Thursday, June 21, 2012

All great settings deserve a pen-and-paper roleplaying game

A map of the Avatar: The Last Airbender world, from AlisaChristopher's DeviantArt
Whenever I really get into a novel, a comic book, a TV series, a movie, or a computer game, I always want there to be a pen-and-paper roleplaying game set in the same world. I want to see maps of the world, stats for the various people and monsters that live there, descriptions of the roles my character can fill, and suggestions for what adventures I can have there. I already have a tendency to watch TV shows as if the main characters were PCs in a roleplaying game, so it's a small jump to imagining myself participating in another game in the same setting.

A map/board game of the King City comic book, from royalboiler's DeviantArt
A pen-and-paper roleplaying game addresses two needs among fans. When you love a setting, you want more. That's what drives fans to seek out fan art and fan fiction. You also want to add to that setting, to make your stories part of that world. That's what drives fans to create their own fan art and fan fiction. A pen-and-paper roleplaying game provides you with notes about a world's history, cultures, characters, and creatures. It also gives you the tools you need to tell your own stories in that setting.

Many worlds have books that feature art, development notes, production stories, and behind-the-scenes information, and those are all designed to bring fans closer into the story. But a pen-and-paper game goes all the way. A PnP RPG is designed for the specific purpose of allowing players to create their own characters in the setting and interact with the world, telling their own stories that interact with the main plot.

The source material for a PnP RPG forces the creators of a show to flesh out their world. When the setting's creators are writing their own stories, it's natural that they focus on certain areas of the world. The story follows a (usually) small set of characters through a finite plot. The world that is exposed through the story is designed to fit the needs of the story. The occasional glimpses of other parts of the world serve as flavor and remind fans that there is more to the world. Conversely, an RPG has to answer all of the questions that might come up in an adventure. Where does the food come from? How much do things cost? What religions are there? Where are the dead buried?

A map of Bas Lag, the setting of several novels by China Mieville, from JenJenRobot's DeviantArt

The Star Wars RPG famously introduced the name "Twi'lek" for the species of aliens with the head-tails. You know, like in Jabba's palace where that guy with the sharp teeth and the fingernails gets creepy all over R2-D2 and that dancer gets fed to the rancor. Fans knew that Wookiees and Trandoshans were both strong, but the RPG had to decide which was stronger. The game had to allow players to do everything the heroes did in the movies: fly space ships, repair droids, shoot stormtroopers and, of course, to Use the Force™.

Which leads me to the downside of having a pen-and-paper game made for your world: by filling out the blank spots, you also limit the possibilities. In the first Star Wars movie, it seemed like the Force could do anything: influence people's minds, sense far-off events, see without your eyes, and even choke people from across the room. In the Star Wars RPG, each of these has a corresponding ability. These abilities, along with a few more, represent the full scope of Force powers. In the second movie, Yoda told Luke that the only difference between lifting a rock and an X-Wing was in his mind. According to the chart on page 98 of the Saga Edition of the Star Wars RPG, the difference is about 30 points.

Compare that to Avatar: the Last Airbender, where benders come up with different techniques that use the same elements in different ways. As soon as players can turn to the chapter on Waterbending for stats on water whips, ice darts, freezing people to things, assuming the Octopus form, and creating a wave of water to knock people down, players would be constrained to just those techniques. The more the rules try to allow players to create their own bending effects, the more complicated they get.

Well, I'm okay with that. We're seeing more PnP RPG rules that focus more on telling stories than on simulating combat anyway, so I'm not going to let that stop me from buying the rulebook for every setting I love.
A map of the Mass Effect galaxy, from DesktopNexus
I have a tendency to buy rulebooks to RPGs and read them to pieces, without ever having played a single game. It's hard to get people together for a game, but I can always fall back on my imagination and create half-adventure, half-fan fiction stories. On those occasions when my friends and I succeed in organizing a game, I realize that, for all the time I may have spent reading the rulebook, I have barely paid attention to the actual rules. To me, licensed PnP RPGs are less about telling you which dice to roll, and more about telling you how to enter a beloved world and have adventures, and there's always room on my bookshelf for that.


  1. "Fans knew that Wookiees and Trandoshans were both strong, but the RPG had to decide which was stronger."

    I wonder how people are able to figure these stats out. I love Tolkien's Middle Earth, and was quite interested to see the stats in Games Workshop's LotR game. How exactly do you decide what the stats for a Ringwraith should be? I know the tabletop game is not the same as a RPG, but both types of games have to be fun, and it seems like sometimes you have to fudge the stats a little in order to make the game work. Of course you have a lot more flexibility with a RPG.

  2. You raise a good point. You can get away with things in a book, comic, or TV show that you can't manage in a PnP RPG. In most media, the heroes only need to beat the villains once. In those cases, the story is best when the villain is much more powerful than the hero, and the hero only wins thanks to a once-in-a-lifetime situation that the hero is somehow able to create at the last moment. In a PnP RPG, the heroes have to be given the tools to consistently defeat the villains, or at least to always have a fighting change.

    Along a similar line, there must be some way to defeat everything, no matter how undefeatable. As the common saying goes, "If it has stats, we can kill it." No matter how huge, evil, or supernatural a bad guy is, as soon as it has stats, the players stop fearing it and start coming up with ways to defeat it.

    In a PnP game, all of the heroes have to be competent: there is no room for the bumbling comic relief character or the sidekick who is like the main hero but not as good in every way. On the flip side of that, there can be no main character, since each of the players wants to get a share of the limelight and nobody likes playing second fiddle to another player's character.