Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Video Games as Tabletop RPGs

Every once in a while, a video game grabs me that I immediately want to hack around with it, to play it as a tabletop game- mostly to play or run it as an rpg. Our group's done that with a few games, with some success. But there are more that I think would be tremendous fun. In some cases, it's the chance to play in a world everyone knows something about. In some cases, it's the chance to introduce a game you've enjoyed to someone else.

Below is a mixed list; the first five are ones our group has played. The rest of the list are games I'd like to play in some form or another. There's a lot of obstacles to doing this, of course, trying to carry over what's made a game great on screen over to the tabletop. I've labelled each below as ones we've tried or as ones I want to play as a tabletop rpg.

Feel free to add any your group's adapted or you'd like to see adapted.

Played. Though I didn't play in it, part of our group did a full homage to Final Fantasy campaign, complete with Moogles and Chocobos. While there's a lot of sci-fi-ish elements in some of the games, I know most of the players like to think of this as a purely fantasy series. I still don't know why they haven't licensed this series as a pen & paper game. Imagine the sourcebooks for each of the games...

We've never done anything set in a specific world of the one of the games. Of course most have different settings (except for the FFT, FFXII, Vagrant Story group, and the Crystal Chronicles group). The closest would be the FF6 homage I did in our Planescape campaign.

Some games have tried to capture some of the feel of these RPGs Anima and Exalted (to a lesser extent) but I don't think anyone's gotten it right yet.

Played. I wrote the demo module we used at Origins, Gen Con & elsewhere the year Eden was trying to drum up enthusiasm for the City of Heroes RPG. Of course the actual game never materialized- but they did release a pdf of the starter rules (with another adventure). I hadn't really looked into the CoH world until I worked on this. The game itself uses Unisystem, but it isn't the super-powers sourcebook that gamers had been waiting for. Instead it is a fairly literal translation of the CoH MMORPG mechanics to the table- complete with power sets, upgrades, slots and so on.

It seems a little weird- especially since the video game mechanics are intended to serve the purposes of balance over a wide-scale online. And the setting, with its large number of heroes makes for odd table-top play. Everything feels very linear. Running an actual supers campaign using this setting would feel a little straight-jacketed unless you had a group who really, really loved the setting.

Played. We recently finished up an amazing campaign in this setting, using our homebrew rules. The GM managed to bring together all of the cool elements from the game- a VATS system, Perks, and actual radio broadcasts. I had only a passing familiarity with the game and background. I'd played maybe ten hours of Fallout, but none of the later games. By the end I had a sense of the details and richness of this awful world. I think that's something a good RPG campaign can do- offer sandboxing fun and show you all of the bits and pieces of a world.

Played. We played a short campaign of HALO with our homebrew. I was a little skeptical at first- after, I thought, it is just a first person shooter. I had no idea about the backstory and universe they'd built for the setting. We had a couple of players, including the GM, who knew the world and had read all of the secondary materials for it. Their passion and enthusiasm for it helped me buy in. The different combat load-out, the different roles, the distinct weapons made our development choices interesting. We hit the ground running and pretty much kept that up in the six or so session we played. I think keep that pace up is necessary for something like this, to keep that tension. I've been thinking of a few tweaks we could do when we play this again to offer additional combat options.

This is a strange game, involving resource management, crafting and dungeon crawling. The alchemist-centered Atelier franchise has gone through several versions, with some more action-oriented than others. As I talked about in a couple of posts (here & here) I put together a version of this using FATE. It has been a challenge- trying to integrate the kinds of crunchy details and tracking a game console does much better than players at a table. I have a report describing the first session here. I'm optimistic I can hit the important parts of this game series; not the literal background of the setting, but rather the feel of things. It focuses as much on fixing the sub-plots and lives of the secondary characters as it does on the main protagonist's central quest. Rules and materials here.

Wishlist. I've really enjoyed the Persona series- and now that Persona 2: Innocent Sin- has finally been released in the States, I've played all of them. I like the Megami Tensei and Persona's the most accessible of these games in recent years. The basic concept is that characters gain contact with these "Personas"- at the start representing their inner selves- which have different powers. Many of these come from various world myths and legends, although these often feel like strange translations. Depending on the game in the series, players can make contact with Demons- the generic term used for these magical creatures. These can then be taken on as new Personas.

