Tools for Dreaming: What is an RPG?

The first proper chapter after the introduction to Tools for Dreaming delves into the question of what the heck an RPG actually is. There were a few unfinished sections I cut out of this blog post version, most notable a piece about how whatever the designers might try to sell their games as, RPG play is often silly and violent.

What is an RPG?

No, seriously, what exactly is a role-playing game? If you’re reading this, chances are you already have your own answer, but I guarantee there are people out there who disagree with you. Luckily (sort of), there’s no single right answer to that question.

Having a clear definition of something is generally useful. If I use the word “ostensibly” in a sentence, it’s better for you to know that it basically means “apparently” or “outwardly.” On the other hand, there are cases where trying to come up with a definition becomes counterproductive. That’s especially true when the thing we’re trying to define has a lot of fuzzy edge cases, and even more so when the people writing definitions have an agenda. People who argue over the definition of “RPG” tend to be pushing for one that emphasizes their preferred kinds, and sometimes one that excludes other kinds. Ultimately, “RPGs” are “the sorts of things that people call RPGs,” but whether a work is compelling is much more important than whether it technically fits into a box.

Continue reading Tools for Dreaming: What is an RPG?

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Tools for Dreaming: Introduction

A couple years ago I started writing a book on RPG design called “Tools for Dreaming.” It’s wound up being kind of a massive project–the manuscript is already 73,000 words and feels incomplete–and I’m trying to figure out what exactly to do with it. Finishing it the way I started it will require kind of a lot of research and work. I’m considering taking the various parts and turning them into one or more smaller, more focused books, but that’ll also take some time and thought. In the meantime, I’ve decided to start posting the more developed parts of it as a series of blog posts, in the hopes that it will be of use to someone, help me figure out where I’m going with this, and perhaps provoke some discussion and feedback.

t4d

So let’s get this whole thing started with the introduction, which is kind of a long, flailing attempt to lay out a bunch of preliminaries and disclaimers.

Introduction

Role-playing games are in an odd place today. There’s no denying that the entire medium isn’t nearly as popular as it once was. On a purely commercial level, the entire industry has shrunk since the heyday of the 80s and 90s, and game stores make more money from other types of tabletop games.[1] On the other hand, in terms of the variety and quality of games that are coming out, the medium is the best it’s ever been. It may not be a great time to start an RPG publishing business, but it’s a great time to be a fan of new and interesting games, and a fascinating time to be a game designer.

Continue reading Tools for Dreaming: Introduction

Making d66 Tables

I first encountered d66 tables in Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, but I first started taking them seriously because of Maid: The Role-Playing Game. While working on The Dungeon Zone, I started writing a section on creating new moves, which naturally led to a section on creating d66 tables, which didn’t quite fit in TDZ and could be helpful to people working on other sorts of projects anyway. So, these are some tips for assembling good tables, drawing on my fairly unique experience of making literally hundreds of them across various games and even just making tables for their own sake.

“d66” is the term used in the Japanese TRPG scene for a tens-and-ones roll with two six-sided dice. It’s very much like how you can do a percentile roll with two d10s, and each roll gives you one of 36 possible results numbered 11 to 66. I kinda hope that the d66 terminology catches on so that it becomes easier to explain to people, but anyway.

I mainly work in Microsoft Word (I really need to learn InDesign one of these days), and in Word I typically write things up as a numbered list (so that I know when I’ve gotten to 36), and then apply the Normal style to it, and then copy and paste it into a table. (I also like to use the Sort function to alphabetize them, but I’m weird that way.) Word has table styles (in the Design tab of the Table Tools that come up when you’re editing a table), and I like to make them with alternating shaded rows and no borders, but of course you can do what you like. Once you type up 11 to 66 once, you can copy it to future tables you make.

quirk
The “Adventurer Quirk” table from The Dungeon Zone, which uses what has become my standard table style.

Getting Started

To get started, you basically just have to sit down and pick a topic for your table, then start typing up a list of things to populate it with until you have enough. Chances are you don’t have enough things for the table just off the top of your head, so it helps to look at relevant books, Wikipedia articles, or other websites. If you want to make a random spell table, a Players Handbook or a wiki of spells would be a good place to turn for ideas.

