I had the good fortune to talk with some very smart people in the game design community last night. Cool people, too. Fun, witty, social — you know, all those good things that make human interaction more fun than television. At one point, one of these people (might have been Cam Banks or Rob Donoghue, but don’t make me sign anything to that effect), during a conversation about role-playing game licenses, talked about how much fun Grand Theft Auto was and whether that could be captured.
This gets into the same place that fiction licenses do for me, though perhaps moreso. These things have fundamentally different design goals and so adapting an existing work to a role-playing game is a big deal. Selecting the right material is a way to lighten the load, but also recognizing when you will need to make changes so deep that there is no longer an interesting relationship between the products.
Different design goals
There are three media interesting to me in this conversation: fiction (written, televisual, cinematic), video games, and role-playing games. Here are what I see as the core differences in design goals between these, and this will be the place we need to do the most work to translate from one to another.
All of these things have protagonists. In fiction, however, the protagonist is typically an individual, and this is a critical problem to resolve when translating to an RPG, because in an RPG the protagonist is usually a team — you have five people at a table and they all want to feel like they are part of the developing narrative in a meaningful way. There is some fiction that is not about individual protagonists, in which a team operates as a team (rather than as a series of stories about individuals), but it’s rare. Leverage springs to mind, and it consequently strikes me as a great choice for a very close translation.
Video games are far more often about individual protagonists. In Grand Theft Auto, it sounds like (and I haven’t played it, so this is hearsay and assumption, but I have played other video games) the closest you get to team play is when, online, you invite another player character into your car and you run someone over together. Cool, but closer to sidekick than co-protagonist. And certainly not very teamy. I’ll ignore the obvious close relatives in the video game world — those which already are role-playing games to some extent or another — as trivial examples for translation.
So somehow this needs to be resolved. GTA the RPG becomes “about” either a team of bad guys blowing shit up in a city very like a real major city, or it becomes a serial tale of individuals (a solution I dislike intensely, but that’s personal and we’ll see why later I think). The team solution is a good one, but we need to recognize that it’s a new beast now. We have drifted very far afield in this one step.
Fiction has no systemic rewards because it’s non-interactive. All your rewards are non-systemic.
Video games have rich systemic rewards (character progression, high scores, achievements, plot advancement).
Role-playing games have blurry but rich systemic rewards that are similar to video games.
When talking about a GTA RPG, however, conversation rapidly turned to how fun the sandbox component is — how much fun it is to just blow shit up. This morning while riding the train, I thought a lot about why that’s fun, and came to the conclusion that it’s an important non-systemic reward that is intrinsic to video games (some live and die by it) and not present in role-playing games. It’s also the meat and gristle on the bones of all fiction: visual and auditory kazow.
In a GTA-like game you are jazzed about blowing the top off the Chrysler building with a rocket launcher because it looks and sounds awesome. You also get to tell your friends how awesome it was and they can repeat it. This reward is unavailable to you in an RPG.
There is also an element of discovery, and this is, to some extent, available to you in an RPG. When you discover that you can ride a tricycle off the MGM hotel roof and paraglide safely to the street, while it looks and sounds awesome, it’s also a feat of discovery that’s worth telling others about. That’s something you might want to replicate in an RPG translation. Certainly you need your game to support the statement of intent, “I drive off the roof of the hotel and deploy my paraglider” with a nod from the GM, maybe some dice, and admiring hoots from the table.
So some of that you can do and some you can’t.
With fiction, your non-systemic rewards are the revelation of the narrative, the imagery presented, sometimes a delight in the use of language, and often the thrill of guessing events correctly (or incorrectly — that’s sometimes more fun). Most of these you can get from a role-playing game but it’s a tricky space because there is so much interaction in the development of the narrative. And some of it just isn’t in the rules — delightful use of language is not going to come from someone reading box text, no matter how well-written, unless the reader performs.
RPG non-system rewards are the most interesting to me because unlike the previous, they step entirely outside the activity. The most valuable non-systemic reward in a role-playing game (for me, IMHO, YMMV, &c, but also it’s totally true for everyone) is the way the course of the game mediates, amplifies, and facilitates the social interaction at the table. The deepest non-systemic reward is the joy of five people sharing a great evening together. Board games get this too, obviously. Sometimes a video game gets close (I’ve had some fun Ventrilo sessions while playing World of Warcraft). But in a table-top RPG it’s absolutely central.
My suspicion is that this social reward of role-playing games is closely related to the team construction, though I will also say that Fiasco is an awesome counter-example. I’m also tempted to place it in a category of its own, though, and one that I want to spend a lot more time in.
So what, Brad
So this. There are two things going on in a translation that are interesting to me here and now: there is the conversion of non-systemic rewards present in the source material to something equal but maybe different, and there is the need to retain the non-systemic rewards already present in the destination media. Who gets to play Doctor Who? I’m not saying that’s impossible, but I am saying it needs to be addressed — it won’t be very satisfactory to just emulate the source material’s universe and then let loose regular folks. Somehow you need to get as many as six people engaged in the fiction without devolving their participation to just listening.
This means that some properties will be very hard to handle. It also means some will be especially tasty. Firefly and Leverage look tasty. Smallville sounds tasty though I have never seen it. These examples tell me someone in particular is doing a very smart job of selecting properties to license. Spiderman sounds like crap, but The Avengers sounds awesome. Doctor Who sounds very iffy to me, but I understand that the issues above are not unaddressed.
I will now admit that I have little experience with licensed RPGs. They are all necessarily too heavy on setting (even if they say nothing more than “we expect you are familiar with all this already”) for my tastes. So I could be out to lunch about the challenges. But I do know these three media somewhat, and they are all doing different things. They are not different ways to do the same thing (tell a story) but rather they have orthogonal goals and alignment between them is accidental. There’s no reason to suspect that an awesome book will also be an awesome game.
But as Cam has demonstrated, with careful selection, thought and design, it can be.