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Troy’s Crock Pot: Novels as backdrop, not backbone

Pulp Gamer’s “Out of Character” [1] is on the short list of gaming-related podcasts I listen to regularly. It’s recent episode — “A Novel Idea” — struck a nerve because I often rely on novels as backdrop material. While I usually respond to a podcast on its own messageboards (they started the discussion, after all, and in fairness, it’s best to respond in their own forum).

But I thought the topic broad enough it merited a post here.

What really caught my attention was one of the co-hosts, Brenda, cited my beloved “Wheel of Time” series as an rpg adaption that didn’t work. Fair enough. She tried the game, and it wasn’t her cup of tea. Bravo for trying.

(It’s not like I’m a paragon of experimentation. You know me: there’s the D&D rules set, and then there’s the D&D rules set.)

Brenda’s critique of the “Wheel” rpg was common enough. The novels are about how the forces of light rally around the one male channeler — Rand al’Thor — who is slowly going mad as he prepares to fight the last battle against the Dark One. And she’s right when she points out that what hurts the Wheel rpg is that adventuring in that storyline is not satisfying, because as the game is presented, the hero is an NPC, not your player characters.

The larger issue, though, is how one effectively incorporates the worlds of novels into your games. And that’s a broader discussion.

The Arthurian solution

I think legends from the age of chivalry and the Carolingian romances are instructive. Because their development as myth is the blueprint we should follow when adapting any  of our favorite worlds of fiction to the gaming table.

Arthur becomes king because he pulls Excalibur from the stone. And the central story of Charlemagne is the blowing of the horn at the battle of Roncevalles. But as stories are told, the audience demands more. (Hollywood did not invent the sequel). And so, over time, the legends of other knights and paladins are grafted onto these central themes.

I think as GMs, that’s the best approach when adapting novels to the game table. Our player characters’ adventures are analogous to the quests undertaken by Arthur’s knights or the paladins of Charles‘ court.  They share the same world as Arthur or Charlemagne, but their adventures are their own.

If it works for Harry Dresden …

Think of our own worlds popularized by novels. The Dresden Files rpg is popular now. But as an rpg, you probably aren’t attempting adventures that actually featuring Harry Dresden. No,  you’re just mining his world of magic in a modern setting and making your own stories alongside the characters of portrayed by your friends around the table.

It seems natural to do it that way because the Dresden novels themselves are serialized adventures.

Epic stories always seem harder to weave into your game because the central storyline DOESN’T feature your characters. Why adventure in Middle Earth if Frodo and Sam have already saved the day? I find myself shying away from Dragonlance for the same reason: Didn’t the Companions already win this fight? And yes, there’s the Wheel of Time, and if you’re true to the central theme, the PCs can never be more than just supporting characters.

But the Star Wars rpg has shown us that you can have adventures beyond the central storyline if you’re willing to run your character’s adventures tangentially or in another time frame. It’s a big branded universe after all. Go play in it.

So, it’s possible to successfully adventure in Middle Earth, Krynn or in the lands of the White Tower, so long as you accept the author’s world as backdrop only. Stay clear from the backbone of the story, but embrace the worlds themselves.

It’s that approach that gave us years of Prince Valiant comic strips in the Sunday funny pages, after all, or a 50-issue comic book run of another beloved favorite — Arak: Son of Thunder — set in the days of Charlemagne.

It’s a fun exercise

As roleplayers, our quest often seems that we are trying to find a cool world for our characters to inhabit. As GMs, we want to offer a world — either one of our own devising or one adapted from another medium — that meets those expectations.

And really, it’s natural to want to share with others a story that you find engaging. Maybe not everyone is inclined to read the same books as you, but they might sit at the table and build new stories set in that fictional world.

All I can say is be fearless in this endeavor. Take a novel or series you find engaging and build an adventure from its landscape. You don’t need slick packaging or a published adaption to make it work, either.

That worn paperback with a creased spine and your own love for the material will work just fine.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: Novels as backdrop, not backbone"

#1 Comment By Roxysteve On April 12, 2011 @ 8:31 am

I think this is one hundred percent on the money. I also have heard people say they simply couldn’t play some game (most recently Vorkosigan Saga) because it could never “be the books”.

I read pretty superficially, often missing lots of stuff along the way (that I discover on re-reading, or not), but I have to wonder what some people are taking from a novel/show/movie if they enjoy the setting but don’t see the scenery as someplace they’d like to spend some time of their own.

