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Chop Shop

The Fourth Atrocity: Conversion Narratives

by Eric Brennan
Dec 24,2002


The Fourth Atrocity: Conversion Narratives

Hello all, and welcome to the first of a three-part Chop Shop. We're handling conversions this month, and next month, and the month after that... My plan is to lay down some guidelines for planning a conversion this month, in essence -- some definitions so that we have some language to work with, and then do a setting conversion next month and a d20 system conversion the month after - thus neatly finally managing to get my long delayed d20 column out of the way. Lazy and cunning, that's me. First up: some definitions.

What is a Conversion?

A conversion is any attempt to make the system of a game work with a new setting - the setting can be wholly made up (or come from a separate medium,) but it can also come from another game entirely. The former we're going to call a "setting conversion," and the latter a "system conversion." Neither of those definitions is one hundred percent satisfactory to me, but they both do the job.

As an example, say I get finished watching "Firefly" on my local Fox affiliate and think that it would make a swell RPG setting. I could convert an existing game system so that it would work well with the Firefly setting. It will take some work, but it can be done, and if you have a really good fit to begin with, or you're particularly inspired, you can do this kind of conversion nearly overnight. This is a setting conversion, because you're converting a setting so it works with a game system.

On the other hand, a system conversion is a different animal. Say you've picked up a copy of a new RPG, and while certain rules elements may appeal to you, and the setting possesses a particular charm, you just don't groove on it. There's something there that doesn't work for you. If that's the case, you could convert the parts you like about the new game into another system, most likely (unless you're completely out of your mind) a system you like better. This is a system conversion, because you're converting from one system to another.

Setting conversions tend to be easier to do than system conversions, because you're simply converting ideas into rules elements. System conversions can be more difficult to manage because you often have to convert rules elements into other rules elements, and it can be painful if there's no easy way to relate the two.

Why Convert?

Some of you are probably asking, "Why would I convert at all? Why not just make up a brand new ruleset?" It's a legitimate question, but there are just as many reasons not to write a brand new ruleset as there are to write one.

In the first place, if you can find a good fit, e.g. a system that will "hold" your idea with minimal labor on your part, you can save yourself a lot of design time. Second, the system you're using for the conversion -- the system the game will end up in -- has probably been playtested, so lots of the boring grunt work of game design, the little niggly fiddly-bits, will have been done for you.

Finally, sometimes a system isn't getting used, but you see it has potential. Rather than have wasted twenty dollars or more on a purchase you'll never use, you convert a setting into it to make it work for you. In essence, like our primitive forebears using every last scrap of an antelope, we should never waste any part of a game.

To Be Generic, or Not To Be Generic

Now, I've got to make a brief note about generic systems. In short, I won't be talking about them in the next two columns.

With that said, before you undertake a conversion, it's fair to eye the selection of generic systems on the market and see if any of them will fit your intentions. There are a lot of them on the market, ranging from light rulesets, to heavy contraptions that will give any Rolemaster vet pause. EABA, Tri-Stat, Fudge, GURPS, Fuzion, Hero System, and CORPs (and more that I can't recall) all might have something to offer any conversion you might attempt. The best place to find out about them is, of course,'s Reviews archive and Open Forum - but I'll warn you that they all have their share of fan(atics,) and you should pay as much attention to the critics as you do the proponents, for somewhere in the middle lies the truth.

I'll also add to this list of "generic" systems what I like to call the "house-systems." These are the systems customized by particular companies for use in most of their games. If the company's developed the ruleset well enough, you can find examples of multiple genre applications. Chaosium's BRP is one of the oldest examples of a house-system, having been used for cosmic horror, epic fantasy, superheroics, hard science fiction, and even modern occult horror. Other examples include White-Wolf's Storyteller System, West End Games' d6 system, Eden's Unisystem, Decipher's CODA system, and the ubiquitous (some might say invasive) d20 system.

What you need to keep in mind with all of the above, both "generic" systems and "house-systems," is that none of them are truly generic. All of them have strengths and weaknesses and aspects of certain settings that they won't hit the notes for. Don't assume that just because you popped down thirty dollars at your local game store for a Generic RPG and some books for it that you'll be able to do what you want, all of the time.

How to Convert

As usual, I'm going to break up the conversion process into several discrete steps to make things easier. These aren't hard and fast rules, by any stretch, and you can skip over steps singly or in whole, depending on how much you've got worked out for yourself.

Sloppy or Detailed

First up, decide right away whether or not you want a sloppy or a detailed conversion. How much work do you want to put into this undertaking? How perfect should the conversion be?

