Thursday, December 11, 2014

Franchise Play

For my reviewing gig on Geek Native, I am currently reading through The One Ring. I haven't finished it yet, but so far, it is AWESOME. One of the most amazing marriages of theme and gameplay mechanics I've ever seen. I found myself thinking, "Wow, how great is it that a Lord of the Rings RPG turned out being this good?"

And then, I realized something: a whole ton of licensed tabletop RPGs have turned out fantastic. This was a little mindblowing to me. Videogames, you see, don't have that kind of distinction. Sure, there are some great licensed videogames, but there are some awful stinkers, too, enough to give most gamers a bit of apprehension whenever they see the next Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or Harry Potter game coming down the pipe.

But that's not the case with tabletop RPGs. As far as I can remember, most all of them have been good at the very least, innovative and award-winning at their best. Why is that? Why do licensed RPGs tend to end up so good when other kinds of licensed games do not?

The first theory that comes to mind is a simple one: economics. The RPG industry is not exactly a gold mine. So when a game developer manages to get a license for a game, that publisher probably has enough cash to give the licensed game some high-end treatment. That is certainly the case for Fantasy Flight Games' very successful Star Wars RPGs. Judging by the lavish production value seen in The One Ring, it looks like Cubicle 7's got some money to throw around, too. Unlike the videogame industry, where there are numerous nooks and crannies that money can disappear into, a tabletop RPG can almost always benefit from cash flow: more editors, more playtesters, more designers, more artists, a stronger product line, etc.

Another theory I have also has to do with economics, but not literal, money-economics: the economics of creative energy. A brand-new setting can require a lot of work and creative vision to bring to life, to the point where there might not be enough gas in the tank for a decent game system after the world's been made. That can go the other way, as well: a game can spend so much time having it's numbers crunched and mechanics tooled with that there's just nothing left for a campaign setting. Licensed games take out half of the equation, leaving the game developers to focus solely on the mechanical bits without sacrificing a quality setting. Sure, there are still consultants that need to work on making sure the right company gets credit for designing the X-Wing, or that the population of Laketown is consistent to how its presented in The Hobbit, but I imagine that kind of research is at least somewhat easier than completely making those details up! Those details don't necessarily help a videogame suck less, but those little touches can and do matter in a tabletop RPG.

Regardless of the reasons, it is a great luxury to us RPG enthusiasts that we do not need to look down disdainfully at licensed RPGs. To the contrary; a licensed RPG gives us gamers a great opportunity to bring non-roleplaying fans of those franchises into the hobby. There are so, so many great licensed RPGs out there. Now following are my top five. Be sure to let me know if you've got one you want to give some love too, as well!

1. The One Ring: Seeing as how this is the game that inspired this blog post, it seems only appropriate to list it here. I'm not going to go into the reasons this game is great (read my upcoming review for that!) but I can comfortably tell you this game is easily the best iteration of a Lord of the Rings RPG yet, better than the Last Unicorn Games one, and better than the Rolemaster one.

2. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion: I've already written repeatedly about how great this game is, but just so we're clear: the innovative, narrative-driven mechanics, combined with some of the best production value in the hobby, makes these roleplaying games incredibly fun and solid fan service, as well.

3. Marvel Superheroic/Firefly RPG: I'm going to lump these two properties together into one entry and also give a shoutout to Smallville and Leverage as well. The Cortex Plus engine is fast, fun, and flexible, and in all of these games the system is meticulously crafted to emulate the emotional core of each franchise.

4. The Dresden Files: I have only read this RPG; I've never played it. I've also not read more than a few dozen pages of the first novel. I can say, however, that this Fate-powered RPG is fantastic work. Flipping through it is an absolute delight (I loved the meta-touches throughout). The Dresden Files RPG represents the potential of the Fate RPG unleashed to its fullest. No lengthy design talks about technique or hacks here; just a solid, highly-playable, and very enjoyable role-playing game.

5. A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Another game I haven't actually played yet, but reading through it I've been thouroughly impressed with the production value and attention to detail given in Green Ronin Games' treatment of George R.R. Martin's work. Of all the games on this list, this is probably the most valuable game for a non-RPG fan to pick up, as the extensive history of Westeros included make this a handy guide to the books/TV show, even if you never play a single adventure.

Now that I've given my top five existing RPGs, let me give you my top five most wanted licensed RPGs:

1. Harry Potter: I'd venture to say this is at the top of almost any RPG fan's list of most-wanted games. A simple Google search will yield about a thousand or so hacks and homebrews of Harry Potter RPGs. But I would love to see one of the big boys like Fantasy Flight or Cubicle 7 get their hands on the license and see what they could do with it!

2. Fallout: The post-apocalyptic world of the Fallout series is so full of flavor and detail it's practically begging to have a nice, high-quality RPG corebook made out of it.

3. ANY Blizzard franchise: World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo...three of the coolest game worlds ever created, and I'd kill for a tabletop equivalent of any of them. I know there are D20 WoW and Diablo games, and a Starcraft campaign setting using the out-of-print Alternity system...but none of those games actually captured the feelings of either the world or the videogames, in my mind. I particularly think Fate or Cortex could handle any of these game worlds well.

4. Law & Order: A weird one, I know, but hear me out, here. Despite its runaway popularity on TV, the police procedural has had a hard time crossing over to gaming success. But I don't think that needs to be the case. I think a police procedural drama could do very well as a tabletop RPG. A slightly crunchier system, like GURPS, I think, could handle Law & Order well. The important thing is, like the TV show, the game must give equal footing to both the police who investigate crimes, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. Duh-duh!

5. Terminator: Three movies, a fourth on the way, and a TV show (albeit short-lived) and NO game yet? Come on! Only a slight stretch of the imagination is needed to allow players to travel into the past and battle the machines to save the future. And imagine being able play as one of those machines! I think it'd be awesome.
In finding this picture, I discovered that the new movie is supposed to be the first of a three-part "reboot" trilogy. So, seriously, this NEEDS a tabletop game.





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