I find it’s not unlike other creative endeavors in that sometimes I need to step away from a project for a bit, or look for sources of inspiration, or just get out a notebook and jot things down as they come to me. Sometimes–especially for stuff like random events–I’ll end up just plain sitting down and watching a TV series with a notebook on hand.

The Right Size

The amount of elements available within the table’s topic will determine the actual size of the table. A basic d66 table has 36 entries, which I find to be just right for most things, but you can vary it a bit:

  • x2 Numbering: By numbering the table index 11-12, 13-14, and so on, you can make a table with 18 entries instead of 36. For some topics I’ve found that a full 36 entries is just too many.
  • x3 Numbering: You can go one further by numbering the table index in increments of 3 (11-13, 14-16, etc.) to make a table with only 12 entries. You can do it with other multiples (like 4, giving you a table of 9 possible results) or stagger the numbers by uneven amounts, but doing so tends to make the table less readable.
  • d6 Table: The very simplest thing you can do is just make a table based on rolling a single die. For some things there are so few possibilities that it makes sense to have a table of only 6 results, or possible even fewer.
  • Sub-Tables: The Special Qualities table in Maid RPG makes use of “sub-tables.” If you roll any of the SQs numbered 41 or higher, you then make a 1d6 roll on a secondary table to get a more specific SQ. That gives that particular table 126 possible results, with several being six times more likely to come up. They can be a handy way to drill down and explore a branch of your table in more depth without having to go for a full-on d666 table.
  • d666 Table: Adding a hundreds digit to your d66 roll gives you a d666 roll, affording you a grand total of 216 possibilities. This mainly works for topics where you have a fairly large number of small things. You can get more ambitious and have a d666 table with longer individual entries (check out the Morning Announcements table in Kagegami High pp. 136-150), but it’s going to be time-consuming and painful, even if you do end up satisfied with the result.

Number of Columns

One important consideration is the number of columns. Here I’m not talking about how you lay out the table on the page, but the number of things you roll for to use the table in its entirety. Multi-column tables are harder to make, but the random combinations mean literally exponentially more possibilities. A single-column d66 table has 36 possible results, but a double-column one has 1,296 possible results, and if you manage a three-column one it jumps up to 46,646.

Things That Fit

Especially for multi-column tables, you need to look at each entry and think about whether it really fits together with the rest of the table. In the case of a single-column table, that’s just a matter of making sure every entry is an appropriate example of what the table is supposed to be about. For the Pole Arm table in TDZ, I just had to come up with a suitable list of 36 pole arms, and while I nearly exhausted what Wikipedia had to offer on the subject, it was pretty straightforward. The Gamer Additional Languages table was a little trickier, because I had to actually think about and research what kinds of other languages nerds might know. I’m inordinately pleased with myself for having “High School Spanish” be an entry distinct from “Spanish,” and looking over lists of constructed languages yielded Klingon and Dothraki. But given that RPG players are primarily white guys (though I count some very good friends among the exceptions), other real-life languages are trickier. Still, given the range of nerds I’ve met here in California, it felt reasonable to include languages like Vietnamese and Tagalog. The creative challenge of figuring out enough suitable things to reach the right number of elements can force you to come up with some interesting stuff, but sometimes it turns out that you need to make a smaller table or just abandon that particular table altogether.

Things get significantly more complicated when you have multiple columns, because you have to think about how they fit together. That was something I first started to encounter when I decided to try my hand at making my own Cards Against Humanity cards. I haven’t been able to figure out the proper grammatical term, but the white cards in CAH are normally either a noun or an -ing verb, either of which can have various adjectives, adverbs, etc. attached. When I tried to make a black card playing off of that one song from Macross, having it be “My boyfriend’s a _____________ now.” didn’t work with a lot of the white cards because the “a” screwed up the grammar. When you make a multi-column table, even if you don’t have the formal grammatical terminology, you need to figure out what things fit and what don’t.

This is at its easiest when each column has a very simple and clear grammatical form you can follow. Personal names are one of the simplest in this regard, since you can just have columns for first and last names (and possibly split the first names into male and female). I once made a table of monster names, where the first column was all adjectives (Dire, Three-Eyed, Water, Lesser, etc.) and the second was all nouns for monster types (Beast, Golem, Slime, Spawn, etc.). One setup that I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of for fantasy/pulp sounding names is “The X of Y,” which worked nicely for things like grimoires (“The Codex of Ineffable Magics”) or pulp titles (“The Tomb of the Golden Masks”).

