I am in between campaigns, having just wrapped an amazing arc of Masks, and with a bit of downtime before my Things From the Flood campaign starts (We are taking time off while one of the players in the group has their second child). As we kicked around ideas of what to play, the suggestion was made to play Operators by Kyle Simons, but rather than playing it in the default military-esque setting, the suggestion was made to set it in the John Wick universe. I liked the idea immediately, but knew there was some work to be done.

Using IPs

Intellectual Properties (IP) are the settings, characters, and worlds, created by others. The way they get made into RPGs is through licensing deals. These deals can be expensive, where the company wanting the license has to pay the IP owner, and tricky, in that the IP owner often has editorial approval of all content made. IPs in RPGs have been around for a long time. Some IPs like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Marvel have passed through multiple license holders, and have resulted in some great games.

For sure, there is an attraction to playing in an IP, be it playing a Rebel pilot on a mission to protect a convoy, or facing down Dr. Doom. We have experienced these worlds and think about what it is like to be in them. 

Because of the challenges of licensing IPs, not every IP we love winds up as a game. But since we all have a bit of game designer in us, we can adapt an IP to fit into an RPG. 

The Challenge

When it comes to making an IP work in an RPG we are faced with three challenges:

  • Matching the mechanics to the IP
  • Getting the IP elements expressed in the mechanics
  • Establishing Setting material

Matching the mechanics to the IP

We need to be cognizant of the type of gameplay a game produces and then compare it to the tone of the IP that we wish to emulate.
RPG systems have their own feel. Fate feels different from Savage Worlds which feels different from 5e, even if we play all three in a fantasy setting. We need to be cognizant of the type of gameplay a game produces and then compare it to the tone of the IP that we wish to emulate. When these two are in alignment, the play of the game feels like the experience we get when we consume the media. When they are not aligned, the play feels off from the media.

My best example is low-level d20 Star Wars. Blocking blaster bolts was far harder in d20 Star Wars than it looked like in the movies. Even Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi in Phantom Menace is blocking every blaster bolt shot at him. But that is not how the game plays. 

So when looking at the John Wick universe, which we started calling the Continental universe, we needed a game where the players are extremely competent combatants and can take a decent amount of punishment. Operators was a really good fit for this. The rules talk about how these characters are Mission Impossible and Jason Bourne type characters, so this was a solid fit. I would have also considered Fate, but I would not have used 5e, as the power curve and the d20 system does not match that level of competence.  

Getting the IP elements expressed in the mechanics

In most cases, the RPG engine we pick is not going to have all the mechanics we need for the IP. Some things are going to be easy fits, like assigning weapon stats to a Lightsaber. Other things are going to require more design.

The first thing you need to do is to assess what the major elements are that need to be present in the game. Then, look at the mechanics and see what things fit in the existing rules. Those things we can quickly stat out, by looking at the existing mechanic. The things that require more design can be tricky (I could…and just might do a whole article on this). For those things, my best recommendation is to find something that is mechanically similar to what you are trying to emulate and build something that mimics that mechanic.

For the Continental game, the big mechanic that was missing was the gold coins. In the Continental universe, gold coins are used to obtain special equipment and services. It is one of the things that makes up the secret world of killers that John Wick belongs to. What I knew was that I did not want to do actual coin bookkeeping, having to come up with price lists, track costs, etc. 

I decided rather that what I needed was that in most cases characters have coins to open doors, get into places, etc. — but a limited amount that so they cannot buy their way out of every problem. To emulate that I decided to mimic the Stress/Consequences mechanic from Operators. At a high-level the way the system works is this:

Players have two coin boxes. As long as one of those boxes is open, they can participate in any single-coin activities (i.e. getting into a club). When they want to make a more substantial expense (i.e. buying guns for a job), they check a box. There are three consequences as well: owe a favor, take a marker, break a bond. These are accessed when the player runs out of coin boxes. After a successful job, clear all Stress Boxes.

Establishing Setting Material

The last thing we are going to talk about is one of the easier things you need to do in order to adapt the material — to adapt the setting material into your game. In this part, you are reviewing the media and looking for elements that need to be included in the game. Look for the things that make the media unique and then figure out how to set up the game so that those things are going to be possible. This may constrain what the characters do in the game, and it may limit what the mechanics of the game normally allow.

For the Continental, I re-watched the John Wick movies and looked at a few web sites, and I came up with some elements. Here is a sample (not complete) of what I came up with:

  • Characters are Assassins
  • The Continental Hotels
  • Gold Coins as a hidden world currency
  • The High Table
  • High Octane Fights
  • No legal consequences (police never interfere)
  • Armored Suits

Some of these would be made into mechanics (i.e. Gold Coins) and other things were setting elements (i.e. The High Table). 

Playing is Testing

Once you have put your IP conversion together, you should playtest it, but you won’t. You are going to want to get it to the table and start playing. Which is fine, but understand that you may need to be tweaking the rules in-game or between games as you see the mechanics in play.

You should have a discussion with your group that this is an IP you are adapting, and that things won’t be perfect. Set the expectation that you may need to change, add, or remove some mechanics as you are playing. With that expectation set, there is no problem using your sessions as a form of playtesting. If your group does have any hesitations and don’t want to be playtesting games, then you either need to do some playtesting before you start running it as a game, or don’t play this adaptation with this group.

Borrowing Universes

The adaptation of IPs to RPGs can be a lot of fun. Running and playing your favorite IPs is a way to extend the joy we receive from the original media. There are some considerations that go into making a good conversion, as well as some amount of playtesting.

What are some of the IPs you have adapted and to what systems? What are some IPs that you would love to see a conversion for?