Have you run, or plan to run, an RPG in an established property? Chances are pretty good that if you have you’re more than familiar with the pitfalls of working within someone else’s playground. Beyond just genre emulation your players also have expectations in what such a game will entail. How can you best meet those expectations while staying true to the property? It’s a careful line to walk.
Setting the Stage
Whether it be Star Trek, Leverage, or your own favorite property there are some top level items you’ll always be dealing with. First, if you are playing an established game presumably it’s because there are elements to that game that you want to role-play. One doesn’t typically play Star Wars for hard sci-fi, instead it’s to scratch that space opera itch.
Canon–not the one you shoot–is now your favorite and most hated friend. Canon is that which is “officially” established. A lightsaber can deflect blaster bolts. That’s canon. We’ve seen it on screen and it’s part of the codex of the property. In writer’s circles it’s part of the “writer’s bible.” As a GM, consider your own “writer’s bible;” what level of canon are you willing to respect in your game?
The easiest answer is to say “all.” The upside is that all parties–GM and players–are on equal footing and understand the unspoken rules of the game. On the flip side, staying hard and fast to canon restricts you as a GM. If the transporter can’t beam through the shields and your adventure needs the players to beam down through the shields, you’ve got to wrangle around canon. In some games you can just hand wave these issues but when working on an established property and adhering to canon…well, you’ve got some creative explaining to do!
In general, canon is more friend than foe. While it can potentially restrict you at times, it affords your game a strong foundation and helps your players connect with the game easier. Disregarding canon–or even just throwing it into the wind–bespeaks the question: Then why are you even playing in that property at all?
The great thing about canon is that it codifies a lot of the stuff that you don’t have to make up! You walk into a setting with vast swaths of it already defined. Even better, in this Internet age where wikis abound, so much of your prep work is done for you. Leverage canon and learn to embrace it, I say.
Leave It the Way You Found It
Having written for the Star Trek and Stargate RPGs in the past this is the default model that, as a writer and a GM, I work with. Essentially you leave the property the way you found it. Every change you make that affects the universe and canon distances the players from the property. When playing Star Trek, for example, destroying the Enterprise-D (pre-Veridian III) is a major shift that alters everything and has a trickle down effect.
So does this adherence to canon restrict you? Not as I have found, in general. The reality being that most properties have enough space to allow canon to coexist with your creative desires. The Alpha Quadrant too restrictive for your tastes? There’s plenty you can do if you want to shift your campaign to the Delta Quadrant. (Beware Hirogen!)
Even if you stay in the Alpha Quadrant, there’s plenty of aliens and planets of the week to satisfy everyone. Plus, leveraging canon allows you to make references to these other elements, helping add that level of authenticity.
Take The Ball and Run!
Conversely there’s nothing in the GM handbook that prevents you from carving out your space and just running with it. The caveat here is that it requires some flexibility on the part of your players in understanding that while you may be playing in Westeros, that is where the similarity ends. A great example of this method of storytelling is the James Bond RPG by Victory Games. Based on the movies, their adventure modules took elements of the story and creatively inserted new elements. Faithful to the property but different enough that if you tried to follow the movie to gain an advantage you’d likely die.
In these games you tend to be more flexible with canon but run a little more fast and loose. Plus you tend to expand your writer’s bible with new elements of canon (that you can later re-introduce in further adventures).
Inspired By (Semi) True Events
The broader definition of running a game in an established property is to be inspired by it. The PC Klingon crew on a Bird of Prey or your own group of Browncoats on the run from the Alliance. In these games canon serves to establish the starting foundation and little more. This method requires buy-in from the PCs into the scope of the game and how it will differ from their preconceived expectations.
If I state I’m going to run a Star Wars game to six players, each of them will likely have a different understanding of what the game could be. Old Republic with Jedi abundant? Empire-driven characters fighting the “rebel scum,” or perhaps going 1,000 years into the timeline and creating a new series of episodes all your own? It could be anything.
Once the PCs are all on board you’re ready to go. Just make sure that everyone understands the differences between your campaign pitch and the property it’s inspired by.
It’s Your Sandbox
The great thing about playing RPGs with established properties is that it gets the motor running quick. Pulling Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG off the shelf for an evening’s one-shot leaves no doubt as to the type of romp we’re going to have. (BTW, it’s definitely worth your time to hunt down the Buffy RPG!)
Ultimately it is your game. Never forget that. But also never forget that you’re playing in an established property (presumably) for a reason. If you diverge too far–at least beyond what your players expect–you could cause more harm than good.
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