One little workaround that I’ve developed is to include parentheticals that make let a given element click together with multiple types of elements. For example, my Martial Arts Movie Titles table has “Fist of (the)” in the first column, so that it can fit with other entries in the second column to form titles like “Fist of Blood” as well as “Fist of the White Lotus.” Of course, in that respect titles of things like anime and Japanese video games are especially fun to work with, since they largely ignore rules of grammar in both English and Japanese, so that most anything can go with most anything else. (On the other hand, I found it basically impossible to make tables for light novel titles, which are known for being long, baroque, and ridiculous, with no two quite the same.)

Proofing and Testing

Once you have things written up, you need to of course proofread and test the resulting table. Making these tables is partly a writing exercise, so of course you need to do proofing more or less like you would with any other piece of writing.

The single most common issue I run into is simply having duplicate entries. Particularly when I’m having trouble coming up with elements to go into a table, I can end up putting the same thing in twice. Aside from how it satisfies my desire to organize things, one of the benefits of sorting table entries is that it makes duplicate entries much easier to catch. (It also has the benefit of putting the table entries into a new order and forcing you to look at them from a different perspective.)

While the aforementioned exponential nature of multi-column tables makes it totally unreasonable to expect anyone to look at every single possible combination, you should play with the table a bit to see if it’s really producing the right kinds of results (whatever that means for the purpose you have in mind). Eyeball some different possible combinations and do some rolling as well to see if you’re getting results that are sufficiently cool/funny/whatever for your purpose, and try to look at each individual element and see if it generally works. You may need to weed some out and figure out replacements, which may be difficult if you were already straining to get up to the requisite number of elements.

Conclusion

Anyway, that’s what I have to say about making d66 tables, though you can apply these general techniques to other things, like text that goes on cards or other configurations of tables (like I made tables for use with playing card draws in Melancholy Kaiju)–basically anything with discrete elements that you assemble randomly and let people recontextualize and reinterpret.

I’ve found d66 tables to be an incredibly useful tool in RPG design, and through my Ewen’s Tables stuff I’ve ended up turning using them as a sort of metafictional poetic form, most often for humor, and occasionally for satire as well (as in the case of the “Workshop Games” table I made that lampoons the goofy names of units in Games Workshop’s wargames). The major thing I’ve developed that keeps me coming back to using them in so many of my games is marrying various “soft” character traits similar to the questions in Don’t Rest Your Head with optional random tables similar to the ones in Maid RPG. It’s a useful way to package those kinds of things with a set of examples as well as to give players the (very popular!) option to just generate a character randomly. They’re also just a great way to give GMs tools to turn to when they need ideas for basically anything, which is a concept I took to its furthest extreme in Kagegami High, where the majority of the 168-page book has d66 numbering so that you can use a ton of things in a randomized fashion.

The End of the Robotech RPG

Palladium’s Robotech RPG was the first RPG I ever played, and one I played extensively through middle school and high school. That’s probably why I feel the need to write about it in the wake of the news that, presumably because of the fiasco of the Robotech RPG Tactics Kickstarters, Harmony Gold decided not to renew Palladium’s license.

Robotech - Core Rulebook-1
The cover of the original Robotech RPG core rulebook.

Hindsight being 20/20, Palladium’s “Megaversal” ruleset was a very poor fit for Robotech (less so for stuff like TMNT and Rifts). On the one hand the ruleset was pretty average for 1986, but on the other hand Mike Pondsmith had published Mekton in 1984, and West End Games put out the brilliant Ghostbusters RPG in 1986, so a better Robotech RPG design clearly wasn’t impossible. The Macross Saga part of Robotech (which was a relatively straight localization of The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross) was about the power of love and music during a desperate war against an unknown enemy. Palladium essentially used a mutant D&D variant to create a sci-fi military RPG with giant robots, and didn’t make any effort to address even the basic conceit of confusing the enemy’s emotions with pop music. I don’t know that we would’ve appreciated a system that did Macross justice back in high school, but I do know that in our games Palladium’s rules didn’t contribute all that much to the experience compared to the effort that the GM and players put in.

macross
The DVD cover of the Macross movie, which unlike the Palladium cover, shows that it’s a story that involves characters that are human beings and not just cool transforming robots.

