stevekenson: (go-play)
[personal profile] stevekenson
In many ways, Dungeons & Dragons was the first “licensed” RPG in that it was based off a fictional property, quite a few of them, in fact. Gygax and Arneson made no secret of the works of fantasy fiction that influenced the development of the game and their own campaigns. They listed them, in fact. Many forums of Old School gaming—such as James Maliszewski’s Grognardia—have spend considerable time deconstructing said influences.

A recent thread on RPGnet asked about “dream RPGs” and I was struck by how so many of the responses were essentially licenses, that is, some fictional intellectual property (novel, film, TV show, etc.) the respondent wanted to see as a game setting, often for an existing rules engine. Given Steve Long’s recent op-ed on licensing in RPGs, I thought it was interesting how many gamers considered a license their “dream game product”. How many game designers and developers have had the same reaction?

I recall a discussion at an Origins Game Fair some years ago where a colleague said how the newly revived James Bond property would make a great RPG. I countered that James Bond was actually a terrible license, for two primary reasons:

1. There’s the classic problem of living up to the property. Who gets to play Bond? Is there an expectation that someone plays Bond, or a character like him and, if not, in what way is the game based on the fiction? Do you base adventures on the original Flemming stories (which true fans already know) or try and create ones in a similar style?

2. More importantly, I argued, any modern espionage RPG worth its die modifiers could already function as a perfectly sound “James Bond RPG”. If it couldn’t, then I submit there’s something wrong with it.

While most early RPGs weren’t licenses, they were efforts to emulate particular genres: fantasy, far-future and post-apocalypse sci-fi, espionage thrillers, superhero comic books, and so forth. They were inspired by key elements of those genres. While Champions and Villains & Vigilantes (or Mutants & Masterminds, for that matter) weren’t licensed DC or Marvel games (although M&M now is) they were all looking to emulate the stories and characters DC and Marvel established as staples. Likewise, Top Secret wasn’t the 007 RPG (we’d have to wait for Victory Games to get to it) but it was certainly aiming for the same target, along with source material like Mission: Impossible and The Man from UNCLE. D&D is certainly not a Lord of the Rings RPG, but Tolkien is part of the game’s DNA, as are the works of Howard, Leiber, Anderson, and even Lovecraft.

Now, the interesting part is when these big genre-blenders manage to move beyond pastiche and begin adding their own elements back into the genres from which they sprang. It’s difficult to estimate just how much of an influence “D&D-style fantasy” has been on the genre of fantasy fiction; big enough that the expression “D&D-style fantasy” seems to hold some meaning for fans and readers. Similarly, it seems to me the superhero RPG convention of characters with a suite of attack/defense/movement capabilities has taken greater hold in the comic book in the past few decades and you see more heroes and teams who could be characters from an RPG as much as a comic book.

The real elders of the RPG IP field have been around long enough to become sub-genres unto themselves. D&D has “iconic” and “signature” elements that started out as goofy Monster Manual pictures, throwaway lines in modules, and sci-fi rip-offs. Similarly, it was the strength of the Champions setting and characters that gave Hero Games licensing muscle. How many did Call of Cthulhu introduce to the Mythos, and how big an influence was the game on the addition of Great Cthulhu and his kin to popular (geek) culture?

One thing RPGs (and RPG creators and players) seem good at is taking sometimes contrasting or cliche elements, combining them in novel ways, and producing new story elements and stories out of them, which can in turn be recombined to fresh effect. A sort of fictional evolution out of the primordial ooze of all the various character, plot, and setting elements thrown together into the bubbling stewpot of a roleplaying game.

I’d suggest some of the best RPG properties (that is, fictional elements, not rules systems) start out aiming to emulate the source material of a genre, but then push past their origins and break through into territory uniquely their own. I actually think this is true of both licensed and non-licensed games. West End Games Star Wars RPG, for example, was often at its best when it put aside slavish devotion to the films and looked at other parts of what is now called “the Expanded Star Wars Universe”. Dungeons & Dragons started out as a patchwork of pulp fantasy but established its own sub-genre. Traveller took the conventions of Imperial SciFi and built a universe with them. Shadowrun copied some of the conventions and language of cyberpunk, but added its own fantasy spin and developed in its own direction, just as Vampire might have been the Dracula or Lestat RPG, but grew beyond that to create its own mythos.

