RPG Adaptation: Firefly
It’s pretty common advice for new writers that they should read a lot. Similarly, reading good code makes you a better programmer and watching a great dancer will help make you a better dancer. In the spirit of those sorts of activities (practice through observation), this running series of posts will take a popular story from page or screen and see what can be learned about roleplaying games from it. Primarily we’ll look at the setting of the story as a campaign setting and the characters in the story as PCs and NPCs. We’re not evaluating or judging the “goodness” of these things, just looking at how well they would translate to the medium of RPGs.
[If you don’t want to see spoilers, don’t read the footnotes.]
Firefly has several interesting characteristics from a setting standpoint aside from the novelty of being a Space Western. It’s a medium-future space-faring setting, in a system of stars and planets where things are close enough together that slower-than-light travel is reasonable. This neatly avoids the relativistic time problems introduced by FTL or near-light travel, as well as the logistics of “jumps” as seen in other settings. The ships feel very much like sailing ships, with journeys taking a few days to a few weeks. These are easy, intuitive units for players to understand and work with.
The primary weapons are conventional firearms that look and act much like the weapons of today except that they make a cool future-sounding noise. The tech level of the medicine, however, is much higher than current levels. Practically any wound can be recovered from, albeit after a few days of recovery. This hits a really elegant balance for combat. Players don’t want their characters to get shot, even if they can be healed, because it removes them from potential action. The inherent lethality of guns means that they can’t afford to be reckless, but they also don’t have to be absolutely terrified of getting hit. I really like the “just get them back to the ship alive” feel of it.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the setting, and one that can be both a plus and a minus, is the disparate level of wealth and technology between the central alliance worlds and the rim. It’s a plus because it gives the GM a lot of leeway for how high-tech he wants things to be during a particular adventure, and introduces variety when needed. It’s a minus because technology, particularly when it comes to transportation and weaponry, is such a strong trump card. When the Firefly crew are on the rim planets, the simple fact that they have a ship makes them significantly more powerful than most people that they encounter. When they are in the core systems, surrounded by Alliance supercruisers and the like, their ship and weapons are completely outclassed. In the series, these disparities are always used to good effect, either giving the PCs a lot of power and then forcing them to make hard decisions on how to use it, or removing their power completely and forcing them to be cunning and resourceful. In an RPG that sort of fine-tuning is more difficult. The players aren’t always going to make the cinematically-appropriate choice, and cunning, resourceful solutions can be hard to come up with on the spot.
Mal, the captain, is the most obvious PC. He’s competent and versatile, and effective in a fight. Most of the episodes boil down to “Mal’s moral dilemma.” Does he deliver the cauldron of kindergartners to the cannibal or turn down the money and do the right thing? In fact, I think that Mal’s role on the ship would be the single biggest challenge to GMing Firefly. With a few notable exceptions, he makes all of the key decisions and the crew is forced to abide by his judgment. In a non-participatory medium, that’s not a problem. We, the audience, can put ourselves in Mal’s shoes, appreciate that it’s a difficult decision, and feel a vicarious warm glow when he does the virtuous thing.
In an RPG, however, each player is (rightfully) wrapped up in their own world. If they’re the character playing Jayne, they should be arguing to give the cannibal his kiddies and get out of there – he’s got a new gun to buy. If that player is constantly being overruled by The Captain, it becomes very difficult for them to stay engaged. It’s important to make sure that each player has the opportunity to make decisions that matter in the story. Speaking of Jayne, he’s also clearly a PC. He’s the best fighter, he has a strong personality, and he dynamically moves the story, often in unexpected or unproductive ways. Also, he would make a terrible NPC. Whenever the PCs have an allied NPC that is a combat monster, the only way for them to make use of them is to throw them into fights. This usually results in either the players sitting around and watching while the GM makes combat rolls for people who aren’t them, or just describing the combat and how awesome the NPC is, making the players feel somewhat useless.
