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.

Enjoy running these types of RPGs? Tell us more below!

About  Don Mappin

For nearly 30 years RPGs have been a staple of Don’s life — so that means he’s pretty old. Author of a dozen RPG books, Don has worked with companies such as ICE, Last Unicorn Games, Decipher, and AEG. He now spends his time working in IT management, enjoying his family and two children, or gaming.



5 Responses to Sharing the Playground

  1. Nicely done! I definitely think that running Inside a property can have a Huge advantage. One of which, not to be downplayed, is the reduction of campaign creation time. Sure, you still have to have time to make the Specific villains, places the PCs will go, and such, but you don’t have to spend really ANY time working out large-scale maps, or lots of political stuff.

    In your examples, we have a pretty good idea of what maps to use for Buffy, or Star Trek/Wars as well, as we know What worlds are there, in addition to who are the classic bad guys etc.

    There is also the familiarity aspect, which you mention, the players and GM being on ‘equal footing’ – which is great for working with the tone and feel of the game.

    As an aside, I have also played in games in the past where the GM mashed-up several, or more, settings or parts thereof, which worked really really well! It brings to mind, immediately, what is supposed to be going on in the setting.

    Imagine, as was the case once, playing in a Dragonlance world, where one of the Dragon Highlords’ names was Elric. Yeah, it kinda sets the tone a bit doesn’t it?

    More complete of a mash-up was a SF game I played in… the GM wanted to include “Everything” so, it Was all there… The Federation and Federation-Space, just starting to move into a new area that was controlled by a large ‘Empire’ – and toss in some Timelords, and about a dozen other SF-themed settings. It was quite the romp!

    In these examples as well, you would get a kind of idea of what the GM was talking about when he would describe something that had roots (if not wholly pulled from) in some source material that you were familiar with.

    • Your mashup campaign reminds me of the game that started out firmly GURPS Traveller—very familiar setting for me—and became GURPS Traveller, Cthulhu, Supers, Cybertech, Horror, and Mage. The GM took great pleasure in seeing my face contort as more and more was piled on. Possibly the most fun I’ve ever had playing.

  2. Thinking on it, nearly all of my gaming in the last 15 years or so has been in licensed property-based games. As a kid, we played a lot of the James Bond RPG, and later DC Heroes was another big favorite. We rarely played in the universe of the properties, but that’s what drew us in.

    The ’90s is when I started to run in the universe of the licensed games we were playing. Our “Star Wars” campaign was set after the events of the original series of movies so that we were free to do what we wanted. I ignored the comics and books, and that freed us up to do things our way.

    After I got into “Babylon 5″, we wound up playing a lot of the Chameleon Eclectic “The Babylon Project” RPG. This is the first time I tried to actively use the series plot as elements of the game. We were playing a break-away human colony far out on the edges of known space that wound up fighting the Shadows. They were another front that wasn’t addressed in the series, but events would increasingly overlap. It worked beautifully, but was very difficult (I found) to keep “our show” on track and not let it get overwhelmed by the actual show events. Similarly, would be the “second fleet” campaign of “Battlestar Galactica” I ran a few years ago. Galactica and Pegasus were going about the events of the show, but our fleet was on its own “cycle of time” set down in the Scrolls of Sybil.

    This is probably the easiest way of managing a game set in someone else’s sandbox. It allows you to use all the elements of the universe, but gives you the freedom to have your own epic tale that might enhance of retell the original plot in a novel way.

    My current BSG campaign is more in keeping with the “Star Trek” game I ran in the early aughties. The ST game was supposed to be a mini-campaign, but wound up being so popular with the group that it ran six years. In this, I specified that this was not the universe of the show, but an alternate reality. I tweaked by addressing a major issue to me for that universe — there’s load of aliens and planets…but we know almost nothing about the Federation except it’s post-scarcity and everyone is allegedly enlightened and educated.

    My approach was to spend more time in the UFP and see what it looked like. For the characters, this was normality, but for the players it was as exotic as an alien world. (I think historical games have a similar quality.) I cut terrible episodes (and series) from the game canon, and addressed a serious issue I thought ST has: everything returns, ultimately, to status quo. All these new technologies, aliens, cultures, wars — none of them have any real impact on the Star trek world outside of the plot arc. Once they’ve had their narrative use, they’re gone. So we had tons of androids based on the Ilya bot from the first movie. We didn’t have space hippies and Chicago gangster planets, but I took the Ferengi seriously. The Borg were deadly — not the watered down Voyager bunch.

    The current BSG game started a few years prior to the Cylon attacks for the same reason: what is the world like you’re going to lose? It also helps the player to connect as the character to the loss suffered when all the family, friends, and places you get them to like are taken away. I specified that the characters, if they did their job well, could even stop or turn the Cylon attack and prevent the exodus. (But that’s not really my intention.) The attacks will play out differently, the Cylons are different from the new(er) show, and their motves are different. My explanation is simple: this is not the same iteration of the great story; all of this has happened before, will happen again, and this is your turn in the roles.

    As Don points out, this takes you away from being faithful to the property that drew you in, but I find it allows you to use what you like, ditch what you don’t, and allows you to make the universe your own. And ultimately, art is only really useful once interpreted by the user.

  3. I’ve often enjoyed playing in established settings; it’s a real treat when you have familiarity enough to get into the game immediately, and the GM knows enough more that their deployment of the world is seamless.

    Leave It the Way You Found It is probably the most common style I’ve played; usually with the side effect that since we don’t want to change the important things, we’ll play over there instead. You almost always get the setting, not the cast.

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