All of the games share a focus on self-discovery, but also in the context of a high-school. I really enjoy the school framework and the last two games in the series force players to balance school obligations, social obligations and dungeon crawling. I think that kind of focus could be interesting- that in order to grow and develop your character's abilities, you need to gain the trust and affection of NPCs. That's a very different approach to gaming. Also having to choose between Personas you take into a dungeon could be a neat device to make the group plan out their approaches.

Wishlist. Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army- A detective agency set in 1930's Tokyo battling against supernatural forces. A main character who summons demons to help him fight and investigate. Magical bullets and an artifact blade. The nefarious reincarnation of Rasputin using Marushka dolls as his binding devices. A strange combination of steampunk aesthetics, Japanese design, and world mythology.

You might not want to use the same Taisho-period setting, but you could place it elsewhere- like 1930's San Francisco...a highly stylized version of that city, of course. You could use the basics of Trail of Cthulhu for the investigation mechanics. I'd add in FATE stuff as I discussed here. If you have several different classes of demons, with different powers, you could make up a version of the Quade Diagram from Mutant City Blues to help players figure out details. Interestingly, the game series Shadow Hearts also takes place in a fantastic version of this era; it also features Rasputin as a bad guy.

Wishlist. One of my favorite games, and the one that set me up for the most disappointment later when I tired every other Strategy RPG. I love the idea of having a small-scale fantasy military unit, with different characters in different roles. I love the advancement system in FFT and all of the cool classes available. It has a number of great ideas- but I'm not sure how well it would play at the table. Our group's moved away from crunch, from tactical combat and from pseudo-miniatures game play. I'd have to figure out a way to work this out in an easier or more universal system, like our homebrew, ORE or FATE.

But I think an interesting way to approach this would be to have a highly articulated class system, with a set of unique abilities and advancement tracks for each. Players would have a main character that they would play in all battles- the officers of the unit- and then would also control a second NPC character in battle. This NPC would vary from battle to battle, allowing the group to tailor their group as they go along. It mighteven be interesting to do something like this using the Confrontation rules.

Wishlist. I'm terrible at fighting games. Worse at 2D games, of which there have been more and more in recent years. But I like games like Tekken, Dead or Alive, and Bloody Roar, especially those with goofy backstories. Soul Calibur's the king of that for me 9with Tekken in a close second). Plus it has the advantage of having a pseudo-historical fantasy setting. But the question remains as to how you convert a purely solo affair into a tabletop game. How do you do that without it becoming a cartoon?

And how do you convert the fluidity and play of a button-masher into fats and fun combat. I've seen several attempts at this Street Fighter and Fight! for example. Both require some serious mechanics. I'm wondering if there might be a way to approach this with a kind of board/card game mechanic, combined with wagering- chains, combos, juggles...can that get played out at the table and have it not take hours?

Wishlist. Alpha Centauri's certainly one of my favorite games of all time- more enjoyable than most of the Civ-style games which followed. Strikingly, Steve Jackson brought out a GURPS sourcebook for it. My copy got toasted in the fire, but I remember it as a really lovely, full color hardcover. It had a lot of background and information, but it didn't do all that much to offer a substantive rpg campaign. Bringing together characters from acorss the factions was going to be a difficult project. It also missed one of the key elements of the game- seeing the evolution of the colony.

We've seen many more games emphasizing community in recent years- Runequest II, Reign and HeroQuest for example. I'm wondering if we couldn't do something like that- with the community and its development being a central facet of the game. Especially if you had the group collectively develop that community- building their traits and desires from a list of choices. They'd then have to compete with factions.

But the key twist I would add is that the players themselves are all "unstuck" in time in some way. You could have them be Sleepers who wake up and appear at times during the colony's history. The players get involved, work to solve the problem and then move on. Perhaps they have to negotiate their role the first couple of times this happens, before it becomes an expected thing. How would this happen? I have a few ideas. Perhaps the PC's get hit by some effect from an alien monolith; perhaps there's a means of having simulations of the PCs carry forward in cybershells or even clones; perhaps an actual temporal disturbance; perhaps some mechanism gets set up for experiences to flash down a character's bloodline so they appear in the mind of one of their descendents. You could build a neat time-jumping campaign that way. It might be interesting way to use Microscope to do the fill-in history between scenes.