The Ringworld: I’m standing on it as I type and the sun has turned my skin sticky and it’s starting to burn, and I’m dying for a drink of fruit juice, but up on the arch, well-within skycycle range, is a deserted (hopefully) floating city and I want to walk a while in it’s streets and maybe sleep in one of it’s towers.

Who cares where Louis Wu, Teela Brown, Khmee or Nessus are? I’ve never met them, and don’t want to.

Pity the game is out of print.

#2 Comment By Trace On April 12, 2011 @ 8:52 am

This is a great article, and I agree 100%. Groups I have played in have had to combat this exact problem… it was Dragonlance for us.

What we really really found to be freeing was the publication of a comic book called “Star Wars: Infinities,” (which honestly wasn’t very good) which led us to play some “What IF” campaigns, where the cosmic heroic choosing found our characters instead of the established heroes.

It’s really easy to do… Pick a key point in the story, and change it. Go from there. The future is yours.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On April 12, 2011 @ 9:34 am

[2] – Ah, Ringworld. There’s a flood of memories there.
[2] – Dragonlance has always been tricky, because of the chicken-or-the-egg aspects of its development. Which came first, the game or the story that formed the novels? As they were developed concurrently, they informed one another. For myself, I can enjoy Dragonlance — so long as the gods don’t meddle. But is it really Dragonlance, if the gods aren’t meddling? Short answer: Make it your own, as you point out.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On April 12, 2011 @ 10:28 am

You know, the more I think about it it seems to me that this is another manifestation of the “don’t know enough to run it” syndrome we were talking about last week, but from the other side of the screen.

The person sees the world as being defined by the adventure rather than as the set in which the key actors played out the drama.

Of course, that viewpoint is very much a self-fulfilling prophesy so I don’t know what one can do to overcome it.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On April 12, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

I’m running into something similar as I plan to run my first game of Cubicle Seven’s Doctor Who: Adventures In Time And Space. Obviously the television series focuses on the Doctor, but I don’t want to run a game where one player is going to be the great big hero of the setting and the rest of the PCs are his companions. The same thing is true of the Torchwood spin-off with Captain Jack Harkness, but to a much lesser extent.

So I’m simply not going to have those characters in the game except for the occasional guest appearance as the game is going to attract Doctor Who fans. Since I am running this campaign at the FLGS where one section is dedicated to Doctor Who products I know that I have an audience for the game there.

To get around this particular dilemma I’m going to have the PCs discover a ship that allows them to do something that the Doctor can’t – freely travel between alternate universes. While the Doctor’s TARDIS can take him anywhere and anytime within his native universe, in one episode of the series it was made clear that traveling between universes was something that he could not do on his own. This will give me a way to provide the players with something unique and that allows me to get away from the Doctor Who character, but also allows for the PCs to explore the setting of Doctor Who if they want to.

#6 Comment By John Fredericks On January 2, 2017 @ 8:32 am

Imagine playing a military team or scientific team whose job is to find worlds being bothered by the Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons, etc…. you have the Doctor Who trappings, but players are more free to act as they’d like.

Hmmm…. got me thinking now.

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On April 12, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

[3] – Dr. River Song is a good template for Doctor Who adventures. She’s human. She knows things. And she has access to time travel. And occasionally, her path intersects with that of the Doctor. And she says “hello sweetie” a lot. 🙂

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On April 12, 2011 @ 1:17 pm

[4] – Well she is “sort of the Doctor’s wife” according to Russel T. Davies. 😉


But that is exactly what I want to convey to the players – you don’t have to be the Doctor to have adventures and an impact in a Doctor Who game. There was a whole episode where the Doctor was dead with Donna Noble having to repair time in order to bring him back, and the episode “Blink” with the first appearance of the Weeping Angels barely had the Doctor appear at all. Plus he never made an appearance on Torchwood, so why can’t I create my own spin-off for the game?

#9 Comment By palin On April 12, 2011 @ 1:31 pm

[6] – I love Dragonlance (does my nick say something?), and I usually end up playing Raistlin Game, that is, this is yet another possible outcome that forked the timeline when Raistling did this and that.

Works flawlessly until someone gains a high level. Then most of the time, someone dies meddling with Lord Soth. If you don’t count the time Lord Soth died and did not become Lord Soth ^__^

#10 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On April 12, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

[7] – But you know … there’s some of that kind of timey-wimey stuff in the novels, too.

[7]Speaking of timey-wimey, I now officially derail this thread with the words: “Bow Ties Are Cool!”

