We’ve all had that moment when we finish reading or watching a story and think “that would make a great roleplaying game.” But how do you turn a story into a roleplaying game? What stories actually make good roleplaying games? That’s what we’re talking about this week, including everything from the difficulties of adapting a story to the shortcomings of existing systems. Plus, what happens when you’re playing a space game but only one character can fly the ship?
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Ethan. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[opening song]
Oren: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is Wes and Chris. And today, we are actually going to adapt this podcast into a role-playing game.
So I feel like we need to make a few stats, like broadcasting, and “use audacity”. Or, you know, “use magic audacity” as the case may be. But I think this will be a really fun roleplaying setting, because it’s got conflict and everything, right?
Chris: Are we going to, to increase the conflict in the setting, start making provocative statements?
Oren: Yeah, I think I think we better so, let’s see… Game of Thrones… I don’t know. I got nothing.
Chris: After all the provocative things that we say on the blog, once we’re on the podcast we’re like, um, something provocative.
Wes: Something something, anger everyone?
Oren: I can’t do it on purpose. It just has to happen.
Chris: If I were to guess, I’d say that our podcasts are somewhat less anger-inducing just because people can hear our tone of voice, right? You know, when we talk about Harry Potter, we usually also talk about what’s good about Harry Potter. Whereas on the blog, people sometimes are like “You’re always being so mean to Harry Potter, why?”
Oren: Speaking of being mean to Harry Potter, because today we’re talking about adapting settings into role-playing games, right? And let me tell you, the number one reason why settings don’t work as role-playing games is magic. And Harry Potter is like, Primo offender. Number one. The most offensive in this regard, because its magic is absurd.
There’s no way to balance it. You just can’t do it. There’s so many things in there that can be abused, that your players will abuse. They will find them, they will realize that they can you know, combine all these different magics, and they can stockpile potions, and time turners exist, and it goes so on and so forth. And it will just be bad. It’s just, don’t. Save yourself the bother.
Wes: But Oren, me and my friends want to role play witches and wizards at Hogwarts! What do we do?
Oren: I don’t know, find a better GM than me.
Chris: Here’s a question: is Harry Potter, the way that it works, really that different from D&D, where you have a set spell list? Could you just make an alternate D&D-type spell list for Harry Potter, with Harry Potter spells in it, and then if one is really way too powerful, just make it a higher level? You don’t learn that until your last year at Hogwarts or something.
Wes: That’s not a bad idea.
Oren: Yeah, you could do that. But the the amount of work it would take is pretty ridiculous. Harry Potter is not the only setting that has unbalanced magic, but it is certainly one of the most unbalanced settings. Because every book has to introduce new magic. And unlike, say, the Dresden Files, which also does this, at least in the Dresden Files, there is a limiter on magic that they build in. Which gives you a way to make more powerful magic less broken, which is that magic makes you tired, and the more powerful magic makes you tired-er. That ain’t in Harry Potter. There’s nothing.
So could either invent a new limiter from scratch, or you could do the D&D style where it’s like you only learn the spell that causes a spinning horde of blades to appear at Sixth level. Or you could make it so that that spell, despite being super impressive looking, only does 2D6 of damage. You know, you certainly have options, but it’s hard. It’s going to be a lot of work.
Wes: So let’s dial it back a little bit. Okay, so somebody says “I really want to adapt Harry Potter, that setting, for a role-playing game.” I think what we need to do, and I’ve heard people say, oh, I really like that, you know, TV show, or that book, and I think that would be a good game. Well, if you’re struggling with that, then I think you probably should take a moment to stop and ask yourself “Why that setting?” Write things down.
What is it about the atmosphere, the characters, the magic, the monsters, the treasure, or boats or whatever, if it’s in space, all of those things, if you write down a list of why that setting is appealing for you, I bet you could probably find something similar, that already exists, that you could run an adventure with. Just because you say you want the Harry Potter world doesn’t mean that that’s a unique world.
There are plenty of things that exist there that could also work in existing role playing games, or in other stories or things like that. So just take a break, slow down, and realize what you’re really looking for when you want to adapt a setting.
Chris: Yeah, and I think in a lot of cases when you’re going for a particular genre or particular aesthetic or particular atmosphere, that probably would work really well. I know, though, that there’s so many people who are just avid fans of Harry Potter that giving them a Harry Potter-like setting that was not Harry Potter… For some of those people who are just super super in, who will identify with a house, there’s a lot of those people out there, but I think you’re right that in many cases you could just do that.
