Let’s face it, some of the most popular RPGs out there are part of popular franchises. It’s hardly something to complain about. Roleplaying comes out of investment in a story, and a lot of things that hook people is a universe in which they are already immersed. I don’t believe that it is an accident that we’ve written a number of articles that include the Star Wars, Mistborn, and Witcher RPGs, nor that there are numerous iterations of RPGs based off of pop culture phenomena (I am personally aware of Buffy, Firefly and Doctor Who RPGs) as well as my personal experience with GMs use Genesys as a universal system to build games in the Harry Potter and the Stormlight Archive universes. Even for systems that were always games first there is an impressive amount of lore that has been generated over the years in novels, such as the adventures of Drizzt Do’Urden in the Forgotten Realms or Theo Bell in Vampire the Masquerade, and for any players these stories are distinctive part of what they love.
This leads to what I refer to as the “fanfic quandary”. The reason why you pick a work of fiction to base your own story on is that you want to immerse yourself in it, but how do you make your mark on that universe? Players generally want to have agency, want to be the heroes (or villains) of the day, but how do they do so when that work’s main character is the Chosen One.Well, the problem is not unique to RPGs. The aforementioned “fanfic” can get a bad rap, but quite a few have turned out interesting over the years, and as previously mentioned some have been officially licensed novels, so why not take a look at some of the techniques these writers use and see the potential benefits and pitfalls.
The first concept is, as the trope affectionately calls it, “The Stations of the Canon”. The general premise is that, no matter what happens, there are certain events in the story that will occur no matter what the players accomplish: The artifact is stolen, the mentor dies, a climactic battle is had. The advantage of this is that it sets the plot arc going forward. If these events are coming to pass, the GM can have a structure to work with. You can build to these events, making their major milestones. On the downside, there is a corresponding loss to player agency. If the old master can always die, players will feel cheated if they see it coming and have spent as much time as possible to protect him. If the Big Bad Evil Guy is protected by canon because he has to have a climactic duel later, the player might feel cheated out of the chance of a fair encounter or feel as if their actions don’t matter. As will all tropes, there are good and bad ways for it to be used. One example is an original fiction example, The Practical Guide to Evil, where the theology of the setting has creation conform to tropes, or that certain events have greater metaphysical meaning: the wise master knows that his death is inevitable, as it came his master in turn in order to push his students to new heights and that reveal might not only satisfy your players, but expand your own version of the universe.
Another type of fanfic style that can handle the problem is the “Heroes of Another Story” genre. After all, the world (or galaxy or multiverse) is a big place. It is entirely possible to simply set your story in an entirely different chunk of time and space from where canon is taking place. In fact, because it is so separate from the rest of the established story that players and the GM are less obliged to hew to the tone and themes of the parent work and opens the door to deconstruction of the beloved tropes. Do you have players have personal itches with continuity and who want to spend time referencing the problems with the insular wizarding community ofHarry Potter, or the potential flaws in the Federation and their Prime Directive? Well, you have the freedom to explore those more. In fact, it’s that kind of exploration that gave you the more clinical and analytical enemy of Admiral Thrawn, representing the military and political might of the Empire rather than the mystical space wizard opera that dominated the Return of the Jedi. Another perfect example is Rogue One, creating a group of operatives to steal the Death Star plans that let A New Hope come to pass. Probably my favorite example is Gundam: 08th MS Team, a view of the life of armored infantry grunts who have to deal with equipment breakdown, supply issues, ad hoc repairs and ammo consumption in a setting that is typically obsessed with Super Prototypes.
Third is “For Want of a Nail”, named for the famous proverb about how a small change leads to drastic results. This approach has a lot of advantages: it allows for the flexibility for changes to be made closer to main events of canon, which gives players agency to affect real change. The basic idea is that changes characters make from pre-ordained events from canon send out cascading reactions. Maybe you can save that old master, and maybe the big villain, though a potent foe falls victim to “If You Stat It They Can Kill It” syndrome. Suddenly, the normal course of events is impossible to have come to pass…but that might not be a good thing for the heroes. Sure, vaping Darth Vader at the end of A New Hope would be an incredible accomplishment…but without him to make a sacrifice to save Luke from the Emperor, Palpatine still wins…and who knows where he might turn next for a new apprentice. It is the style that I consider the highest risk and the highest reward. Yes, it has the chance for incredible character buy in from players, but it takes a lot to GM. It means that you not only must know the setting and the events of canon as well as, if not better than your players, it also means you have to keep all of those moving parts in your mind and extrapolate what they will do when they don’t collide with a bit of plot that has not been altered. Even a less extreme example than the earlier one would be “what happens if your character convinces some soldiers to stay behind on Naboo”. Suddenly, you don’t have a voice of reason convincing the Jedi to allow the Queen to join them…and she never meets Anakin Skywalker until he’s onboard the ship. The motive force that carries two more movies is now absent, but all of the forces that would lead to the Clone Wars are still in place. A clever GM can work with that, kicking off those events early to engage the players, potentially flipping allies to enemies and enemies to allies.
Finally, there is simply the option to…simply throw canon to the wind just for the hell of it, after all it’s just made up anyway, so why not do whatever the hell you want. Yes, it might lead to a mess of Jar Jar Binks clones, but it also might lead to something as wonderfully insane as a mashup of Mass Effect and Exalted. This has a tendency to make for less serious games, by hey…we are here to have fun, aren’t we?
Now, do you necessarily need to follow these story ideas? No. But perhaps they can be useful tools. After all, RPGs are fiction of a special kind. Why can’t we take the time to look over where certain tropes are used, both to look for elements that you enjoy or potential pitfalls? The tropes that authors use are tools after all, so why not take a look to see how people have used them, either for an engaging story or an entertaining trainwreck.