I didn't end up responding much to comments yesterday because one question has very much been sticking in my mind. Semiocity talked about licensed properties and pulling RPGs out of other mediums. The key question that got me thinking was this: [H]ow does looking at what unique experiences RPGs offer square with the media or properties they attempt to emulate? And why play Star Wars rather than watch one of the movies?
There are a couple of obvious answers to that last. There's a natural tendency to take stories we like and run with them: fanfiction provides eternal evidence of this. Even more, it's a simple assertion that the parts of the story you've liked are ones you think would be better told through play with the tools of RPGs (Reflection and collaboration).
That's all well and good, and it's easy to say, but I don't think it answers the question as well as I'd like. I think this is because when you pull it up, there's a bigger question underneath it: Why Star Wars?
Not actually picking on Star Wars here so much as calling out an observation: some properties are more suited to RPGs than others, and the pattern among them is inobvious. The instinctive idea that a certain sort of fantastic/high action movie (like Star Wars) is the right mix ignores the simple fact that a lot of fantastic/high action material actually makes for fairly bad play.
In most cases where the setting fails the RPG there's a common failing. However broad in scope the story itself might have been, the setting purely served telling that particular story. The issues in the setting have been resolved, and it is not obvious where a new team of heroes might fit in.
Sci Fi is chock full of good examples of this. Babylon 5 and the new BSG both were full of interesting material, but both also explored the hell out of it and left very little on the table. Heck, look at Avatar - it's got all sorts of great game elements, but now that the events in the movie have happened, what is still interesting to do? Put another way: interesting things MUST happen someplace other than Arakis, but who cares?
There's much more to play when the heroes are only a small part of the larger picture (like early seasons of Supernatural) or if there is a sense that the setting is much larger than what we're seeing on screen. Lucas is really good at giving a sense of scope - of leaving enough loose ends lying around to give the sense that there's lots more to this setting, past and present, so Star Wars is pretty easy to play (even though it is rough to play at the same time as the movies).
And that dovetails back to reveal another answer to my original question. If your setting is particularly rich, then an RPG may be the best way to explore it. Not the only way, as I continue to qualify, but it plays to the particular strengths of the medium.
So there's one more. Thanks, Matt!
1 - Here's where I acknowledge several comments it this effect. Collaboration, and especially collaborative creativity, deserves mention too. While it's closer to a technique and not really a reason to tell a story in RPG form, it's an excellent reason to tell an *incomplete* story in RPG form, and that's good enough for me.
2 - I'm going to name some names here, but remember I'm not saying it's impossible to make a good game out of these settings - the right people could make a great game out of the setting material in a car ad - but rather that the setting as presented in its native medium is a poor contributor to the possibilities of play.
3 - The solution to this is to make stuff up, and since RPGs have a strong draw to creativity, that seems an obvious solution. You can introduce a new and mysterious race to B5 or an ancient threat from the Ascended Na'vi to Avatar, and that can be pretty cool, but it will call into question why you are using someone else's setting in the first place. By diverging, you are isolating yourself from the social element of using a familiar setting, and potentially invalidating further changes in the setting from the source material. Perhaps more importantly, by creating, you are asking yourself why not just keep creating?
4 - This is the advantage of "dead" settings: Because the material won't me changing, it is more reasonable to take ownership of it. Once that happens, then the culture of the game shifts from a common setting to a common starting point. The best example of this is the Amber DRPG, but I'd be curious if there are any others that spring to mind.