Saturday, September 27, 2014

To Adapt a Setting or to Not Adapt Setting

I talked about in last post how I love to speculate and entertain how a certain media would work as a tabletop game. I also acknowledged that not all media can or should be translated to tabletop rpgs. I originally put most of this post in the last post but I decided it wasn't much of the topic at hand at the time. I felt it veered of the road and into the woods much like how Mary's thoughts tend to go.

Looks about right

Admittedly, I sometimes get out of the hand when I watch or read or play something. I get excited and begin to think how I could translate it to tabletop rpgs. Very few of these ideas come to fruition and the problem usually lies in the setting itself. After writing last post, I came up with a series of questions to consider if you want to hack your favorite universe into a tabletop game.

Does the world have a chosen one? Harry Potter. Aragorn. Percy Jackson. The world in question revolves around its main character who is not just the protagonist but also the hero of the world that will bring balance to the force, defeat the Dark Lord, prophecied to bring balance, whatever it is.

Or Arm wrestle Satan

The reason why this is important to consider is because the world and the plot revolve around the chosen one. It is up to you as the GM to make sure your players' PCs are the heroes of their own story (or villains or anti-heroes or whatever) and it is a bit hard to do this when everything you know about the universe is tied to the Chosen One.

I'm not going to say the the Chosen One is a plot that is off limits. You can easily play a game in which it is your party's duty to protect the chosen one on a great journey. But I feel it is a bit different when you're in a world in which the established story's Chosen One is the one you're protecting. I mean, how boring would it be to play one of Danaerys's entourage, for instance?  Or how about a member of Dumbledore's Army? That would make it way too easy for the GM to play with himself while everyone watches. And no one wants that.

A counter to this rule is if the Chosen One is but one cog in the massive machine of the internal workings of the world, A.K.A there are other things going on other than the Chosen One's quest. If you can picture the setting without the chosen one or think of a scenario that would take place outside the chosen one's, it is worth considering

Is the world large and detailed? How big is the world the story takes place? Is it something like Westeros with its continent-sized land-masses with deeply described different cultures? Or is it like Attack on Titan in which most of what we know lies inside a walled city? Do we know anything about the politics? How about lands the protagonist never went to?

Tiny World and Shrinking

I'm not saying a small world cannot become a wealth of ideas but a larger, more detailed world gives you a lot more to work with and a lot more options for plot and character development. When making a sculpture, it helps when you have a lot more stone to work with. Larger worlds also give you a lot more freedom to develop your own ideas separate from the main plot in the source material.

There are so many different planets and such in the Star Wars extended canon that  you could easily develop your own adventure on parts of the galaxy that we don't know all that much about. The Tortall Universe by Tamora Pierce is filled with culturally rich countries that may only been mentioned in the book and marked off on the map. Rokugan in the Legend of the Five Rings Universe it is implied that an entire world exists outside the city. Only the Unicorn Clan knows much about it. But even without that knowledge, with the numerous clans and the fiefdoms under their respective leaders gives you many options for settings. It is no wonder this world has already been adapted to tabletop.

Are there opportunities to customize a character's abilities? This one is actually important. Everyone wants to be able to create colorful and original characters that differ from not only canon characters but other PCs in the group. A world has to allow for options to create original characters using the abilities unique to the setting.

Going back to Game of Thrones, there is not a whole lot you can do to create a character that is different enough to be their own person. Special abilities in Game of Thrones are unique to their characters. Sure, we've met quite a few "wogs" but they are rare. Dragons are only unique to Danaerys. And so forth. There really aren't many options to make a unique character in Game of Thrones because all what is interesting in Game of Thrones is unique to an established canon character.

Consider the different types of classes people can be in the setting. It has to be a lot different than just a change in type of sword! What kind of jobs do people have? Are there ways to specialize those abilities and make them their character's own?

Take the Avatar: The Last Airbender Universe for instance. The series did a great job of showcasing characters who were not benders but had useful abilities. Team Avatar in the first series for instance had each of the type of "benders" -- Air, Water, Earth, Fire. But you also had Sokka and Suki who were not benders but had their own specific fighting styles. Sokka fought with a boomerang and a sword. Suki did a specific martial arts style using fans. In Legend of Korra, you have Asami Sato who works with gadgets. Throughout both series, we are introduced to sub-benders like metal bending, lava bending, sand bending, and even blood bending. Right there you have many opportunities to create abilities to make a special type of character all your own.

Air, Water, Earth, Fire, Sword, and Fan! It's the Gaang!