Of course, the Robotech RPG line was nonetheless successful, and put out a series of books with pictures of giant robots and such over the course of 30 years. I distinctly remember going to a convention panel about Robotech: Shadow Chronicles, and hearing the Harmony Gold people present saying that they were very happy with Palladium. Of course, that would’ve been in 2005 or so, and in the intervening 13 years Robotech RPG Tactics happened.

Despite a pretty profound obsession with all things Palladium overtaking our group in high school, we tried several other games (Toon, various World of Darkness games, GURPS, etc.), and moreover once out of high school everyone who stuck with RPGs found (and in my case designed) other, better games. Of course, making games that aren’t exactly top-notch design-wise isn’t a crime, and isn’t nearly as much of a liability in the industry as you might think, but even setting aside their lackluster game design chops, Palladium seems to be pretty dysfunctional as a company. They always seemed weirdly litigious and technologically backwards, and while some of the things they did to go against the prevailing trends turned out well (like doing softcover books at a time when RPG rulebooks were mostly hardcover and boxed sets), based on what Bill Coffin said about Kevin Siembieda’s approach to publishing books, it’s just not a good process creatively, business-wise, or on a basic interpersonal level. Even for weird little indie stuff, a certain amount of delegation is essential to get anything done, and a basic level of respect for your contributors is a must.

A miniatures game based on Robotech isn’t for me personally, but it’s kind of a no-brainer overall, and the Kickstarter for Robotech RPG Tactics raised $1.4 million. Of course, if you mainly produce products in the form of books, miniatures represent a massively complex undertaking that requires a great deal of expertise. That would explain why Palladium partnered with Ninja Division, which has successful games like Super Dungeon Explore and Relic Knights, but the whole thing has been a giant mess, which reached a new low with the loss of the license and a suicide attempt by the designer. Along the way there were major manufacturing issues that a company like Ninja Division with multiple miniatures games under their belt should’ve been able to avoid, which made getting manufacturing in China set up more expensive and time-consuming, and resulted in poor quality miniatures. All of this news comes to us with Kevin Siembieda’s writing, which never misses an opportunity to include a trademark symbol, and has things bolded at random. Watching from the sidelines I’m not going to try to untangle all of the blame, but it’s a pretty huge mess, and a lot of people aren’t going to get the game they paid for.

There are apparently people talking about a class-action lawsuit against Palladium, and I have to wonder if that will be the thing that finally tanks the company. I have a hard time applauding the demise of yet another RPG publisher–and one that defined my early years in this hobby no less–but then given everything we know about Palladium, it’s surprising that they’ve managed to keep shambling along this long. The Savage Worlds version of Rifts is a great illustration of how the company has a lot of wonderfully zany ideas with potential, but apparently lacks the ability to really compellingly implement them for anyone not impressed with lists of increasingly more powerful guns and robots. Savage Rifts got me excited about the story possibilities of Rifts North America in a way that Palladium’s own Rifts books never did. Their attempts to branch out beyond RPGs haven’t gone that well either, most notably when a Rifts video game got made, for the widely mocked failure that was the Nokia N-Gage.

Regardless, I hope that the talented people who’ve worked for Palladium like C.J. Carella (who created Nightbane and made some great contributions to Rifts), Kevin Long (whose art defined a lot of the look of Rifts and Palladium’s Robotech), Vince Martin (who among other things did all kinds of unique designs for the Naruni and Rifts Underseas), and Newton Ewell (who did phenomenal work for Rifts Atlantis and Pantheons of the Megaverse) have all found more and better employment. Likewise I hope that people remember Erick Wujcik’s legacy.

Of course, Harmony Gold is another company that has a pretty bad reputation, on account of being so litigious about their tenuously-held Robotech rights that they’ve gone as far as to block the sale of Macross toys manufactured in Japan, not to mention going after anyone who uses designs even vaguely similar to those seen in Robotech. HG turned the licensing issues with BattleTech into a protracted mess, and now there’s a whole thing with the “Unseen” BattleMechs. All of that probably makes Harmony Gold a worse company than Palladium, and while they too made something that defined my early years, the fact that their rights to the anime that make up Robotech expire in 2021 (and given that Tatsunoko sued Harmony Gold, they probably won’t opt to renew it) means that if nothing else we’ll go from a litigious American company to the benign neglect of the odd combination of multiple Japanese companies that hold the rights.

