Tuesday, February 28, 2017

DIY Licensed Games

Last week I talked about professional publishers releasing licensed roleplaying games based on popular media properties, particularly in the context of West End Games’ often ambitious licensing designs in the mid-1990s. But in a hobby often infused with a do-it-yourself spirit nothing prevents individual gamers from running their own adventures in their favorite film, television, novel, and comic book settings. The roleplaying game hobby has always cultivated an informal tradition of gamers doing their own thing, taking established games or settings and developing them for their local player groups. Reading Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World one realizes how the entire adventure gaming hobby evolved from people taking someone else’s ideas and modifying them to varying degrees into something different. In the same vein fans sometimes unofficially channel their enthusiasm for a media property into their roleplaying games, often in a more timely manner than professionally published licensed games delayed by the production and approval process.

The average hobby gamer doesn’t have official rights to their favorite roleplaying game rules and media properties, but nothing prevents these independent creators from adjusting them to run their own adventures at home. My own personal experience reflects this urge to integrate elements from media into my home games, whether in part or wholesale. My first forays into Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons included monsters and locations from Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (which apparently also influenced Gary Gygax in his development of fantasy roleplaying games). Even before West End Games released The Star Wars Roleplaying Game I incorporated bits from that galaxy far, far away into my own Star Frontiers scenarios. I also ported materials from classic Doctor Who episodes into both Star Frontiers and Traveller adventures I wrote for my games at home. When I started hanging out with friends who enjoyed watching Star Trek: The Next Generation I immersed myself in the show and its expanded universe, even creating a bare-bones roleplaying game so we could explore story elements, characters, and situations on our own. After the Starship Troopers film I drafted an unofficial, d6-based roleplaying game framework based on the film, using character quotations for skill names, just for fun (maybe I ran it once at a convention, I don’t recall). At the height of my interest in Doctor Who and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica I created D6-System adventures for each to engage my enthusiasm for the media well before the official license-holders released their own games. I expect many roleplaying gamemasters have engaged in similar activities in their home games over the years. Whether it’s taking signature elements from media properties – like my own integration of the villain from Predator into fantasy and even Star Wars roleplaying adventures – or crafting an entire campaign in a branded setting, gamers continue using whatever makes for a satisfying play experience on their own, unofficial level.

Some engage in “filing off the serial numbers” – changing enough setting elements, primarily names, but keeping the spirit of the original to avoid copyright infringement – to bring their games inspired by media properties to publication at a professional or hobby level. (Although I use the terms “professional” and “hobby” to describe broad categories of activity, I still consider both as admirable publishing endeavors. In fact, some hobby publications display incredibly professional levels of quality in writing, game design, art, layout, and overall production value. Some hobby publishers actually consist of creators formerly working in the professional publishing side who continue to share their ideas despite lacking publishing company resources). My system-neutral Pulp Egypt sourcebook evolved from a proposal I never managed to pitch for West End Games’s Indiana Jones game line, Indiana Jones and the Valley of the Pharaohs; the resulting sourcebook avoided intellectual property elements covered in Raiders of the Lost Ark and focused more on merging actual history with pulp tropes so players could run their own archaeological, espionage, and criminal underworld adventures in 1930s Egypt. Heroes of Rura-Tonga developed a setting inspired by the 1980s television show Tales of the Gold Monkey – island-hopping adventurers exploring the South Pacific in the 1930s – adding more historical framework and several scenarios to help gamers play in the broad genre. Others have produced games based on settings that encompass one or several media properties. One might consider Rocket Age or Cosmic Patrol as emulating the space opera action seen in Flash Gordon and other early serials. Certainly games like Warriors of the Red Planet seek to replicate the adventures from “sword and planet” media such as A Princess of Mars at the gaming table. One might argue D&D itself was an unofficially licensed game intended to let people play out fantasy adventures in the host of inspirational sources listed in “Appendix N” and its corollary in the Moldvay edition of Basic D&D, “Inspirational Source Material.”

As an aside, the Open Game License (OGL) enabled hobby and professional publishers to legally access the engine behind the field’s most popular fantasy roleplaying game. While this allowed a host of professional publishers to initially capitalize on the d20 craze of the early 2000s, it later allowed hobby publishers to share their house-ruled versions of older, out-of-print rules sets, adding further innovations to the game system to the point where some seemed almost original games themselves. These don’t capitalize on a media setting as much as an intellectual property centered on roleplaying game mechanics. It’s provided a platform for hobby publishers to engage gamers’ nostalgia for early roleplaying game systems, explore new genres using familiar mechanics, and expand into more innovative game design.

The rise of desktop publishing and the internet have enabled hobby gamers to harvest information on their favorite media settings and better share their creations with others. Back in the 1980s and 1990s gamers relied directly on the media itself and any print source material they could find for inspiration. I recall when Babylon 5 first premiered I spent several evenings watching some video tapes of broadcast episodes, taking notes on all kinds of setting elements: aliens, starships, planets, technology, adventure hooks. For a brand-new media property it was the best I was going to get for a sourcebook. As a Star Wars fan I was overjoyed to find Raymond Velasco’s A Guide to the Star Wars Universe in the bookstore in the late 1980s; it served as a core continuity resource until Bill Slavicsek released a revised version in 1994. The Star Trek franchise proved better at providing fans with episode guides and background sourcebooks. Middle-earth fans had the inspiring Atlas of Middle-earth and a few guidebooks, though Iron Crown Enterprises provided comprehensive gaming source material through its numerous supplements. Nearly any media property that reached a level of popularity had some guide published to provide detail on the setting. Today the internet offers encyclopedic information on nearly any media property, mostly unofficial, fan efforts, but enough for gamers to get a better handle on the setting beyond watching/reading the primary source media. When I have a question about a detail of a franchised setting, I just Google it, look it up on Wikipedia, or find an encyclopedic fan site. Have a Star Wars question? I don’t bother reaching for a guide to the galaxy or even one of West End’s sourcebooks, I just surf on over to Wookipedia. The internet seems to offer information on everything at one’s fingertips; “fan-made” or “unofficial” is often good enough for gamers bringing this material to the table.

Technology has also allowed amateur gamers to better produce and share their media-based creations (and gaming materials overall). In the pre-internet gaming world one required the resources of a professional publishing house or, at the very least, access to a photocopier or local printer to publish original game material...and even then the distribution structure favored corporate entities and not individual hobby gamers. For example, I had limited access to a photocopier to produce my extremely amateur gaming fanzine in high school – with its manual-typewriter text and poorly pasted-up graphics – but its distribution was (thankfully) limited to my gaming friends in my neighborhood and school. Today gamers can use desktop publishing tools to design professional-looking books and distribute them as PDFs through blogs, websites, or e-commerce sites like DriveThruRPG, avoiding the expense of printing, warehousing, and shipping (though print-on-demand through e-commerce sites can also put printed books in gamers’ hands). This created a boom in amateur publishers (as well as another sales venue for professional publishers), some of whom also develop their own presentations of licensed settings with the serial numbers filed off.

Are licensed settings a boon or bane to the overall roleplaying game landscape? Some argue they divert creative energy and financial resources from the development of more original gaming materials. Others feel they capitalize on enthusiasm for a media property by catering to gamers’ interest in exploring the setting. For some amateur publishers it satisfies their own creative need to engage in a particular genre. Just like a brand’s popularity, gamers’ interest in media settings can wax and wane; some quickly fade, a flash in the pan, but others endure or evolve over time. Licensed games don’t dominate the roleplaying game field, but they represent a sometimes influential aspect of an incredibly multifaceted hobby.


Want to share your experiences integrating popular media into your home games? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.