#11 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On April 12, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

@Patrick – You can always take a page out of the old FASA version and let the PCs be members of the Celestial Intervention Agency. That gives them a TARDIS and keeps them point-balanced with each other.

@Troy – Excellent article. I’ve had a blast doing this in successive Star Wars campaigns. I created a corner of the universe that had high stakes and was tangentially tied into the original trilogy, but the PCs were definitely the heroes.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On April 12, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

[8] – I could do that, but I like the idea to travel between alternate universes because it is something that the Doctor cannot do. It is a way of immediately giving the characters an edge that truly makes them stand out.

At least until the series retcons that limitation. This is Doctor Who that we are talking about. 🙂

#13 Comment By Nojo On April 12, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

I like the thematic constraints you get when taking a novel or movie or comic and bringing that to life in an RPG.

I don’t enjoy settings that are designed to support any RPG theme that the publisher thinks is cool. There is no central theme, no flavor.

For example, Forgotten Realms started with a focus, then became another Greyhawk. Eberron started with a radical new flavor, but after the umteenth splat book it’s Greyhawk with mass transit. It’s all mush.

A focus, like the Wheel of Time, helps the GM create a world that hangs together and feels immersive. Just make sure your players are bought into the campaign story, so they are not looking over their shoulder and wondering what the “real heroes” are up to.

I’m a player in a Song of Ice and Fire campaign, and it’s a blast. We have enough problems running a noble house w/o worrying about the plot from the books.

#14 Comment By John Arcadian On April 12, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

[3] – Stop spoiling what comes next for me!!!!!!!!! 😉

I’m actually right at the points you are talking about in the series. I’m slowly moving through them on netflix when I can get enough time to watch.

Outside of the DR. Who stuff, I definitely feel that the main plot can be hindering in a game based off of other media. When there is enough room in the universe to do other things, it works well though. The players are likely familiar with the themes of the world and don’t require massive amounts of splatbooks to feel like they know what is going on.

#15 Comment By hanliam On April 12, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

I usually tackle the situation according to a number of ways depending on what the party is interested in.

1. Change the Timeline: My most successful Star Wars game (using GURPS) took place in a timeline where a small enclave of Jedi survived the Purge to allow for PC involvement, affecting the course of the game in ways a diehard fan could not predict.

2. Act Outside Cannon: Similar to what you suggested, my Star Trekk and most Star Wars games are set in such a vast universe there is more than enough for even the greatest heroes to do. Either this complements cannon or just goes on without more than a mere reference to it.

3. Let the PCs Change Cannon: My only Middle Earth game went this way, when the PCs, disaffected commanders from Sauron’s defeated Second Age forces, sought to establish their own kingdom. Perhaps due to the fact that their characters could change a well-known world through their actions and choices, I received a great deal of player investment, even from players that themselves dislike Tolkien.

Regardless, I find that novels, films, and television shows provide rich settings which require minimal explanation to new players or those unwilling to read a setting book.

#16 Comment By antonatsis On April 12, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

from what i have see you cant play a good rpg in a setting that has books it usually doesn’t work you must play either before the book storyline happens or after and that is because the reason you play that setting is because you like the book and the world and since what you are trying to do is to fit your game play in between the lines of some other person adventure you will eventually find your self confined in some tracks that you cant shake its like playing a LOTR rpg and killing frodo its not fun and its not good it might be fun at some point but you aren’t playing LOTR anymore you are just goofing around with some random idea you had at some point.and i say that because if you try to change the story of a character in a book it wont work since the story you are playing has already an ending it means that everything that happened in the book is written in stone and since you lets say tried you kill frodo you will end up being a side quest for him since he is the one that will throw the ring and since you are playing in his timeline/story it means that you are an obstacle he had to overcome at some point!thats why its better to only play at different time lines that the main story or just take ideas from the books its not bad to borrow ideas most of our ideas aren’t original since other people first thought of those things what we can do is take those ideas refine them,tune them to our liking and make something good that our players will find enjoying and fun to play!

#17 Comment By nolandda On April 12, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

Obviously you never include (except possibly as a very brief cameo) the main characters from source fiction in a campaign. To do otherwise has never even occurred to me.

I would think that the Wheel of Time would be the perfect opportunity to re-use plot points as well as setting. We know from the fiction that there have been infinitely many Dragons Reborn throughout the endless cycle of time. We even know from the [9] that the previous Dragon Reborn came from a fishing village.

