Collecting Opinions on Licensed Products

edited July 2009 in Story Games
I've always fancied getting my hands on the rights to produce an RPG for an official licensed product. I'm not fussy about which so long as the subject is ripe for conversion, it's more the challenge of making a game that mimics the feel of the franchise to which it is attached. And there's also the mondo advertising such products often get of course, not to mention that the publishing rights often go hand in hand with reams of lovely official artwork!

Anywho, I thought I'd start this thread to ask:
What do people think about official franchised RPGs of recognised properties?
Which ones worked, which ones didn't, and why?
Which franchises are dying for the RPG treatment?



  • I'm fond of what Luke Crane is doing in this arena. I'm not entirely happy of his using a house system to translate each property into a rpg, but nothing is perfect in this world.

    Other than that, most products I've encountered have not been too inspired. I really hate it when a license product of any sort fails to become a free-standing object of art on its own. So all those games that are just setting description + equipment list + some D20 or whatever leave me pretty cold. Might be that I'm not fan enough of the original property, though.

    As for what needs a roleplaying game, my first pick right this week is Ultima. Challenging to sharpen it and make the fundamental content shine, though. Also, any '80s cartoon show you might fancy. In fact, anything originating in the '80s seems like a good idea to me for some reason. Ronald Reagan: The RPG would be pushing it, though.
  • As far as I'm concerned, the way to do licensed properties is the way it's done in Burning Sands: Jihad. That is, take what you're interested in and rub the serial numbers off. Here's my thinking process:

    * With any licensed property, you're going to run into the frustrating and inevitable problem of differing levels of knowledge of and investment in canon. You can say "fuck canon, we're going to drop whatever we want to," but obviously you're going to keep some of it, otherwise you're not playing the game, right?

    * So, what canon do you keep? I suspect many people would happily drop midiclorians as a symbiotic conduit to Jedi powers in a Star Wars game. But what if that's central to someone's understanding of the series? What if they're really moved by the issues of symbiosis and duality that it brings up?

    * So, create a Sorny-fied (c.f. Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield) version of the game. All canon issues are then rendered additive, rather than subtractive. If it's there, it matters. If it's not, it doesn't. Luke et al. didn't want homo-hating to be a big part of their version of Dune, so it's not in Burning Sands.
  • Posted By: Eero TuovinenSo all those games that are just setting description + equipment list + some D20 or whatever leave me pretty cold.
    I agree with this. To take a licence and just staple on whatever hack system you have without really considering what makes the core product tick is really frustrating. It's why the Serenity RPG (as an example) is kinda terrible: it's just a generic engine with a paintjob of that setting. It's really important (I think) when developing a licenced product to ask yourself "what is it about this core product that keeps people coming back, and how can I replicate that experience at the game table?" TV shows about paranoia and tension should have paranoia and tension in their mechanics; similarly comedy, action, chases.

    Imagine a Dukes of Hazzard licenced game that was just OGL with detailed car stats. How disappointing would that be? Instead, imagine a DoH game that took the concepts of comedy, car chases, and down-homeyness, and developed those into full-fledged mechanics. Now you're talking.
  • Posted By: deadlytoqueIt's why theSerenityRPG (as an example) is kinda terrible: it's just a generic engine with a paintjob of that setting.
    I'm glad I'm not the only person who thought that.

  • There was a weird thing going on for a while when lots of strange franchises became RPGs. The Masterbook series were especially noticeable; Tank Girl, Tales from the Crypt, Indiana Jones and Species all using the same system. I'm not sure how much they tailored Masterbook for each setting, but it was definitely a case of "one system for everything" thinking.

    I once contacted Ursula LeGuin to ask if she'd let me write an Earthsea game. She wouldn't. Rumor has it she got mad when Dragon magazine printed stats for some Earthsea characters years ago; I can sort of understand that, though not entirely. I've since written Archipelago, which is - in my humble, humble opinion - a very good game for playing Earthsea stories.

    The Wire would possibly be cool as an RPG.
  • The Wire would make an excellent game. Don't get too attached to your character, though.

    I'm not generally impressed with licenses. I have a strong suspicion that Luke is doing a very nice job with Burning Empires, but I'm not familiar enough with the comic to really judge. I think he did some cool stuff with the system, though, leaving plenty of room to create universe in the appropriate vein without overly relying on canon.

