Monday, May 2, 2022

Your Licensed Game Is Awesome!

Been a while since I've posted anything on here, I know. The last post was prompted by some serious backlash against a game I had been collaborating on, and the internet space was all getting a bit nasty. So, I took a break from the internet, focused on my work, and doing stuff in the evenings that wasn't tabletop writing.

I dipped my toes into the internet waters again to see if there was anything good happening, and stumbled upon an article in my feed (which I won't link to) that basically said licensed tabletop roleplaying games sucked. I was angry, hurt, and offended - mostly as the image they used for it was the cover of the Doctor Who Roleplaying Game. So, everyone was seeing this article with the headline 'Your Game Sucks' with an image of the game I'd been working on (off and on) for the last thirteen years.

Hard not to be offended!

The actual article itself was basically saying that licensed RPGs were bad, because you (as a player) didn't have the power of a bunch of scriptwriters, and no game could feel as cool as the licensed property it was based upon. 

So I thought I'd take to the blog, and voice my rebuttal. 

Licensed RPGs are awesome.


Some of the best roleplaying games I've played, and the most fun I've had, have been playing licensed tabletop RPGs. The first game I GM'd was Star Frontiers, and I was so obsessed with movies and TV series that I populated the epic star-scape of Star Frontiers with lightsabers, T-800 Terminators, Transformers, and more. However, when publishers started actually making RPGs based on some of the movies and series I was so fanatical about, that was when I started having the most fun with roleplaying.

The first licensed game I bought and played was the, now legendary, TSR Adventures of Indiana Jones RPG. Sure, it didn't have character creation in the basic box, and I spent hours typing up a character creation chapter of my own to allow players to generate their own globe-trotting adventurers. But we had fun with it, playing ridiculous adventures of raiding tombs, punching nazis, and action packed thrills. It was great, and something that sticks with me to this day is the excellent 'Judges Survival Pack'. In that little supplement was, not only the character creation rules I desired, but also some fantastic 'random tomb generator' tools, to ensure the GM (or Judge) had a fresh ancient tomb, filled with traps, on hand.

To top this off, there was the amazing 'Chase Flow Chart' that provided an endless stream of roads, buildings, paths, and obstacles for foot or vehicular chases. It was brilliant, and a fantastic idea that I haven't really seen again. 

Hot on the heels of that in my gaming was another legendary game — Ghostbusters. The 'Frightfully Cheerful Roleplaying Game' produced by West End Games. 

To say this game changed my life is an understatement. It was written with a comedic tone filled with self-referential comments and jokes, that made it an absolute joy to read. I LOVE Ghostbusters. Seriously, I was obsessed with the first film, so much so that I bought the VHS when the film came out on rental, before it was available to buy, so I could watch it over and over again. 

I read the game, chuckling away to myself at the jokes and just how cool the game was. This was fun to read, and I had that moment of clarity when I realised if it was that much fun to read, it must have been fun to write — I want to do that!!

As documented here on the blog, I spent hours sat at an electric typewriter, hammering away to create adventures for Ghostbusters, photocopying the manuscripts and sending them off to West End Games. Waiting months for it to get there, and eagerly awaiting a reply. While it was a "no", it was an encouraging no, and it is the reason I wanted to become a roleplaying game writer and designer.

Shortly after Ghostbusters, the seemingly unstoppable West End Games produced the one game I wanted more than anything in the Universe — Star Wars. I was obsessed with Star Wars from before I'd even seen it, from the moment my dad brought home those first couple of action figures for me. Everything was Star Wars, and nothing could top it for me. When I first started roleplaying, Traveller and Star Frontiers were just Star Wars in my head. So when WEG brought out the Star Wars roleplaying game, using a version of the Ghostbusters D6 system, I was instantly sold.

It was great, and we had many epic games of dodging swarms of TIE Fighters, using force powers, shooting at Stormtroopers, and sneaking around Imperial bases.

The production was cool, and after so many years of black and white illustration in roleplaying rulebooks, to have them punctuated with glossy inserts of full colour, and that "Join the Imperial Navy" advert that looked like the armed forces ads that we were familiar with, was just brilliant. Seriously loved that game.

It was towards the end of the 'golden age' of my roleplaying gaming (before I had a bit of a break from gaming) that I delved into the realms of Victory Games' James Bond 007 RPG

Again, another perfectly executed game, with brilliant rules to make your character the suave and educated spy that you'd expect from a Bond movie. I loved Bond movies, from my first trip to see The Man With The Golden Gun, so to get the opportunity to run games with cool gadgets, powerful villains, and dangerous henchmen, I couldn't pass it up. After picking up the main boxed set, and one of the adventures, I saw how fantastic the production values were on them, especially the amazing handouts, and saw the awesome chase rules, I just couldn't stop until I had the complete collection (a collection I only really managed to complete in the last few years).

However, the James Bond 007 RPG is often regarded as being the first game to employ 'Hero Points' — a revolutionary development that has continued into games even today. Fantastic.