And of course, the the resort you can always take for any setting that just does not work, from the magic system, is to go with something super soft, where it’s abstracted and so it doesn’t really mechanically matter what you’re doing, something like Primetime Adventures. I think if I were to theoretically run Harry Potter, I would have to make it a Primetime Adventures game.
Oren: Right, and the thing about Harry Potter, and this is not just a Harry Potter issue, although it is an easy one to identify, is that if people are into it because they are that devoted to the setting, you maybe don’t want to use that one anyway. Because chances are, your idea of what the setting is will be different than theirs. And are you prepared to have that fight at your role playing table? Do you want to have the Hufflepuff argument while you’re trying to run a game?
Chris: This is true. It’s almost like you have to be the most into that world, of anybody at the table, because they will argue with what what is canon, and if you’re not prepared?
Oren: Yeah, and I’ve had this problem even though I’ve never run Harry Potter. I’ve had this problem with other settings that were not nearly so beloved. There is definitely an advantage to using an actual setting, not just adapting some of the elements people like. If it’s something like Firefly, for example, and this is less true now than it used to be, but you used to, if you sat down with a group of nerds, you could be pretty well sure that they’d all seen Firefly and that they had that collective knowledge of what the Firefly setting was all about. So you could sit them down and say “All right guys, now we’re playing a game in Firefly”, and they’re like, “Well, I know what a big bulk transport is, you don’t have to explain that.” Super easy, right?
Chris: Yeah, that that makes sense. And Firefly comes with a specific sort of package sci-fi-Western aesthetic, that would take explaining if you were doing it outside of Firefly. But with Firefly, it integrated those themes so well that all of your players are like, “Oh, yeah. I instantly get that sci-fi-Western aesthetic.”
Wes: But what’s still nice, though, is that you can still break it down. What do I like about Firefly? Oh, there’s tech available, but not everybody has it, and some of them have to live in rural and primitive conditions. That that right there is a great setting for anything! You can run with that. It doesn’t have to be “The Firefly Universe”, It’s easy to break that down. I’m not saying you should go try to make like your own Cowboys vs. Aliens, but I’m sure you could do something much better than that.
Chris: Yeah, but it’s true that most of the things that really make the Firefly universe valuable, you could just make your own version of it and it would work just fine. It’s not like Harry Potter where there’s specific house names that people are really attached to. You could make your own world that has a big contrast between rich high-tech people, living in real dense environments, and people who are living out on the fringe and have little technology.
Wes: And, one more thing to say about Firefly. Because they did make a role-playing game for it. And I played it, and there’s a lot in there about piloting your spaceship. So much. And so one of our characters, the players, was the pilot and so, I’m like, okay. Let’s start. You’re in space, and you have to navigate some debris, space rocks or whatever, and you’ve got to land on the planet.
And so, what definitely would have been a very cool sequence of events for a television show, just amounted to all of us watching this guy roll a series of dice. And it was just not very exciting at all. Okay, that’s something that I know that I can’t really do. “Roll to see how well you steer through the asteroid field. Oh, you rolled okay. The ship takes damage. You have to pay to get that repaired when you land.” It’s just not as good as the TV show. So that would be something that I would not really want to include, unless I could somehow find a better way to do it.
Chris: Yeah, that is a really hard thing, because it’s so much easier to make those kinds of action scenes really exciting when you have a visual medium. Because they’re so visceral. And then when you go to a role-playing setting, it doesn’t really feel real or impactful unless you give it mechanics. But then, it’s almost impossible to map all of the mechanics of any kind of physical action sequence. Whether it’s flying a ship, or people fighting, or a whole battle taking place, onto role-playing mechanics and have it actually be interesting instead of boring. Because in the end you’re just sitting at a table, rolling dice over and over again. It’s not like it’s impossible. But most of the time that probably shouldn’t be attempted.
Wes: One more thing though. There were also no stakes for that. Because it was literally the first thing in that adventure, so what was I going to do? If he failed his rolls… “Your ship explodes”. Other than damaging parts of it that they would need to repair, there wasn’t a good fail scenario for that. There wasn’t any real meaning to the scene, which took away from that.
Oren: The primary buffer panel falls off, whatever. And that’s a concern whenever you’re adapting something into a role-playing game. If it’s something that only one character, or maybe even two characters, out of a party can participate in, you don’t want to spend a lot of time on it. And you get the same problem of a gate in settings like Shadowrun, or any settings that have a Matrix-style computer system. All right, one of us is a hacker and can do can do stuff in The Matrix… and everybody else can’t, so by the letter of the rules, what we should do every time we do something in the Matrix is everybody else goes and gets pizza, and then the hacker character has their separate Matrix adventure.
