Make It Your Own: Using tabletop RPGs to explore your favourite video game worlds

Maybe you’ve just finished an excellent or intriguing video game, maybe it’s been far too long and the chance of there ever being a sequel is fading fast, maybe there is a sequel but it’s months away and you’re on the hype train and there are no breaks and they won’t even let you onto the buffet car and…

 

Whatever the reason may be I often find myself wishing that I was able to explore more of a video game’s world than the available products allow me to, and I imagine you do too. So why not do it yourself? Get some like-minded friends together and set off on your own adventure with a tabletop rpg: much easier to grab hold of a rulebook and some dice than develop a game yourself (not to mention the cost of the lawyers when Ubisoft comes a-knocking).

 

If you’re unfamiliar with what a tabletop RPG (TRPG) is, it’s a game where a bunch of people will use a rulebook to create characters and then (usually) one person will act as moderator and use that same rulebook to take those characters through a story, providing the challenges, supporting cast and acting as a final arbiter when rules or situations are contentious. An element of risk is introduced through the use of dice to resolve conflicts (physical, social, environmental etc.) and which dice are rolled and what numbers you want to see are governed by how you built your character. Not the best description in the world, but hopefully that’s enough in a sentence – effectively it’s a manual video game.

 

The leap from video game to TRPG is actually quite a small one, given that the two mediums have developed alongside each other, and have fed into each other an awful lot, for example the classic RPGs Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Icewind Dale use the system from Dungeons and Dragons, probably the most well known of the TRPG systems (in fact the system was pretty much ripped from D&D in it’s entirety – the game actually rolls virtual dice for you to resolve swinging your weapon/casting spells etc. Ultimately those games were just automatic TRPGs). Being classics, those games have left their mark, meaning that most of the roleplaying game being released share an awful lot of DNA with TRPGs, so anyone who’s played Skyrim, Fallout, Dragon Age, The Witcher (pretty much anything with quests and stats and levelling) will see a lot of familiar concepts when playing TRPGs.

 

At this point you have three options when deciding what system to run a video game world in:
1) Hope that the publisher has already got someone to create a TRPG based in that gameworld, meaning you can just grab it and go (this is far more likely than you probably expect).
2) Take an existing TRPG system and hack it to work with the video game in question (this is far easier than you probably expect).
3) Build your own system from the ground up (I’d recommend doing a reasonable amount of 1 and 2 before attempting this, but if you want to have a go, go for it! It would take quite a long time to talk this one through though, so maybe later… or get in contact and we can have a chat).

 

Option 1

This is probably what you want to plump for if you’re completely new to TRPGs and/or if you want to play in one of the big franchises:

 

As I said before the old Black Isle classics Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Icewind Dale use the Dungeons & Dragons system. As the video games were actually adaptations of the TRPG it will pretty much work in precisely the same way, albeit you’ll have to roll the dice yourself and each member of the party should be controlled by an individual player. As a general rule I’d recommend using D&D 5th Edition, although the games are based on the 3rd edition, the world has remained largely the same (Forgotten Realms and the land of Faerûn is still the official setting for D&D). 5th Ed. also comes with a decade an a half of design improvements and makes life a lot easier for games when a computer isn’t running all the behind the scenes stuff. If you really want to play a game almost exactly the same as the Black Isle adventures, then 3.5 Ed. is your friend – as it’s just a revised edition of 3rd: systematically the same with a lot of the problems ironed out. If you prefer your fantasy a bit sillier (the kind of place Minsc would feel right at home in) I’d recommend 13th Age, which cares more about baking your characters into the setting in a meaningful way, how you came across that wise-cracking magic sword, and that time you fought a bear by pulling its teeth out and beating it to death with them – it also gives you all the tools to easily make your own settings, I quite like it.

 

Another video game based on a TRPG is Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Based on the White Wolf TRPG Vampire the Masquerade, Bloodlines was pretty much a direct port, from the setting to character progression, so it should be really easy to get yourself started if you’re familiar. It also bears mentioning that White Wolf (and now Onyx Path) have released related Vampire games in the guise of Requiem and Blood and Smoke. The setting has changed, but (in my opinion) the system has been drastically improved, so if you want a game with similar themes and subject matter I’d recommend going for one of the newer versions. White Wolf have also just been acquired by Paradox Interactive (publishers of Magicka, Crusader Kings, Cities: Skylines etc.) so you can certainly look forward to some top-notch VG/TRPG cross overs in the next couple years… at least that’s what I’m breathlessly hoping is going to be the case.

