The main characters from Honor Among Thieves

As you all probably know, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves released in the US last night. Is it good? I have no idea. Thanks to the magic of time travel, I’m writing this several weeks before the April 1st publication date.* One thing I know for sure: The D&D movie happened, and it was very expensive. $151 million will buy you a lot of d20s. 

Naturally, all the adaptation capital is flowing right to the game that already dominates every aspect of the TTRPG market, and that doesn’t seem right to me. It might surprise you, but there are other games out there besides D&D (take a moment to get all your gasps of surprise out). Any of these systems could easily be adapted into a mediocre movie or TV show that only bears a passing resemblance to the original game! And since this is the most serious day of the year, it’s only natural that I share with you the secrets of doing so. 

1. Burning Wheel

A stylized wheel surrounded by fire.

Burning Wheel is the perfect game for when you’re longing for the extreme complexity of 3.5 D&D, but you also wish your character was as robust as the paper their stats are recorded on. A Burning Wheel movie is super easy to make because everyone will die in the initial 20 minutes or so, and then you can send the film crew home early.

How will they die? Mostly in the first fight that breaks out. Burning Wheel combat is incredibly lethal unless you’re wearing heavy armor, which few starting characters can afford. If the initial hit doesn’t do it, bleeding out later will. The combat rules are also super complicated, so the actors should put on their best confused faces as they try to figure out scripting three actions in advance. 

Don’t worry, there are a few more exotic ways to die too. If anyone in the movie is a mage, they’ll probably explode from casting Raise Bread too many times and flubbing their Forte roll. Characters with divine magic will last longer but inevitably ascend to the heavens once their Faith attribute reaches 10, so that’ll have the same effect. 

If you need to fill some time between the opening scene and everyone dying horribly, a faithful adaptation will feature the party arguing about their skills. The audience should be really confused why Hunting is a skill when Tracking, Orienteering, and Bow are also skills. Extra credit if you throw in an argument for whether Firebuilding can be used in place of Arson.  

2. Call of Cthulhu

Great Cthulhu is a storm at sea.

On the one hand, many adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work already exist, ranging from pretty good to downright terrible. On the other hand, none of those have been specifically adapting the RPG version of the Cthulhu Mythos, which is a different beast altogether. 

You’d probably assume that any Call of Cthulhu adaptation would feature all the cosmic horror staples: corrosive realities colliding with our own, alien beings that are as uncaring as they are destructive, etc. And sure, that’ll all be in there. But the real feature should be automatic weapons

Call of Cthulhu’s most distinguishing mechanic is how powerful automatic weapons are, and I expect to see that represented in the movie. If a monster has hit points, a Tommy Gun or AK-47 will take care of it right quick. Deep ones, flying polyps, Mi-go, even the mighty star-spawn are no match for a bunch of bullets fired really fast. 

This also suggests an obvious plot structure: the characters mow down every enemy they come across until the GM gets fed up with the party’s bullshit and sends in some enemies that are immune to physical damage. The final boss might even be a star vampire or maybe a color out of space if you want to make things a little psychedelic. 

3. 7th Sea (1st Edition)

A swashbuckler swinging through the air.

This game is all about pirates, swashbuckling, and swashbuckling pirates, which sounds easy to adapt, right? Just dust off a leftover Pirates of the Caribbean script, switch out real country names like England and France for Avalon and Montaigne, and you’re good to go, right? 

Wrong! Sure, this game does have all that Jack Sparrow/Errol Flynn stuff, but there’s something even more important that any film adaptation just has to get right: its magic system. Every country has at least one type of magic, and without these the movie wouldn’t be recognizable as 7th Sea.

First, a character has to spend half their points to get decent magical potential, so every mage character should be physically incapable and socially inept. There’s no room for raising base skills or attributes when they have all this magic to pay for. 

Second, mages should struggle to accomplish even the most basic tasks. Most of 7th Sea’s magic types are incredibly underpowered, and that needs to be reflected in any adaptation, or it’s not true to the game. El fuego mages should struggle to light a candle, pyeryem mages should constantly fail to transform, and porte mages should only be able to open portals about the size of a quarter. If the magical characters don’t thoroughly regret their choices, it’s not the RPG fans know and love!

4. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire 

Chewie and Han from Edge of the Empire.

Honestly, I’m surprised there isn’t already an adaptation of this scifi space opera game. It could be something that takes the world by storm, forever changing how movies are made. Then, maybe the next installment would be a big disappointment, followed by such a flood of content that it feels like there’s more Star Wars than a single person could ever watch. 

But since that hasn’t happened, we can only speculate based on the system’s rules. The most important thing would be capturing the feeling of Fantasy Flight’s special proprietary dice. In this game, in addition to success or failure, the proprietary dice can also give the player an extra Advantage or Disadvantage.

In combat, these Advantages and Disadvantages are used for things like critical hits or malfunctioning weapons, which are easy enough. But outside of combat, the GM has to come up with extra bonuses or penalties that don’t have anything to do with whether the character succeeds or fails. 

In a movie adaptation, we should not only see characters triumphantly disarming a bomb, but also somehow it makes them feel faint because they rolled extra Disadvantages. Or maybe they completely fail to sneak past the guards, but everyone stops to admire how cool their shoes are because of some leftover Advantages. The more random and out of place, the more faithful the adaptation! 

