World Building 101: Using Another World

We live in a culture that is rich in media. Novels, comic books, movies, video games, television shows, and more—it is a constant stream of entertainment for those who want it. There may be times when your group wants to roleplay in an established universe—to explore the same worlds that the heroes of your favourite novels or movies have their adventures in. Sometimes, others have had the same idea and have adapted a system (or created one) to allow just that. Other times it will be left to you to do this work—or it may be that you like the setting but not the system associated with it. Alternately, perhaps you have a favourite adventure that was written for a system other than the one you play in.

The first step is to consider the basic assumptions of the setting you are adapting your game from, and work out how you will fit them into your game. Magic may work vastly differently. Harry Potter and his friends use magic quite differently from the way it is shown in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and neither one is particularly well fit to the way D&D’s magic system functions—to say nothing of something like Xanth. Games like Final Fantasy, rather than elves and dwarves, have characters from bizarre races—unique to their particular iteration of the series in most cases, moogles aside. Gamebooks—Lone Wolf, or Fighting Fantasy—are typically designed as single-player experiences, and are frequently limited in options compared to a tabletop game, and rife with “gotcha” instant death choices. None of this is necessarily an insurmountable obstacle, but it is important to consider before you begin.

Next it is important to consider how rich the setting is for adventure. Some worlds are well fleshed out and deeply detailed, sufficiently to allow a wide variety of adventures to take place quite apart from the canonical ones by the original authors. On the other hand, there are settings that show only enough of the world to give backdrop for the story being told, and nothing more really exists beyond those scant few details. These settings can be more difficult to adapt, since they require much more fleshing out on the part of the DM to be usable, and often require a large amount of conjecture and guess-work to fill in the blanks. It may not be worth trying to adapt the setting rather than create your own if there is a dearth of setting detail in the original source material—you may wish to let your players know that the original work was amongst your inspirations, but that your setting is merely similar and not a full adaptation.

In a richer setting it may be worth deciding how much of the source material to use. For something like Star Wars, for example, there is a huge amount of verbiage dedicated to detailing every bit of setting minutiae, and in spite of the best intentions of all involved, not all of it necessarily fits that well together—there are certainly confusing contradictions present in several cases. (While Star Wars has had several RPG lines, it remains a valid example of setting richness for the purposes of illustrating this point.) Being selective can help reduce this confusion for your players, but one must always be clear about which elements of the setting are being used and which discarded up front to ensure that your players expectations match your own. Another issue can arise if there is material being released on a regular basis that introduces new setting elements—especially if the new content contradicts material you created to fill in gaps while you waited. Decide ahead of time how you will handle such contradictions and communicate to your players. An easy way to avoid this is to be clear that your starting point is based on the existing material and anything produced later will be included only if it does not contradict what your game has established to be true.

Once you have assessed how suitable the source is for adaptation, both in terms of mechanics and volume of material, there is one final question before you set about the task of adapting it to your game of choice—how much staying power will it have for your group as an RPG setting? If you’ve just watched the latest fantasy blockbuster movie and want to play a game based on the setting that’s great, but if you won’t still feel that way in two months then it’s probably not worth the effort of fully adapting the setting. On the other hand, if your players all played the same gamebooks as kids—Fighting Fantasy, for example—and you want to set your game on Titan and revisit favourite locations from the books as new adventurers, then you’ll probably be able to maintain interest in it for a good while. Again, this should not be taken as a suggestion not to play in the short-term adaptation, but rather to tailor the amount of effort you put into converting the setting to the amount of time you’ll spend playing it.

Playing in established worlds, or adapting existing material to new systems, can be a great timesaver and can be great fun for DM and players alike, for bringing forth feelings of nostalgia or fondness for the setting. It can be an interesting exercise in mechanical design—a part of the topic admittedly not covered in this article, simply because the scope is far too large. As with everything, though, communicating clearly to your players is essential, so they understand the rules of the adaptation—familiarity with the setting will do a great deal to enhance their comfort with the game, but at the same time if something doesn’t work the way they expect it to that will be jarring. Overall, it can be an interesting and exciting way to liven up a game, even for a few short sessions.

Comments (1)

Matt M (July 10th, 2010)

I think you make an interesting point. I’m currently running a Star Wars setting, because I love that richness, and the possibility for story. But I’m staying away from the more well-known and established cannon. Setting the game 4,000 before A New Hope gives me a lot of lee-way in what I can do, and the system is out of print, so I’m not bombarded with setting errata. That lee-way also gives me the opportunity to create my own species, planets, organizations, because it can still be my story.

Anyways, loved your post.

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