    I might have a license in my future, and the subject is historical. There will have to be enough explanation of the history, society, and material details of the world to make stories like the fiction but not simply repeat it or treat it as canon.

    I also have the rights for the Diesel Sweeties RPG with Elizabeth Shoemaker, but we've come up with either unfun games that accurately represent the fiction, or weird and maybe fun games that don't. It's hard to work with pre-existing material like that.

  • It's funny that Matthijs weighed in on this thread, in that the "setting ownership"/canon-keepers concept from Archipelago is almost essential for a liscensed RPG in my opinion.
  • What do people think about official franchised RPGs of recognised properties?
    They have the potential to be really awesome, but seldom are. One needs to combine the right licensed property with the right rules.

    Which ones worked, which ones didn't, and why?
    Mouse Guard, of course, works extremely well. Guardians of Order's anime licensed games by and large were good as guidebooks to the titles they were based on, but never went beyond statting stuff up in the bland Tri-Stat system. Serenity likewise left me totally unimpressed. WWE: Know Your Role was actually a valiant attempt, but they used a bizarre d20/OGL variant for no particular reason, and there were certain issues with the rules.

    Which franchises are dying for the RPG treatment?
    I have two book cases of nothing but manga, and my other bookcase has lots of comics and DVDs, with lots of stuff begging for RPG versions:

    Dragon Ball
    North World
    Final Fantasy
    Scott Pilgrim
    Read or Die
    Galaxy Angel
  • edited July 2009
    One thing that I'd think a licensed-property game should account for is whether the game is built as an "In the World of [blank]" or as a "The Lost Adventures of [blank]".

    Most games seem to go with an "In the World of [blank]" approach. I'm not all that keen on that, actually.

    TSR's Marvel Supers had both approaches, one in the rule books and another in the modules, as did the DC Heroes game. The TSR Indiana Jones was almost all "The Lost Advetures of" approach (not counting the two movie modules), but handled it kind of badly.

    I'd actually love to see some kind of dirty-hippy approach to this aspect of a licensed property game, even if it was as simple as making the game in a way thaat the GM position switched between sessions/adventures/episodes and all players had input into the next adventure ( possibly with characters switching around too, so everyone gets to interpret their version of a known character).

    Hmm. I wonder how to work that?

    Off-hand, maybe at the end of a session (or between sessions), everyone fills out a sheet that covers the basic gist of their wants for the next episode/issue/adventure, a list of characters in order of expected spotlighting (including any new characters just for that episode), and a few elements they'd like to see. A standardized form might help here.

    If you are all actually at the table, the sheets get turned facedown and shuffled, then all players draw one. Each player in turn then reads off, aloud, the episode description, and players vote on which one they want to go with.

    At that point, the creator of the voted in-episode reveals they are the creator. They'll be the GM for that episode, and they then get to choose the player-to-character match ups at any point up to the beginning of the following game.

    Edited to add:
    In regards to licensed property games, some kind of commitment to emulation of the source material should probably be step one of a design process, and that means looking at what actually happens in the source material commonly. It's fairly important, IMO, to step back and look at that broadly first. LP designs seem to have plunged directly into mechanics ( especially of the old skool physics engine sort in many cases) before there has been any examination of the overriding commonalities of the source material.

    One thing I've seen suggested is Levi K's ideas about players playing different roles in the game. I'm not talking so much about playing different characters, as different player-level functions ( although sometimes character protrayal comes into it, too). Building on some of the stuff that Levi has talked about, it might even be worthwhile to talk about different mechanics for players playing non-central characters, with mechanics being much more different the further a given character is from the focus of the play.

    For example, many book series or film series I'm familiar with have a central character, around which everything reviolves. Going one layer out, we have companion characters. Often, these companions are better-skilled at something very specific than the main character, but tend to cause trouble for the sppotlight character in some fashion.Having an occasional spotlight scene is important from a source-material perspective, but that isn't the core of the source material fun.

    For example, the main role ( stereotypically) of John Watson in Sherlock Holmes stories is to be wrong with his theories. Most of what Watson suggests is either incomplete or a bad interpretation. Once in a while, JW really shines, and aids greatly in events.

