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I'll Play Short Round!

James Maliszewski May 2, 2000

As always, some updates. My daughter Mary continues to thrive. She's four months old and continually amazes me. You can find more pictures of her on my personal website if you're at all interested in such saccharine sweetness.

On the writing front, all is well. I just completed a project for Pinnacle's Deadlands: Hell on Earth, a true irony given my avowed disdain for post-apocalyptic settings. So, now you know I'm a sell-out as well as an opinionated know-it-all. Work proceeds on my two supplements for the newly released Simply Roleplaying! from the fine folks at Microtactix Games. At only $9.00, SR! is an incredible bargain and I urge you to take a look at this excellent offering from Guy McLimore and Bob Portnell. Of course, there's some self-interest in this recommendation (I did admit to being a sell-out), but the fact is that SR! is a great game for both inexperienced players looking to give roleplaying a try, as well as old-timers fed up with the staggering complexity of other generic systems. Several projects from White Wolf are possibilities for the future, as well as a few others I can't mention just yet. More details as they're available.

Finally, be sure to check out my preview of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition in issue 62 of InQuest Gamer. Now, on to the subject at hand . . .


I've been known to lament the fact that the only really successful SF RPGs the ones with any serious market penetration are licensed properties like Star Trek and Star Wars. That's inevitable, I suppose. Many gamers enter into roleplaying by imagining themselves in the roles of characters in movies or television programs. If there are games that tap directly into those imaginings, they've got a significant advantage over wholly original settings. After all, almost everyone in this culture has at least a vague sense what a Jedi Knight or a Starfleet officer is. How many would recognize a Kalinthi demon-hunter or a GEO Marshal?

The fact is that licensed properties have a beneficial side effect on the whole RPG industry, a kind of "trickle down" process that introduces lots of people to the world of gaming who otherwise wouldn't. Let's face facts, a significant percentage of the American population consider themselves Star Trek fans (whatever they mean by that). How many consider themselves roleplayers? So, any way to get even a small portion of the larger demographic group to become part of the smaller one is a boon. For years, West End's excellent Star Wars Roleplaying Game introduced thousands of fans to the roleplaying world. I expect Wizards of the Coast's version to do the same. This is a good thing.

The real question and the one that concerns this column is what's the best way to use a licensed property? Is there a right way and a wrong way? Since I'm not donning my philosopher's robes at the moment, I'll leave questions of Absolute Truth aside. I will, however, put forward my theories regarding the best ways to use a licensed property. Over the years, I've seen a lot of licensees come and go and I think I have a decent handle on what works and what doesn't. For instance, the old TSR Indiana Jones Adventures Game didn't work. Why? Well, there was no character generation system to speak of, only pre-made heroes from the movies. I use the term "heroes" broadly, as I'm not comfortable putting Wu Han the Chinese Waiter or Jock the Pilot on the same footing as Henry Jones, Jr. Is that what gamers want? To play Indy or an also-ran sidekick?

When I was a kid, I loved my Star Wars action figures above all other toys. Like all discerning youngsters, I preferred roguish Han Solo to the goody two shoes Luke Skywalker. Of course, so did my best friend at the time, which presented a problem. Ever resourceful, I created Jon Solo, Han's brother for my pal to play. Disaster was averted and the fight against the Empire could continue without internecine conflict on the side of the Alliance.

Roleplaying games need to be equally resourceful (or maybe more resourceful. Jon Solo? What was I thinking?) By their nature, RPGs need to be more expansive than the material on which they're based. Players are notorious for wanting to see what's behind every rock and what's over every hill. They won't stay on the set you've prepared for them and they'll resent it if you try to make them do so. The same goes for characters. Sure, there are people who like playing established heroes, but in my experience most don't. They want to create their own characters and their own stories. True, many of these "original" characters are thinly disguised versions of famous protagonists, but so what? Even thinly disguised Lukes or Kirks can become more than that in time. And they're not bound by the continuity established by the source material another big advantage.

That's another problem: continuity. Where do the characters and their adventures fit into the backdrop of the licensed property? I have a friend who has difficulties playing in the Star Wars universe because, as he puts it "All the cool stuff is being done by someone else." True, your character can never blow up the Death Star or defeat the Emperor, but is that all there is to do in the Star Wars universe? If it is, you don't really have a very useful property. For a license to be successful as the basis of a roleplaying game, it must be expandable. It must be able to go beyond the narrow confines of what we see in the movies or TV shows or books or whatever.

