Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Our Adventures Happen Just Off-Screen

A brief Google+ discussion of the post about “Exploding Continuity” over at Hobby Games Recce highlighted an interesting problem: what do you do when there’s so much continuity in the licensed source media (film, television program, comic book) it seems to prohibit roleplaying activities within the setting?

Using popular media sources as the basis for roleplaying game settings can present a challenge: finding a place of one’s own for original adventures using engaging setting elements without interfering with the main plot or characters. In many media continuities fans only glimpse a portion of the setting, with plenty of room in which to create their own roleplaying game adventures within that continuity and the spirit of the original intellectual property. It’s not an easy exercise. Most fans immerse themselves in the central characters, settings, and plots; thinking creatively beyond these becomes more difficult when existing primary continuity sources so completely define the setting to nearly prohibit other entertaining adventures from taking place. It helps to shift focus from the central characters and plots and think about others inhabiting the setting and their motivations within that universe.

Many published roleplaying games have successfully managed this in the past -- Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and numerous games based on comic book licenses -- by encouraging players to run characters very much like but not exactly the central protagonists in the licensed media. Some consist of vast universes unlimited by earth history or modern knowledge, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who, offering rather broad settings across which one can create and game.

A notable failure in this category was TSR’s Indiana Jones roleplaying game (the one in which the company supposedly trademarked the term “Nazi” as their intellectual property…). In this game players had to choose who ran Indiana Jones and who got stuck playing Willie Scott and Short Round (with original character creation rules following in a supplement one year later…a bit too late). When it acquired the license in the mid-1990s, West End Games approached The World of Indiana Jones roleplaying game in much the same manner as its Star Wars game: players ran heroes who engaged in similar adventures as those seen in the films, playing characters similar to but not exactly Indiana Jones, Marcus Brody (one of my favorites), Marion Ravenwood, and Sallah, as well as a host of other character types inhabiting that historical period and pulp literary genre.

Some games actually build in roleplaying opportunities parallel to elements from films and television shows. For instance, in the Ghostbusters roleplaying game the players ran ghostbusters who franchised their operation from the original team in the film, capitalizing on the film without treading on its continuity.

Having worked on a number of media-inspired roleplaying game projects -- both professionally and just for fun -- I’ve gained some experience in thinking beyond the core media continuity with the scope of a roleplaying game setting in mind. I’ve picked up a mantra to help remind myself how to envision gaming scenarios amid the often daunting core continuity of a favorite media license. I’d always known it to some degree, but it coalesced in a mindset the editors and designers of West End Games’ classic Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game adopted in developing material for that popular setting:

“Our adventures happen just off-screen.”

Here are three examples of popular licensed media settings and how I managed to run adventures or campaigns “just off-screen” from the central plot and characters:

Star Trek: In both an early home-brew system and later published ones based on Star Trek: The Next Generation I ran a short campaign in which the heroes didn’t interact with the Enterprise crew but engaged in similar investigations, patrols, and adventures during the course of their service aboard a smaller Starfleet vessel. Trek presented many easy opportunities for transposing characters into the universe without treading on continuity: many ships in Starfleet, numerous flashpoints around the galaxy (I chose the Cardassian border), lots of different character archetypes to use for both player and gamemaster characters, and a host of sourcebooks (at the time all in print) to mine for ideas and guides for continuity.

Star Wars: Even before I joined West End Games as editor of The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal, I’d run a long campaign for friends that started shortly after the Battle of Yavin and culminated in the Battle of Endor. At campaign’s end I received requests from two of the players that their characters go out in a blaze of glory in the final adventure. After a mission in which the heroes rescued the Bothan spies delivering key secret intelligence to the Rebel Alliance (something we hear about but don’t see in the briefing scene midway through Return of the Jedi) all the heroes took part in some aspect of the Battle of Endor…several serving as command crew aboard a small cruiser in the Rebel Fleet and two others in their modified light freighter running interference for the Rebel starfighters (much like the Millennium Falcon in the film).

