When adapting a tabletop RPG, the ideal original work is one that allows for more people in the setting than just the main characters. Star Trek, in its various incarnations, allows for other Starfleet officers, creating an instant hook for an RPG. Television, though, works best with a limited cast, mainly for budgetary reasons, with a broad hook. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files was prime for a TV adaptation, with one central character, a small core of supporting characters, and numerous recurring guest characters. For an RPG, though, that isn’t the best set up.
Or is it? As the series of novels grew, Butcher expanded the setting. Harry Dresden isn’t the only wizard in the world, just the only one to open a detective agency. Over the course of the series, Harry picks up an apprentice, deals with the various threats both mundane and supernatural, has to work around the wizardly White Council, and keeps the peace among the supernatural factions and the Mob in Chicago. There is a world beyond just Harry Dresden. This is where Evil Hat Productions comes in.
Evil Hat developed the Fate RPG by building on the Fudge system with elements that went beyond just attributes and skills. Called Aspects, these elements allow players and GMs to use drama points, called Fate Points, to modify the narrative. Players can invoke the Aspects to gain an advantage for their characters; GMs can invoke the same Aspects to put the characters into a disadvantageous position. Fate doesn’t encourage the old “killer DM” play; the goal is for everyone to have fun and be challenged.
At this point, there’s two levels of adaptation going on. First, the adapting of The Dresden Files as a tabletop RPG. Second, the adapting of Fate to The Dresden Files. Fate is Evil Hat’s house system, a concept seen widely in the tabletop RPG industry. Game mechanics take time to develop and playtest. Many RPG publishers, once their mechanics are worked out, don’t want to reinvent the wheel every time a new game is released. When licensing a title, one of the issues faced by RPG publishers is making sure that the work can fit into their mechanics.
Evil Hat’s approach to Fate, especially for The Dresden Files and their previous game, the original work Spirit of the Century, was to emulate the writing process. While that approach may not work for some players, it does set the tone of the game, reflecting Dresden‘s literary background. The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, released in 2010, comes in two volumes, Volume 1: Your Story and Volume Two: Our World. That’s not unusual for tabletop RPGs; while getting both mechanics and setting into one book is ideal, if there is too much information, printing over two thick volumes makes sense.
Our World details Harrry Dresden’s Chicago, as presented in the novels. The city isn’t just the landmarks that can be found in a Wikipedia entry. Our World adds the elements that have appeared in the novels – characters, themes, the vampiric Red and White Courts, the police, the Mob, the morgue, and even Sue, the Tyrannosaurus Rex from the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History that became a zombie. Anything and everything players could want if they want to play in Harry’s Chicago.
Your Story contains the mechanics of Fate, how to roll the dice and how to create a character. Being an urban fantasy RPG, the Dresden game has to include not just regular skills but also supernatural abilities, with some extrapolation from what’s seen in the books to provide players a range of options. To help players, the game includes templates based on characters who appeared. Included in the templates are Wizard, like Harry, Champion of God, like Michael, Were-Form, like Billy and the Alphas, and White Court Vampire, like Thomas. Most templates have a Fate Point refresh cost, so some may not be available depending on the initial amount of points available at start. However, Pure Mortals, like Karrin Murphy and Waldo Butters, gain two Fate Points for use to buy stunts, to offset not having access to supernatural abilities, reflecting how such characters in the books can survive being around Harry.
Fate was designed as a generic game system, one that can be modified as needed for different settings. The core easily takes additions, though some care is needed. Gameplay revolves around the Fate Point economy, encouraging players to let their Aspects restrict them so that they can use those very same Aspects to save the day. Characters, though, aren’t the only ones who get Aspects. Everything can, from the city the game takes place in to a specific location to the current scene. The approach at the time was new, but one that gained a following. The GM and players work together to create their own city, if they want one, allowing the campaign and its theme to be personalized for the group.
Presentation in RPGs often helps sets the tone, With the Dresden RPG, it’s not just adapting the mechanics for the settings, it’s also the maginalia commenting on the main text. Used often to help explain a concept, either by directly commenting or refering to an event in the books, the marginalia is written as Harry, Bob, and Billy, in different handwriting. At one point, when the main text is using Harry himself as an example for character creation, Harry corrects his player, Jim, and then tells him to roll better.
RPGs have a tough challenge when adapting a work. They have to take the work, extract information, and make the setting playable for others beyond the creators while still providing players options to go beyond what has been produced. Evil Hat managed to hit this mark with The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, taking Jim Butcher’s creation and presenting it in a way that players can have their own adventures in Harry’s world, whether as Dresden and his companions in Chicago or as their own group elsewhere.
Adapting literature has a few issues that don’t appear when adapting other media. The major one is time; writers don’t have many limits on how long a story can be other than those imposed by format. Short stories can run up to 7500 words; novellas 17 500 to under 40 000 words, and novels 40 000 words or more. Getting a story to fit the time available in another medium requires bits to removed. Film is the main culprit. Few films break 120 minutes; longer books will still lose details. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone lost key plot points needed in later movies. Blade Runner dropped two major elements – the loss of real animals and the rise of Mercerism – just to get the main plot into the running time. And even when the full novel gets adapted, the restriction of the running time makes the result feel flat, losing the depth of work, as with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.
