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RPG Adaptation: Harry Potter

October 5, 2010 2 comments

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.

The Setting

Geographically speaking, the setting of Harry Potter is basically ideal for a campaign. The main location, Hogwarts, is a giant castle with centuries of history and secrets accrued over time. The main characters don’t have full reign of it, so some parts are off-limits and some are not, leaving plenty of room for hijinks. There is both a center of safety and home (their House common room and dorms) and a center of adversary (the opposing House’s common room) in close proximity and plenty of space for that rivalry to play out in neutral territory. Also, you could make a really killer map of the castle for the players to pore over.

There are a handful of secondary locations shown off at various times which can help break things up in case people are feeling stuck in the giant castle. They can go down to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. The stories generally start at Harry’s relatives’ house and/or the Weasley’s house. I suppose you could argue that the forest surrounding Hogwarts–home to centaurs, giant spiders and unicorns–is another secondary location apart from the school proper. This emphasis on one central location means that players could really get a sense of the place and feel like they know their way around. The fact that a handful of other locations are readily available means that they can still be made to go somewhere that’s not home turf once in a while.

In a less literal sense, the setting of Harry Potter has much to offer. The main thing, of course, is magic. Players, from the get-go, are allowed to play around with a special power that doesn’t exist in real life. Since the main characters are students at Hogwarts, they are watched over by a cadre of professors who are interested enough to keep anyone from killing each other, but distracted and/or trusting enough to let the protagonists get into entertaining trouble. Since everyone’s a magician, you might have trouble differentiating one character’s skill set from another (more on that later) and some players might feel stifled under the constant watch of the drastically more powerful administration.

The Characters

I think it’s pretty clear there are three PCs in the Harry Potter stories. Harry obviously gets some top billing but not so much that I think it ruins everything. As the leader in crime (for the most part), Harry’s character is focused more towards cunning and non-magical skills, but he’s got a few powerful spells he can rely on in a pinch. He’s got solid balance for a PC and, really, the only down side is that he’s so central to the over-arching plot.

Hermione is more focused on magic than Harry, clearly. She knows more spells than he does and, in general, is better at them. It’s possible she knows more spells and better than anyone in her age group at Hogwarts. Basically, she’s a huge book worm and her greatest asset is her knowledge. When asking how Hermoine solves problems (without being specific about the problem), the answer is almost always magic first or else some other kind of book learning. She also has some interesting character traits that can be both an asset and a detriment (like her compulsive need to get good grades).

Ron is a bit of a problem. He’s pretty much balanced like Harry, but worse at everything. He’s the weakest candidate for PCdom of the three, but he’s always around so mere page count tends to counter-act that. It’s almost as if Ron were built by a very inexperienced GM and player together and ended up not using his points (or whatever character creation currency you use) efficiently compared to Harry’s player. One thing Ron brings to the table is his having lived in the magical world his entire life. It’s almost never used to good effect in the stories, but this could potentially let him know things the other players don’t and get to tell them about stuff now and again.

The NPCs are obvious: Dumbledore is, like Gandalf, there to act as a plot device for the most part and reveal Things to the players. Draco Malfoy is a wonderful non-lethal foil for the PCs and comes with Slytherin goons for when someone needs beating up (or whatever the verb is for magically abusing someone). The teachers range in their level of sympathy and depth from Snape and Hagrid to, uh… whoever it is that is head of House Hufflepuff and, you know, the teacher that’s a ghost. In general, the student body is large enough to hide important NPCs in until they become important (like Luna Lovegood or Cho Chang).

The Story

I’m not sure if we should consider one book or the whole series when talking about stories. Aside from the fact that people do less time for manslaughter than it would take to run the whole campaign, the structure of the entire series is nice in that there is a sequence of smaller story arcs that create and work within a much larger arc. Realistically, I can’t see a group of players being able to maintain the time commitment long enough to get through all seven years of campaign time. Luckily, any given single book is pretty self contained and could be a campaign to its self.

The formula is pretty close the typical Dann Campaign formula: The PCs start a semester and go to a few classes. Before too long it becomes clear that Something Odd is going on and they set about figuring out what that thing is, who’s behind if and thwarting it. In the course of things, they generally have plenty of sneaking about to do, learn some new spells, get side-tracked on some interesting red herrings and have a few opportunities to use their magic in cool ways. The one thing I’d be worried about would be the relatively low level of directly adversarial magic in most of the stories. A lot of players will really want to be slinging around those petrificus totaluses.

Alternatively, if you were going to run a Hogwarts campaign without Harry and the gang, that would be doable a few generations before or after them. Unlike The Matrix or Star Wars, by the end of the books Harry hasn’t drastically changed the setting as it is first introduced. In fact, he’s mostly protected a status quo. So if your players all played characters that were too young to really remember Voldemort at all, they could still go to Diagon Alley to buy wands and meet Nearly Headless Nick and narrowly avoid getting in trouble for being out of bed after hours by clever use of the Marauder’s Map.