Anyway, that’s our dose of industry drama for today. I outgrew being angry about Palladium a while ago, but every now and then I end up seeing posts online and thinking, “What’s Kevin Siembieda done this time?” You have to be passionate and not too concerned with making money to get into RPG publishing, but then I have to wonder if the fact that I haven’t heard about similar fiascoes with, say, independent comics is just because I’m not as plugged in or what.

The Dungeon Zone

For whatever reason my “weird little games” have gotten bigger and started taking longer to finish, moving from 10 pages to more like 60+ pages. On the plus side, I’ve been pretty happy with how they’ve been turning out. One of the big ones at the moment is The Dungeon Zone.

DnD Zone Cover
Planning to replace the art in the middle with something else, but still, I had fun making a pastiche of the OD&D box cover. I’m inordinately amused about “1-Volume Set.”

I have a weird relationship with D&D. Of course, the RPG scene in general has a weird relationship with D&D, but in particular I started playing RPGs with Palladium’s Robotech RPG, then didn’t really play any D&D until 3rd Edition came out (though I owned and read a lot of AD&D books and made a handful of faltering attempts at playing them), and then across 3rd, 4th, and 5th editions I played it for about a decade of regular play in all, before basically deciding that I’d played A Sufficient Amount of D&D. I have a lot of criticism of the game (I’m even working on a book that’s an extended critique of D&D, though it’d be a lot of work to actually bring it to fruition), though also a good amount of praise to go along with it. It can be a rollicking good time, but it’s a pretty specific game that excels at certain kinds of play and is mediocre to actively harmful for others. You can use it for stuff other than its core dungeon fantasy competence, in much the same way that if you’re determined enough you can put in nails with a screwdriver. The best D&D fiction and actual play celebrates how it’s a kitchen sink dungeon fantasy game about a band of weirdos flailing around and getting into trouble, and doesn’t try to ape Tolkien or other authors far removed from the dungeon fantasy genre.

One that particularly inspired me was The Adventure Zone‘s “Balance” campaign. The McElroy Brothers are best known for their My Brother, My Brother and Me podcast, but they do a kind of ridiculous number of other podcasts and other online stuff. TAZ is the result of them (and their dad) sitting down to play RPGs, and the Balance campaign (loosely) uses D&D 5th Edition (with a custom PbtA hack for one arc), and to me it’s pretty much everything that D&D play should aspire to. There’s also the fact that they apparently record for several hours and edit it down to a reasonable podcast length, cutting out the inevitable boring bits. Continue reading The Dungeon Zone

Spooktacular (and Sixtacular)

Spooktacular is finally out! Or at least the initial PDF is up for sale on DriveThruRPG. I still need to put together the POD versions (UPDATE: It’s now available in print through Amazon!), and I also want to make a set of reference cards for equipment and such. It’s been something like 18 months since I started on it, and while I would’ve liked to have it out sooner, James Workman‘s art turned out great, and the extra time let me polish and improve the text, so I’m pretty happy with the end result.

Spooktacular Cover

I wrote a blog post about it back in August of 2016 (wow), but Spooktacular is basically an updated retroclone of the West End Games Ghostbusters RPG, which was a forgotten gem of 1980s RPG design that among other things served as the starting point for the D6 System that powered the beloved WEG Star Wars RPG. Much like the many OSR retroclones of D&D, I’m hoping that with Spooktacular I can help preserve a pretty amazing game that was way ahead of its time, a game that created or was an early adopter for several innovations that we largely take for granted today. (Like, it legitimately appears to be the first RPG ever to use a dice pool mechanic.)

I made some relatively small changes to the rules, but for backwards compatibility the main thing you need to know is that 1 point of Ectopresence in Ghostbusters equals 2 points of Presence in Spooktacular, owing to the slightly different damage system.

Supplemental

I’m also working on some supplemental material for Spooktacular. I was originally planning to just make one big book called “Spookstravaganza,” but I have enough ideas that it seems like it’ll make more sense to do 2-3 smaller ones.