Wes: That sounds great.
Oren: That’s theoretically what you should be doing, according to the letter of the rules. Of course, most people know better than that. But you can get caught by surprise, if it’s your first time, and you open up the rules and you’re like, “Oh man, there’s all this stuff for spaceships, this must be important.” Five hours later: “I kind of wish we hadn’t done that.”
What I’ve noticed is that there are two reasons to adapt a setting to be a role-playing game. One of them is what we already talked about, with Firefly, and having that that shared knowledge base. And you can get that either by saying it’s Firefly, or you can even tell your players “This is like Firefly. It’s like Firefly, except instead of the western aesthetic, all of the the the more rural, less-developed places have a Warring States China aesthetic. You can do stuff like that.
Or, the other reason I found is that there is some very interesting dynamic in the the material that you’re converting and you want to experience that as a role-playing game. So with Firefly that would probably be the experience of managing your ship. That’s probably the single most consistent theme throughout Firefly, is trying to keep your ship flying, in the face of the Alliance trying to shut you down, and the reavers trying to eat you and all that nonsense, right?
And if you’re going to do that, then you’re going to need to be way more mechanically prepared. And frankly, the Firefly RPG, while not terrible, does not prepare you to do that. It’s version of “keep your ship flying” is “are you ready to count a bunch of credits? Because that’s what you’re gonna do!”
Chris: What about experiences that sort of depend. Because Firefly is definitely an experience where they have to be poor to really simulate that experience of trying to keep the ship running. And a lot of noir for instance. The detective is supposed to be scrambling for funds and have to take cases that the detective would otherwise not want to take. It seems like that is also kind of one of the trickier things to bring into role-playing, because players are really good at making money.
Oren: Yeah, right. Well, that’s why you need a super robust economy system. If your game is about Resource Management, at all, it needs to be really baked into the rules. Even if your characters aren’t magic, they will find ways to make money, because they are very highly skilled individuals. And if they’re magic, then all bets are off. They can just get money whenever they want. It’s impossible to replicate the Harry Dresden scenario unless your players are really devoted to it, where it’s like “I didn’t want to work for that weird fairy who walked into my office, but I was low on funds and I couldn’t pay my rent so I had to.” Any PC who you tell that to will be like, “Okay I cast Summon Wedding Ring and sell all the wedding rings that I summoned. Whatever.”
So that’s why you need something like Torchbearer, which has a very devoted system of like “Nah, man, you gotta go adventuring because you can’t afford to stay at this inn one more night. And they’re going to kick you out, and you don’t have any marketable skills except going into holes in the ground and bringing treasure back. So get out there.”
Wes: Chris, you mentioned Noir, and what I’ve been thinking about when I was thinking about this Podcast is, when you’re adapting a setting, I do again bring up this: What exactly do you want to adapt? Because if you are watching a really popular detective show, True Detective, maybe like Sherlock, or something like that, like the gist is like really heavily rooted in mystery and the whodunit stuff, ask yourself: Who are you going to be creating this game for, and are they going to buy in on your adapted horror setting, your adapted mystery setting? I’ve been in good games, Chris, yours definitely included, where the spook happens, it’s there, but more than half the time we’re probably kind of laughing. We’re making jokes and stuff like that. So if you’re fascinated by some gritty Noir-like show or book or whatever, ask yourself if that’s really going to translate with your players. Because it might not. They might not buy into it, and after all of your hard work, you’ll just be disappointed. The medium matters, and the genre especially.
Chris: Player buy-in, I think, is incredibly important. With the game I’m running, where I have this kind of mystery factor that’s sometimes eerie and sometimes just fun, it’s working because you guys just let it be a mystery. My players have bought in. You guys are not trying to actively take it apart and dissect it at every moment.
Wes: My character is perfectly content with this flower that just hangs out with him, that doesn’t need water or sun or soil. It’s growing beautifully!
Oren: It’s fine. Don’t worry.
Chris: It’s your best friend, it’s not going to do anything bad.
Wes: It’s my best friend!
Chris: Definitely depending on the genre, the darker, more serious stuff in role-playing, because it does tend towards funny, towards slapstick, the more darker and serious, the more player buy-in you need to get it to work.