Television today provides an alternate approach when it comes to adapting novels. While each individual episode doesn’t provide much time, typically about 42 minutes interrupted by 18 minutes of advertising, a season in the US or a series in the UK can provided up to 22 episodes, enough time to get into the depth of a novel. While television was once a wasteland catering to the lowest common denominator, the three channel lineup has given way to competition between hundreds of cable channels and streaming services. A Game of Thrones is the exemplar, in both how a novel can be adapted well and how a series of novels can be outpaced by its adaptation. The adapted series is subject to the whims of the audience, though.
Let’s look at a specific example, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. The series of novels tells the story of Harry Dresden, the only practicing wizard detective in Chicago and possibly the entire country. Starting with Storm Front published in 2000, there have been 15 novels and a book of short stories written starring Harry. He has dealt with a number of natural and supernatural threats to Chicago, including “Gentleman Johnny” Marcone and the Mob, werewolves, the Red and Black vampire courts, the Summer and Winter Courts of the Sidhe, and various other paranormal entities. Harry isn’t alone, though. Despite himself, he has a number of allies, including Bob, spirit bound to a skull to assist the wizard who owns it, Karrin Murphy, a member of the Chicago Police Department who initially tossed a few cases Harry’s way; the Knights of the Cross, wielders of magical swords charged with defending humanity; Waldo Butters, the Assistant Medical Examiner who picked up on magical doings because of the bodies passing through the morgue; and Mouse, a temple dog the size of of a Tibetan mastiff. Complicating things is the Wizards Council, who distrust Harry after he killed his uncle in self-defense. In particular, Morgan is waiting for Harry to make one mistake.
The novels find Harry taking on what should be a simple case that get him in over his head against something far more dangerous. Nothing goes easy for Harry, either because he’s so far behind in the plot that he doesn’t realize what he’s up against or because, being human, he makes mistakes. Yet, he still gets the job done with the help of his friends. Cases are solved.
In 2007, the SyFy Channel began airing an adaptation of The Dresden Files. The hook is obvious; a detective show crossed with urban fantasy fits perfectly with the cable channel’s mandate and doesn’t stretch a special effects budget like a science fiction series would. Lasting one season, the series starred Paul Blackstone as Harry, Terrence Mann as Bob, Valerie Cruz as Murphy, and Conrad Coates as Morgan. The show didn’t adapt any of the books, but took the characters and situations and created new cases for Harry to solve. The feel of the show – the only practicing wizard detective in Chicago trying to maintain the masquerade while dealing with supernatural threats – kept close to the books. The details, though, are another matter.
Blackthorne as Harry worked; the actor is tall and lanky. He just didn’t wear the same outfits Harry did on the covers of the books. Harry’s blasting rod became a drumstick and his staff became a hockey stick. His mother’s bracelet, allowing him to defend himself against magical attacks, remained. His car, a vintage Volkswagen Beetle nicknamed “The Blue Beetle” despite having a patchwork of colours thanks to Harry’s tech bane and various damage from his work, became a war surplus Jeep. Continuing with the cast, the Irish-American Murphy was portrayed by a Latina. That aside, Cruz was a convincing Murphy in all other aspects. Bob went from a spirit in a skull to a ghost cursed to be tied to a skull and its owner. Again, Mann did get Bob’s personality correct.
Some of the changes came about because of the switch in medium. Television is very much a visual medium. Bob being stuck in a skull in the books isn’t a problem; Butcher showed the interaction and relationship between Harry and Bob using narrative. On TV, though, the narrative is carried by the actors, not a narrator, and body language becomes key to informing the audience. An inanimate skull won’t have that. An actual actor playing to Harry’s can show the chemistry and relationship far better.
With Murphy, Cruz wasn’t originally meant portray her. Instead, she was supposed to play Susan Rodriguez, Harry’s girlfriend. However, Cruz switched her role with Rebecca McFarland, who was supposed to play Murphy. Cruz brought the essence of Murphy, except for the Irish-American part. Watching Cruz on screen as Murphy, she is the tough, no-nonsense cop from the books.
The Blue Beetle became a casualty of pragmatism. Volkswagen Beetles are now collector items; few owners are going to let a studio turn a valuable car into a banged and battered vehicle with a pathwork of colour and primer. Older Jeeps, though, are easier to get, thanks to Hollywood making war movies, and a battered Jeep is natural for those films. Another issue is that Blackthorne stands 6’4″, making getting in and out of a Beetle interesting, especially when resetting between takes.
The Dresden Files TV series manages to get the tone right, but flubs the details. Renaming the characters doesn’t work; the show is very much like the books. The little details, though, hurt the adaptation and can throw fans out of the narrative.