 

What mention of franchises would be complete without Star Wars? If you want to play in the world of the new Battlefront or Knights of the Old Republic (oh and apparently there are some movies too I guess) then look no further than the excellent Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny set, which cover smugglers and crime, soldiers and rebels, and force users respectively. Although officially the game is set just after the destruction of the first Death Star, the technology and setting of Star Wars is so stagnant that a savvy group can easily change current affairs and swap out major characters to create a game suitable for any period with very little difficulty. The dramatic dice system used by this set of TRPGs really captures the legendary setting quite well, the fact that the protagonists are really lucky is baked right into the system and encourages people to do things like take on a galactic empire with a rag-tag bunch of misfits. (NB: there are other Star Wars TRPG systems available, but mostly I find them boring Dungeons & Dragons clones with a space skin, so I’ve decided to ignore them).

 

In the last of these examples we head to the grim darkness of the far future to a grim universe of dark wear, grimly perpetrated by grimdark factions, gazing grimly across the dark void at each other, preparing for another war. It’s Warhammer 40K, the popular tabletop wargame (but also lots of video games, so it still counts, can’t recommend Dawn of War 2 highly enough, despite it’s age) and the series of roleplaying systems published by Fantasy Flight Games. These capture the utterly ridiculous trappings of the 40K universe perfectly and, although the systems can be a little complicated at times, they present an appropriately grimdark and deadly perspective from which you can enjoy most aspects of the setting: Dark Heresy allows you to act as the agents of one of the Imperium’s Inquisitors in terrifying detective escapades where the murderer was probably a horrible monster all this time and your arms have just been melted off by acid or something; Deathwatch: ‘I am a space paladin, good evening alien foe, allow me to introduce you to my space hammer that shoots lightning’; Rogue Trader, the golden age of exploration but with more demonic corruption; Only War: World War 2 if you’d been given pea shooters and all the Nazis were 5 foot taller than you and also monsters with swords where limbs should be.

XCOM Heresy

Option 2

Feeling adventurous, or just really need a fix of your favourite setting? Lots of talented people have already invented ways to roll dice and make fun come out, so tweak some thing that’s already there, such as:

Corporation: For all of your cyberpunk, transhuman, corporate dystopian needs. This game is perfect for the likes of Deus Ex, all you have to do is take out the psychics and shields and you’re pretty much there: augmented agents engaged in a shadow war for control of the future of earth. Removing the shields makes everything a lot more lethal, which means players can’t just run in, guns blazing, they’ll have to rely on stealth and cunning if they want to make it very far. Other than that, it’s all done for you.

You could also cover the Metal Gear series rather handily too, whack the psychic powers back in to bring out the weirder parts of the series and you still have a lethal near future sci-fi adventure with a focus on stealth. In fact, if you pop the shields back in, then you can probably get quite close to the tone Revengeance sets, if that’s your thing.

Goblin Quest: Here’s one that needs hardly any work. The game is basically the Overlord series, but you get to play the minions. What’s not to love about that? With a little bit of hacking you could even play a bunch of Dungeon Keeper imps trying to please the big slappy hand of their lord. As long as you want your game to be silly and your characters to be expendable, then this has you covered… I’d be sorely tempted to play a game of happy-go-lucky bandits from Pandora (Borderlands) too, they never last long.

Dark Heresy: This would make a fantastic stand-in for an XCOM game. The system is gritty and deadly, designed so non of the characters have any fun at all (characters, not players, that’s important). It also runs off of modifiers, encouraging players to make intelligent use of range, cover and positioning to give them the best possible odds of hitting a shot – it even uses a percentile system, just like XCOM. On top of this, the fear of the unknown runs deep in Dark Heresy and, although 40K uses demons, they can be easily reskinned as aliens without fiddling with the numbers. There’s also a high-risk, high-reward psionics system in place too, plus you’re than likely to make one mistake and have it wipe out your entire squad – maximum XCOM achieved.

13th Age: The obvious choice here is Dragon Age. It’s a classic Swords and Sorcery setting with a few defining twists, twists which the modular and accommodating nature of 13th Age happily allows for. The reason I recommend this instead of D&D or Pathfinder is down to the Icon system. This places individuals as defining elements of the world, and allows the players to leverage influence with each of these to change the world, which plays heavily into the grand themes of Dragon Age without having to crunch too many numbers. This relaxed approach to the mechanical elements of the game also frees up more space for the players to interact with each other and develop relationships during the normal course of play – which (based on all the fan art I’ve seen *ahem*) I imagine most fans of Dragon Age would agree is a very important part of those games.