Oren: I was going to say that in most cases when you’re talking about a mystery story, especially if it’s designed to be creepy anyway, and this is true of trying to adapt Lovecraft or trying to adapt the stuff that’s in the Southern Reach, you you have to be so careful the way that you introduce this stuff. The players have to be having fun already and then you slowly start to put in stuff that seems a little weird, and a little odd. And then the players have to come to it on their own, because if it jumps out and startles them, their immediate response will be like “No. I’m not going to be startled. I don’t like being afraid.” And then then it’s all ruined. And Chris, you picked up on that in your game super fast and that’s exactly what you’re doing. And so, most of what we do in that game is be high schoolers, and try to deal with the upcoming soccer game, and doing good on our history reports. And then for some reason I walk into class and all the popular kids are staring at me. And it’s like “What is happening? That seems really weird.”
Chris: Yeah with that eerie mystery stuff, you definitely have to not do too much. Because as soon as you do too much, it’s going to lose its novelty. And in this case having a game where there were other plot lines going on that would hold up the game, where that would allow this other thing to just kind of intrude, was real important to the the atmosphere.
Wes: One other thing to add in here is, if you like puzzles, riddles, ciphers, for your mystery games or anything like that, I would caution you with those. Because players will jump immediately out of character if they like puzzles. They will just solve them. You might have this great thing planned out, to fix this cipher, that you found on the internet, right? Because you needed a cipher. The players have to go to x and ask y to figure out z. But no, your player might not want to roleplay, they might just want to figure out how to do it themself. “Oh, I solved it! It’s the alphabet backwards plus two characters.” Something like that. That could be so frustrating when that happens. So be careful. People love puzzles, and they will break character to solve them.
Chris: And then there’s of course the other way, where you give them a puzzle and you’re expecting them to solve it as players, and they have trouble and get frustrated.
Wes: Also that, yes.
Chris: Yeah, that’s definitely hard to manage.
Oren: Here’s another thing to consider when you’re looking at a setting that you want to adapt is, very often you want to consider the potential for adventure, rather than a specific adventure. One of the reasons why I would probably not ever try to adapt Battlestar Galactica, even though it does actually have an RPG, is that it’s too specific. There is exactly one story you can tell in Battlestar Galactica, which is the story of the fleet trying to flee the cylons. Even assuming that you remove all of the canon characters and put your PC’s in their place, like Commander Budama, and President Rosalind, even assuming you do that, it’s still an extremely specific story.
That’s certainly what people are interested in now. The alternative, of course, is that you could adapt to the 12 colonies as a setting, but there’s not really that much there to work with. We don’t really know very much about the 12 colonies. Nothing particularly interesting about them. Whereas something like Star Wars, especially if you’re at all an EU fan, the Star Wars setting is so sprawling and huge that the potential for adventure is basically infinite. And so that’s the reason why it keep getting turned into role-playing games, and why each of its role playing games is pretty good. I don’t think any of them are going to win any design prizes, but they’re all pretty good. They all work, and you can have fun with all of them. So that’s something to consider a lot of.
Wes: That’s a really good point Oren, thinking about potential. Maybe something to also consider when you’re adapting is, are you doing a one shot, or a campaign? Maybe you could do your Battlestar Galactica as a One-Shot. Not as something sustainable in that kind of environment. So maybe that’s something else to add to your checklist of considerations, when you’re thinking about some new setting to adapt.
Chris: I think Battlestar Galactica would particularly lend itself to a one shot because of the Cylon element, where you can have a surprise reveal where somebody’s a Cylon.
Wes: Haha, yeah!
Chris: Which I think is a really good twist for a role-playing game. But it might be harder for a longer campaign. I am remembering a certain one shot, Eclipse Phase game, where I found out I was the big bad. Me, kind of. In Eclipse Phase, you can make copies of yourself, they’re called Forks, and then remerge. And it turned out it was a lost copy of myself that was causing all the problems.
Oren: Yeah, that’s what happens when you just leave your forks lying around. They turn evil, you know, you gotta be careful with that.
Chris: So here’s a question for you guys. Normally when we take a setting and you want to put it in an RPG, you kind of expect it to have the same type of plot line, the same type of conflicts, but that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes a lot of problems with this setting can actually be changed or fixed, just by having different types of conflicts.
Like for instance, let’s say we had a Harry Potter setting. But instead of having problems where we’re fighting a dark wizard and using spellwork, instead we’re in school and we have nothing but social conflicts. Dealing with each other, between different houses, and stuff like that. So the emphasis has been moved from the magic to socializing. Obviously, players have certain expectations. And normally if they’re playing Harry Potter, they might expect something different. But have you ever tried something like that? Does it seem like something that could work?
