From Star Wars, Star Trek and Firefly to Conan, Lord of the Rings and (shudder) Diablo, there are tons of RPGs out there based on licensed properties.
My experience running licensed games is close to zero, although I’ve played in my share of them. From a player’s standpoint, the approaches I’ve seen most often are playing in the setting with minimal interaction with canon storylines, and having a moderate amount of interaction with canon (major NPCs are present, for example) — but there are plenty of other ways to approach licensed games.
If you have run or are running a campaign based on a licensed property, what are some of the unique challenges you’ve had to face? How about common pitfalls?
(If you have tons of experience in this area, I’d love to see a guest post or two on this topic. Don’t let that stop you from commenting, but please drop me a line if that appeals to you!)
I’d love to run a Stargate SG-1 game, but I really fear that I couldn’t do the show justice.
While I was doing some work the other night I threw in firefly for some background. It made me jones to run the Serenity RPG. If I did, I think I would do it that way, using the verse and only mildly touching on anything with Mal and crew. Othwerise I think people just tend to mimic the property and do everything the characters would do. That can be ok, but I think I prefer a game with people playing original characters. That way they aren’t limited by “Jane wouldn’t do that, or mal has better comebacks, etc. “
I had some friends that ran a Serenity game last year. The players were essentially another ship in the ‘verse that was running around doing things like the crew of Serenity did, but they were a different crew. However, the end of the first session was “the message” from the movie, so they got to explore the ramifications of all that in the characters. Yet, they still didn’t really mess with the canon major characters, but did play with the worlds and made references and such.
I do believe Axiem is a friend of mine. Now if only he’d go onto the forum…
I’m a great fan of Pendragon, Greg Staffords game set in King Arthur’s time. Part of the fun of the game is that you get to play in the stories of the setting that we all know and can interact with the main figures (although the game isn’t set up to play them). Greg’s new Great Pendragon Campaign is an eighty year campaign (game time that is)covering the whole of the King Arthur story. Much fun can be had when the players meet with these mythical figures, and the occassional twist where things don’t happen quite as in the ‘original’ stories can be highly entertaining.
My only experience with licensed property RPGs has always been limited to super hero RPGs (Marvel, DC, etc.). There are two problems that were fairly common to these kinds of games:
1) Players wanting to play an established character, and not caring at all about the history or established personality of those characters. One player played Captain America as a drunken bigot (which was very annoying to both myself and other players). I decided to say that he was a Cap clone that had defects, and I had the “real” Captain America show up to clear his good name and to bring the clone in to SHIELD (the clone’s creators). After that I decided players would no longer have the choice between creating a character or playing an established character.
2) Someone would say “Hey, wait a minute! In issue #45 Bizarro was beaten by Superman when he used the exact same tactic! You have to stay true to the comic GM!” This was the more commen problem, but in those cases I would have to pull some book from my own comic book collection and show examples of how the comics often have contradictions on what a character can and can’t do. That would make it easier to go on to the second part, which was to explain that we are playing in the game universe and not the “official” universe of the comics. Things work slightly differently in the game universe, and if the rules say Bizarro can escape he escapes.
These were the two problems that I found to be unique to licensed property RPGs. I strongly suggest that players not be allowed to play established characters. Some can do the characters great justice, probably most, but it isn’t worth the problems other players can cause. Allow interaction with the established characters as NPCs (which is a lot of fun), but for the most part the players should design their own characters.
As for the second issue, well you just have to know the universe of the licensed property very well but let your players know that it is not the same universe. A friend of mine who runs a Star Wars game tells everyone “To forget any materials that you may have read or seen that takes place after Return of the Jedi, because where that movie ends is where my game begins and the game may not be the same as the licensed products.” I like that approach of saying that there is a point in the timeline of the licensed property universe where the game branches off from.