I'd taken a break from gaming, and returned to the scene in the early 90's when Vampire caught my eye, but many years later I became obsessed with the TV series The X-Files. As there wasn't a roleplaying game for The X-Files, a friend of mine recommended the closest thing, in the form of Eden Studios' Conspiracy X. This got me reading Eden's games, and got me my first real writing gig in the gaming sphere... I was busy working on Terra Primate when Eden got in touch about another of my favourite TV shows of the time...

Eden Studios' Buffy The Vampire Slayer RPG is another one of those brilliant licensed games that actually felt like the source material. Using a lighter version of CJ Carella's Unisystem, the Buffy RPG cleverly meant that you had to fight vampires to weaken them, before you could stake them. Just that little element meant that you had to punch and kick those pesky bloodsuckers until you could stake them, which meant it felt like an episode of Buffy. You did research, you went on patrol, you beat up some vamps, and dusted them. 

And the whole book was written in that lighthearted and accessible way that Ghostbusters was, filled with pop-culture references in the way the Buffy series was, and the way the Buffy characters talked. Just fantastic.

Filled with full colour glossy images, it was freaking glorious, and perfect for a group of vampire hunters, witches, watchers, or even slayers (if you continue from the end of season seven). I loved working on those books, and watching episodes over and over to get the floorplans for locations. 

When it comes to licensed RPGs that do things brilliantly, and perfectly reflect their source material, it's hard to ignore Leverage, published by Margaret Weiss Productions. Utilising a streamlined and modified version of their Cortex system (that was so brilliantly employed in their Smallville RPG), it boils stats and skills down to their core components, and the roles the characters have in the heist - hitter, hacker, thief, mastermind, and grifter. Everyone can do everything, but some are specialists in their field. 

Add to this the brilliant way they construct the anatomy of a heist, it's just a revelation. It was really one of those games where I read through it and kept saying 'I wish I'd thought of that' over and over again. 

Mentioning Smallville though, the relationship mapping when you're creating the game — how everyone knows each other, and significant places and events, is just brilliant. Seriously, you should check it out if you can. And it's a great supers game as well, where the characters don't feel impossibly overpowered.

Okay, you're probably getting bored by now, so I'll just do two more before I wrap up.

One of my favourite games of the last ten years — heck, one of my favourite games ever — is a licensed game. Based upon the artwork and artbook of Simon StÃ¥lenhag, Tales from the Loop is an amazing game, and an absolute revelation when I read it. In an alternate 1980s, where robots are common, and weird experiments at the Loop have resulted in time travel, weirdness, and mutation, Tales from the Loop allows players to return to school days and investigate strange goings on. 

Not only does it perfectly capture the feel of the era and the paintings, but it was a complete revelation in rules design for me. The size of the rules section was so small, with an emphasis in the book on the setting and story, constructing mysteries and investigations, it just opened my eyes to how minimal the rules of a game could be. 

We had some fantastic games of Tales from the Loop, one so epic the characters aged to enter the Things from the Flood, failed to stop the Loop going horribly wrong and sending the world into a post-apocalyptic setting of Mutant Year Zero - then time travelling back to Tales from the Loop to try to stop it! Awesome.

And I guess you can't talk licensed games, and mention Fria Ligan, without bringing up the awesome ALIEN RPG. Using a modified version of the Year Zero Engine that powered Tales from the Loop, ALIEN added new stress mechanics that really made you feel like you were in an ALIEN movie. The couple of games I've played have been some of the tensest I've experienced, with a real sense of panic from the players and characters, feeling like your character could meet a horrible fate at any moment. 

The 'acts' of the cinematic play, adding motivations that change as the acts of the story progress, are a brilliant addition, meaning you're never really sure of the other player characters' motivations, and it perfectly reflects the feel of the movies. 

I haven't seen how extended campaign play works out yet, so that's something to look into, but for a short, sharp, shocking trip into the terrors of space, it's brilliant.

Saying that I'm always in awe of Fria Ligan games is putting it mildly, and with their licensed RPG of Blade Runner launching on Kickstarter this week, you can count me in.

So there you go. I love licensed games. I want to play more of them, I want to write more of them. It's in my blood, and has been for a very, very long time. 


Smileymiler said...

Abso-bloody-lutely! Since I was one of the players who enjoyed those first few games with you running them I can't agree with you more. Constable Els was my South African police policeman in Indianna Jones, I can't remember my character in Ghostbustets, then Douglas Dickens in James Bond and Deeko Smiggins in Star Wars. Brilliant fun.

Tim Knight said...

I agree 100 per cent with your overview of licensed properties, and possibly the best thing I can add is that I am currently OBSESSED with your Doctor Who RPG, so don't let the click bait idiots get you down. They're just jealous. Keep doing what you do so well.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Some licensed property games are terribly badly done (many of the GURPS attempts for example) but some are well thought out and suit the property. AITAS or whatever it's called now, is a pretty good system, even if the second edition is inferior.

PulpTickertape said...

No, I wasn't getting bored. I would've loved to have read more of your thoughts on individual licensed RPGs, perhaps expanding the topic to include those based on literary IPs like Cthulhu mythos based games, Starblazer or Strontium Dog.

FWIW a modified version of the chase flowchart from Indiana Jones was used in TSR's Top Secret S.I. game in the 1980s.

This was a great read. Thank you