The most obvious of the NPCs is Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic. She isn’t versatile, she can’t survive a fight, and she doesn’t move the story. This is not to say that she isn’t valuable, she is a key character in many of the episodes. Most of those episodes revolve around getting her to the right place at the right time, or giving her the right part, or rescuing her from harm. These are all markers of a classic NPC. The same principles apply in the case of Wash, the pilot. He fills a valuable niche on the crew, providing piloting skills and comic relief, but he is largely a reactive character, and not one that can function effectively on his own. The easiest way to mark them as NPCs is that their effectiveness ends when they leave the ship.
Inara, the registered companion, is somewhat less cut and dry. She has obvious social skills and depth of character. She is a dynamic character, driving the action by accepting contracts or questioning decisions. In the few instances where she’s involved in combat, she’s not completely useless. Ultimately, however, Inara suffers from being centered too far from the heart of the story. In most episodes, her role in what’s going on is incidental at best.* There’s a lesson here – the PCs have to have skills and interests that are relevant to the action in the story. Inara could be a fine PC in a campaign that wasn’t centered around a spaceship.
In a lot of ways, Firefly is River Tam’s story. But not the kind of ways that would make her an appropriate PC. She has some of the markers of a good PC – she has interesting talents and a strong personality. The problem with River as a Player Character is that she doesn’t actually make decisions. She just reacts to what’s happening around her. Also, she’s got too much crazy going on. It’s okay to have PCs with personality issues that create challenges for the players (see Cobb, Jayne). It’s not okay to have PCs that are so unhinged that they become a constant obstacle.**
On first blush, Zoe, the first mate, feels like a PC. She’s effective in a fight and she’s a central and critical member of the crew. She’s competent and versatile, and she’s always involved in the important part of the story. The problem with Zoe is that she doesn’t move the story. A crucial part of her personality is that she’s the loyal soldier, always obeying orders and rarely speaking up if she disagrees. Also, the stoic, unsmiling killer persona makes her somewhat one-note as a character. I could see her as a PC, but only for an inexperienced or passive player.
A character that I like far more as a PC would be Book, the shepherd. He has several marks against him – he’s not centrally involved in the story, and his moral code forbids him from being involved in the juiciest parts of the plot. There are also several marks in his favor: his mysterious past has provided him both with combat skills and an intriguing backstory. The thing that intrigues me about him as a potential PC is that he, like Mal, is constantly forced to make difficult choices in ethical gray areas. He is often the voice of dissent, using his outsider role to question the crew’s decisions. As a GM, the challenge with Book would be coming up with stories that could feasibly include him.
River isn’t a PC, but what about her brother the doctor? At first blush, Simon seems like he should be lumped in with Kaylee and Wash – he has a narrow skillset that only applies on-ship. Also, he’s mostly useless in a fight, though he sees a surprising amount of combat. The thing that makes Simon interesting as a potential PC is his story – he’s a gifted and wealthy doctor who gave up everything to protect his damaged sister. He has a matrix for decision-making that is bigger than just doing the missions, and this leads him to take actions that move the story. I think that Simon would make an excellent PC for an experienced player who was willing to sit out of most of the combats. It would be difficult to come up with excuses to include him in the action, but not nearly as difficult as Book.
The typical Firefly adventure revolves around The Job. Most of the jobs find the players, or the action of the players finding the job takes place off-camera. In an RPG, the GM would probably want to play out more of the pre-job negotiations. Each job has a clear objective, and the crew comes up with a plan to accomplish that objective. Then something else happens that either complicates the job, or changes it completely. Usually, that complication requires the crew to make a choice between doing the smart thing and doing the right thing.
It’s a good formula, as it gives the PCs fun things to do, and has built-in problems for them to deal with in their own character-specific ways. It also gives the players clear objectives to feel like they’ve succeeded. The drawback to this formula is that it makes it difficult to tell an over-arching story. Firefly overcame this limitation by setting the Alliance up as the bad guy and then giving one of the characters a slow-revealed backstory involving an Alliance conspiracy, culminating with appropriate levels of epicness.
*Interestingly, in the episode Trash, the writers take advantage of this. Inara is such an afterthought to most of the stories that her involvement in the heist is a surprise to the audience.
**Post-Serenity River, sane and in control of her gifts, is probably still not a PC – she’s too powerful for the setting.