Ronin Round Table: Math, the Silent Killer or Zen and the Art of Licensed RPGs

By Jack Norris, Dragon Age RPG Line Developer

As will surprise probably nobody, I’ve been thinking a lot about adapting licensed media and non-RPG settings in general to games. Specifically, I’ve been considering the challenges each type of media presents when adapting it for a roleplaying game. So I figured I’d use today’s Ronin Round Table to share those thoughts and maybe give some insight into the strange and wonderful world of adapting licensed properties to tabletop RPGs.

Movies, TV, novels, and comics present one set of challenges because the action isn’t driven by stats or dice. While DC Adventures is a thing you can (and should!) play, DC Comics aren’t. Bad things happen in Game of Thrones because George R. R. Martin turns character motivation into actions and then carries them through to a bloody conclusion, not because anyone failed a roll. So, when adapting and representing characters, settings, themes, and other aspects of that sort of media to an RPG, you need to summon up the math. There are no game mechanics that let comics Batman kick Joker in the joy buzzers when he tries to blow up a bus full of toddlers, but RPG Batman needs some way to simulate that dramatic tension, uncertainty, and fun that comes from reading or watching a story.

This means licensed RPGs need to invent the math/mechanics to make the system run because it’s not there otherwise. Math that needs to do its job and then get the heck out of the way as much as possible while still feeling "right" for the game, setting, and source material. This is the main task of folks working on games like DC Adventures, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, and various other licensed RPGs from around the game industry, from Amber to … some licensed game that begins with a Z. You need to make sure the mechanics feel right and avoid bogging down the fun and flow. It’s a little bit of art, some craft, and a bunch of effort. When it works the effect is great, because it gives the feeling of being in a established setting or story that the PCs and GM can use as a powerful bit of shared context to drive their fun.

The same challenge exists for GMs who just want to run their favorite media around the gaming table. Systems choice can often do most of the heavy lifting here, for example it would be pretty easy to run a game in Robert Kirkman’s Invincible comic series using Mutants & Masterminds. But hacking a system, borrowing from other systems, or even altering existing stats and rules simply due to the preferences of an existing group can be a real challenge. It can also be a lot of fun, which is why so many of us gamers love to muse about how we’d use Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay to properly capture to feel of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or decide our next game will be use Blue Rose to run Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

But what about video games like Dragon Age? They’re already games with mechanics and math. In fact, they have tons of mechanics and math, and therein lies the challenge. Because while other licensed products need to have mechanics and math inserted, video games need to have existing math and mechanics of incredible complexity adapted and reduced. Unless one is gaming with cyborgs, video game math and mechanics are too long, involved, and complex to use at a gaming table. What a PC or console can do in seconds would take many of us hours. Depending on the game and individual, calculating all the variables and mechanical factors that go into even running across the room to deliver a single magic sword strike to a bad guy’s face before his minions can attack you might reduce a seemingly normal and intelligent person to a frustrated gibbering mass, which isn’t fun. It also wouldn’t be nearly as pretty, well-paced, and dramatic as it is when you’re pushing buttons or keys to make it happen instantly in a video game.

So where nearly every other adaptation of media needs to be inclusive, video game adaptation to RPGs needs to be reductive. But since video games are games, you can’t just throw out the mechanics entirely because they’re part of the whole original experience. So you need to pare down all the programming and math to sleek, fun, simple mechanics that nevertheless feel appropriate to the source material. Hence, Dragon Age the tabletop RPG keeps the classes, stunts, spells, and such of the video game to keep that Dragon Age flavor and feel, but uses a resolution system catered to the tabletop. This is a fairly transformative and reductive process. When recently working up rules on running organizations and PC holdings in Dragon Age Set 3 I definitely was thinking about allowing the PCs to do something like running the keep from Dragon Age: Awakenings. But at the same time, I also wasn’t trying to simply copy that mass of coding, graphics, and audio that was that experience because that stuff doesn’t map directly to tabletop play. So instead, I tried to use the tabletop rules to give a bit of that feel. That’s the philosophy I’ll be carrying with me as Dragon Age moves forward.

Of course, adapting a video game to a tabletop RPG is also an additive process. Yeah, yeah, I know … after all that, here I am with that little contradiction, but it happens to be true. Even rich and involved RPGs like Dragon Age can’t cover the myriad of things PCs will get up to around the gaming table. So you need to cover not just spearing Ogres or shooting Darkspawn with arrows or lighting Templars on fire with your magic, but a bunch of things that the video games don’t cover, but which logically exist in a setting like Thedas and which a gaming group might have a ton of fun exploring. So in addition to the mechanics derived and reduced from the original material, you then add more things to that new system to cover various concepts and ideas. Again, I’ll point to developing the PC organizations and holdings rules. Because making rules that just let you run a castle and some followers would have been enough to emulate the video games treatment of that concept. However, what if PCs in a given game want to start a thieves’ guild, or a renegade apostate circle, or something really challenging like a dwarven bakery? So the challenge became to mix speed, fun, and flavor to create a system PCs and GMs could use for those concepts that didn’t clash with the existing mechanics or feel of the source material? How’d I do it? Well, that’s a conversation for next time, when I talk about cross-pollination in game design and how this stuff usually gets made.