Wishlist. Suikoden offers another campaign with a community focus, this time with fantasy. In Suikoden, the protagonist(s) has to gather together the 108 Stars of Destiny- essentially the 107 NPCs who can aid and support his cause. Some of these have combat roles- they can be added to the party and take actions in the field. Some of them aid support elements to a party, like increasing EXP or Gold. Some of them offer shops and others services. In most of the games in the series, the main character gets a "Castle" or other stable location at the beginning of Act II. Then the PC can interact with the everyone and handle their non-dungeon stuff.

I love some of the games in this series, for the fun combat and the excellent cultural stuff. Often you'll encounter a group of different people from one culture and recruit them all. Many of them have extra bonuses when they work together. I don't know exactly how you'd do this, but I like the idea of NPCs offering a PC a distinct advantage if they're in a party. Systems like FATE make this particularly easy to model. Most Suikoden games also include a military aspect, and that would be fun to play out abstractly. But establishing recruitment as campaign goal could be very cool. Some NPCs might just require persuading, some might require special goods and some might require particular quests to recruit. Part of the down time between sessions could be the PCs assigning the NPCs to particular tasks and gaining benefits from that.

Wishlist. A recent excellent RPG for the Nintendo DS, Radiant Historia manages to do time travel well in a game. Essentially the protagonist moves along one of two timelines, split by a key choice early in the game. At various spots, other choices open up and more importantly, new obstacles. The player keeps his knowledge and experience from one timeline to the other. In the game, for example, the character gets stuck at a particular barrier and because of that, things go horribly awry. He goes back and works through the other timeline and learns a method to get past that barrier. Then he travels there and moves that forward. It isn't full time-travel- the main character has only certain points and choices which can be returned to, but he does have some supernatural guides for the process.

The recent film Source Code has done something like this, and it makes me think it could be fun and playable for a group. The trick would be to allow a continuing feeling of progress throughout the campaign. Characters would be able to gain experience (and maybe even stuff) as they progress- rather than going back to square one. It could be fun.


  1. Oh god the Atelier games. Yes. They'd make such beautiful little tabletop games. I love them all, though the new PS3 one was kind of a miss for me. As far as games I'd like as trpgs:

    •Deus Ex (and Human Revolution): Cyberpunk action that's less goofy and mystical than shadowrun. Guns, augmentations, conspiracies, computer hacking. Very yes.

    •Etrian Odyssey: I know this is just a roguelike with cute anime graphics, but I feel like I haven't played an RPG yet that really facilitates the whole "mapping a megadungeon" thing and makes it a key part of the game. It'd probably have to be more boardgame than RPG, but I think it'd be great fun.

  2. I think the Half-Life universe (specifically around the Half-Life 2 time period) would make a great setting for an RPG. Not sure what system would suit it best though.

  3. @Dennis: We've loved the Atelier series, except for Rorona. We're hoping this new one for the PS3 Atelier Totori fixes some of those problems. They are games that require a certain dedication to the minutiae.

    Deus Ex- that's a really good observation. I'd kind of forgotten about straight Cyberpunk as a tabletop genre in the last few years. There's a lot that could be harvested from those games for an interesting world background.

    Etrian I don't know, though I've heard good things about it. I'd think a dungeon crawl like that could be done with some kind of push-your-luck mechanic. Though as you suggest, it might work better as a boardgame.

    @Paz: Half-Life 2's interesting- a kind of sci-fi resistance game with discoveries along the way. Of course, we'd really have to wait until HL 2 ep 3 comes out...

  4. I am really curious as to what System you used for Halo, now.

  5. I hate to say it, but D&D4 might be a good choice -- in terms of bare mechanics, as you'd have to change most of the flavour -- for Final Fantasy Tactics.

    Final Fantasy XII was a great, open game that I felt would translate to tabletop very well; with the hunt club and all the sidequests it's quite sandboxy, and the main plot almost fades to the background. So that's one I'd be keen to try.

    Not really an rpg, but I've often thought about running a game set in the Syndicate universe; it's cyberpunk, but a little bit different from the norm, with the startup-megacorp trappings. I could see the players collaborating on generating their megacorp -- sort of like the cell-building in Conspiracy X or the ship-building in Rogue Trader -- before going out to fight the other organisations.