Oren: Yeah, I’ve actually had stuff like that. Sometimes I’m actively subverting a setting, sometimes it’s more trying to do something a little different. I usually try to pitch it that way when I’m telling my players what the game is about. I don’t want my players to sign up for a Harry Potter game, thinking that they’re going to fight Voldemort, and then have it not be about that. My players would have cause to complain at that point. But I have run, for example, a Lord of the Rings game where I specifically pitched it as subverting a lot of The Lord of the Rings tropes. Of being like more of like a Cosmopolitan Lord of the Rings, where there’s more mixing between the different species and it’s more of a political situation. So I’ve run that, and had fun with it. But I pitched it that way. I didn’t say “Alright everybody, we’re playing Lord of the Rings!” and then they all show up with their Fellowship characters, and I’m like “Nah nah nah. Get out your bureaucracy rolls.
Wes: I can’t say that I’ve done something exactly like that. But on an earlier Podcast, we talked about inspiration and how Avatar is a really great world for RPGs. That adventure, I guess I strayed from The Last Airbender’s plot of having one nation be primarily antagonistic and the source of all struggle. Instead we were focusing on having the party there to basically go do random adventures. That involved a lot more social checks, dealing with local bureaucracy instead of just showing up Korra-style and flame-blasting everything to pieces. She has a very distinctive way of solving problems, for the most part! Personally, the social aspects are some of the most fun parts, for me, of RPGs. So I like focusing on those, even in combat-heavy settings. I play a lot of D&D but I try to emphasize the social side of that a lot more than the combat. It’s personal preference, I guess.
Chris: I think it’s naturally easier to make social problems occur, and make it so that there’s not overpowered ways to deal with them. As long as you don’t allow D&D-style either “I’ve done a charm spell that changes somebody’s mind”, or recognizing that there are limits to what you can convince people to do. It’s not like “You have 30 charisma, now you can convince anyone”.
Oren: Yeah, and you can get a lot of mileage out of adapting settings specifically to answer questions that the original story did not answer. Example: one of my most successful early games was a Firefly game, where I flipped the script and had the players playing as the crew of an alliance patrol ship.
Wes: Good one.
Oren: Because one of the questions that Firefly inevitably raises and does not answer, possibly because it didn’t have time, is What’s life like for the alliance? We get the whole thing from the perspective of former Independence Fighters and it’s like “How does the other side view this, and what’s their deal?” So that was how I pitched the game, and apparently my players were very interested in finding out what the Alliance was doing on the other side of that divide. And we had great fun.
Wes: That’s cool.
Oren: And, same thing with my Avatar game, where Avatar kind of raises the question of What’s the world like when there is no Avatar? That’s like a question that is raised, that the show so far has not answered. I got a lot of mileage out of answering that question. So if you can figure out what those questions are, that’s a really good place to start your adaptation. For Lord of the Rings, it could be “What is it about whoever these Easter- and Sutherlings are, that made them think signing up with Sauron was a good idea?”
Oren: What is happening with their deal? Who are these people? And you can explore that. There’s a lot of potential there.
Chris: You could be a society, where for some reason the electorate decides to elect Sauron as leader, and now you have to start a resistance movement…
Wes: To call back to inspiration, and if you’re looking for good subversions, there’s a book that’s free online. We can put it in the show notes, but it’s called The Last Ringbearer. Have you guys heard of this, The Last Ringbearer?
Oren: I have not.
Wes: Okay, so it’s written by a Russian geologist and geographer who was fascinated with Lord of the Rings. He wanted to write a paper on why Middle-earth’s geology is kind of weird, and he ended up writing a story told from the perspective of a foot soldier, and a low ranking officer on the Mordor side, and it’s really good. He’s definitely drawing on Cold War conflict, between how Soviet propaganda and American propaganda characterized the respective nations. That idea is that the people of Mordor are basically normal people, but that the account of The Lord of the Rings is written by the victors and so they characterize them as monsters in order to justify what they did to them. I definitely recommend it. It’s a very good story and a large part of it is kind of a detective thriller, but it’s definitely fun to subvert that setting, for the story from the other people’s perspective.
Oren: I’m into that. Alright, so The Last Ringbearer. Have to put that in the show notes. All right, well, we are out of time. Thank you both for talking to me about this, this has been a very fascinating topic. Those of you at home, if anything that we said piqued your interest, you can email us at [email protected] Otherwise, we will talk to you next week.[Closing Theme]
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.