We’ve played a lot of Star Wars, and usually run parallel– it’s a big universe and you won’t cross paths that often. That said, we did run a game where we defected while the rebellion was still forming– and interacted with all the second tier characters. It was interesting, but it was also clear that the GM was communicating about half of what was necessary, relying on your memory of the character from the movie for the other half. Those of us who hadn’t watched in a while felt “off”, like there was detail we were missing.
Our current SW game does the diverging timeline mentioned above.
the major property games i’ve run or played in are Star Trek, Star Wars, Batman/DC, and the grand-daddy of by-the-book role-playing, James Bond 007.
in most cases, i’ve tried to stay within the background of the setting (i mean, that’s the point), but away from canon storylines. the star trek game never met kirk or fought khan (though there was an excellent published adventure involving a second doomsday machine), the star wars game completely ignored the existence of the rebellion, etc.
the biggest exception to this was James Bond. which i was playing with a Bond geek, who insisted on playing each published adventure by the script, scene for scene. i did manage to work in a few original adventures, but eh.
I’ve run a Star Wars d20 game for over two years and we set it 120 years after the destruction of the first Death Star. The main reason for that time period was to give us the best of both trilogies with the bonus of not having to worry about screwing up the cannon and changing the history of the setting and PC not being overshadowed by the accomplishments of the Skywalkers/Solos etc.
There is a drawback to not playing in one of the established time periods: You have to make much more of your own material, or at best re-work existing material.
By coincidence, Dark Horse comics has recently started a new title (Legacy) set in nearly the same time period, we also have a Imperial remnant that is a member of the Galactic Alliance where stormtrooopers pass their armor down to their children.
One of my group’s other members has just started running a game for our group in the Firefly/Serenity ‘verse (yeah I get to play!)
Plus we’ve had some time on an SG team, which I loved playing and had plenty more missions planned out, but it bombed with the rest of the group even though we all love the show.
StarGate SG-1 the rpg also brings up another drawback to playing in a licensed setting: loss of license. Your material could dry up at any moment when the company loses it license. And even worse, it gets sold to a new company with a new house system so that their new material is incompatible with the old system you’re still using!
One thing I’ve noticed in the Stargate campaign I’m in right now is that our GM (who will hopefully post here) made sure to mention that he was playing fast and loose with canon storyline progression.
Even though none of us (the players) are nitpickers — certainly nothing like the folks VV_GM mentioned! — it was a good thing to clarify. It takes the pressure off, and since we’re all fans of the show I feel like we can have more of an impact without staying in lockstep with the canon material.
Great advice so far — thank you!
The best advice I can give is this: “Find a fork point”.
The longest running game I ever participated in started in the Marvel Universe during the events of Secret Wars. All of the ‘canon’ heroes and villains had disappeared leaving a new breed to take over. In our universe, the old guard never returned home, so events continued without them – but with empty reminders (the FF building, X-Men school, etc) of the past, all ripe for player habitation 🙂
That game went through many rules systems from Marvel to DC to Golden Heroes and others. It finally settled on HERO System – probably the finest supers/modern system ever created.
Greywulf is absolutely right.
Whenever you run a campaign in a licensed setting (or even an established setting likeEberron or Realms) and you’re looking for someway to be divergent without losing the flavor of the thing — look for the fork point.
A good one for Star Trek, which was even done in its animated series, is to diverge from the City on the Edge of Forever. What if Kirk, Spock and McCoy restore the timeline, but fail to return? What would exploration of the galaxy be without those three at the helm of the Enterprise.
When I ran Wheel of Time, I looked for the fork point in the history of Robert Jordan’s universe. It occurred 10 years before the novel series, early enough not to run into the main characters (who are all children, but still plenty of familiar npcs still around) and still have the setting seem familiar.
In Star Wars, the fork point would be the destruction of the first Death Star. It blew up alright, spoiling the Emperor’s plans. Suppose Han and Luke didn’t make it out. But Leia’s still around, and there’s still a rebellion to lead. A lot of adventuring possibilities, and some weirdness, too (Leia, you are my daughter …)
Babylon 5 has so many fork points, mainly because the show is character driven.
