Seven Tips for Making Stories Into Roleplaying Campaigns

 If you’ve ever read a book, watched a TV show, or played a video game and thought, “I would love to do this in a tabletop roleplaying game,” then congratulations, you are not alone. This is a very common desire among roleplayers, as demonstrated by the endless number of media tie-in systems out there. Chris already wrote an excellent article about how to turn your roleplaying game into a story, so I figured it was about time to talk about doing the reverse.

Before looking at specific tips and strategies, it’s important to understand that what we’re really talking about here is converting a setting. Star Wars and Firefly make great roleplaying games, but your players are not going to be rolling up Luke Skywalker or Malcolm Reynolds. At least, I hope they won’t be. That’s a terrible idea for any number of reasons, the most apparent being that those stories have already been told. Everyone knows what’s going to happen. Plus, half the fun of roleplaying games is making your own characters.

A couple years back, I ran a very successful game based on the Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher, and I’ll be referring to that campaign now and again to serve as example. You’ll notice I didn’t have any of my players roll up Harry Dresden or Karen Murphy, because I’m not crazy. What I did do was…

1. Find the Right System

While it’s true that a good enough group can have fun with any system, most GMs will want to find something where the mechanics line up with the internal logic of whatever setting they are trying to adapt. Sometimes there’s already an official tie-in system, but that isn’t always the best one to go with. The original d20 Game of Thrones system, for example, was a terrible fit for the Game of Thrones world. George R.R. Martin’s universe is far too brutal for d20 combat, and the characters are far too nuanced to simulate with a class system. I would recommend Burning Wheel, but I recommend Burning Wheel for most things. The more recent A Song of Ice and Fire system by Green Ronin is also pretty good.

In most cases, you’ll find hard mechanics are more important than a system’s fluff. Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch is a thrilling tale of piracy and adventure. 7th Sea is a roleplaying system specifically designed for swashbuckling on the high seas. That sounds like a perfect fit, but it’s not. In Lynch’s book, combat is incredibly lethal. Getting stabbed in the gut not only takes you out of the fight, it could cause an infection that kills you slowly over several days. 7th Sea damage is all super abstract, manifesting as the kind of minor scrapes and flesh wounds you would expect from an Errol Flynn or Three Musketeers story.

For my Dresden Files game, I selected Mage: The Awakening*. In the books, combat is fairly close to reality, if not 100% there, and Mage reflects that. More importantly, Dresden and wizards like him can do a huge variety of things with their powers, and Mage is all about free form magic. It wasn’t a perfect fit, particularly in that there is no equivalent to Paradox in the Dresden Files, but that wasn’t difficult to address. I simply required mana to be spent for spell casting, and for characters who ran out of mana to make stamina rolls. This simulated really well how Dresden will cast magic all day and night, slowly exhausting himself until he can barely stand up.

2. Set the Game Away From the Main Narrative

As I’ve said, it’s generally assumed your players will not be taking on the roles of canon characters from whatever work you are adapting, but it’s usually a good idea to go one step farther. In a Star Wars game, you don’t want your players to be flying down the Death Star trench with Luke, at least not as the main action of the game.

The reasons for this are twofold. First, roleplaying games should be about the PCs. Putting canon characters into a session runs the serious risk of making players feel unimportant, especially if you do it regularly. Eventually they’ll stop trying to hold back the forces of Sauron and just let Aragorn do it. Second, it’s very difficult to adequately roleplay canon characters. You’ll always feel like you aren’t doing them justice, and so will your players. This is doubly true if the character was ever portrayed on screen. Actors get paid money for a reason.

Setting your game in a less prominent area also has the benefit of reducing the important prior setting knowledge. There’s a good chance that your players won’t be familiar with whatever story you’re adapting, and that will be less of a problem away from the main plot action. It will also decrease the temptation for players who are familiar with the setting to metagame in a most unhelpful manner. There are plenty of people out there who would do anything to stop the Red Wedding*; don’t tease them.

I specifically kept my players as far away from Chicago as I could, just to make sure the PCs would never run into Harry Dresden. Part of that was because I didn’t trust them not to shoot him on sight- they were a little ambiguous with their morality- but I also didn’t want to overwhelm them with all the details and minutia that come from a 14 book series. Instead, I based my PCs out of Honolulu, Hawaii. It’s a city I’m very familiar with, and it let me ease them into the setting’s intricacies at a comfortable pace.

3. Identify Exploitable Elements

One advantage almost every type of storyteller has over the game master is that they can control what their characters do. Control freak GMs don’t last long, which means PCs tend to have agency and free will. Usually this is a good thing, but it can be a problem when trying to run a setting that was not designed for roleplaying games. A lot of stories, even very good ones, have features that a real person would exploit the hell out of, and the characters from that story don’t because the writer didn’t want them to.