The only exception to this rule is if you want to run a survival game -- a Zombie Apocalypse in which everyone is in the front line for instance. But even then, you can easily customize your character's abilities. You just have to learn how to be creative in using them but that is the point of survival games to begin with.

Specialty -- Eating Pudding and not sharing any of it
 Another example are purely social or dramatic table top in which it is not so much focused on the fighting but the character interactions.

Can you remove all the canon characters and the world would still distinctly feel like that world? This question links to the Chosen One problem explained above. Sometimes, it is the characters that make the setting and all the special magic stuff is just a plus. Sure, there may be interesting concepts introduced into the world that you want to use, but maybe instead of using that world in particular, you can just hack into your own original worlds.

In my last post, I made the example of Supernatural. A Supernatural Cortex RPG does exist out there but it isn't much to look at. What makes Supernatural Supernatural is not the vampires and demons and other things that go bump in the night. What makes Supernatural engaging (or for a few seasons at least) was the characters and the Winchester family drama. The hunt was just a bonus. Even the Monster of the Week episodes you watched because you wanted to see Sam and Dean argue about something stupid and hear Dean make a dumb joke usually referencing a band from the 1970s or 1980s. You take Sam and Dean out and you have White Wolf or maybe a modern day Call of Cthulhu.

Okay, maybe not Call of Cthulhu.

The same is true for Teen Wolf. Teen Wolf is among my guilty pleasures. I know it is crap but there are some aspects of the world I find interesting -- in particular how packs work and how one becomes an alpha. But really, what causes me to come back every week to watch the stupid thing is Scott's attempt at holding onto his humanity and his friend Stiles who has great comedic timing.

Also, shirtless guys even if their character is emotionally constipated
 Take out Scott and Stiles and once again, you have White Wolf -- with a pack hack.

Westeros (sorry keep on picking on it) if you take out all 50 million characters George R.R. Martin created, the remains is just a low-magic D&D world. Maybe even Pathfinder.  Granted, that could be cool to just use the Westeros map as your world in question but really, what you'd be playing would be D&D.

Going back to my Avatar example, you could take out Team Avatar (both versions) and the world could still be its own unique universe. The world still exists and it is like no other.

Why do you want to play this setting? Is there an already established alternative? For this one, let me give you an example. When I first read the Percy Jackson series, I had an urge to adapt it. Percy Jackson for those who aren't familiar is a Young Adult Modern Fantasy series written by Rick Riordan focusing on Percy Jackson, the Son of Poseidon. There are also two poorly adapted movies floating around.

Although the Nathan Fillion cameo as Hermes almost made it worth it

The world is modern day America and the Greek (and Roman) Gods exist and are still doing their thing but most of the world is unaware of their activities. So they still pork humans which make demigod babies who are hunted by monsters their entire lives. So Chiron forms a summer camp to help train the demigods so they can fight back -- and also train them when their godly parent will inevitably give them a quest. There is a lot of options there -- even if Percy Jackson is the world's chosen one (arguably). Imagine a game in which you are just regular American teens who have to go on some quest for godly parents that essentially abandoned you since you were a kid? Oh and you have demi-god powers. Sounds awesome right?

White Wolf Did It First

Well, White Wolf thought the ideas of demigods sounded cool too and created a setting called Scion. I own all three books and it is a pretty solid setting. It is also not limited to just the Greek Pantheon but incorporates many different ones too from Egyptian to Norse to Shinto and so forth. You can easily use the setting and provide a hack from Percy Jackson for the "summer camp" if you wanted to. The game recommends you begin your character at the point in their life when they are just beginning to develop their powers and focus on the Hero's Journey. 

White Wolf didn't also just make Scion but also what I feel is underrated Exalted which is less this modern world but more of a high fantasy setting in which you are marked as demi-gods.

The point I'm trying to make here is don't make more work for yourself if the setting is essentially written for you. You should also consider why you want to run that setting. I wanted to run a Percy Jackson game because I love mythology and mythology in a modern setting sounds pretty cool. Why would you want to run a Supernatural game? Because you want to fight demons? White Wolf or Call of Cthulhu is the answer to that itch.

There are also some systems that are highly adaptable to any setting you want to use like Cortex Plus or Fate or GURPS. There is also nothing wrong with creating your own setting and incorporating aspects from your favorite books/movies/TV shows. Sometimes, that saves you a lot of trouble too.


In my next entry, I intend to apply these questions to a setting I absolutely love to see how it plays out. But for now, that is all I have for now :)

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