    So what does Watson really do, once you step back? He tells you what most certainly did not happen, no matter how sensible it sounds.

    In other single character focused stuff, the secondary character ( or sometimes two characters) provide really clear support roles, but at the cost of a heavy personal weakness. Supporting characters in IJ stories are like this. They can do something better than the main character, and occasionally have spotlight-time where they really show it off. Mostly, though, they have some personal weakness or role weakness that causes the main spotlight character trouble.

    And that's their job, their role, when they aren't in the spotlight.
  • I think Mouse Guard pulled off both the feel of the comics and is a good RPG as well. Most other licensed games I've tried fail miserably on one or both fronts. In most cases it's because the producer ends up simply playing a game in which you "adventure" in that setting. For example, BSG could have been a really awesome RPG but instead simply turned into a generic adventure game. :o(

    The biggest obstacle I see for most licensed material, which others have mentioned, is that hardcore fans of the program/book/comic/etc., as well as the holders of the copyright, are going to want the game to stay very true to the canon which can really constrict the RPG writer's creativity. In addition, licensed products often involve input from the original writers and/or their crack team of legal experts, which can be a nightmare. From what I've read of The Song of Ice & Fire's development, Martin held up the production of the game significantly simply because he was too busy to provide approval for the final draft.

    That's a headache I wouldn't want. Then again there are some really cool possibilities out there that I'd love to see. Amongst them:
    • The Wire
    • 9
    • Fallout
    • Monster Blood Tatoo
    • Exalted ;op
  • edited July 2009
    I think it's important to consider why a franchise is a good thing to make a game from. Aside from the obvious ones, like getting access to art assets, a canon library to build/steal setting material from, and a built-in fan base who will buy your game because it's "official".

    There are two benefits to play that I can see immediately. These are also considerations when deciding to run/play a licensed game.
    • It gets people who know the franchise well on the same page.
    • It gets people who like the franchise a lot excited to play.
    None of these considerations give a hoot about "system" in the sense of mechanics. Instead, the franchise simply becomes a convenient short-hand description of play. What you, the designer, have to ensure is that your game (setting and mechanics) doesn't divert from the expectations implicit in this short-hand. For example, the gorgeous coffee-table-worthy Guardians of Order book "A Game of Thrones", the first attempt at making an official Song of Ice and Fire RPG, failed miserably in this regard: while the fiction is mostly about intrigue and character drama, the game presented little more than a d20-based setting book, some special rules for emulating ASoIaF-style combat, and a pile of Prestige classes for you to go Adventure with. What one might expect to be the default play mode (especially given the title of the book), the intrigue-centric play surrounding titles, power and status, was relegated to a short paragraph in the back of the book summed up as "you can play it this way - no really, we promise".

    I personally find the d20 system to be very poor at emulating any kind of source fiction, other than possibly fiction based on D&D. The rules are focused around a highly tactical combat system and associated advancement, so any fiction which does not similarly centre around the protagonists slaying swaths of baddies and propelling into godhood will be unsuitable to play using d20. On the other hand, systems like GURPS and Unisystem, with its extensive list of skills which can be streamlined to suit your fiction and a simple default resolution system, present few assumptions about play. While none of these systems get me hot and bothered, I have successfully played a variety of source fiction using them, ranging from high fantasy to gritty sci-fi to modern horror and crime fiction.

    There's an oddity in RPGs based on well-known franchises. If a franchise is a short-hand for coming to a shared understanding of how things should work in the game, why do we need tables upon tables of detailed equipment lists and stats for all the entities found in the fiction? Such tables are there to serve a similar purpose to the notion of franchise and genre - so that when the stormtroopers pull out their blaster rifles, I understand that I can probably duck behind a wall, take the occasional potshot, and still be safe, but when they bring out the thermal detonators I should probably look around for a nearby garbage chute to jump into. If everyone is already agreed on these facts, why this emphasis on lists upon lists of stats?