In this regard, Star Trek has always been a valuable property. From the time of the Original Series, it was clear there were other ships and other crews, each of which had its own adventures. Sure, Kirk and company were really cool, but who's to say Captain Holmes isn't cool too? The galaxy is a big place and Star Trek constantly reminds us that there's far too much to see and experience for even the entire Starfleet. Add to that two non-Enterprise-based series and it's easy to create your own tales on the Final Frontier.

Both Last Unicorn Games and FASA recognized this fact and ran with it. While I may disagree with some of the choices made by each company (Starfleet Academy? Huh?), there's no doubt they understood that Star Trek is a broad enough setting to allow for my styles of play. In many ways, Star Trek is tailor made for roleplaying. All that's needed is solid support material to flesh out areas only hinted at in the series and movies. Over the past two years, LUG has certainly done that and there's no sign of their letting up soon. Naturally, I have my own ideas on where they should take each line and on what they should concentrate, but that's irrelevant to the point at hand. Thus far, Star Trek has been very well served by its gaming incarnations.

West End's Star Wars game was similarly well done, but only after an initially rough start. I remember all too well the early days of the game, when supplements consisted of interminable Galaxy Guides with stats for every minor character in the movies and adventures like Tattooine Manhunt forced the characters to fight the younger brothers of all the bounty hunters from The Empire Strikes Back. It was horrifying. In fact, I was so underwhelmed by WEG's early support for the game that I never purchased the first edition of the game. This from a dyed in the wool fan since the age of seven!

Why? It was Indian Jones Adventures all over again. No, I didn't have to play C-3PO or some other equally pointless character, but I did have to suffer through endless rehashes of the movies and their plots and antagonists. That's not what I was looking for in a Star Wars RPG. I wanted to create my own adventures that were like those in the movies without being too much like them, if that makes any sense. Only with the release of supplements like Scouts and Fragments from the Rim did Star Wars become expansive enough that I thought it a worthwhile purchase. I think this is an important lesson to remember.

Ironically, WEG repeated the same mistake with their Indiana Jones RPG. Not only was it saddled with the execrable MasterBook system when D6 was clearly more suitable, but it also concentrated heavily on the movies. I had hoped (in vain) that the Indiana Jones game would be a broader pulp game about derring-do and beating up Nazis. Instead, it was far too narrowly focused on archaeological adventures and the like. In time, WEG corrected themselves, releasing both a D6 version of the game and making it more pulpy and broadly conceived. Too late, of course, but it's still good to see the designers right themselves after so grievous a misstep.

To that end, I trust the good folks at WotC remember the lessons of WEG well. I know for a fact they've got a lot of talented people working on their Star Wars roleplaying game. Nevertheless, their initial product offerings give me some cause to be concerned. I have admittedly seen none of them, but phrases like "players can take part in the momentous events that led up to the liberation of Naboo and the death of the evil Darth Maul" do not inspire confidence in me. Obi-Wan was cool and all, but I don't want to play him. I know his story and it's not one I wish to recreate. Neither do I want to be an insignificant member of the Naboo security forces who spends all his time fighting Battle Droids to no great effect. Star Wars is an epic canvas on which many stories can be painted, most of them completely unrelated to the movies. I sincerely hope WotC keeps this in mind as it produces additional material for the game. WEG may have lost the license, but that doesn't mean a company can't learn a few things from them about how to handle a licensed property.

Handling a licensed property is further complicated by the fact that the licensors may have their own ideas how to handle the game based on their property. It is my understanding that the late, unlamented Babylon 5 RPG died to a great extent because of restrictions placed on the game by Warner Brothers. I also understand that part of the slowness with which LUG releases many of its Star Trek products is partially attributable to Paramount's licensing people who take the time to go over every line of text for anything they deem questionable or otherwise incompatible with the license. Of course, a lot depends on the type of relationship that develops between the licensors and the licensees. WEG seemed to have an excellent rapport with Lucasfilm, so much so that LFL asked Star Wars novelists and the like to use WEG material as background for their own works.

Despite all the pitfalls I've pointed out, I remain a big fan of licensed games. They do a lot of good and can sometimes (if the license is cool enough) be mightily fun games in their own right. Now, if someone would just produce a Planet of the Apes RPG, I'd be set.


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What do you think?

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