Pulp Gamer’s “Out of Character” is on the short list of gaming-related podcasts I listen to regularly. It’s recent episode — “A Novel Idea” — struck a nerve because I often rely on novels as backdrop material. While I usually respond to a podcast on its own messageboards (they started the discussion, after all, and in fairness, it’s best to respond in their own forum).

But I thought the topic broad enough it merited a post here.

What really caught my attention was one of the co-hosts, Brenda, cited my beloved “Wheel of Time” series as an rpg adaption that didn’t work. Fair enough. She tried the game, and it wasn’t her cup of tea. Bravo for trying.

(It’s not like I’m a paragon of experimentation. You know me: there’s the D&D rules set, and then there’s the D&D rules set.)

Brenda’s critique of the “Wheel” rpg was common enough. The novels are about how the forces of light rally around the one male channeler — Rand al’Thor — who is slowly going mad as he prepares to fight the last battle against the Dark One. And she’s right when she points out that what hurts the Wheel rpg is that adventuring in that storyline is not satisfying, because as the game is presented, the hero is an NPC, not your player characters.

The larger issue, though, is how one effectively incorporates the worlds of novels into your games. And that’s a broader discussion.

The Arthurian solution

I think legends from the age of chivalry and the Carolingian romances are instructive. Because their development as myth is the blueprint we should follow when adapting any  of our favorite worlds of fiction to the gaming table.

Arthur becomes king because he pulls Excalibur from the stone. And the central story of Charlemagne is the blowing of the horn at the battle of Roncevalles. But as stories are told, the audience demands more. (Hollywood did not invent the sequel). And so, over time, the legends of other knights and paladins are grafted onto these central themes.

I think as GMs, that’s the best approach when adapting novels to the game table. Our player characters’ adventures are analogous to the quests undertaken by Arthur’s knights or the paladins of Charles‘ court.  They share the same world as Arthur or Charlemagne, but their adventures are their own.

If it works for Harry Dresden …

Think of our own worlds popularized by novels. The Dresden Files rpg is popular now. But as an rpg, you probably aren’t attempting adventures that actually featuring Harry Dresden. No,  you’re just mining his world of magic in a modern setting and making your own stories alongside the characters of portrayed by your friends around the table.

It seems natural to do it that way because the Dresden novels themselves are serialized adventures.

Epic stories always seem harder to weave into your game because the central storyline DOESN’T feature your characters. Why adventure in Middle Earth if Frodo and Sam have already saved the day? I find myself shying away from Dragonlance for the same reason: Didn’t the Companions already win this fight? And yes, there’s the Wheel of Time, and if you’re true to the central theme, the PCs can never be more than just supporting characters.

But the Star Wars rpg has shown us that you can have adventures beyond the central storyline if you’re willing to run your character’s adventures tangentially or in another time frame. It’s a big branded universe after all. Go play in it.

So, it’s possible to successfully adventure in Middle Earth, Krynn or in the lands of the White Tower, so long as you accept the author’s world as backdrop only. Stay clear from the backbone of the story, but embrace the worlds themselves.

It’s that approach that gave us years of Prince Valiant comic strips in the Sunday funny pages, after all, or a 50-issue comic book run of another beloved favorite — Arak: Son of Thunder — set in the days of Charlemagne.

It’s a fun exercise

As roleplayers, our quest often seems that we are trying to find a cool world for our characters to inhabit. As GMs, we want to offer a world — either one of our own devising or one adapted from another medium — that meets those expectations.

And really, it’s natural to want to share with others a story that you find engaging. Maybe not everyone is inclined to read the same books as you, but they might sit at the table and build new stories set in that fictional world.

All I can say is be fearless in this endeavor. Take a novel or series you find engaging and build an adventure from its landscape. You don’t need slick packaging or a published adaption to make it work, either.

That worn paperback with a creased spine and your own love for the material will work just fine.