The Crux With Established Settings From Movies, Games And Novels

Who doesn’t know this? You’ve just played through a video game, watched a movie or read a novel thinking this might make great source material for a roleplaying game. In fact some of the most beloved tabletop roleplaying games are based on established franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, just to name a few. But they are definitely some issues when trying to bring these settings to the game table.

I recently played the critically-acclaimed Horizon: Zero Dawn. Aside from the exciting story, the gorgeous graphics and the impressive soundtrack, I fell in love with the world building. I immediately thought this might make a great setting for a tabletop game. There’s actually enough depth to make this work, BUT there’s one elephant in the room that needs to be addressed.

In the game you play as Aloy who is eventually on a mission to save the world. As with many of these stories, Aloy is basically “the Chosen One” and only she can unearth what happened in the past and prevent that history repeats itself. If you try to come up with cool adventures for a party of adventurers in a tabletop RPG version of the setting, you immediately have to struggle with the fact, that you’ll probably never match the experience of the video game.

There have been several cool Lord of the Rings roleplaying games, but whatever you can come up with, your party of characters will never rival the deeds performed by the Fellowship of the Ring. Sure, you can run successful games in the Middle Earth setting, but you have to be content with either ignoring canon or running adventures which don’t interfere with the established history.

I fully understand that a GM can truly make a world their own. You can ignore canon, let a party of characters take Aloy’s place, have someone else carry the One Ring to Mt. Doom, and who says it was Luke Skywalker who destroyed the first Death Star? But that’s not what many people want or even enjoy. Personally I always have to struggle with myself when I plan to ignore canon in a roleplaying game.

Star Wars and Star Trek actually fare a little bit better than many other settings because even though the protagonists in the movies and TV series have quite some impact on the setting at large, there are eras and many places who have never been explored in detail. But even then there are many people who don’t want to play second fiddle to Han Solo or Jean-Luc Picard.

In my opinion good roleplaying game settings don’t have larger-than-life heroes aside from the player characters themselves. They should be the ones whose deeds change the world for better or for worse. They should be the focus of their own stories, not some NPC in control of the GM. That’s actually one of the reasons why I am not too fond of the Forgotten Realms. It’s one example of a roleplaying game setting with far too many extremely powerful NPCs running around and taking the limelight away from the player characters.

Will all this make me stop thinking about converting established settings? Probably not. Even though I know it usually doesn’t work that well, it’s just too tempting. Especially since there’s always hope that someone who likes the source material might get interested in the roleplaying games hobby. But in the future I’ll probably think twice before putting too much work into such an endeavor.

What is your stance on the subject? Do you think I am totally in the wrong here, or do my arguments have some merit? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

3 thoughts on “The Crux With Established Settings From Movies, Games And Novels”

  1. I totally agree, and you can only pray if it can be fun to play someone else than the heroes of the stories. Another ship’s crew in Star trek for exemple…

  2. I tend to run homebrew settings inspired by my favorite fiction, but it’s certainly possible to run entertaining campaigns in known universes that don’t conflict with what fans already know and love.

    For example, I’m currently playing in an Adventures in Middle Earth game late in the Third Age, before the War of the Ring. It takes place in the north after the slaying of the dragon Smaug. This is beyond the scope of most of Tolkien’s writings, so we’re not dealing directly with the One Ring.

    I’m also playing in a Conan game, but the Hyborian world is big enough for plenty of mercenaries, monster hunters, and pirates without stepping on a certain Cimmerian’s toes. The Game Master for that campaign has compiled an encyclopedic guide that he uses to keep track of Non-Player Characters, factions, and locations.

    In my own “Star Trek: Restoration — the U.S.S. Sacagawea” space opera, I’ve set it in the Alpha Quadrant, close in time to Picard and the MMO. There’s no danger of crossing paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise or changing history.

    I’ve thought about a Star Wars adventure set about 150 years after the Battle of Yavin. The Jedi have returned to being reclusive warrior-monks, and other orders of Force users wander the Third Republic, which faces a less monolithic threat than the Galactic Empire or New Order…. Again, allowing for what role-players already know but providing room for new stories.

    “Skywalker? Sure, I’ve heard of him — wasn’t he some hotshot pilot? Or was she some mystical teacher?”

    Other than hardcore history buffs, who can name WWI pilots besides Baron von Richtoven? How do old grievances, such as those in Southwest Asia, play into the hands of current geopolitical rivals? I agree that the P.C.s should be heroes of their own stories!

  3. The more “ChosenOne’sque” the novel, the less rpgable it is, I think. I’m a great fan of Harry Potter, but making a game in that world is very, very hard (much more than in LOTR i’d dare to say) due to all relevant places, events and persons spin around the figure of Harry.

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