I think it’s an interesting approach for RPGs to provide the genre elements and framework, to serve as systems for making up and trying out new worlds. The Diaspora game with its cluster-creation system (almost a game unto itself) is an interesting example, not unlike the random world design of Traveller that helped inspire it. Games of the imagination are often at their best when they challenge us to create new things out of old rather than look for ways to repackage experiences we’ve already had and opportunities to argue the same details of fictional canon over and over. The place for creatives—both designers and players—to reach for is the synthesis where the whole is greater than the sum of just its (randomly rolled) parts.

Date: 2011-01-19 04:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think there are arguments for both sides of the coin - what gamer wouldn't want to have a nice hardback book with statistics and background information on his favorite intellectual property - with some new illustrations and previously unrevealed series information as the cherry on the sundae? And some licensed properties do clever things with the mechanics to emulate a quirk of the source material that directly inspires them - the Doctor Who RPG, I'm told, has a clever initiative system that would be out of place in a generic game, but makes perfect sense in the Doctor's world.

Date: 2011-01-19 05:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Cubicle 7's Doctor Who game could be adapted to other genres easily. With an action order of Talkers, Movers, Doers, Fighters it emphasizes less on combat and more on other means to resolve conflict. Conflict can be social as well, and "damage" is taken right off the attributes so in the short term as least, winning an argument could be just as effective as winning a fight. I thought the game engine would be perfect for a game based on The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya as it has essential elements present in Doctor Who and the characters could be treated pretty much in the same way as the characters from the Sarah Jane Adventures.

Date: 2011-01-19 05:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I don't see any points of disagreement with what I said, so I'll assume you were agreeing with me. :)

Date: 2011-01-19 05:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah. I really love the system. I've only run a one shot so far, but the free and easy action of the system makes it almost intuitive to run. At some point I'd love to run the players through some classic D&D modueles like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (practically a Doctor Who adventure in itself), Decent to the Depths of the Earth/Vault of the Drow (rename it Vault of the Daleks and the horror is instantly carried over), or even Dungeonland/Land Beyond the Magic Mirror.

I also like the fact that the aquisition of stuff is not paramount. In fact (much like Mutants and Masterminds), if you want to keep stuff for the long haul you have to pay points for it so it becomes part of your build. I really like this idea since pays more attention to balance and the "Monty Haul" scenario is less likely. In favor of RP, this also means that stuff will be more part of a character rather than just a trinket that gets used once in a while.

I think though even without the time travel element, the engine could be used for a classic D&Desque game with the intent of subverting the genre. Your party advances down the hall and encounters a Gelatinous Cube. Running is probably a good option, especially since driving the story forward is not dependent on how many monsters you can slay.

The engine could lend itself well to an espionage game, where stealth and guile are important. And it would be an odd way to run a Superhero campaign, though it would definitely be a good vessel for those long-winded speeches you see in comic books.

Date: 2011-01-19 04:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Excellent and insightful post! But I was surprised to see Shadowrun, which not only captured the cyberpunk genre but consumed it whole, mentioned only once. Please allow me to mention it a few more times: Shadowrun, Shadowrun, Shadowrun.

Date: 2011-01-20 05:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think I looked at D&D, at least, from the other side of the mirror. It's clear that one of its big inspirations was Tolkien, and that its popularity as a game got an initial lift from the wave of Tolkienian fantasy. The total package had more than just the Tolkienian tropes, with elements from classical mythology, Howard, Vance, and even creature features, but the elves, dwarves, orcs, wizards, dragons, and the races later renamed treants and halflings all came straight out of Tolkien, as Chainmail especially showed. But the plot was removed, the world was different, and enough of the serial numbers were rubbed off so that charges of copyright violation weren't going to stick. Still, I think Tolkien fans made up a big part of the target market.

The other case I can see offhand is Vampire: The Masquerade, whose tropes look to be borrowed equally closely, but equally freely, from Anne Rice's early vampire novels. Again, the game wasn't a straight adaptation; against, fans of the novels were an obvious target market.

It might not be happenstance that those were the two big success stories economically. It would be interesting to see the idea tested with a third obvious body of fiction, again not as an outright copy but a free re-creation: A game devoted to creating contemporary wainscot worlds and stories about young people learning mysterious arts in those worlds. It would probably work pretty well to have actual spell lists for such a game!

Date: 2011-01-21 03:39 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
along these same lines I've been wondering how much the makers of Vampire: Masqerade were influenced by Clan of Tubal Cain and The Pillars of Tubal Cain. My first thoughts when I first started encountering The Tubal Cain material was that someone had played too much Vampire. Then of course I found out that the Tubal Cain material was older than the game but I can still see the parallels.



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