Look to the past, look to the future in the licensed world. Take things slightly off the map. Just as Deep Space Nine was in the same time frame as ST The Next Generation, your adventures could run parallel to the adventures of the main characters and still be relavant.
In fact, that’s pretty much the whole premise of a setting like DragonLance — you are adventures in the world that the companions made. Have at it!
Having run more Star Wars than I can document, I feel confident in giving advice on running a licensed-property game.
Don’t worry so much about the universe. Worry about where it came from.
Look…George Lucas didn’t craft the Star Wars galaxy out of whole cloth; he cobbled together samurai flicks, WWII movies, adventure serials, Eastern mysticism, melodrama and hot rods.
I find that people often overlook the hot rods. George loved him sme hot rods, Chester, and you can see that love all over those movies. He took the wonder those things game him and piped it into his setting like pudding into an eclair.
Sure, know your Blastech DL-44 from your ICOM T-65. But if you can get into the mesh of the setting, its core inspirations — for lack of a better term, its source code, you cannot help but to present a game that feels like, oh, Hyboria. Or Firefly. Or “The Snorks”.
…Heh heh heh. Snorks RPG.
Dr. Rotwang, is there any kind of concise list of inspirations for various licensed settings? I suspect that’d be open to debate but also tend towards consensus (Firefly is pretty obviously a space western, as is Star Trek in a different way).
And as with fork points, if it’s not already out there, it sounds like great wiki fodder. 😉
Uh, no. Not…not really. I thnk you hafta just figure out the sources, research them, or…uh…be a big goofy Lucas nerd like I used to be.
I think, however, that you can reverse-engineer a setting’s influences pretty easily; it just takes paying attention to their effects, looking for them, sussing them out. With games based on movies, though, it’s pretty easy — just surf the web or watch the DVD commentaries!
The D&D Eberron Fork point is pre-built in – 2 years after the end of the war.
Another one might be – “What if Cyre was never destroyed to become the Mournland?”. Would the five (human) nations of Khorvaire still be in a civil war? What about the warforged? Would they have any rights?
What if?… hmm, that was a Marvel Universe comic series. You could build a whole slew of adventures based on just one of the What if? comics. Just run with the end result, and boom, you have your own fork point.
Figures that Martin would post this while I’m out on a business trip. 🙂
Not only do I run licensed games all the time, I’ve written for three and consulted on a few others. It’s a lot of fun and provides a unique playing and writing skillset.
For running a game, such as my own Stargate SG-4 game, the GM is well-served by trying to understand what role the game fills. You can play space opera sci-fi without having to play in Star Wars; presumably there is something in the property that has value to you.
Traditionally it’s familiarity. When I say we’re playing Star Trek, everyone should (hopefully) know what I’m talking about. We can narrow it down to “Klingon spies” or “just like Enterprise but with less suck,” but we all have a common frame of reference. That tends to be the real appeal.
Dealing with canon is always a touchy subject. My preference is to understand and respect canon but to NEVER let it hold me back from a good story. As discussed earlier with the concept of “forks,” what happens at the table diverges from the property at some point. At the same time, being respectful of canon means not having TIE Fighters attacking the Enterprise while the Daleks invade; I’m not a big fan of getting my chocolate in my peanut butter.
Something new that I’ve been trying in my Stargate game is working hard to make the game *feel* like a television show. As such, I try to craft short, easily-digestable adventures do-able in one session. In fact, I tend to write them one week at a time to keep the “small screen feel.” Following things like the three-act model helps keep you on pace as well. I try to fit in things that you could see people doing on the show: focusing on a single character, have a B subplot, playing the theme music in the background, naming each episode, etc. The little things that make it feel complete.
