Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Musings on Intellectual Property

I've had a particular thought brewing in my brain the last week or so, just thought I'd share.

I don't think every cool piece of IP needs to be licensed as an RPG. Hell, I don't even think some should be.

Case in point: Battlestar Galactica.

My wife and I have been watching BSG the last couple weeks and thoroughly enjoying it. The show is compelling drama (even if it didn't compel us to give up our Friday nights when it originally aired). But just because it's a sci-fi story, a war story, a story that involves shooting, starships, and alien/robot antagonists does NOT mean it would make a decent RPG. Heck, it has heroic characters and it STILL wouldn't make for your average "adventure game." At least not in the traditional, non-indie RPG sense of the idea.

Yes, I'm aware that there is already a Battlestar Galactica RPG. I can only imagine that it has write-ups of all the star characters complete with lists of "skills" like "shoot gun" and "pilot viper;" as if that's what the television show is all about. I suppose one could consider the characters of the TV drama to be "on an adventure" but what is interesting about it, what makes it worth watching is NOT whether or not Chief Tyrol makes his "repair fighter" roll or whether or how many "hit points" (or the equivalent) Baltar loses when getting knocked around. Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick!

Now compare that with Star Wars which, despite an over-arching plot, is still just an episodic adventure series. There's no real "depth of character" to Chewbacca or Han Solo (one of the reasons cited by Harrison Ford for never wanting to reprise the role), or any of the characters, and the"development" that occurs is as superficial as any traditional RPG. What is Anakin Skywalker but a cardboard cut-out perhaps with an "anger meter" or a "selfish +2" stat? Not much more, really. The characters are present so that the "fun adventure story" can be told.

In Battlestar Galactica, the war story is present so the characters' stories can be told.

How they develop, how they evolve (or devolve) under pressure, how they love and hate, their relationships with each other, with duty, with the mission. How they mature. How they deal with the (mental) curve balls and challenges thrown at them.

That's not the foundation for an "adventure" RPG. Maybe the basis for a psyche-exploring, Story Now-type indie-game, but I doubt that's what you get in the glossy hardcover I see on the shelf of the game shop.

Now, of course, it is possible to "drift" any RPG into character exploration and personality development...certainly I've seen it happen with long-term Dungeons & Dragons play, despite a rule system aimed at facilitating treasure seeking. But what D&D (at least Old School editions) had over the current commercial RPGs was a simplicity of game rules/design that made system so quick and easy that drifting was a fine little side jaunt. Who wants to spend hours constructing a feat/talent/skill/class/spell-studded stat monster just to have none of those stats and abilities matter? No one, that's who. If I have cleave and great cleave, written on my sheet, you better bet I want a chance to use 'em. Don't tell me the game is about facing my personal demons or dealing with political fall-out.

As I work on my B/X space opera, I find myself wondering how much "story" I should add to the game. The truly innovative part of OD&D (and by extension, B/X) was it's openness to most any type of "pseudo-fantasy-medieval" game you wanted to run. It could be adapted to a Greyhawk or a Forgotten Realms or a Dragon Lance with no sweat (even though they were all, in a way, "licensing" certain game conventions -- for example, the way the Vancian spell magic worked in the "game universe"). I find myself wanting to actually include antagonistic agencies (the equivalent of "The Sith" or the "Evil Empire")...but would such organized opposition hamstring the game? Do I want to be creating my own Intellectual Property at all? Even to such a small degree as "this is how people use "The Force?"

I don't know, I'm just wondering. I haven't checked out X-Plorers, which for all I know may be a truly generic B/X space game. My original idea was NOT generic, but rather "B/X Star Wars." But if I don't own the licensing rights I have to do away with the IP. And if I don't have Lucas's IP do I really want to bother writing this game?

Ugh. Well, time to get back to work.


  1. But imagine a hack of Star Wars (original trilogy), BSG (both original and new), Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon (in all its forms), and Dune (and anything else!).

    D&D took inspiration from a lot of sources, so see if re-imagining your B/X Space Opera project along the same lines works for you.

    For example, SW isn't the only space game to have an evil Empire (look to Dune and Flash Gordon...even Traveler had the Imperium). SW isn't the only game to have supernaturally inclined warriors (look to Dune's Bene Gesserit and even Doc Smith's Lensmen). In fact, SW itself was itself inspired by a lot of these earlier sources!

