TV shows and movies make great inspiration for your game, and there are also plenty of RPGs based directly on visual media: Stargate SG-1, the various incarnations of Star Trek, James Bond, Star Wars and so on.

Have you ever run (or played in) a game based on a movie or TV show? If so, chances are you probably encountered at least a few spots where it just didn’t feel like the show.

If you want to run RPGs based on movies and TV that are true to the spirit of their source material, you have to tackle things a bit differently.

If you’re watching Star Trek and the away team — composed of the main cast plus one guy in a red shirt (with no last name) — beams down to a hostile planet, who’s going to get killed in a dramatic moment?

Right, the guy in the red shirt.

If you’re playing a Star Trek RPG and the same situation crops up, who’s going to bite the dust?

Probably the guy in the red shirt. But it could also be the Captain of the Enterprise, or one of the officers — because in most RPGs, things don’t work the way they do in TV shows and movies.

In a recent LiveJournal post, Setback Level, Robin Laws asked this question about the difference between watching a movie (or TV show) and playing one:

“Is this divergence a necessary component of the roleplaying form, or a failure of emulation?”

Most of the time, it’s both.

For example: The majority of RPGs — including every game I’ve ever seen that’s based on a licensed property (Star Wars, etc.) — put PC death on the line at least some of the time. For most genres of movie and TV show, that’s a failure of emulation.

If you’re watching a James Bond movie, you know Bond’s life isn’t at stake, despite the dangerous situations he finds himself in. In a James Bond RPG, Bond is just a few bad die rolls away from being shark food — and if that happens, the whole group will notice the disconnect: The game no longer feels like a Bond movie.

Sometimes, that’s okay. Part of the point of roleplaying is that it’s participatory, and that it doesn’t play by the same rules as movies or TV shows. If you’re running that Bond game mainly for the color (the gadgets and the high-adrenaline chases, let’s say), you may not care so much if it diverges from the movies in other respects.

But if you want to avoid those disconnects — those moments where everyone goes, “That would never happen on the show!” — then you need to handle things a bit differently.

3 Considerations for TV and Movie RPGs

These three items strike me as being the main things you need to look at differently when running a game based on a movie or TV show. That said, I know this list is incomplete — because while I’ve played in several such games, I’ve never run one myself.

Take death off the table — the PCs’ lives are never at stake. Instead, other things of importance to them are on the chopping block, and their successes and failures influence those things, instead.

Create vibrant NPCs whose lives are on the line, and whose survival depends on the PCs’ success. There’s plenty of room for cardboard cutout NPCs, too, like “SWAT guy who gets shot when he opens the door” — but secondary cast characters are critical.

All major PC failures enhance the story. If the squad from Stargate Command gets ambushed and — because of a string of terrible rolls — fails to reach the Goa’uld base, the mission isn’t over. Instead, it changes shape: Their ambushers capture them and take them to the base — where they have a chance to escape, and continue their mission.

You can accomplish some of these goals without making major changes to the game rules — but not all of them. Some changes can be accomplished just by adding a few rules (like Jonathan Tweet’s excellent “Kirk rule”), while others — taking death off the table, for example — have far-reaching rules implications.

Another option is to switch gears and play a completely different game — like Primetime Adventures, which is specifically designed to emulate TV shows. PTA has no hit points, very few character stats — and clever mechanics for spotlighting different characters and making the game feel like a TV series.

If you’ve run a game based on a movie or TV show, how did you handle the potential differences between the RPG and its source material? Did you run into disconnects, jarring moments that made the game less enjoyable? Have you ever incorporated rules (like the “Kirk rule”) into your games to handle this? And what else should be on my list of considerations?