Thursday, 21 August 2014

#RPGaDAY: Day 21 - Favourite licensed RPG

Technically, this is a licensed RPG,
although the licensed property is -
or was, at least - also an RPG, making
this the game of the game, or the
game of the game of the game, since
the original WFRP was built on the
wargame.
I tend to be a bit sniffy about licensed RPGs (see yesterday's blog, for example), but the truth is that this is because my mind tends to focus on a few specific examples, and in particular the rash of D20 licenses for SF properties such as Stargate, Farscape and the big daddy, Star Wars that ensued from the first flush of the Open Gaming License.

The problem of these licensed products is threefold. Firstly, D20 is a shockingly poor choice for a game attempting to recreate a dramatic setting. The games attempt to hack this - with greater or lesser degrees of success - but ultimately if you're playing Star Wars, you really don't want to start off with a level 1 Fringer who's getting pwned by Stormtroopers, and while it's an easy fix, if you have to ignore the first 5-10 levels of character progression to make the game work, you're playing with the wrong system.
Umm... adventure? Wow; this is a cover
that screams 'we don't give a shit about
this product.'

Secondly, D20 is intrinsically class based, which means that you need to define classes in a setting which is not class based (even Call of Cthulhu D20 had 'Offensive' and 'Defensive'). Stargate flailed particularly horribly in this, creating a not-entirely-convincing divide between 'Soldier' and 'Guardian' (alien soldier/barbarian), while at the same time failing to make the fairly obvious - I thought - distinction between 'Scientist' and 'Scholar', or even 'Engineer'. Creating the highly-competent lead characters actually required prestige classes, which feel like they ought to be an extra, rather than standard.

This brings me to thirdly, which effects all licensed products: When push comes to shove we all have our own ideas about how a fictional setting works, and by locking down fictional history and trying to reconcile the available information without actually being a canon source, the licensed RPG often becomes a source of contention, even resentment (Ra was a Goa'uld possessing an Asgard possessing a human, puh-leese!). Even one of my most level-headed friends* was drawn in to note that the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG (which will be covered more in the second part of this article) gives Angel a higher Strength than Buffy (who is also strong, but ultimately is statted as a Dex monster), despite the opposite being explicitly stated in Angel (the show, not the RPG). Blasphemy.

Of course, there are also games licensed from other media, including books (MERP and The Lord of the Rings RPG draw on the books as well as the films, regardless of the heavy use of movie photos in the latter, Call of Cthulhu is not exactly licensed, but is subject to a whole mess of legal and quasi-legal brouhaha, and if The Dying Earth RPG isn't mentioned in today's Gonzo History Gaming, it will only be because it turned up on Day 17), computer games (World of Warcraft is the RPG of the CRPG of the RTS), and wargames (the assorted iterations of the WH40K and WFRP, it least once away from Games Workshop's direct control and into the licensed sphere). If nobody has ever hacked out an RPG based on Hamlet, I would be amazed (and indeed, here is Forsooth!). All are subject to similar limitations (although wargames and especially CRPGs are probably better modelled by D20).

ETA: I completely forgot comics, from Judge Dredd to Mouseguard.

I am struck by how much better this
cover is than Stargate's, despite still being
just a bunch of faces.
Which brings us to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Easily my favourite licensed product (discounting anything Cthulhu as being far more complex than that), BtVS addresses all three of my main concerns (that minor point three thing aside for now). Of course, Eden Studios lost the license for Buffy in 2006, but the books that were published are still available.

BtVS runs on the Unisystem Lite/Unisystem Cinematic engine, which divides characters into 'Heroes' built largely on attributes and skills, and supporting characters (for BtVS 'White Hats'), who have less raw ability, but a larger stock of Drama Points, making them more wild cards than the dependable Heroes. One of the key features of this system is the great swathe of Qualities and Drawbacks available for character customisation, including packages (such as 'Watcher', 'Werewolf' or 'Slayer') which can be absolute game changers. What this does mean is that, while the system is absolutely perfect for dramatic settings, it does require a substantial amount of prep on the front end for anything that doesn't have published material (and I know that Buffy does, but when I ran a Watcher-focused game I still had to create a run of tailored packages so the PCs weren't all functionally the same).

Heroes and White Hats is a good split for the setting, and no further class-based division is needed, which is just as well. I can't imagine that the game would be helped by having to split Buffy's levels between Slayer, Student and Cheerleader (let alone those prestige levels in Fast Food Wage Slave).

Finally, the game avoids the problem of canon and fanon conflict by being totally and irreverently upfront about the non-specific nature of Buffyverse history and cosmology, which is largely whatever works for the drama of the episode. Getting way too involved with the cosmology is part of what didn't work with Season 8 (also the artwork and the fact that by the time they did the time-shift episode I pretty much disliked Buffy to the point of wanting Fray to punch her lights out), and the RPG is perfectly willing to put its hands up and say 'it looks pretty much like it works this way'.

I've only actually run one game, but it worked well enough except for the bits that weren't entirely the system's fault (I underestimated the degree to which the mook rules would render a heavy-hitting adversary truly monstrous and almost managed a TPK with a giant scarab beetle, and the sorceress would only use the single sample spell from the book and so tried to solve every problem in the game with a magic missile).

Tune in - some day soon that idiom is going to be replaced with 'log on' or something similar - tomorrow, when I may be talking about my best secondhand RPG purchase, if I can find something else to say about it, because I don't buy many games, let alone secondhand, so I've already covered most of the options quite a bit.

* Actually a friend, not code for 'me'. I already told you I had a PC who was Drizzt Do'Urden's cousin; do you really think I'd be ashamed of a little nitpicking?