Thursday, July 7, 2011

License Renewal

When I was maybe 12, a friend got the Star Trek RPG (the really old one), and as the guy who read rules, I tried to read it, and it made absolutely no sense to me. I mean, I kind of pieced together some of the bits, and my attempt to make a character produced some sort of loser, and I certainly couldn't run it. But it was still a really interesting read. It was full of writeups on the aliens races, including ones that had only been on the cartoon, which I hadn't even realized existed. Even better, it had lists of ship weapons, and I promptly stripped that out and used the list to make up a ship combat game that allowed us to buy and build custom ships using that list. It was awesome.

The funny thing is that the things that made it awesome at the time are almost nonsensical these days. At the time, the game was not only a game, it was a window into the Star Trek universe for me. This was highly specialized, not terribly accessible information. Yes, I could potentially have gotten elsewhere if I'd managed to track down a fan guide, but that was not necessarily trivial either.

Today? The only barrier to this information is interest. The Internet provides a bounty of nerdy information on this stuff far in excess of anything a game can provide.

Now, obviously there's a spectrum to this. More popular properties have deeper online resources, and there's still some room for the RPG as Fan Guide in the world, but it's a much narrower window than it used to be. But for a big license, I wonder if the nature of the game has changed. Can a licensed game proceed on the assumption that the Internet is out there and proceed from that?

Honestly, I dunno. Intellectually, I imagine so. To do otherwise is to assume that the Game is at all likely to be someone's introduction to the license, and while there are no doubt some cases of that, my suspicion is that they're far more the minority than those introduced to the game via the license. But even saying that, what would be different?

That's the bit a pound my head against. It _feels_ like this new era should allow us to have even better licensed RPGs, but I'm not yet sure what to do differently to make it so.


  1. I agree 100% with your assessment of the state of licensed properties. Last year, I chose to run a Firefly game using My Favourite RPG and the wide variety of internet resources available, rather than using the Serenity RPG and Cortex (which I didn't care for in its original form, although I have much love for Cortex Plus). My game went very well, and I was able to produce very good handouts and supplementary material for my players from stuff that's available freely. As you say, the question now becomes what can a licensed game offer players that the internet cannot? It seems to me that you've got to provide a) rules innovation -- doing something with the genre that's never been done so well before (i.e. Leverage), or b) providing enough of a gameable framework for the material that much of the GM's work is already done for them. Providing workable campaign models and tools to get a game up and running quickly are things that myself, and most GMs, would find very useful -- and it might indeed make me purchase a new game rather than invest the time in developing my own material from scratch. There is probably also a place for a licensed game to set up a web-based "clearing house" that links to the most useful online materials, mailing lists, discussion groups etc. for a property to shorten the legwork required for supplemental work.

  2. I understand what you're saying. The Dresden Files RPG was my introduction into that world, and the product also serves as a useful resource for rapid DF fans. But that's all obviously because it's a much smaller license than Star Wars or LotR.

    What about the DC superheroes RPG that came out? That seems to be a fine product, though I haven't actually looked it over myself. I just wonder if it an example of a successful modern IP RPG.

  3. If you are talking about the FASA Star Trek RPG (and not the actual oldest one by Heritage), the interesting corollary to your argument is how they actually lost their licence. That is, when they produced their Star Trek: The Next Generation - First Year Sourcebook, Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster) allegedly complained that they were infringing on their licence to produce technical guides. Given the respective monetary worth of each licence, it was an easy decision for Paramount to decide yank the game licence (as it definitely wasn't worth their while to monitor the output from such a small licensee).

    The interesting thing is that RPGs have something that other mediums don't require, and that is the need to make a consistent and functional world. This isn't a necessity (or even a real possibility) for a TV show, whose writers are generally more interested in telling a story in a 42 minute time slot, and who don't require consistency in order to do so.

    The interesting thing is that the production of an RPG tends to crystallize concepts. They are easy references for other writers and fans to refer to. Which is why many of the terms used for the first time in the RPG crept back into the later TV shows, books, and technical manuals.

    [Another explicit example: Tim Zahn [or was it Mike Stackpole? (brain fade)] was given the WEG Star Wars RPG books by Lucasfilm as reference source material when he started writing his Star Wars fiction.]

    The problem with using the Internet as a crowd-source for a licence is that there are often so many interpretations and ideas as to why stuff is happening. Too many voices. A licensed RPG is another voice, but it is one that generally speaks with great authority and generally crystallizes views (generally for and sometimes against).

  4. Just as a bit of Trek footnote: All the writers got the WEG books. Or at least I've heard this from Barbara Hambly, K.W. Jeter, Mike Stackpole, and Michael Kube-McDowell, which seems like a good sample. :)

    As for the main topic, I'm inclined to agree with Bill. RPGs are not well set to be general reference works for licensed settings anymore. Too many competing sources of info. But RPGs are very well suited to being guides to creating stories in the setting.

  5. I know we have heard from folks who hadn't seen Leverage before but were turned on to it because of the RPG. Less common are folks who had given up watching Smallville but started watching it again after picking up the RPG. In both cases, though, there have been enough examples that I think the RPG did a good job of marketing the show.

    With a license like Trek or Star Wars, it's definitely not the same thing. I like Mrigashirsha's note on RPGs being a guide to playing in that world or creating stories in that world; that's something that both Leverage and Smallville RPGs do that their licensors commented to us about, in fact.

  6. I think, Rob, that there's room for both approaches. DFRPG does this beautifully by providing you with an example city (Baltimore/Nevermore) in the back of the book (and therefore a how-to guide) while offering all the background information necessary to play any part of the licensed IP in a separate volume.

    To assume that someone picking up Star Wars, for instance, would be introducing anyone to the property would be ludicrous, but as another commentator opined, it is possible for DFRPG to be the introduction to Dresden Files.

    I would say you need to provide, at minimum, a workable overview of any particular concept. Go back to yesterday and your commentary on the original Monster Manual: A set of entries like that for Star Wars about, say, Ewoks or Wookies or what have you would be a good jumping point. The developer could offer further information (Ecology of the Disgustingly Cute Furry Thing? -- all hail TF2V!) in another volume or even a collected online resource.

    @Reverence Pavane: It was Zahn who first commented on that, Stackpole may have offered a supporting opinion. West End's sourcebooks were richly and wonderfully detailed. I loved those things.


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