I would also recommend 13th Age for Dishonored (although maybe as a group of non-Corvo based rebels?) as the almost mythic quality of the story and the characters play right into the idea of the icons so well: The Assassin, The Lord Regent, The Scientist… The Outsider. 13th Age is flexible enough to handle its removal from classical fantasy elements and Dishonored has more than enough mystery and magic to play into the roleplay’s various systems (telepathic clockwork heart anyone?). Plus it already has behemoths baked in and I want to see what those potentially godlike whales are up to…

 

Do It Yourself

I could definitely keep going. There are so many compelling video game worlds and so many roleplay systems out there (I haven’t even mentioned Savage Worlds – apart from now –  and I’ve just started running a game of Fragged Empire which might do a great job of running Destiny… oh and you could totally use Trail of Cthulhu to run Darkest Dungeon). Ultimately, when you converting a system to handle a particular world it comes down to theme.

Setting and mechanics for most systems can be easily tweaked on a small scale to imitate the world you want – technology can be reskinned as magic, monsters as aliens, brigands as street gangs, Gods as AIs – it just takes a little creative thinking, and identifying their respective role in each story. Yet the tone of the game, so how those mechanics interact with play on a wider level, the consequences of success or failure and the presentation of those mechanics is the most important part: is the system designed to make you feel weak, or powerful? Important or expendable? Is the system funny – encouraging hi-jinks and hilarity, or serious – brutally punishing a player for failure? You don’t want your XCOM soldiers shrugging off shotgun blasts to the face, but nor do you want your Assassin’s dying because they fell of a one-story building. If you want to convert a tabletop RPG to tell the story of a video game (or any other media for that matter), you need to make sure that, when people are playing the roleplay, they feel the same way as they would when they’re playing the video game – simple as that.

So what systems would you use to convert your favourite settings? Or are there any settings you can’t quite puzzle out? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to see what people come up with.

#FairytaleFriday – Disney

The illustrator put down his tablet pen and cradled his aching head in his hands.

A colleague scooted his wheely chair over, a concerned look on her face. “What’s up?”

The illustrator leaned back and scratched his head. “Ugh… nothing, it’s just… are they really sure about this? It’s all gone a bit… weird since we bought out WWE.” (more…)

#Fairytalefriday – Queue

I’m pretty sure that dragon shouldn’t be allowed to skip ahead. Fine, so you’ve got some big time business with the Queen, fiery rage, shiny heroics blah, blah blah. Seriously though, not acceptable, not in a nation that’s supposed to pride itself on its equality.

It makes me sick really. Here I am, waiting away for 15 hours – I camped overnight donchyaknow – just to supplicate our ruler for another well in our village. (more…)

I really hope Ubisoft didn't put in that iconic cap bit themselves.

The Death of the Protagonist

This is an article I’ve been meaning to write for a while – based initially on my Master’s Dissertation (it was horribly flawed and prescriptive, we live and learn), then further developed and refined as a talk for last year’s Nine Worlds convention. That convention’s super good and you should go to it, I know I will be. Anyway, here we go, version three:

How do you control a book, a film, a play or a painting?  The simplest answer is you… don’t. Unless you’re actually creating the thing. You can make the argument that you control such media through environmental factors – where you choose to interact with it, what mood you’re in when you interact with it, whether you’re wearing your glasses and can see it clearly, all kinds of things. However, that interaction is exactly that: Interaction. Not control. (more…)

A note on Peter Molyneux’s promises

[Full disclosure: I’m friends with Laura Kate Dale and worked with her at indiehaven.com. I have run a couple of socials for RPS but I’ve never contributed or even spoken to half of them and have exchanged a whole three tweets with John Walker. If anyone wants to accuse me of collusion or unfair bias then please feel free to put it in the comments and will personally find a unique, cordial way to tell you to go fuck yourself.]

There have been a flurry of articles this week dealing with the state of Godus, the kickstarted god game from 22 Cans, as well as interviews with Molyneux himself and Bryan Henderson, winner of the Curiosity competition and the God of Godus’ Gods. This might look like a little piggyback article, aiming to drive views to my blog by taking advantage of the latest drama in gaming. That’s not my intention. I’m writing this because I care an awful lot (maybe too much) about Molyneux, what he represents and the recent coverage of him. If you don’t believe me then you can stop reading now and go and read the articles by Wesley Yin-Poole, Laura Kate Dale and John Walker… besides, my ‘I’m popular’ numbers have already ticked up, sucker. (more…)