Ghostbusters is kind of a weird franchise in that its core it basically consists of 2 movies, but it has kind of a lot of non-canonical secondary stuff. There was The Real Ghostbusters cartoon in the 80s (with tie-in comics), Extreme Ghostbusters, a bunch of video games (most notably the 2003 Ghostbusters: The Video Game, which brought the original actors back to do voices, and for which Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis did a lot of the writing), the 2016 reboot movie, and the IDW comics series (which has established its own universe that’s had a series of crossovers with other titles). There have also been some surprisingly good tie-in books recently, notably Ghosts From Our Past: Both Figuratively and Literally (based on the in-universe book from the 2016 movie), Tobin’s Spirit Guide, and Ectomobile (which is framed as an in-universe guide to Ectomobiles and other gear for Ghostbusters International franchisees).

One of the major challenges of Ghostbusters is that the premise includes some concepts that should have mind-bendingly huge implications for that fictional world. The Ghostbusters have scientifically demonstrated the reality of ghosts–which at least strongly implies that life after death is a thing in some form–and technology to detect and capture them. Ghostbusters II essentially dealt with this by trying to sidestep the question entirely, declaring that despite the marshmallow kaiju smashing up New York, most everyone had decided that the Ghostbusters were full of shit, including the courts, and they had to essentially claw their way back to restarting their business. Patrick Willems did an interesting video about the idea that Ghostbusters is “a movie about nothing,” which I think nicely encapsulates how the original Ghostbusters somehow manages to be a more or less perfect comedy movie despite having no character arcs or themes per se, instead presenting a procedural plot that periodically bends towards a number of themes but doesn’t quite develop any of them. The 2016 movie in contrast was written with more modern storytelling sensibilities, making skepticism of the supernatural and social acceptance and friendship into important themes. It doesn’t have the perfect alchemy of on-screen chemistry, a new and irresistible concept, an all-around fantastic soundtrack, cutting-edge special effects, etc. that made the original film so incredible, but the use of clearer storytelling devices makes it a much better film than it could’ve easily become.

For an RPG, the good thing about all of that is that Ghostbusters doesn’t create too many expectations beyond using dodgy gadgets to zap ghosts. In Spooktacular I’ve tried to find a happy medium between charting out my own approach to the premise and leaving it open for the people playing to decide on their own. My ideal take on a Spooktacular story is kind of like a Graham Lineham comedy with busting ghosts, but maybe yours is different, which would be totally cool.

Between the source material, real-life reports of hauntings, and just exploring possibilities there’s kind of an enormous amount of stuff I can do for Spooktacular. I’m working on some new archetypes, new gear, options for different types of containment grids, a zillion different ghosts, paranormal organizations, a selection of human NPCs, dangerous paratechnology for NPCs villains to use, and monsters other than ghosts to spice things up now and then. I never really got the hang of writing up adventure scenarios, but Spooktacular is both a game that lends itself to them (unlike some of my other games that run more on GMing procedures) and a simple enough game that I already know the rules inside and out, so I’m seriously thinking of making the attempt.

Sixtacular

Sixtacular

I’ve been running a Doctor Who RPG campaign for some friends, and while the rules that Cubicle 7 put together for it are pretty good and the campaign has been a lot of fun, I kept thinking that something derived from the rules of Spooktacular could do pretty much the same job more simply. When I brainstormed ideas for different settings and genres to do with the system, I quickly wound up with an impractically long list of possibilities. While I want to do a bit more with the system myself, the sheer potential I see combined with the fact that it’s so much standing on the shoulders of giants led me to the idea of releasing it as an open system.  I arrived at the name “Sixtacular” for the system (owing to its familial relation to the D6 System), and I’m planning to release an SRD under the Open Game License so people can go to town making games. It may not amount to anything or there may be an annoying prevalence of games with “-tacular” in the title, but regardless it’ll be there for you to play with. The 1.0 version of the SRD will be a pretty basic thing with the Spooktacular core rules minus the tables and the ghost-specific parts, but I’m hoping that through myself and others developing the system further it’ll change and grow over time.

UPDATE: I added the SRD in PDF and docx formats to the Spooktacular/Sixtacular page:

Sixtacular SRD 1.0 (PDF)
Sixtacular SRD 1.0 (docx)

I’m planning for my next Sixtacular game after Spooktacular to be Zaptacular: Mad Science AdventuresRick & Morty is an important influence, but it basically mashes up elements of all my favorite comedy sci-fi stuff–Red Dwarf, Futurama, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, and many, many more–with a cynical modern-day Earth as the default setting (but options for time-hopping like Doctor Who, being lost in deep space like in Red Dwarf, and so on). There’s kind of a ridiculous amount of media that I really love that fits squarely into Zaptacular’s wheelhouse, as well as a bunch of my own random creations that work well with it, so I expect to have a lot of stuff to stick into the game’s multiversal setting.