5. Shadowrun  

Shadowrunners fighting a summoned spirit.

As a cyberpunk adaptation, we’re obviously going to need some genre staples: chrome implants, neon lights, a lack of wireless internet connections, you know the drill. Oh, and it should always be raining. I don’t want to see a single dry scene from opening shot to ending credits. Set the whole thing in Seattle for added realism. 

But what makes Shadowrun stand out from other cyberpunk settings is the fantasy elements. Elves, dwarves, dragons, and enchantments all abound.*  I’d say it’s like if someone merged Lord of the Rings and Neuromancer, except Shadowrun has a lot more overt magic than Tolkien ever dreamed of. 

To properly capture the essence of this genre crossover, the characters need to constantly argue about whether the fantasy elements add something to the setting, or if they just make it a jumbled mess. See if you can work in a debate about whether there is any reason to take retro-future tech seriously when wizards can just break the laws of reality at will. For bonus points, have someone bring up William Gibson’s famously dismissive thoughts on the matter.

Once you have all those elements in place, you’ll have everything you need to emulate a Shadowrun campaign on the big screen. Whether anyone will enjoy it is an entirely different question.  

6. The Riddle of Steel 

A man lifting a sword in a crystal ball.

Released the same year as Burning Wheel, The Riddle of Steel (RoS) is another game that thinks combat should be extremely lethal. The sooner you get a total party wipe, the better! So we could just emulate the Burning Wheel model of making an extremely short movie, but we don’t want all of these RPG adaptations to be the same, do we? 

Instead, prospective filmmakers should aim to adapt one of the weirdest aspects of RoS’s combat: a rock, paper, scissors game between armor, armor-piercing weapons, and regular swords. What does that mean? I’ll tell you! 

In RoS, heavy armor makes a character practically invulnerable to regular weapons, but it also imposes a lot of penalties on the wearer. An armored enemy can defeat anyone armed with regular swords, but they’re in trouble against anyone with a warhammer or poleaxe. These weapons neutralize a lot of armor but are slower than non-piercing weapons like a regular sword. 

So your cast of characters should be evenly split between characters who wear platemail, unarmored characters with big cleaving weapons, and a few people with regular swords to cover all the bases. That sounds silly, and it is, but it’s the best way to ensure victory in RoS. Either that, or everyone should just use a rapier. For some reason, rapiers are the best weapon in the game. If that’s not represented in the adaptation, I will riot. 

7. Traveller 

Two ships firing on a third from the Traveller RPG.

Traveller is by far the oldest game on this list, only a few years younger than D&D itself. Even so, as a space opera RPG, its core concept is timeless. Players fly their ship around the galaxy, doing jobs and having adventures. Adapting it sounds pretty straightforward, and it would probably get you something like Firefly or Farscape. 

However, Traveller has one trick up its sleeve that will help set it apart and save the production company a lot of money: a true adaptation means no movie at all, because all the characters are already dead. 

You see, Traveller employs a lifepath system for character generation. The player picks a starting point and then gets some random rolls to determine what experiences their character has had before the first session. Sounds reasonable enough, except that some of those results mean the character has already died. In certain editions of the game, characters can risk death multiple times to gain more skills in character creation.  

This is by far Traveller’s most unique feature, so it needs to be in any film adaptation. Instead of a regular movie with boring things like dialogue and action sequences, all you need is a quick memorial slideshow, explaining the ways in which four to six characters died because their players rolled too low on random tables. 

8. The World of Darkness

A dark city with clouds above it.

I’m apparently a bit slow on the draw with this one, as a World of Darkness (WoD) show of some kind has reportedly been in the works for a couple years now.* However, that just makes my article even more important. How will these professional showrunners know what to do if I don’t tell them? 

A lot of people will say that the key to WoD is the rich history and worldbuilding, which is an understandable view. It’s also an entirely wrong view. WoD’s real defining feature is that everything, absolutely everything, is suuuuuuper confusing. 

Some of this is in the setting, of course. Each magical group has a dozen or so major factions, and each of those factions has sub-factions within it, and it’s all got loads of backstory from some source book or another. You think anyone at the gaming table can remember when the mage explains that they’re from House Merinita, which was absorbed into House Ex Miscellanea in the Order of Hermes? Of course we don’t. We just smile and nod, hoping none of this will be on the test. 

WoD is already on the right path in this area, at least based on the short-lived Kindred: The Embraced from 1996. This attempt to make Vampire into a TV show was widely praised (criticized) for being way too complicated, with more vampiric clans than anyone could remember. Perfect! 

But the confusing mechanics also deserve some adaptation love. A friend recently invited me to play in a Mage: The Awakening campaign, but I simply could not figure out how to cast a spell. The rules were all there; my eyes just slid off them, my brain refusing to parse such eldritch knowledge. I want to see big-screen WoD characters eternally confused about how their magical abilities work, along with simpler things like whether they can take two attacks in a single turn. Otherwise, it won’t be true to the source material. 

It’s obvious by now why I am the perfect person to advise any future cinematic adaptations of TTRPGs, as no one else can truly isolate the essential experience of a game like I can. If Honor Among Thieves is a success, my inbox is open to any producers willing to pay my fee of a few dozen assorted dice and a new GM screen. If Honor Among Thieves flops, then let’s pretend I knew that was going to happen and forget I ever said anything. Happy April 1st, everyone! 

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

Jump to Comments