    I mean, you can create a generic game based on Star Wars, but if the serial numbers are filed away enough (and in just the right way), no one would be the wiser! After all, you might find you're just exposing SW's precursors hidden among Lucas's imaginings.

  2. I really enjoy the new BSG as a show, but never saw the point of the rpg licence. It is a drama with an ensemble cast of a dozen or more... It has a very tightly controlled storyline, a set start and ending. Not much scope for a game to me.

    Star Wars on the other hand... "Heroic Fantasy in Space" is a nice, simple concept. It suits small groups and the tropes are so ingrained in pop-culture that I don't think you need worry about IP issues. Just rename Jedi and Force and you're probably covered if you want to go that way.

    The best bet to my mind is always the same. Let the game be the game system and nothing more, put any suggested setting or campaign into another book/document/download or whatever. That allows you to be as creative and ambitious as you like without worrying that it muddies your rules or restricts your game any.

  3. I agree completely that not every IP makes a good rpg, and I would also say that your comment on BSG is spot on. (This coming from a fellow enthusiast of the new series)Hell, I don't even think Star Wars makes a great RPG, if only because you have a universe where all of the most important things have already been done by the film's characters, who, if you check out those character sheets, are usually far better than your character is ever going to get. Yeah, maybe your fighter pilot did something cool last session, but did he blow up a Death Star with an X-Wing?

    Didn't think so.

    I'm interested in seeing your B/X game precisely because the serial numbers have been filed off, and it is free of the onerous fanbase and canon that Star Wars is permanently mired in. Maybe you'll have laser swords and mystical warriors with a code and powers and whatnot, but as Myth mentioned, these are not entirely unique to Star Wars.

    ...as for your own IP, remember that even at it's most generic, D&D has some things that are uniquely D&D...Mind Flayers, the particulars of different colored dragons, drow, the way magic works, etc. Don't be afraid to give it a little JB flavor. After all, every single Star Wars rpg campaign I've ever seen has had things added, changed, or flavored according to the tastes of the GM.

  4. And to continue on with what Ryan just said above, every time I've tried to play a "Star Wars" RPG game, it always fails. It's either because the GM tries to keep everything too close to the 'canon' that there's nothing interesting to do, or that the GM adds in enough of their own elements that the players don't get the SW feel.

    I'd say doing a light pastiche of several literary or cinematic space operas, with as little implied setting as possible, would be the best way to go.

    Or at least that's what I'd enjoy reading and hopefully playing.

  5. Ok, seriously, you need to check out x-plorers. And Darths and Droids - Space monks with laser swords.

  6. I pretty much avoid any (modern) licensed property whether it's RPG, boardgame, computer game, or oftentimes book/movie sequel. They in 99% (80% for book/movie sequel) of cases complete crap thrown together to milk a few more dollars of lucre from fans. There are plenty of existing great rule sets for any genre to use if I want to play in a particular "licensed" world.

  7. Between this post and Trollsmyth's recent pontifications, I'm thinking that the project bears a little examination. What is it that makes you want to write this game? Evidently it is the chance to play in the Star Wars sandbox, which I dig.

    But Star Wars isn't just a setting, it's also a tone, a feel, a *style.* Using OD&D to run Star Wars would be a weird fit because the rules are all about exploring, and balancing caution, resource management, & greed. Star Wars is fast-paced adventure where bold action is often rewarded. Most of the games that support that style are very modern in design, with all the baggage that entails - so how to get the freedom of rules-light oldschool gaming while getting the right vibe for the gameplay?

    I'd say that figuring this out is your big bold Step 1. When you know what sort of gameplay you want, and what gamey elements are going to make that happen, you can then decide on what setting elements can support that gameplay. OD&D defined setting flavor largely in terms of monsters, magic, and equipment, but even as much fluff as is present in 1e AD&D should be enough to promote the kind of setting you want without tying it down to a specific setting.

    If the game is a loose enough toolbox that if could be used to play in Star Wars, in the Jodoverse of L'Incal and Metabarons, in something like the Fifth Element and the 1970s incarnations of Buck Rogers and BSG, you've got an amazing creation. (and by "something like," i definitely mean that the GM will have to rule out psi-knights or else accept that Starbuck can cast Summon Bigger Fish when he runs out of other ideas...)

    That's my two cents, anyway.