Sadly, I kinda take the whole thing back a step with a pretty poor Daniel Jackson impersonation. Gotta work on that. 🙂
Running a licensed game has many perks as well as drawbacks. Fortunately, I think they’re worth it although they (licensed games) tend to get a bad wrap. (“What, you’re not creative enough to make up your own game?”) It’s the freedom to explore an already established property or setting that everyone is familiar with and focus on the characters.
…and that’s exactly where the focus should be, IMO.
Licensed settings can be a great way to get someone into RPing, since they already know much of the background material, and they have tons of inspiration for coming up with a character concept, as well as an indication of the tone of how to play.
Abulia’s point about structural elements reinforcing the enjoyment resonates with me. I’ve played several licensed games that felt like the source because the tone and trappings were right, but Abulia’s SG-4 game is the first one I’ve played where all of the surrounding elements — plot structure, episode length, etc. — also line up with the source. It works very well.
Ralph: Good point about player buy-in — that’s huge!
Hey Martin, just a quick question. You made a “shudder” when you mentioned the Diablo RPG. I hope you weren’t referring to the wonderful PC games. Is there a horrendous tabletop version out there somewhere?
I’ve run two long running (60+ sessions, weekly schedule) West End Star Wars (Revised 2nd Ed.) campaigns. Some things that worked for me:
1. Stay consistent with the story structure of the medium. Since I was stringing a series of adventures together in a property based off of a movie, I tried quite hard to retain the signiature feel of the movies. Lucas has the heros split off into two or more groups to achieve their objectives; I often did the same thing, making sure to intercut between the various groups frequently. This isn’t something I usually do as a GM, but I feel for Star Wars it really worked well.
2. Stay morally consistent with the source material. One group of my players played as NRI (New Republic Intelligence) agents from the post-trilogy continuum. They upheld the values of the nacient New Republic, first against the external forces of the Imperial remenants, and later on protected the government from internal or sub-governmental threats (sound familiar?). Thats a major variation from the tone of Star Wars, but the player’s objectives were morally consistent.
Running counter to that, my other campaign was a group of Imperial agents (in a campaign that began 7 or so years before episode 4). They were evil at all the right plot points, and hideous punishments (disapearance of a loved one, etc.) were exacted for failure. This campaign ended when the group’s web of deceit and lies fell apart and everyone wanted them dead (they died during a desperate attempt to bring the Rebels some information that the players faked that would give a rebel group reason to help hide them from the Empire. Evil is punished in Star Wars.
3. Know all the niggling technical details, and if expansive pictoral source material exists for the setting (offical artbooks/”technical” manuals, fan art from deviant art or somewhere), make use of it.
4. This is a personal thing, but I don’t alter cannon. It leads to player-GM arguements. The closest I let players get to cannon is directly experiencing off-screen action (what was going on at Coruscant when the Senate was disolved?). Normally, I simply let characters experience the ripple effects from the actions taken in the cannon arc (coming across Alderanian refugees, for instance).
BabyBop: Yep, there were at least three Diablo-to-D&D games. One was a hybrid approach, about 75% boardgame and 25% very light RPG. As an intro to RPGs, it’d probably be OK. As anything else, I found it underwhelming.
The RPG books, though, were godawful. One of them had a table for generating Diablo-style random magic items, with a hodgepodge of effects that made no sense. The back cover boasted of the millions of items you could make with it.
The actual RPG content was just as bad. Bleh.
But the CRPGs? I played the hell out of Diablo, and then played twice as much hell out of Diablo II. I love those games. 🙂
Steven: Excellent points! I particularly like your advice about using the non-RPG source material, like “The Art of…” books. Good stuff.
Hey Martin, those Diablo ideas sound completely terrible. In fact, I feel bad just knowing about them. I think I’ll stick to my Diablo Battle Chest for the PC. =)
BabyBop: Stick to that, and life will remain good. The Diablo tabletop books are Diomin-bad, a level of badness normally associated with physical pain. 😉