Licensed Games & Novelistic Worlds
by Shannon Appelcline
A couple of weeks ago I volunteered to run a tabletop game of Stormbringer for my local gaming group. I'm not going to start until April or so, meaning I have plenty of time to plan, but I've already been reminded of how troublesome running licensed games based on novelistic (or movie or whatever media) worlds can be.
Over in the online world, we've likewise faced this problem for quite some time. In the days when MUDs were the main form of entertainment on the net, a number of them were based on novelistic worlds, including Pern, The Wheel of Time, and DiscWorld, to name a few. Today, Star Wars: Galaxies is the first mass-market licensed novelistic MMORPG ... but it won't be the last.
Thus we share in common with tabletop games the problems that novelistic worlds can bring.
A Problem of Plot
The biggest problem, in my opinion, is one of plot. In short, the most epic and grand of novelistic worlds have too much of it, to the point where, when basing a game upon that background, it's difficult to make your players feel important--because big things are happening and they're not part of it.
Granted, not all novelistic worlds have this problem. I wouldn't have any problem designing a DiscWorld game, for example, because the plots of those novels are so personal that most of them don't impact the world in any big way, and even when they do there's never any feeling that the novel's story is the only story going on.
The Lord of the Rings stands as a pretty stark contrast. There's one big story, and it's the attempt to destroy the Ring while Sauron slowly conquers Middle Earth, and there's just no way that players can be members of the Ring's secret fellowship while still staying true to the primary source. Granted, in The Lord of the Rings you could still let players engage in very important plots, revolving around the wars, but in some novelistic worlds, even that becomes troublesome.
Take, for example, Stargate: SG-1. We know that there are many teams of explorers heading out from Star Gate Command, but we also know that anything which affects the uberplot of the war with the G'ould, the Replicators, or whatever else, is going to center around the SG-1 team. There's just no way to realistically have other individuals move the uberplot in any major way (which is why, I suspect, the spin-off show, Stargate: Atlantis was forced to send their team off into a whole other galaxy ... where they could actually be important too).
Plot, or if you prefer, the story actually told in the novels or movies, is a serious problem that you're going to have to face in most games based on a licensed property.
Solution #1: Loving the Plot
The tabletop RPG King Arthur Pendragon offered up what is perhaps the definitive answer to working within the plot of a novelistic world. A supplement for that game called The Boy King outlines the first half of King Arthur's life, from 495-531 A.D. It provides broad overviews for several different periods of time and meticulously describes the latter period of this chronology (510-531) with year-by-year events.
Granted, Pendragon might be a somewhat unique case, because the stories are so big (with 150 knights of the Round Table and any number of other knights, ladies, and squires at court). And, the adventures don't always center on singular personas. As a result, everyone can participate in Arthur's greatest battles, his Quest for the Holy Grail and more. (Though, staying true to the original sources, only certain knights can oversee the winning battles, actually achieve the grail, etc).
If it's possible, interweaving a novelistic world's uberplot into your story is, probably, the absolutely best way to take advantage of a license and stay true to the world at the same time. If the novelistic plot has events that are personal enough (such as with DiscWorld), this will work great, because you get to use the novel plots as a backdrop upon which your own plots can occur; likewise if the novelistic plot allows for enough involvement (as the Pendragon stories do), then you're likewise OK.
However, this method of trying to use uberplot will utterly break down if your primary source has singular, yet world-shaking events. Take, for example the Elric of Melnibone books, which are mostly about the journeys and trials of Elric himself. He adventures only with his companion Moonglum, and on occasions a few others; yet it's his very personal adventures that change the world. It's very hard to be true to that uberplot without sidelining the characters who are actually playing your game, and that fact will be true, to various extents, for many licensed properties.
Solution #2: Ignoring the Plot
The next solution is, simply, to ignore some or all of the plot of your novelistic work. In a Stormbringer game I might be tempted to totally dump Elric's great battles, and definitely his ending of the world, so that the players can tell their own story. In a Lord of the Rings game, I might continue on with the war of the ring and the story of the fellowship as it's written by Tolkien, but have no compunctions about allowing players to save (or foil) the fellowship as they see fit.
