve-sided, as used in other games such as D&D.
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.