    If you don't need a metric ton of source books full of equipment lists, extensive fluff text and official timelines, and a huge amount of art assets to get everyone on the same page with regards to what the game is about and how it should work, what is left for you to do? Mechanics, right... and the games which have been mentioned in a positive light so far are essentially just mechanics. Luke Crane has an uncanny way of adapting the Burning rules to successfully suit most every game he touches - not that there's much similarity between the system used in Burning Empires and Mouse Guard. I'm currently reading Anna Kreider's alpha of Black Sky (which is Firefly inspired), and I'm getting the same vibe - there is no fluff to remind me this is Firefly, but the actual game is more Firefly than the Serenity RPG ever was.

    So to my mind, if you're going to write a game for a particular franchise, cut out all the franchise-specific fictional gunk and allow such elements to enter the game strictly through the group's shared understanding of the fiction. Tailor the mechanics to the source fiction, to ensure what the players end up doing at the table conforms to the things we expect the protagonists to do. And understand that if you do not do this, the players have exactly no impetus to buy your game over the GURPS quick-start rules.

    I'd be interested to hear what people think of beloved franchise titles such as Star Wars: SAGA, Ghostbusters, Marvel Superheroes and others. Does the above ring true, or is there a compelling reason to include fiction-entity specific stats in these games other than upping page count and catering to drooling fanboism?

    I too would love to see a Fallout RPG.
  • Posted By: lachekI too would love to see a Fallout RPG.
    There is one, it was made after the release of Fallout 2, but it's quite rare these days and difficult to get hold of. I'd love a copy myself. A friend of mine has one. Never had a chance to play in it though.

  • Posted By: DestriarchAnd there's also the mondo advertising such products often get of course, not to mention that the publishing rights often go hand in hand with reams of lovely official artwork!
    Just so you know, the licensor is usually under no obligations to advertise your project and probably won't do so even if it's in the licensor's best interest. Any advertising your project gets will come out of your own pocket.

    Artwork is definitely one of the benefits of licensing a comic. Even then, you'll be surprised how many pieces won't be usable (especially if the comic predates the digital revolution). Many times, a comics frame works beautifully on the comics page, but doesn't work at all when isolated out of context. You'll find frames you think are perfect, and then you'll pull them out and see that they're cropped weirdly when on their own, or something similar. You will need additional artwork. You'll have to get the artist's sketches to fill out the book, or you'll have to ask the artist to produce more pieces, and that'll cost. Or, if your license allows it, maybe you'll hire additional artists.

    Also, you better make sure that your layout is top-notch in order to put that art in its best light. If your layout skills aren't up to snuff, you'll need to hire someone to do it.

    And don't forget to lawyer up. You'll need a contract that protects your interests. The licensor's version of the contract will make sure to protect the licensor, but probably won't pay much attention to your interests. You'll want your lawyer to go over it with a fine-toothed comb.

    Make sure you can find at least one thing to love in the source material. You're going to suffer far too many headaches to make it worthwhile to work on something that doesn't contain something you're passionate about.
  • I like licensed games, not the least of which because I think it is interesting to see how a designer builds (or modifies) a system to suit the source material. To me, it's sort of like a Game Chef or similar design contest. I'm happy to report my own licensing experience in toe-dipping. I am a huge fan of the John Rain novels by Barry Eisler. On a whim, I contacted him, and he was surprisingly easy to deal with. We worked out a deal, and I'm nearly done with the initial design work for the game, Tokyo Rain. Design has been a lot of fun precisely because of the reasons I said above. It was challenging and rewarding to boil the series down to its essence and transform it into a game system.
  • You can't imagine how disappointed I was with The Authority rpg. It required that I pick up the D&D player's handbook and I am not into D&D. I'm into The Authority, dammit. Also, the book itself was just a list of stats, albeit long and complicated ones that DO NOT invoke the high-speed pace that I would want out of these stories. I mean, how are you supposed to stat up Seth that way? It was clearly made by people who don't care about this particular gamer/reader (me). Rant over.

    Marvel SAGA was pretty good on the other hand. I always felt like I was in the Marvel Universe when I ran it.
  • Licenses are the bricks that are put into the bag of kittens that are RPGs and thrown into the river of commerce.

    However, I want to speak up and defend the "generic system for the license" approach.