For example, in Supernatural, demon-proofing something is as easy as drawing an encircled pentagram on it. Same goes for creating demon traps or crafting a weapon that will be especially effective against demons. I love Supernatural, but that’s a recipe for disaster. PCs would be tagging demon traps all over the place and carving pentacles onto their vast quantities of bullets. The same goes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where vampires can be held at bay with crosses. Some PC is going to cover a riot shield in crosses, and it will all go downhill from there.

Fortunately, this is usually a pretty easy fix. In most cases, all you need to do is add a cost. In order for a demon trap to work in your Supernatural campaign, the PCs would have to scatter the ashes of a devout man over the area, or something equally difficult. In order for crosses to drive away vampires, they would need to be blessed in a time consuming and very expensive ritual. Because the problems are mostly related to ease of use rather than power, this will usually get the job done. If something is genuinely broken and cannot be fixed, just take it out. The health of your game comes before setting integrity.

4. Watch for Balance Issues

In very few stories are all characters created equal the way they usually are in roleplaying games. This becomes a problem when certain types of characters are unarguably more powerful than others. Elves are a good example of this in The Lord of The Rings. They are essentially better than all but the most skilled humans, just by nature of being elves.They have better senses, they live much longer, and generally have access to all the best magic gear.

However, the most obvious and difficult example of this problem are Jedi. In the Star Wars universe, Jedi are an order of magnitude more powerful than everyone else. They have instant kill laser swords, can crush things with their minds, and are all but immune to being shot. Did you see Luke on that sail barge? The man didn’t give a care about all those blaster shots, and he wasn’t even fully trained. Luke was so much more powerful than the other characters that he had to spend the last third of Return of the Jedi completely split off from the group so he wouldn’t make them feel silly.

Jedi are especially problematic because there’s no way to balance them while staying true to the setting. D20 tried this, and it doesn’t really feel like playing a Jedi because it takes two or three lightsaber hits to do any serious damage. On the other hand, faithfully depicting the lightsaber wielding space-magicians makes anyone who wants to be a smuggler or a pilot feel like they’ve failed character creation. In this sort of extreme example, the best option is to enforce rules of an all Jedi or no Jedi party. It’s a bit of a cop-out, but sometimes that’s all you can do. There’s also the option of having Jedi characters start with fewer points, but that means you have determine exactly how many points being able to shoot lightning from your hands is worth, and that can be very difficult.

The good news is that most balance issues are far less pronounced. For the Dresden Files, it always felt like wizards were a little more powerful than they should be compared to the other types of magical creatures in the series, and it was easy to make that excess disappear when I statted the setting out in Mage. It’s also possible that you’ll be blessed with a group that doesn’t care how powerful they are in relation to each other, in which case you can ignore this section entirely.

5. Focus on a Few Elements of the Setting

Since it’s unlikely that your players will be as familiar with the setting as you are, it’s important not to overwhelm them by trying to show everything there is all at once. This can be really tempting for enthusiastic GMs. Whatever setting you’ve chosen no doubt has a lot of really cool things in it, and it’s hard to wait weeks or months before bringing them into the game. Just remember that if your game comes off more like a montage than an actual story, the players will lose interest very quickly.

There’s also the simple fact that books, TV, and film all have a much easier time controlling the flow of information than roleplaying games do. It’s very easy for players to miss critical details even when GMs think they’re clear as day. A tight focus over key elements reduces this problem and makes it clear what the players should be paying attention to.

If you’re running a Game of Thrones campaign, you should probably keep the game to a relatively small area of the world, at least at first. Your players will start to get lost if they are fighting wights at the Wall one week, performing court intrigue in King’s Landing the next, and then suddenly you introduce a conspiracy of maesters looking to wipe out all magic.

For the Dresden Files, I spent most of the game focused on the oppressive wizarding government, known in setting as the White Council, and on the politics of other magical factions. The players got really into it, to the point where they went way beyond anything that happened in the books by launching a full on rebellion against the White Council. Unfortunately, I muddled the waters a bit by introducing an evil magical conspiracy of doom cultists, and that just distracted from what my players were really interested in. Fortunately, they forgave me eventually. I think.

6. Know When to Walk Away

The bottom line is that not all stories work as roleplaying games. This doesn’t mean those stories are bad by any means, just that they have too many problematic factors to roleplay in. I absolutely love both Star Trek and Discworld, but I probably won’t ever run another game in them.

In Star Trek there are far too many abusable technologies running around, even when I set my campaign in the relatively lower tech days before The Next Generation. Discworld is too complicated and full of contradictions to be captured in the fast running world of roleplaying games.

If you run across a setting that seems like too much of an uphill battle, I recommend putting it down and trying something else. Roleplaying game campaigns are a lot of investment, and it’s just not worth it to put all that into a setting that won’t work.