Sloppy conversions are ones in which you do just enough work to get the game to work - you don't worry about every possible permutation because, ideally, strange twists won't come up very often, and when they do you hope you'll have enough sense and skill to "wing it."

Detailed conversions are where you make sure to take into account most of the possible permutations of the conversion, and sometimes even logically extrapolate out of the setting you're working with in order to plan for new ideas. If you were doing a Star Trek conversion, for instance, a detailed conversion might take into account the need for rules used in alien creation, or you might extrapolate out that someone in your group will want some kind of soldier-type, necessitating the creation of Starfleet Marines. In a perfect world, professional conversions would all be detailed conversions. They're not.

The choice between "sloppy" and "detailed" basically comes down to questions like, how long do you want to work on the conversion? How long will the campaign be? How much do the players demand of you when it comes to this? And, most importantly, can you, as GM, live with a sloppy job?

What Are You Converting?

Think about it - when you convert a setting into a new system, or convert an existing game into a different system, you're converting "elements," be they rules elements or setting elements. Those elements are what are going to make your conversion work well or fall on its face, depending on how you handle them.

So think critically - what are the elements of your setting or original game that really need to be in the conversion? What can you dispose of safely? What are the elements that you'd really like to be in the conversion, but might realistically not be able to work with?

Make a list. Write down all of the important parts of the setting or the original game. Reference this list when actually working on the conversion. Check off items on the list as you go. These elements are the heart and soul of a conversion, so make sure you get most of the important ones down. Ask around if you have any doubts.

Where Do You Want to Go?

Look around your game collection. What games offer elements that are on the list you wrote? Which games are capable of handling the bending, folding and mutilating you'll have to do for a good conversion? More importantly, which games do your players like well enough to play once you've put the work into a conversion?

The most important question to ask is -- what games do you understand well enough, in regards to core mechanics, character generation, and rules, that you feel comfortable doing a conversion? I can't count how many God-awful conversions into d20 I've seen, and the reason for ninety-percent of them is that the writers just didn't understand the way d20 works. They could run it, they could play it, but they didn't grasp the "reasoning" behind the mechanics. And that's not a slam on d20, kids - it could happen to any system.

A bad conversion is as ugly as a dead rat, and at least you can bury the rat - a bad conversion just keeps showing up, over and over again, because the Internet never lets them go. I'm still seeing ugly, ugly conversions from seven years ago.

Ask for Help

The Internet, and specifically, are perfect places to ask for help. Sometimes a new viewpoint can give you that much-needed perspective on a project, helping you to see what you've been missing, or aiding you in getting over a particular hurdle. What's even nicer is when game-designers themselves chime in and help.

My advice here is the same advice I gave you above - be aware that some people are wrong, some people are right, and most people are somewhere in-between. More to the point, be prepared for a lot of ignorant comments like, "Why would you run a Solomon Kane game in D&D? Hero can do it! You're an idiot..."

The Most Important Technique: Know When to Say "No."

The best advice I can give you is to stop periodically, look around, and see if you're following a lost cause. Sometimes, a conversion just isn't going to work out, and you need to change the ideas you have on your list, or switch from one destination system to another. Sometimes, you can stop, look at a conversion, and see that the end result will be less than satisfactory. One would hope that the advice in this column would keep you from waking up and realizing you're beating a dead horse, but in reality, the best training I can give you is to know when you're doing your best and the conversion still won't work. Don't take it personally, it happens - move on to a new destination system or try a different conversion. Take a break. Get some distance.

Just to give you an example, I originally bought an RPG in order to convert certain elements of it to my D&D game. The conversion was an abortion, and I gave up, although I still periodically fiddle about with it just to sharpen my skills and see if I was missing something. I wasn't missing anything. I could've done a conversion, eventually, but not a successful one -it would've been sloppy where I wanted detailed, a lot of the things on my "list" would've gotten twisted in ways I didn't want, and the systems really weren't compatible. It would've sucked my love for both games out of me, and so I called it quits. Something good did come out of it, though - I got a very good lesson in what made both systems tick, and a new appreciation for the game I bought just as conversion-fodder.

Next Up:
You tell me - I'll be doing a setting conversion, but I'm open to suggestions about what you'd like to see converted. If nobody comes up with anything particularly interesting, I've got a couple ideas myself - but I love to hear other peoples' ideas, because they beat mine nine-times-out-of-ten. Take it easy, see you in 30.

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What do you think?

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