Friday, January 8, 2010

Talent Borrows, Genius Steals

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[1]).

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.[2]

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?[3] 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.[4] 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.


  1. It sounds a little like you're talking about Dragon Age. If that setting got any bigger and more detailed it would be called "Lord of the Rings" and so far we've only seen a Hobbit-sized slice of it.

    I have problems playing in licensed properties because it feels like the story has already been told. I love Battlestar Galactica, and I am sad it is gone with the stupid ending and all, but I don't think I want to campaign in that setting. To me it's already been done and the story has been told. But because I am an explorer personality type I always gravitate back to good old Cthulhu. There's always something up with Cthulhu and now is never a bad time to shoot some cultists in the head! The world of Cthulhu is our world with some Cthulhu in it. The world of Battlestar Galactica is Battlestar Galactica. I like the first one as a participant and the second as a passive observer.

    The place these discussions always end up is Joseph Campbell's "Hero with A Thousand Faces" -- which is also not available on the Kindle goddamnit. It has all you ever need about heroes, stories and plots. If you want to steal from the source, though, allow me to point you to Exhibit A: the Old Testament. On walking out of Avatar we complained a little about the cliched storyline until we realized it was a point-by-point retelling of Exodus. "Why is that so familiar?" "Because Sam Worthington is Moses. Although there is a bit less Red Sea involved but plenty of Egyptians in Mecha." "....... oh."

    I don't have the faintest idea where this comment is going except:

    * I am all for stealing tropes;
    * Most of the great stories/worlds can have the serial numbers filed off;
    * I don't like my serial numbers still on.

  2. Wouldn't Lord of the Rings count as dead material? The only thing more coming out is the Hobbit movie, but I'm not sure if that counts.

    And so far most of the reasons to play RPGs exclude heavily source-booked games such as the White Wolf games. Or the traditional D&D module ot module campaigns. Does that mean that these more controlled versions of the media were/are missing the point?

  3. At least for me, one of the reasons BSG did not perform so well wasn't that people couldn't find anything to do in the universe (because I have a ton of examples of folks who CAN) but because the show was kind of a metaphor for what was going on in the real world at the time.

    Serenity and Supernatural are both very escapist. Even Call of Cthulhu is escapist. But I think it's hard to "escape" to what amounts to the scary real world with a sci-fi layer over it.

  4. @kirby Middle earth is weird because it's dead, btu it has also been *milked* within an inch of its life.

    @Cam I do not doubt for an instant that there are games to be found in the BSG universe, but it was SO MUCH about telling that one story that it's more work to do so than with something more open. It's like trying to play in a David Eddings setting.

  5. I think Emily nailed it pretty well.

    To put it another way, we like consuming other people's art when it engages with our own understanding of things (or "reaches out to us" [yuck]).

    When someone writes a book or a story or a film, they aren't normally thinking of how to make a cool spin-off (or they shouldn't be). And that's what "Your Favourite Show: The Roleplaying Game" is, or at least, that's what your games will be.

    When you write good fiction, you're normally examining something human, creating with intention and moulding something for a specific purpose.

    And then someone makes a spin-off.

    So, I guess that the best RPG/spin-off properties are ones that the original artist makes spin-off of his own. Like an author who uses a setting over and over, exploring new characters and aspects of the world (Robin Hobb, Ian Banks). Or a TV series that approaches the same setting from multiple perspectives (Star Trek).

    I think the reiteration of a setting by its creator, using new characters and aspects, is the key to preparing (or identifying) a setting for an RPG.

  6. @Anonymous - I agree.

    @Sabastian. I'd be curious the perspective is then on Settings that result in Fiction (sorta the opposite of what you commented about above). Thinking FRCS and Dragonlance here as obvious examples. Do these properties have the same value as a player? I would say even more so since they were created with RPGs in mind - and the novels were written (for the most part) to support/expand the fan base for that RPG setting. Like what rob said "If your setting is particularly rich, then an RPG may be the best way to explore it." This suggests that, once the basic settings are created - writing novels set in that setting is one of the most effective ways to detail it further becuase the novels appeal to both players and gamemasters. Or am I missing something?

    (first time posting comments here - nice to have discovered your blog Rob!)

  7. This leads to a half-formed thought about the currency of hooks in fiction. When a setting element that might be a good hook for a story is introduced, the question is whether that hook is "used up" or "left on the table"

    I think, generally, RPGs like leaving things on the table, while novels and stories tend to use them up, though stories are also how new hooks are created. It all suggests a fairly muddy ecosystem.

    (And heya Jonathan!)

    -Rob D.


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