The core of this method of using a licensed work is to treat it as a background, not an ongoing story. You can lay out your gameworld just as it is on day one of The Fellowship of the Ring, and then either not worry about the plot (a common tactic in online games; more on that momentarily), or else let the plot advance, but let the players influence it in any way which they can manage.
The danger of this method is, of course, alienating your players. If you've gone to the trouble of purchasing a license to a novelistic world, it's presumably because you think, in the end, that it'll attract players because they enjoy the world and find it evocative. If you then change or ignore the story of those novels, you're definitely putting your investment at risk.
Solution #3: Changing the Time
The third answer is, perhaps, my favorite. You take a licensed world and then you set your game in a period other than that which is covered by the books, movies, or what not. This gives you the advantage of having a strong background which people will easily identify with, but at the same time removes you from the straight jackets imposed by that same background's novelistic plots. In addition, it can make fans of the property feel like they're learning about a "secret era" in the world's history.
ICE did this in their tabletop roleplaying game, Middle Earth Role Playing. Though they set much of their game in the time of the War of the Ring, they also offered two alternative settings: in the fourth age after the War, and in the second age. At one point they also published a complete sourcebook called The Kin-Strife set during the Gondorian Civil War (1640 TA).
There's some danger here of fan alienation, but just as much possibility of fan enjoyment; the only great danger is that this tact can be a legal/approval nightmare (more on that in a moment).
Some Notes on Online Plot
I suspect that the general discussion of this "problem" might be a bit strange to the average MMORPG designer; that's because the average MMORPG concentrates heavily on background and little, if all, on plot. Thus the obvious answer to using a licensed world is my solution #2: you build the background based on the stories, but ignore the plot of the stories themselves.
Increasingly, as MMORPGs mature, I think that's a poor answer. Asheron's Call has shown us the power of meta-plot; the recent City of Heroes has shown us the strength of simply stringing quests together until they form a longer narrative. As new games struggle for recognition in an increasingly competitive online field, they need to truly make themselves stand out, and one of the best ways to do that will be to allow their games to contain stories that players will remember ... and that will run them straight into the problems of using licensed worlds that I've discussed above, a problem that tabletop games have faced for decades and MMORPGs will just be learning about in the years to come.
Plot isn't the only problem with developing a game in a licensed world. It's worth at least briefly mentioning a few other potential issues:
Legal: If your game is based on any particularly popular world, your worst enemy will probably be the licensor's legal department. This starts off with the contract, and making sure you get licensed what you actually need. One of the saddest licensing legal gaffes that I've seen was with The Babylon Project, Chameleon Eclectic's original Babylon 5 tabletop RPG. Apparently they licensed from the wrong portion of WB and they ended up without the rights to use any images from the TV show itself; I'm not saying that the lacklustre illustrations and computer models they used killed the game, but they certainly didn't help.
Beyond just making sure that a licensing deal is right, you're probably also going to have to work with legal to get your project approved, which can sometimes be a multi-month or even multi-year affair that could result in wholesale rejection of everything you've done. (Again, this is another place where a good initial license can help, especially if it places limits on how long approval can take.)
Canon: The last big problem that you can have with a licensed game is, simply, making sure that everything is "canon", which is to say that it agrees with the original source material. You want to do this for a number of reasons. First, it might be required to make legal happy (see above); second, it might be required to make your fans happy; and third, it might be required to make you happy, as the designers and developers.
Canon can be a big, big landmine in an online gaming project, because it's entirely possibly that at some time a new primary source will be released--a new movie or a new novel--and that it'll totally contradict what you've done, possibly sending your game into chaos. Whether this happens or not is entirely hit or miss. For example, from what I've heard Lucasfilms was very happy with the West End Games gamebooks and sometimes use them as primary source materials; on the other hand they were contradicting their first Star Wars novel, Splinter of the Minds Eye within a year or two of it coming out, when The Empire Strikes Back was released--and I have a feeling that all the after-star-wars novels are within a decade of being totally contradicted, when George Lucas decides he really does want to do an episode VII afterall. For an even worse example, look at the four Highlander movies, every one of which contradicts the others, and the TV show, to some degree; if there's any good side to that, perhaps it's that nothing could be considered canon, because it's all such a mess.
My main point for this week's columns is simply this: working with licensed properties can be tricky. Be sure that you're aware of the potential pitfalls and possible solutions before you get started.