7. Remember the Fundamentals

Despite everything I’ve just said, running a campaign from a pre-existing setting isn’t that different from any other kind of roleplaying game. It’s important not to lose sight of the really important stuff like encouraging your players to roleplay and having interesting NPCs. You can’t expect the setting to carry your game, no matter how interesting it might be.

The most important thing to remember is that a Star Wars roleplaying game is a roleplaying game first and Star Wars second. Don’t sacrifice the health of the campaign in order to preserve the precious setting. If your players really aren’t interested in rebelling against the Empire and would rather go exploring in uncharted space, that’s something you should consider.

I had originally envisioned my Dresden Files game with a heavy film noir influence, just like the books. There were going to be problems paying the rent, tensions with the mortal police, and a lot of cheap booze fueled introspection.  All of those elements were present in the original source material, so I thought it went without question. My players had other ideas. They were absolutely ambivalent about money, showed no interest in what the police thought, and were far more invested in furthering their political ambitions than getting drunk and wondering what the point of it all was. Just about the only thing they liked was the mystery solving.

If I had tried to force my original ideas through out of devotion to the books, it would have been a disaster. Instead I let the players run with what they enjoyed about the setting, and the result was one of the best campaigns I’ve ever GMed. There are a lot of benefits to be reaped from using pre-existing stories as a backdrop to roleplay in, so long as you don’t lose sight of why you’re all gathered around the gaming table in the first place.

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  1. Rand al'Thor

    Which epic fantasy books will run the easiest campaigns? I’m going to run a high fantasy D&D campaign but I hate the Forgotten Realms and am not familiar with any of the other settings. (But I’m sure Wizards of the Coast’s other settings are just as bad.)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So, depending on what you’re looking for, I have a few recommendations.

      #1. The Gentleman Bastard series. This is gonna involve a lot of swashbuckling, and the magic is a little hinkey, but the setting is super cool and easy to fit into.

      #2. Song of Ice and Fire if you’re into high level court politics.

      #3. Lord of the Rings. Just set it far enough back in the timeline that the PCs won’t run into Bilbo or Arragorn, and you’re got a setting that’s practically made for RPG adventure. Plus, that’s basically the setting Burning Wheel is designed for.

      #4. This isn’t a book series, but if you’re set on D&D, Eberon is a really good campaign setting.

      • Rand al'Thor

        Thanks, that really helped. Gentlemen Bastards would be my guess, or Lord of the Rings.

        Any ideas for young children? I have a younger brother who is into D&D. I want something simple, with a lot of conflict.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Mouse Guard would be perfect for that, but if it’s gotta be D&D… The Pathfinder setting is pretty good, and straight forward as I recall. That’s basically D&D with some positive changes.

  2. Jade Yeager

    *sigh* He only likes treasure, combat, and XP. I think I’ll need to use the Pathfinder setting.

    I don’t own Pathfinder, just asking, but do they have a pdf somewhere?

  3. Rand al'Thor

    I’m trying to pick a good system for the Wheel of Time (just way less sexist) but I’m not sure which one. Anything involving a twenty-sided die is out. Not quite sure about Burning Wheel. Have any other options?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Burning Wheel is probably your best bet. It’s a very crunchy system, but it’s good. D6 Fantasy is a passable system, and has the benefit of being free.

      • Rand al'Thor

        Anything else? I’ve played BW. My group doesn’t really care about balance or anything, so a ton of stuff works.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        There’s always FATE, if you want a less mechanically crunchy system. Fantasy Craft is pretty good, but it’s also D20. You could try the Song of Ice and Fire game, though you’d have to invent a lot of rules for the magic from scratch.

      • Rand al'Thor

        FATE is horrible though(exaggeration). It doesn’t match EVERY Setting. In other words, I’m not a big fan. However, thanks a lot. My group is big on Mouse Guard. I normally have two players, I GM. One player likes D&D style, combat heavy games. However they still like Mouse Guard, they just like being the star of the show in that case (and will create Guard Captain after Guard Captain after Patrol Leader after Matriarch). My other player has more refined tastes (in my opinion). They will listen to my description-heavy (for a GM, I usually describe scenes as well or better than pre-written adventures) narrative; this player also does everything from combat to political debates and prefers to avoid fights. They don’t care about being the star as much. I’m thinking of BW or TB. Torchbearer I can houserule to fit my setting. The less combat focused player can adapt to the setting, but not the rules of BW. Torchbearer (being advanced MG) seems like a good fit, but I don’t know.

        • Greg

          I like Barbarians of Lemuria. In my own campaign I throw out the setting and designed my own cultures/races fairly easily.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Torchbearer would work, but like Song of Ice and Fire, you’ll have to do a lot of house ruling for the magic. Not a bad fallback if BW won’t work.

