A look at classic RPG adaptations of franchises like Batman and Dune, and how their rules and narrative structures honor and subvert their sources.
Not long after the original version of Dungeons & Dragons proved that tabletop roleplaying games could sell, media companies started approaching tabletops game developers to create officially licensed RPG adaptations of classic fantasy novels and franchises such as star trek and starwars. To this very day, tabletop RPG adaptations such as the upcoming Batman: Gotham City Chronicles and Dune: Adventures In The Imperium are published to coincide with new movie releases so fans can enjoy their favorite franchises in new, creative ways. But what makes a good tabletop RPG adaptation, and how can designers of these RPGs can both respect and transform the source materials they’re working with?
Most (but not all) of the RPGs that adapt something look to the market of famous science fiction/fantasy franchises – RPG adaptations like The Witcher or starwars are prime examples. Both Tabletop RPGs and speculative fiction narratives have traditionally been seen as “nerdy” forms of entertainments, making roleplaying adaptations of a sci-fi/fantasy film or film adaptations of a sci-fi/fantasy RPG no-brainers for publishers and studios. Furthermore, the Dungeons & Dragons DNA embedded in the rules of most tabletop RPGs make them good mediums for telling stories of spectacular, fantastical adventure. Still, designing a tabletop RPG adaptation is no simple task.
To paraphrase Chris Birch, founder of the Modiphius Entertainment game studio, players of a starwars RPG don’t want to role-play as Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia or retell the stories of the original starwars movies; instead, they want to create characters inspired by the heroes of starwars and tell original stories set in the starwars universe. If tabletop RPGs are games about telling stories, it follows that an RPG adaptation, tabletop or otherwise, should empower both veteran role-players and novice fans to create stories true to the spirit, if not the letter, of their original franchises.
Tabletop RPG Adaptations Like Avatar Legends Must Capture The Feel Of Their Sources
When gamers participate in a narrative tabletop roleplaying game, the rules and core mechanics of the RPG shape the narrative and mood of the game session they experience. The turn-based combat and exploration focused rules of Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, they are geared towards the telling of heroic fantasy stories where player characters fight fearsome battles, brave treacherous ruins, and cast spectacular magic. The simple Jenga Tower gameplay mechanics of the horror RPG dreadin contrast, generate moments of rising tension where every block pulled from the tower brings the player characters closer to disaster.
To this end, developers of tabletop RPG adaptations should always start by articulating the core themes and moods of their source material, then chose or build a roleplaying system to fit said themes and mood. In Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Gamedevelopers at Magpie Games adapted the Apocalypse World ruleset to create an open-ended RPG about youthful heroes traveling the world, achieving inner balance, wielding elemental martial arts, and saving the day in the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. the Green Knight roleplaying game, published before the release of the The Green Knight movie, took a different approach, using a narrative variant of classic dungeon-crawling RPG rules to create a game about heroes journeying to keep an appointment with the Green Knight and trying not to lose their honor (a character attribute comparable to health in other roleplaying games).
Tabletop RPG Adaptations Like The Dark Souls TTRPG Should Let Players Defy Canon
The stories of computer RPGs like Mass Effect or The Elder scroll generally present players with a limited number of choices for how their characters progress; making a video game is, after all, a very complicated process, and game developers can’t create code and record lines for every single story possibility. The stories seen in movies, TV shows, and books are even more linear (with the exception of Choose Your Own Adventure books); no matter how many times someone reads or watches them, their beginnings, middles, and ends will be the same. The stories of tabletop roleplaying games, however, are theoretically limited only by the premise of the game system and the imagination of their participants.
Consequentially, players of tabletop RPGs, while still portraying characters and telling stories consistent with the adapted original work, should have the freedom to explore parts of the game world the original source didn’t focus on and create narratives that break the original’s canon. For example, if a campaign of Green Ronin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire tabletop RPG adaptation takes place around the same timeframe as the Game of Thrones novel by George RR Martin, the players and their characters should theoretically be able to stop Ned Stark from getting his head cut off (though to avoid meta-gaming, PCs in this hypothetical campaign should have an in-game reason for trying to do so ). Similarly, a tabletop adaptation of a computer RPG like the upcoming Dark Souls TTRPG should let players use their imagination to transcend the original video game’s technical limitations – creating new lore, exploring lands outside of the video game locations, etc.
Adaptations Like Batman: Gotham City Chronicles Should Let Players Roleplay Side Characters
The upcoming Batman: Gotham City Chronicles RPG will likely let players portray costumed crimefighters and crooks with over-the-top personas and strange abilities; at the same time, it, and other tabletop RPG adaptations, should also let players portray ordinary folks – cops like Jim Gordon, psychologists in Arkham Asylum, everyday citizens trying to live their day-to-day lives, or even social reformers and community activists trying to get rid of the underlying causes of crime in Gotham City. According to a recent opinion article on dicebreakerthe Batman: Gotham City Chronicles RPG adaptations should even take cues from the newest Batman movie, a reboot whose creators took “… pains to highlight the systematic and economic causes of criminality, as well as how a force like Batman would interact with all that in a way that isn’t necessarily beneficial.” In order to accommodate all these potential character archetypes and stories, a tabletop RPG adaptation often needs to have the versatility of superhero RPGs with rules for designing custom superpowers as well as the community focus of narrative RPGs where player characters are influenced by the neighborhoods they live in and the weight of their pasts.The final result, mechanically speaking, is frequently very different from Dungeons & Dragons and other classic dungeon-crawling roleplaying games.
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