Sunday, May 22, 2011

Prodigal Son: My Sandbox or Yours?

Part Eleven:

    Using a well established universe for your game can be a blessing and a curse.  There have been media tie-in games for a long time.  Middle Earth, Call of Cthulhu, Ghostbusters, and Star Trek all the way up through Serenity, Buffy, and Battlestar Galactica and many more today.  Well loved settings that people are attracted to for one reason or another, they are obvious breeding ground for roleplaying stories.  They can be a great way to bring in people.  But they can also lead to frustration and disappointment.

    I’ve run many media tie-in games over the years.  Call of Cthulhu on several occasions.  Star Trek for one really fun, but painfully short mini-campaign.  Babylon 5 for a while.  And a few others.  And I’ve played in a bunch, as well.  Some Star Wars, Middle Earth, Star Trek and some others.  And I’ve had varied success both as a player and game master.

    There are several good things about trying media tie-in games, especially for a GM (game master).  The most obvious is familiarity.  If I say, “I want to run a game of Fading Suns,” many people will just look at me blankly.  Same for Whispering Vault, Ars Magica, Unknown Armies, and many of the other games I really like.  But if I say, “I’m putting together a Star Wars game,” people know what you’re talking about.  They may even have a character in mind already.

    Playing in someone else’s sandbox can be a lot of fun.  Star Wars and Middle Earth, for example, have a lot of background material that has been produced, beyond the movies or original novels.  There are different eras you might wish to play in, different regions or worlds.  All sorts of interesting character options and story types.  But all within a setting that is easy to approach and widely known.

    This can also be a source of trouble, though.  People who know these settings and might enjoy gaming in them also tend to have specific ideas about what they should be like and what sorts of things should happen.  I’ll use Star Wars as an example, because it’s a setting I’ve given some serious thought to using, but carries a great deal of baggage.  If I were to run Star Wars, I would have to decide right out of the gate what I would keep and what I would drop.  I don’t like the prequel trilogy, for example.  But, I also don’t think too highly of Return of the Jedi.  More than likely, I would set my game sometime around the time of the first film.  The so called ‘Rebellion Era.’  I also don’t like some stuff done with Vader as the films go on.  I preferred when he was simply a villain, and not Luke’s dad.  And I liked a snippet I read a long time ago that said something about Vader wearing the ‘uniform of a Sith’ implying that he was not the only one.  I always imagined the Sith were like the Gestapo, existing alongside, but outside of the normal Imperial military.  And Star Wars, at its heart, was a Flash Gordon style space opera with rocket ships and ray-guns.  That’s much more what I’d want to play up if I ran the game.  So, if I ran Star Wars, I’d be throwing out a LOT of what’s there.  Obviously, for a big fan of the films, especially a purist, this would be near blasphemy.

    You might ask, if I were going to throw out so much of the established universe, why run Star Wars at all.  It’s a good question.  Again, you must balance what you want to run with what your players might find accessible.  I ran a game of Fading Suns for quite some time.  It’s a science fiction game with a strong medieval European style, more than a dash of Dune, and a dose or two of Star Wars for good measure.  But I had more than one player who continued to have a hard time really getting into the game.  Even though the stories were stories I could have told within the context of Star Wars, the players had a difficult time getting into it, and largely because it wasn’t a setting they connected with.  Had I actually used Star Wars, this likely wouldn’t have been an issue.

    So, it’s a difficult choice that creates problems in either direction.  With a more ‘original’ setting, you always run the risk of players having difficulty connecting.    But with established media tie-in settings, you run the constant chance of disappointing players with different interpretation, selective inclusion and exclusion of ideas.

    To combat the disappointment, I try to get some problems out of the way straight away.  I like to be clear with my players.  Continuing the example of Star Wars, I would explain at the beginning what they might expect.  I often say something like, “OK, the events of the first film have happened.  You may have heard some rumor of them.  But, beyond those events, forget everything you know or think you know about what will happen.”  I might even set something up in an early scenario to really show that this game is taking things in a different direction than the films.  Perhaps they find out that rebel hero Skywalker was killed.  Or maybe Darth Vader is assassinated.  Something to let the players know the game isn’t set, and this is our story.

Things could have turned out differently.

    There isn’t a wrong choice here.  You just need to be aware of some of the issues that the choices bring.  I really enjoy the settings of some shows, books, comics, and movies.  And I’d love to run game in them, or play.  Some settings seem like they could be really good, like Battlestar Galactica, but I have absolutely no idea what story I’d want to tell.  Others, like Serenity practically write themselves.  I have a ton of stuff prepped for Star Trek, a weird desire to run a Middle Earth game, and with my love of Conan having coming back full strength lately, the idea of doing something in the Hyborian age is more than a little tempting.

    In the coming weeks, I’m going to try to run a follow-up to the Call of Cthulhu game I ran recently, introducing another new person to the hobby.  But, when that’s done, I’m not really sure where I’ll go from there.  Am I on the road to finally running the Ars Magica campaign I’ve been slowly researching and building for the last five or so years?  Or will I simply run occasional one-shots for a small group of friends?  Will it be a media tie-in, like Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, or Conan?  Or will it be an original game world like Space 1889 or Deadlands?  I really don’t know.  I’m not even sure just which option I’d prefer.


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