Adaptation and Symbols

The other day I went to California Extreme, which is an arcade gaming convention held in Santa Clara, CA. It doesn’t hurt that my brother-in-law is one of the organizers, but it’s a really nifty event that I try to get to every year if I can. The core of it is just a huge room full of free-play arcade machines that people have set up, ranging from analog pinball machines to brand new independent arcade games (like Cosmotrons). Although arcade games are overwhelmingly the core of what CAX is about, it also features a single panel room, which has had some really interesting speakers over the years. I’ve seen panels from Atari veterans and the creator of Crazy Otto (the unauthorized Pac-Man enhancement kit that became the basis of Ms. Pac-Man), and this year, aside from a talk by Al Alcorn (who built the original Pong machine and worked on several other major Atari projects), I saw a panel by UCSC professor Nathan Altice about board game adaptations of video games, something he’s been studying in depth for a little while now.

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I actually own a copy of Milton-Bradley’s 1982 Pac-Man board game, which is kind of a strange beast. You set up a maze in the vein of one from Pac-Man, with two ghosts and 2-4 Pac-Man player pieces in different colors. The player pieces are molded plastic and for some reason the plastic is molded to give them rows of pointed teeth. On your turn you roll two dice and assign them to moving your Pac-Man and/or the ghosts, so that instead of an AI enemy, the ghosts are a shared weapon. Your can push your Pac-Man piece down on a marble and if it works properly it picks the marble up. You keep playing until you clear out all of the marbles, and whoever has the most marbles is the winner. The result plays fast but takes a little time to set up, and while there is skill involved, it has a level of randomness that pushes it more into simple kids’ game territory, especially in the eyes of Board Game Geek users. Of course, Milton-Bradley was marketing it towards ages 7-14, and selling in big department stores, so that’s not too surprising.

In the U.S., Milton-Bradley, Parker Brothers, and a few others published several board games based on video games in the 1980s, while in Japan, Bandai put out quite a few, and Namco made three. In the U.S., licensed games based on TV shows had helped revitalize board games in the 1950s, so it was pretty natural for the major board game manufacturers to pick up video game licenses during the video game boom of the 80s. Today there are some sophisticated adaptations of video games from hobby game publishers like Fantasy Flight, but Milton-Bradley was selling to families through department stores, so their games tended to be simple and perhaps more “literal” in their adaptations than a hobby game designer today would create. While the number of components in the Pac-Man board game isn’t especially large compared to some of the games out there, it’s not too hard to imagine a Pac-Man tabletop game that captures some of the feel of moving around a maze, trying to grab all the pellets and avoid the ghosts, without the need for a physical object to represent every single pellet. From Altice’s discussion, Pole Position was one of the more interesting video game-based board games, because it was essentially a bluffing game disguised as a racing game.

From what he said in the panel, Mr. Altice found the major parallels in these games were:

  • These games often tried to mimic enemy “AI” in various ways, whether through player choice, randomness, or “programming” by way of simple game mechanics.
  • Boards are an effective way of representing physical space. Single-screen video games (e.g. Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, etc.) translate well to a single board. When faced with scrolling video games, board game designers often used some form of map tiles.
  • Board game adaptations of video games were often translating a single-player experience into a multiplayer one, and it often proved difficult for the designers.
  • Manufacturers often marketed these as a way to bring the fun of the arcade home.
  • A significant portion of the effectiveness of an adaptation comes from aesthetics.

Exposure to a bunch of arcade games, combined with the panel, got me thinking a lot about adaptations and abstractions. Because of the way the human mind works, we live in a sea of symbols as much as a physical world, and game designers frequently take advantage of that. Video games used to use very simple symbols out of necessity due to hardware limitations. Some games would have epic cover art inviting us to imagine a bigger world based on very simple symbols (check out the Missile Command box art below, as opposed to the very simple lines and blocks of the actual game), while games like Pac-Man and Q*bert had their actual on-screen content and what you were meant to imagine looking very similar. They naturally took advantage of the newer symbols that these games created too. The Atari 2600 has limited graphics capabilities compared to the Pac-Man arcade machines, so the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man famously had kind of mediocre-looking graphics, but anyone who’d played Pac-Man would at least have no doubt that the lines were the dots and the white squares were the power pellets.