Battlestar Galactica: When the series premiered I jotted down some notes on key personalities, ship-board locations, weapons, and spacecraft for my own reference. I later created a one-shot convention adventure using the D6 Space rules when interest in the show was at an all-time high (a common problem with officially published licensed roleplaying games…by the time the reach publication after a long process of development, writing, and approvals, popular interest in the license might have already peaked and in fact started waning). Rather than Viper pilots the players ran “second-rate” pilots culled from the fleet and charged with training on the reconnaissance Raptor vessels. Alas, I only ran one scenario with pre-generated characters, but it allowed players to fly a ship, explore, blast Cylons, and generally have fun in the universe without disrupting continuity. (It also helped that I once ran it at a convention where Bodie Olmos, who played “Hotdog” in the series, was a guest and made an in-character cameo appearance during the adventure’s introduction).

In creating one’s own continuity in any setting -- but particularly established media settings -- it helps to employ an axiom we advocated at West End Games in relation to material developed for the Star Warslicense: “No Superlatives or Absolutes.” The Star Wars Style Guide I revised for the West End Games version of the roleplaying game contained two paragraphs under that heading in the “Writing in the Star Wars Universe” chapter, and it bears repeating not only to remind setting contributors not to limit themselves but to inspire creators that what they see in the established setting isn’t all that exists:

Don’t make stuff the “biggest” or “best” or “worst” or “most” anything. You can make something big and impressive and nasty by sheer description. You may not use these absolute descriptive because somehow, somewhere, somebody will come up with something bigger and badder….

Similarly, don’t make sweeping statements about the nature of the Star Wars galaxy. instead of saying “All customs inspectors in the galaxy will do this,” limit your perspective to something more local -- “Customs inspectors on this planet…” People will do things differently in different parts of the galaxy, so you will have worlds that are wildly different.

As a final bit of inspiration in finding space within established media settings for one’s own roleplaying escapades I offer one of the game-writing ideas I’ve gleaned from author extraordinaire S. John Ross:

“Explore unexpected ideas everywhere!”

Middle-earth emerged in our brief Google+ discussion as being a particularly difficult setting into which one might stage roleplaying game adventures given the voluminous continuity and world-spanning central plot of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien created a broad world populated with sophisticated peoples and cultures, but navigating it “just off-screen” from the main plots and characters requires a knowledge of the world.

Iron Crown Enterprises made its Middle-earth Role Playinga cornerstone of its business for years, and Decipher published a roleplaying game concurrent with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films (and illustrated with fantastic stills from the movies). Both offered sourcebooks providing setting information and adventure ideas during the Third Age of Middle-earth; further research into other non-game source material could provide inspiration for adventures during other ages. Though I’ve not run one-shot scenarios or campaigns in this popular setting, I’ve considered it, and offer here two campaign ideas to explore:

Pipe-Weed to Erebor: Gathering in Lindon the heroes agree to take a train of pack mules to deliver pipe-weed to the Dwarves of the  recently liberated Lonely Mountain. They must overcome their differences (and seek their hidden agendas), barter for pipe-weed in the Shire, and make the treacherous passage across Eregion and Wilderland, encountering Orcs and wargs fleeing from a terrible battle at Erebor, and evading dark forces seeking to seize a secret one of the heroes carries.

Outlaws of Beleriand: This campaign idea is set in the ancient First Age of the Silmarillion. The heroes begin as members of the houses of Elves and Men assembling for an assault on Morgoth’s fortress in Angband to recover the Silmarils in a complex plot involving forces from across Beleriand. Their plan goes horribly awry through Morgoth’s intervention in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. As part of the eastern assault on Angband led by Maedhros, the heroes face the horror of Glaurung, Father of Dragons, plus treachery from within the ranks of Men. Fleeing the lost battle, the characters must survive as Morgoth’s forces overrun the land. They seek news of the few havens left within Beleriand, forge friendships with allies, and make their way across a land swarming with Orcs and other fell beasts. The campaign is basically a riff on the classic Star Wars “Rebels versus the Empire” theme, with characters seeking valuable supplies, allies, and secret havens from which to sortie against the overwhelmingly superior enemy.

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