    If what you have licensed is source material that is a giant mish-mash (a long-running TV series like Trek, a movie-novel-comics combo like Star Wars, etc.) that different people will take different things away from, the more generic your approach the better. That is why the Serenity RPG was relatively successful despite the licensor fucking with it constantly - because everyone who watched Firefly took something different away from it. (I sometimes feel like I'm the only one who actually noticed that it's a fucking Western, despite the horses and cowboy hats.) This is also why D20 adaptations worked well, because the D20 system was something people knew and could use in many many different ways to get where they wanted to go. Same with GURPS and Unisystem.

    TL;DR: If you are licensing something that has broad appeal for many different reasons, genericness is a feature and not a bug.

    If by contrast you've licensed a laser-focused property that can really only be interpreted or approached in one way, then a specific system will help.
  • Posted By: jessecoombsYou can't imagine how disappointed I was with The Authority rpg. It required that I pick up the D&D player's handbook and I am not into D&D. I'm into The Authority, dammit.
    Huh, GoO also made a d20 version of it? Didn't know that. The one I have is the Tristat/SAS Edition. (Which also isn't all that great, but at least does "High Powered Supers whose punches make heads explode" nicely enough.)
  • Franchises normally suck. They tend to be, "give the characters stats," instead of helping to facilitate the creation of authentic stories in that universe. Crane and crew are excellent at making the second. I have hope that as other people realize that the second option exists, franchises will get better, hopefully providing us with growth from rabid fans of various worlds.
  • I can't believe that nobody's mentioned Eden's Buffy RPG yet. Not an ultra-focused system, but the designer used Cinematic Unisystem and some custom Qualities and rules to capture the feel of the show quite effectively. There were a few rules-specific hitches, like the way magic works and the truly astounding damage potential for a Slayer with high stats and a big-ass weapon, but overall it works great, giving plenty for both combat and support-type characters to do (with both OOC and IC demarcation of the character types). I've never met C J Carella, but he seems to have really understood the source material and put a lot of love into adapting it. Also, the license holder gave them some extra leeway, so that the Buffy books include a bunch of non-canonical material as well as the stuff we see in the show.

    The downside of licensed products is also seen in Eden's experience with the Buffy RPG -- from what I've read online, they had quite a bit of Buffy/Angel material ready to publish but were stymied by the license holder first delaying approval, and then pulling the license entirely. (I probably got some of this wrong, so please correct me if you know more of the story.) I don't know why they didn't take the proposed Watcher sourcebook, rewrite it as a guide to generic tea-drinking tweed-wearing occultists, and publish it anyway, but presumably there are legal issues involved. This must have been a creative and financial disaster for Eden.
  • edited July 2009
    As for franchises that are dying for an RPG: Lemony Snickett's Series of Misfortunate Events, complete with VFD artifacts and disguises. I expect the author would give permission if the profits went towards distributing free copies to children, particularly if you could do it in an interesting way, as if Lemony Snickett were distributing them.
  • If you like games in which you defend beautiful kingdoms from horrible monsters, save space princesses from evil space viziers or reconcile your feeling for others with your need for self-actualization, then please go and play some other game. Do not play this game, it is very, very dreary.
  • *snicker* Sounds like the Lemony Snicket Polaris Hack is crying out to be made.
  • The biggest obstacle I see for most licensed material, which others have mentioned, is that hardcore fans of the program/book/comic/etc., as well as the holders of the copyright, are going to want the game to stay very true to the canon which can really constrict the RPG writer's creativity.

    It depends on the nature of the fiction being licensed. Sometimes the spirit is actually more important than the canon and the fans know that.

    Franchises normally suck. They tend to be, "give the characters stats," instead of helping to facilitate the creation of authentic stories in that universe.

    As MJ says, the Burning Crew know their business. The fact that I've had fun with their systems despite their totally being Not My Thing is a good indicator of that in general, and I understand that the Mouse Guard system is both Mouse Guard and Burning Wheel.

    Albedo Platinum Catalyst is a pretty decent job, even if it's got a bunch of baggage. It's a gritty, war story SF RPG about a gritty, war story comic. You name your hit points and give them jobs in your unit. You can see where that leads.

    What's neat about that is that it doesn't matter if Erma Felna, the protagonist in the comic, is there. She might make a cameo because it would be interesting or funny or poignant or whatever, but her presence, and the events of her story are not necessary to play an Albedo-style story.

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