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.