Thursday, June 20, 2013

Playing in Their Worlds: Play on Target Ep. 12

For this episode of Play on Target we take a look at licensed products and the hurdles they involve. We record early so this episode doesn’t touch on one of the more interesting developments in recent months- the shutdown of the Marvel Heroic RPG. That decision seems to have been a purely economic one done in mid-stream just as the game seemed like it had begun to gain traction. Consider that Marvel Heroic walked away with two Origins Awards for RPGs last week, despite being OOP. On the other hand, I’m used to MWP closing down lines and selling things off: Smallville, Supernatural, and Serenity. The first two never seemed to get off the ground. Mongoose is another one which seems to have burned through and picked up licenses in recent years. They did an interesting job with the Conan RPG (despite editing horrors), but hit the end of what they could do with it. A number of really interesting games and supplements have vanished from the scene never to be reprinted: ICE’s awesome MERP books, FASA’s Star Trek, and GURPS Conan for example. That’s a real danger in having a license- it suggests a limited lifespan. Eden apparently managed to overcome that hurdle. While they’re not producing new Buffy products, they still seem to have the rights to sell electronic versions of them. More publishers need to work that into their contracts so that games don’t vanish.

In the podcast I mention some of what seemed to me to be oddball licenses. I mentioned a few GURPS choices that seemed odd to me, but even there I left out a few: GURPS Humanx, GURPS Alpha Centauri, GURPS Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, GURPS Lensman, GURPS Myth, GURPS Riverworld, and GURPS WitchWorld. I mean no offense- as the folks at SJG clearly have great taste in that they read or played many of the same things. Of course they had a few more popular ones with the Discworld Roleplaying Game and the Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game. But many of these felt like odd choices- suitable for a fairly narrow audience. In some cases an audience purely of deep sci-fi readers. I bet if I checked with my present group, the majority of them wouldn’t have any idea what those products are- and they’re mostly contemporary with me. They came to sci-fi and gaming through a more pop fiction route. 

Of course there are other weird choices for adaptations. Consider Leading Edge Game’s forays into the field- games intended for tie-ins from a company which specialized in dense and highly mechanical systems. There’s Bram Stoker's Dracula Role Playing Game based not on the novel, but on Coppola’s 1992 film with Keanu Reeves. Or The Lawnmower Man rpg (based on the original and not the inferior sequel obviously). On the other hand, one would have thought ALIENS Adventure Game might have done something. Except when you release the game five years after it was in the theater, you face an uphill battle. For other weird choices, consider West End Game’s flurry of licensed products in a desperate attempt to make MasterBook a popular generic system: Necroscope, Species, Tales from the Crypt, and Tank Girl.

So what do I think are really good licensed games? I’m tempted to say MERP, just for the amazing research and resources on offer there. But honestly the game itself doesn’t fit. And that’s not just about the question of magic in the setting. The weird power levels on display there make it feel completely unlike Tolkien. Weirdly my three favorite licenses still in print are all from Green Ronin. The Black Company remains one of the most amazing fantasy sourcebooks I’ve ever read. Not only does it provide a ton of information on Glen Cook’s gritty setting, it also manages to tune and tool the d20 system to really reflect the tone of it: grievous wounds, the magic system, the armies, the class builds, etc. if you like fantasy world-building you should pick that up. Equally Dragon Age offers an outstanding introductory fantasy rpg and does a tremendous job adapting concepts from the video game to the tabletop. Adapting a computer game, where so much work goes on behind the scenes, can be tough. DA’s an awesome translation and makes you feel like you’re playing in that world. Finally, Wild Cards quite simply shows how a sourcebook for an existing setting ought to be done. It is clear, coherent, and playable.

I’ve posted before on some games I’d really like to see done as tabletop rpgs. In particular I examined VGs in Video Games as Tabletop RPGs and a follow-up Emulation & Beyond: More Thoughts on RPGs & Video Games. I also think we can’t underestimate the power and accessibility of homebrew and unofficial adaptations of various settings and licenses. The Savage Worlds community has an amazing array of fan-created sourcebooks. Since FATE Core landed, the community has exploded with tweaks and developments to simulate amazing things- from movies to comic books to other games. When I think about it, the “licensed” games I’ve played for the longest have all been homebrews trying to capture the spirit of the source material: HALO, Fallout, and Star Wars.

If I had to pick three existing properties that I would love to have a game/sourcebook for, I’d have to begin with Steven Brust’s Jhereg aka Vlad Taltos series. They’re amazing and rich and apparently originally come from an rpg. They have action, adventure and politics. I can easily imagine borrowing something from Houses of the Blooded or the like to handle the ideas here. But perhaps the best engine might be something like Amber Diceless. Rumor had it that there was a homemade adaptation using Amber floating around the net, but in many years of hunting, I’ve never been able to track it down. Second, I think if someone could figure out a way to build a core, easy universal engine with some depth and make it work with Final Fantasy, that would be a license to print money. You’d have sourcebooks filled with information for each of the games. Each book would have slight changes and variations to keep up with the mechanics of the particular iteration. But I can’t imagine what kind of hoops you’d have to jump through to get that license and manage it. It could only be a nightmare. I had a friend who worked on a licensed book for a movie that had been out for over a decade and the hurdles there were insane. Anima wants to be the FF game, but the engine’s not to my taste- and frankly, what I want is the sourcebooks and art. Finally, Liz Williams’ Inspector Chen series- weird and wild as they are, might make a really excellent setting.

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  1. Just listened to the podcast and it was excellent.

    I feel a bit more could have been said on certain aspects of IP universes that are both ensemble casts AND have major characters. Star Trek and Star Wars could be considered in this regard but the most prominent culprit is surely superhero games based on one or both of 'The Big Two' (Marvel and DC Comics).

    For example, one of my players has no interest in playing in a DC Comics RPG if Superman exists in it because he can't help but think, "How is my character ever going to be cooler than Superman."

    My response is (mainly) that if you start with that attitude and mindset than yes, you're right, you'll never be as cool as Superman. If on the other hand you think of your character as a new hero in that universe whose exploits are unknown at the moment, well, the sky's the limit. Someday, maybe Superman will need your help.

    I run a lot of IP and licensed games and love doing so but I do pick and choose what works and what doesn't and in which universes.

    I have developed a Muppets RPG, a Smurfs RPG and I am currently working on...heheh...a Sci-Fi, animated, comedy series game that I hope people will be familiar with and enjoy.

    Great stuff Lowell. Can't wait for the next one.

  2. Didn't even know there was a Black Company one, thanks! Jhereg would be great. Will have to FATEalise it sometime.

    Like to see any Muppets, too, but I draw the line at Smurfs. :)