One of my biggest concerns about this setting is that the PCs would all be kids. It seems like a real challenge for an adult (or someone in their late teens) to play a 12- or 14-year-old. Part of the stories rely on the scope of events and violence being scaled to kids and on the characters making childish, naive or immature decisions. So first off, you have to decide that your players will be able to do that well and then you have to decide that they’ll have fun doing it. Especially as the main characters start to get involved in romance plots, they routinely behave irrationally and immaturely. As well, magic is powerful and somewhat of a responsibility for which most kids aren’t going to be prepared, really. Is that something your players will have fun exploring, or will it get tiring quickly?

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Categories: RPG Adaptation

RPG Adaptation: The Matrix

May 4, 2010 4 comments

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.

[Spoiler Warning: I use some plot points from the movie to illustrate some ideas. If you haven’t seen this one, you should really go do that.]

Your players recently rewatched The Matrix and have been lobbying you to put together a Matix campaign. What, given the movie, are the cool bits you should pick out?

I know kung fu!

Well, one obvious place to start is the high-action wire fu aspect. This plays right into the common power fantasy meme that most players harbor. The first thing you do is you pull out all the cinematic optional combat rules for your system. Knock-back for punches? Yes. Tic-tacing off foes during a fight? Yes. Running on walls to flip and kick a dude in the face? Yes! Understand that your PCs are going to be very high powered. They should have enough skill with their martial art of choice to accept hefty penalties for doing something insane and still have a decent chance of succeeding.

Speaking of insane things, these crazy kung fu tricks are enabled by the character’s ability to deny the false reality around them. How you model this will have, I think, a great impact on how your game plays. It would not be unfaithful to the source material, I think, if you simply had a single skill called Matrix Manipulation which you rolled against to, well, manipulate the Matrix. However, there’s no reason not to just dump points into this skill. Then every character is essentially the same. I think a more balanced, variety-encouraging solution would be to divide the various ways the Matrix can be manipulated into different skills. So one guy might be really good at making himself stronger and another might be good at making himself faster. You could get as granular as you want with it (does making yourself stronger increase your jumping distance, or is that a separate skill?) and still retain balance, I think.

There are a few more things you could do, I think, in order to mechanically facilitate the wire fu stuff. Get familiar with your system’s rules for health of and damage with random inanimate objects based on weight. How else will your PCs be able to Jackie Chan some guy’s legs out from under him with an ottoman or use a stop sign as a weapon? Also, if your system has rules that cover crazy gun fu, all the better. If you do all that, those combats are going to be complex, but epic. It looks like this is territory best covered by groups who are all very familiar with their rule system.

One thing to consider, here, is that the ridiculous lethality of Agents offsets the ridiculous power of the PCs. How you model them could vary, but a good start would be to take what seems like a reasonable “average” amped up stat from your PCs and multiply it by 1.5 or 2. They’ll be twice as fast, twice as strong, etc. as average, but not quite that much better than your specialists in their forte. You might have to play-test some combats with those stats to see how they go. You want your PCs to be able to get away, but you also want them to want to run, rather than try to fight. Another way I could see modeling Agents would be to bust out rules concerning people who can see the future for purposes of dodging only, give them ridiculous strength and very high weapons skills, but don’t give them so much speed that no PC can run away for more than a turn of combat before being caught. Basically, the second approach would take more time and tinkering, but specifically targeting each ability might offer better balance.

Welcome to the desert of the real.

One cannot deny that the picture of the real world that The Matrix presents is evocative: the hover-ships making covert connections to the Matrix with monotonous meals and submarine-like interiors, the blackened sky over a frozen wasteland of destroyed buildings and highways, towers of people in pods tended by insectoid robots with creepy claws and syringes at the end of each appendage.

That’s all great and flavorful, but I think you actually want to downplay this aspect of your campaign. You certainly don’t want to spend more time out of the Matrix than in it, I think, if the action of The Matrix is what spurred this idea to begin with. I think the PCs’ ship should be a relatively safe place, if a bit boring. I’d use threats to the ship to mix things up, not as a regular feature. Have them need to leave it to scavenge a part for repairs or get in an exciting chase once, but I think those are best used to emphasize that the danger is very close to home than as normal level threats. You can also use it to highlight how powerful the PCs are inside the Matrix. They can’t jump several stories or use kung fu or any of their awesome stuff. Mostly, they’ll run from scary stuff or suffer terribly.

And she knows what? Everything?

The Oracle features pretty predominantly in The Matrix. I suppose you could leave her out if you wanted, but the way the characters act about her, it seems like most everyone goes to see her. But because this is roleplaying and not a movie or a book, how are you supposed to write dialog for an NPC that can see the future? This is a real quandry and we could probably brainstorm several possible solutions, but I think you have two basic tactics you could use: Be vague or be spoilerey.