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Newer video games can show us basically any image they can fit onto a screen, so the use of symbols is more a matter of good UI design, and no longer just the only means available to communicate anything to the player. Board games have to provide a set of physical components, which gives them a very different physicality from video games. Board game components can include actual artwork, and didn’t have to conform to the limitations of early pixel graphics. Of course, they did have to deal with the limitations of mass-market board game manufacturing, which is why there were a lot of punchboards and stickers and not many detailed plastic figures. With current video games the amount of media assets a single game can include is massive, and tabletop adaptations have an even greater need to find the portions of the source material that they can represent effectively. On the other hand, a hobby game can have a higher price point and higher production values, so that you can in fact have a board game with a collection of detailed plastic figures if enough people back the Kickstarter.

Current pop culture is perhaps excessively about adaptations, remakes, sequels, and reboots. Some of these are bringing wholly new notions to different media (American Gods), while others trade on nostalgia and familiar signifiers (Ready Player One). While there’s no denying that Hollywood has gone overboard with the regular stream of remakes and sequels, part of why these things keep coming out is that people pay money for them. If you look at the lists of top-grossing films in recent years, stand-alone movies not directly derived from prior movies in some way are the exception to the rule, making up only one or two of the top ten. While originality is important to the long-term health of any creative medium, people enjoy seeing something familiar brought to them in a new way.

Any time you adapt a work to a new medium, you have to figure out what parts of the original to represent. That’s especially important when the two media involved are radically different. It’s striking when we compare board games to other media, because good board games comprise a set of rules interactions that are fun to engage, and don’t produce a narrative per se. They make invoke story elements in interesting ways (such as how Star Trek Expeditions has a card that creates a setback stemming from Kirk making a pass at the ambassador’s wife) and draw on a narrative for inspiration, but they need to be able to function as a construct of pure rules, even if the final product is making good use of aesthetics to add more flavor than that. The process of teasing out a game from source material can produce wildly different results, which is why Star Trek Expeditions and Star Trek Panic both have a distinct Star Trek feel, even though they’re really different games.

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The Fate Accelerated campaign I’m playing in is in a fantasy setting, but has a lot more to do with KonoSuba (the GM really wanted to do an isekai game) than D&D or Tolkien.

All of this is interesting to me as an RPG guy because RPGs are so dependent on a group of people having a consensus about a fictional world. The relative expense of licensing means that there aren’t so many licensed RPGs out there, but I feel like the medium and the culture around it naturally lend themselves to adaptation. RPGs are recontextualization engines, naturally serving as a framework for taking bits of culture and repurposing them in different ways. D&D is a mashup of pieces from practically everything in fantasy literature and mythology, given a unique spin. When people sit down to play it, they naturally use pieces of culture they’re familiar with, describing their original characters in terms of other characters from pop culture, using elements of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones to help build a story, and so on.

Even when we step outside of D&D, a lot of the most popular RPGs relate to works in some other media, whether with the directness of the Star Wars or Call of Cthulhu RPGs, or less overtly as in Vampire: The Masquerade or Fiasco. A lot of my own RPG design efforts have been about bringing different elements of anime into the realm of tabletop RPGs. I gave up on the idea of a “universal anime RPG” ages ago, but even the original anime creators can have different takes on the same source material, as shown by the different versions of Ghost in the Shell. I think part of why anime (and other Japanese pop culture stuff) interests me so much as an RPG designer is that despite its popularity, it’s underrepresented in RPGs. If I decide to make a superhero RPG (I do have an idea for one, because of course I do), there are already dozens out there, whereas if I decide to make a magical girl RPG, I can count the number currently available on one hand. Moreover, anime is even more a part of my group’s pop culture stew than stuff like H.P. Lovecraft or Lord of the Rings, and that’s stuff we want to explore and celebrate through RPG play.

There are some great RPGs that don’t owe allegiance to any specific source material (Dogs in the Vineyard comes to mind), and while I think the medium absolutely needs those for its creative health, RPG play all but demands tapping into other media as reference points, and from a design perspective, taking inspiration from other media can often lead us to try new things we might not have thought to do in an RPG before. Anyway, I’m not sure I ever quite reached a thesis with these ramblings, but I think there’s some interesting stuff here.