It would be interesting to allow the players to take on the roles of the ta’veren or other primary characters and then re-skin the remainder of the major characters into their “next incarnation” NPCs. Then you could play out the last battle any way you like. After all the wheel weaves differently each time.

Our campaign didn’t take that tact rather it was set on the Seanchan Continent in 997 AB. In the lead up to the Trolloc Wars with about 1000 years until Artur Hawkwing and 2000 years before Rand al’Thor we had plenty of room to be heroes.

#18 Comment By Roxysteve On April 13, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

I don’t know why this idea is so abhorrent to some. When D&D was invented I immediately thought “Yes! Now I can visit the World of Tiers, and travel Heinlein’s Glory Road”. It was obvious to me that the point of the whole affair was to get inside books (and later, shows). I’d been doing that in my head for years. Now I could take some friends along too.

Places yet to be visited that I want to walk in: World of Tiers (coming soon to a Savage World near you), Ringworld, Tekumel (EPT was my first experience with RPGs back in ’75 and I haven’t played there since Games Day 1980), Barrayar, Ankh-Morpork, Bellona (from the novel “Dhalgren”), The Dying Earth, Tripoint (so I could interact with Hani, Kiff and Mahendo’sat) and the worlds of Jack McDevitt’s “Hutch” universe.

All books.

#19 Comment By GeoffA On April 13, 2011 @ 6:51 pm

I’ve played in two very enjoyable Wheel of Time games, and I think both of them succeeded because they did not try to follow the books too closely.

In the first game, the PCs were all male channelers who had come to study at Rand’s school. Rand came to visit the Black Tower once, and gave a nice speech, but that was the closest they got to interacting with major characters from the book. They had their own problems to deal with, and the game focused mostly on their attempts to ward off madness or embrace it.

In the second game, the PCs were an undercover information gathering group for the White Tower. They got dispatched to various cities, tracking down Black Ajah. They would hear about events from the books as news of the land, but again they had their own villains to fight and problems to overcome.

From my experience, this article is talking good sense!

#20 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On April 13, 2011 @ 10:45 pm

[10] – I love the idea that the players are based at Rand’s School. That never would have occurred to me. But what a great way to go.

I don’t think I’d let the White Tower get their hooks into me — even for a rpg game. Working for Siuan’s Eyes and Ears network would be very cool. (Of course, some of the blues in the “know” are actually black — though the books haven’t followed up too much on the ramifications of that!

Sounds like fun.

#21 Comment By SavageTheDM On April 14, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

thanks for this. I am about to run my vary first game that has a backdrop from a popular series( I am doing a DnD 4th E with the Halo theme) I found this to be helpful. thank you.

#22 Pingback By RPG News from Around the Net: 15-APR-2011 | Game Knight Reviews On April 15, 2011 @ 6:03 am

[…] Stew offers some strong advice for using fiction as a backdrop without railroading your players in Troy’s Crock Pot: Novels as backdrop, not backbone. Some great thoughts to […]

#23 Comment By Volcarthe On April 15, 2011 @ 9:38 pm

I have mixed results with this sort of thing.

The Star Wars universe has always been so expansive with large gaps in history that it lets you fill in your own blanks without worrying about all of the material you’ve been presented with, works great.

However, I got the Firefly RPG and though the mechanics are just fine the whole setting just seems (to my group and i, at least) to be a big pile of “it’s just not the same if it’s another crew.” Maybe we just don’t have as much info to build off of, or maybe I just suck, but that’s the road block I hit with certain settings.

At some point in the future, I do plan on using the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as a backdrop in order to let a group be (almost) whatever they want and then weave that together, since it seems to allow for any flexibility i deem necessary.

#24 Comment By ggodo On April 17, 2011 @ 8:18 am

I’ve actually written most of the start of a low power campaign for Sabriel, set in The Interregnum between everything going to The Dead and the heroes sweeping in and saving the day. I really like it because it give me an excuse to try a lower power game. The setting easily works in the ‘Murder Hobo’ aspect of D&D because they’re mercenaries in a land full of Dead things, and it allows the players freedom to do whatever they want to the setting because most records were lost or never made during that time period. Fairly believable zombie apocalypse in a medium fantasy setting? Heck yea, I’ll play that.

#25 Pingback By News from Around the Net: 15-APR-2011 | Gamerati On January 14, 2016 @ 2:03 pm

[…] Stew offers some strong advice for using fiction as a backdrop without railroading your players in Troy’s Crock Pot: Novels as backdrop, not backbone. Some great thoughts to […]