The vague thing is pretty easy to do (sham psychics use it all the time). You can say ominous things like, “You will witness a great threat to human kind,” or, “You will experience a great change in your life.” The downside is that you have to work pretty hard to make sure it doesn’t just sound like a well translated fortune cookie and evoke a sarcastic “Oooooo” from your players. The spoilerey one is less easy and can lead you close to railroading (which is a third option I don’t think we should discuss). If you were using the plot of the movie for your campaign, you could allude to Cypher’s betrayal with something like, “You will be betrayed by someone very close to you.”

I think the best bet would probably be a fusion of the two: Give the player in question a little bit of a spoiler about what’s coming up, but keep it vague enough that it might be able to come true in several ways. Note the above. If she said, “Cypher will betray you,” then they just shiv Cypher and call it done, right? But then the prophecy didn’t come true. So there’s some consistency protection that’s going on, there. There doesn’t seem to be discussion in the movie about changing something the Oracle has foretold; she’s saying things that will come true, not that might come true. Another thing about this, though, is that if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the Oracle lies. She may know the future for certain, but she doesn’t always say it, or say it in a way that’s obvious or say all of it.

All I see now is blonde, brunette, redhead.

If you examine the characters in the movie, I think it’s pretty clear who the PCs are. Trinity is the clearest cut. Morpheus wouldn’t make a terrible PC, except he’s got a bit of the Wise Old Wizard thing going, which doesn’t play that well in a PC. Neo, especially end-of-the-movie Neo, is sort of a travesty. If you had a game with three players and ran the plot of the movie, you’d obviously be side-lining the other two players. I’d rather talk about potential kinds of players in a game not modeled exactly after the plot of the movie.

First off, I think you don’t let anyone play the Operator. They’re great NPCs, but they don’t get to do all the awesome actioney stuff, so they’re poor PCs. I think it would pay to work up some mechanic (maybe just a few specialty skills to roll against) for their ability to help the crew members that are in the Matrix at the time so that they don’t just become fonts of GM knowledge and can mess up on occasion. It also lets you use them to deliver witty, endearing dialog about how awesome the PCs looked just now doing whatever they were doing.

So if all of your PCs are going to be the crew folk that go into the Matrix, you run the risk of them all feeling very similar. To a certain extent, I think you just have to live with a certain amount of similarity. How different can three black-leather-and-spandex clad super-human martial artists in wrap-around shades really be? One mitigator, which I mentioned above, is to break up the Matrix manipulation abilities into distinct mechanical entities (each is a skill or whatever) so that players have to balance what they invest in. From an in-game perspective, this might be rationalized that, for instance, one guy has an easier time believing that he could out run a car than lift it, which, if he’s always been scrawny, is not so hard to imagine. Beyond that, I think you encourage the players to have specialties like you might if you were running a Special Forces campaign. Someone likes super high range weapons, someone’s the pistol fu expert, another guy loves him some melee weapons, explosives, breaking-and-entering, etc.

Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

So what kinds of stories can you tell in the universe of The Matrix? This one is somewhat hard mostly because Neo exists in the canon. The story of the movie is so very clearly the story of how Neo saves everything forever. If you want to aspire to any kind of similarly epic scope, it’s hard to avoid running into Neo in one way or another and then looking small time compared to him (because by definition you sort of have to). One way to dodge that bullet (you see what I did there? I’m very funny, I know) is to make the campaign purposefully smaller scale. Some kind of internally-based political in-fighting is going on in Zion and the PCs have to run around and kick guys in the face to get a thing so their candidate (or whatever) can win.

The other would be to figure out a way to have the PCs touch the Neo plot line without getting so involved that their awesome powers look paltry next to Neo’s. One suggestion, and I have to give credit to Stewart for this one, would be that the crew is part of the faction of Zionites that agree with Morpheus’s beliefs about The One. They could go the entire campaign working towards finding something that the Machines seem to be very excited about and are spending a lot of energy to secretly investigate. The finale is the discovery that the hidden thing is some guy no one’s ever heard of named Thomas Anderson. That’s a pretty cool reveal and since it predates the movie, there’s no chance of being shown up by Neo’s crazy powers.

The first idea that popped into my head was to take the idea presented in the later movies by the Architect that the Matrix has had several iterations, each with a One that is crazy powerful and set the campaign in an entirely different (and earlier) iteration. Then, the players won’t know anything about the One and you could have one of them end up filling that role if you wanted. The danger, there, is that that player gets the spot light a lot of the time and gets all the cool powers, so I like Stewart’s idea better.

Categories: RPG Adaptation

RPG Adaptation: Firefly

March 30, 2010 2 comments

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.]

The Setting

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.

The Characters

The PCs

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 NPCs

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.**

The Maybes

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 Story

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.

Categories: RPG Adaptation