I am currently engaged in my own crowdfunding campaign, working to publish my fantasy novel, A Beast Requires on Inkshares. I’m a sucker for a good setting, so you better believe my world building is on point, because this is a comedy with a body count, chock full of riots, royal plots, forensic gastronomy, interspecies politics, and a collection of historically significant chamber-pots.
Yea, it’s a plug, but it has me thinking a lot about settings. For a lot of us, getting wrapped in a setting comes with being a fan. We want to explore the world on our own terms, interact with the characters, and see if we can do things better than the protagonist. Frankly, we want more. We need more, and as fans, we sometimes get it.
This month I am taking a look at tabletop RPG’s based around existing settings. Specifically, literary settings, though you’ll recognize a few of them from their tv and movie adaptations. Seeing it on a screen will never compare to how you imagine in your head, even if it’s a stunning, big budget adaptation. We want to live in those worlds, not just sit back and watch familiar events transpire. I mean come on, the Red Wedding? I’m totally with the band.
Game of Thrones
There are two tabletop rpg’s based off of George R.R. Martin’s book series, but I am focusing on 2005’s roleplaying game created by Guardians of Order. This one is a rare find. Guardians of Order went under in 2006, so a physical copy is close to impossible to find. Thankfully in the age of the internet, .pdfs are available, though they only contain the d20 rules. That’s a problem. When you’re talking about Guardians of Order, d20 rarely ever comes up in the discussion. Guardians of Order created Tri-Stat dX, a simple, generic system that could be adapted to fit any game in any genre.
It’s a beautiful, striking book too, that can double as an improvised melee weapon. The Deluxe Limited Edition, all 2500 copies of it, is bound in faux leather and has silver gilt pages. This book feels like it belongs in George R. R. Martin’s world, and in case you’re wondering, my copy is number 750 and is in near mint condition. This, to me, is a problem. For the price I paid, this should be one of the greatest games ever, a melding of rules set I adore with a setting I was sinking my teeth in. This game should have been glorious, but they forgot the cardinal rule of tabletop roleplaying games; people have to actually want to play your game.
In 2005, the masses, even a lot of the nerdy masses, weren’t too familiar with George, or his love of killing everyone you hold dear. Relying on that crossover of his fan base with tabletop rpg players was a risky move, and a costly one. Guardians of Order made a book for the fans, even calling it a Role-Playing Game and Reference Guide. It does capture the setting beautifully, and it has all sorts of lore and tidbits for fans, but if you were new to his books, or gaming, it’s just a 569 page book. My big, beautiful copy spends most of its time on a shelf, a dusty reminder to the importance of timing, and knowing your audience.
I love GURPS, the Generic Universal RolePlaying System, and I love Discworld, so the merging of these two into a tangible form was amazing. Designed as a rules set for any game world, GURPS has been around since the 80’s. While clunky, it does offer players the chance to create a character in any world, at any time and in any place, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is all three. Like a lot of property based games, this one was released for the fans. Unlike those games, even if you didn’t know a thing about Discworld, the game still made sense and had elements that could be incorporated into any existing GURPS campaign.
With the GURPS Lite rules included in the back, GURPS Discworld is all about the setting. Pratchett’s humor spills off every page, and he submitted additional material during the course of its development. The Discworld fan in me loves it, and it is about as close as you can come to running around Discworld with your imagination. Even if you’re not big on GURPS, the information inside can be adapted to fit any system you want. It’s a book that’s mostly flavor, which is exactly what you want in a setting sourcebook.
As great a setting as Discworld is, and trust me, it is, it’s not ultimately a great setting geared towards your gaming group. In order to really enjoy a campaign, or even a one shot in Terry Pratchett’s world, you need to know who Terry Pratchett is. Half the jokes come from knowing who these characters are, and a quarter page write up as an NPC just doesn’t work. If you’re a fan, you immediately know how to interact with the setting, but if you’re new? You’ll get lost, or overwhelmed, and that’s no way to spend a night of rolling dice and mutual storytelling. GURPS Discworld captures the setting perfectly, but that’s meaningless if it’s your first time experiencing the setting. Having a game that’s faithful to fans is important, but you need to excited the newbies too.
This game. This freaking game. There’s a reason The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game won so many awards when it came out in 2010. Using the Fate system, the entire game is written in-universe, meaning that a character in the book series “created” the game in order to explain how the supernatural world works. And it works so well. It remains faithful to the Dresden Universe, and is introductory enough to bring in new players.
You don’t need to know a single thing about Harry Dresden, or his exploits in Chicago, to get lost in the setting. The Dresden Files RPG gives the GM all the tools they need to darken and twist any city they want to fit the in-universe themes, but still giving them a level of autonomy to be creative. While they have two books devoted to the source material, diving in deep to the characters and locations of the series, you don’t need either of them to play. The first book, Volume One, is all about character creation, and how that character will interact with the supernatural world.
This is the adaption of a pre-existing setting done right. It’s faithful to the source material, not just with information, but with tone, and allows players to have a degree of flexibility with their interactions with the world. You, and your character, can get lost in the world, but rather than being overwhelmed with information, you’re discovering the setting as you play. Sure, you might end up in Chicago, and maybe come across a familiar name or two, but you don’t need to know their entire backstories or exploits to interact with them. Even without the setting it works as a game of paranormal investigation, and a really good one at that.