      • Rand al'Thor

        So give me some pros and cons please. I’m debating which one to buy
        I don’t want any of the level up or class-based stuff. I want a fantasy system for a Wheel of Time-type setting. I would go for Torchbearer because it’s only a step up from Mouse Guard.
        Burning Wheel
        I don’t want something that players can’t learn without some GM help. I want high fantasy, realistic, character-driven stuff.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          -Pros: Simpler system, easier to learn, harder to minmax, better balance.
          -Cons: Magic system would need a complete redesign. Also, the game is specifically designed for dungeon crawling, so you’d need to discard a lot of the mechanics.

          Burning Wheel:
          -Pros: More flexible system, magic system fits a lot better, the Life Paths fit really well.
          -Cons: More complicated, harder to learn, and a lot easier to minmax.

          Over all, I’d probably go with Burning Wheel, if you think your players can handle the learning curve.

          • Rand al'Thor

            I decided on Torchbearer after consulting a reliable player. I’m starting the game after my epic Mouse Guard game (three more months to go)! I’ll tell you about that later. I may take a break sooner to test Torchbearer, but first I need help. Thanks for the tips! How do I redisign the magic?

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Off the top of my head, I’d suggest scrapping the spell slots per day. Instead, Tax the character’s attributes (Will or Health) when they cast a spell. That’ll simulate the fatigue WoT characters get when they cast a lot of magic.

            Of course, this will make spell casters more powerful, but that’s also true to the setting.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    I was just thinking of an idea similar to this in terms of adapting Ready Player One(which might be the best book I have read in the last year, even when up against The Martian) into an RPG setting. That story is about a group of players in an extreme Alternate Reality Game in which they are trying to win control of the gaming system away from a megacorp by solving an elaborate puzzle left as the will of the original system’s designer. In other words it is Willie Wonka meets The Matrix.

    What I think would be an interesting game mechanic in this sense is how characters would have an extremely different level of competence in reality vs in the game. It would also be interesting in that while death in the virtual world would be an annoyance, in that you would loose your experience and equipment, death in “reality” would obviously be a real threat. Especially since the characters would not have nearly as much competence in that context.

    The problem I was thinking of is that of #2. I really don’t know any other story that would be remotely as engaging as the original. I suppose it could be possible to retell the original story in a way that featured entirely new characters, but that would just be problematic in general as you mention as they already know certain things in advance.

    I could also have an entirely different story that is merely based on this general idea, but that would run into the problem of feeling like a weak knock off. Which I suppose it is in a sense.

    On the issue of Jedi, one idea I had for this would be that Jedi are allowed to have a greater amount of ability but at the cost of player agency. You can dominate in combat but you don’t always get to choose where you fight in the way that “muggle” characters would. Notice that in almost every film, Force users run off and fight each other while the normal characters carry out some action that is fundamental to achieving the goals of the heroes.

    That would largely be what I would use in that context. If your team has Jedi, the bad Force users will be gunning for them, leaving the rest of the team to finish whatever objectives they had other than merely surviving. There is also the problem that Force users are easily detected by each other and thus bigger targets in that sense as well.

    Choosing to play as a Force user means willingly accepting a larger destiny, one that you give up your agency as a player in order to take on. The GM should also give them visions through the Force that direct them in a certain path. I

    Fate Core would actually be an excellent system for playing Jedi in this fashion. The double side nature of aspects and Fate points would be an excellent mechanism for the above.

  5. Rand al'Thor

    Long time, no see huh? I kinda had to quit roleplaying games although I kept writing. You mentioned a song of ice and fire and I was thinking of trying it out since I found a new group. Is it good?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey, welcome back! Sorry to hear you had to take an RPG hiatus, but we all gotta do what we gotta do. Song of Ice and Fire is a pretty cool system, though it is very complex, so be prepared to learn a lot of rules.

    • Chris Winkle

      When I played it, the GM had to do a LOT of hand-holding. Had some really cool things, but very time intensive.

  6. Alex Lund

    with me it is always about the so-called action movies like “The Expendables” or “John Wick”, turning them into RPG characters and finding out if they have a chance of surviving such a hand to hand / knife /gun fight.
    But the problem is that the more accurate the System, the more time you need to create the character. And how do you grade the characters? Are the red shirt faceless mooks just a strong hero 1 (D20 Modern) / infantry soldier with just one term of duty (Twilight 2000 V2.2) and is John Wick a Level 6 smart hero/ Level 5 Bodyguard (D20 Modern) and Barney Ross a mercenary with 7 terms of duty (Twilight 2000 V2.2)?
    It would be nice if there would be a RPG where you can have Points values like Gun use lebvel 3 = 17 Points + Advantage Fast Draw=6 Points + Armor =x Points etc

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