PLAYING BETWEEN THE LINES - BOOKS AND RPG

10 October 2014

By David F Chapman

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In my last blog post I discussed the books that influenced the creators of Dungeons and Dragons, the classic roleplaying game that has recently relaunched to great critical acclaim, and took a look at fiction writers who have a background in gaming.

It got me thinking about tabletop roleplaying games that were based upon a book or book series. There are many licensed RPGs out there, most are based upon films or television series, but not exclusively. With the rich background material at the game designer’s fingertips, a great book series can produce a vast and hugely enjoyable roleplaying game that takes the players far beyond the realms of the author’s original design.

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Coming full circle, though not “officially” listed as an influence of Dungeons and Dragons, J R R Tolkien’s Middle Earth was a major inspiration for the original D&D. It was only natural that Tolkien’s richly detailed world would become not just one, but many roleplaying games over the years. The first was an incredibly complicated system published by Iron Crown Enterprises (or ICE), published in 1984. Middle Earth Role Playing (or MERP as we used to call in my youth) had masses of tables, and I have a distinct memory of the “fumble table” which caused ridiculous results. ICE tried a simplified version of the game in 1991, deciding to ditch character “levels” to become less like D&D.

ICE lost the license for the game in 1999, and hot on the heels of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies, Decipher Inc. produced the glossy The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game in 2002. The game used the CODA system, also used for their Star Trek line, but the background and setting for the game covered not only details seen in the movies, but also looked at their literary counterparts.

More recently, Cubicle 7 Entertainment published The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the World. A new roleplaying game set in Middle Earth set in between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is a rather gorgeous publication, and a new edition simply called The One Ring Roleplaying Game has just hit gamestore shelves.

Tolkien is not the only author to have his work turned into a game. Long before the global phenomenon that is HBO’s Game of Thrones television series made George R R Martin a household name, his epic book series A Song of Ice and Fire was turned into a roleplaying game by Guardians of Order in 2005, using the company’s TriStat system and D20. When Guardians of Order went, the rights for the game were taken up by Green Ronin who produced a new, beautifully illustrated A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game using their own system.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels have also become their own game (powered by Steve Jackson’s GURPS system), E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series was also turned into a sourcebook for Steve Jackson’s GURPS, and so did David Brin’s Uplift featuring genetically enhanced animals.

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More recently, Cubicle 7 Entertainment published a great roleplaying game set in the world of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files. The setting of a British government agency (The Laundry) that deals with occult threats resonates with a great sense of bureaucratic paranoia akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, only with a threat of terrors from other dimensions waiting to be summoned by careless misuse of mathematics.

However, when it comes to horrors from beyond time and space, and adaptations of books into roleplaying games, the undisputed greatest of these has to be Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG. Based upon the many works of the legendary H.P. Lovecraft, the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game was first published in 1981. Players take control of investigators in the 1920’s, looking into strange occurrences, uncovering devious plots by secret societies and cultists, and encountering unspeakable horrors.

The game has been a huge success, one that has been constantly in print through seven editions as well as anniversary printings. It has spawned dozens of supplements allowing you to play further in the past (Cthulhu by Gaslight), or the present (Cthulhu Now) and more. It has inspired other companies to create their own interpretations such as the future Cthulhutech (by Wildfire) or the epic wartime setting of Achtung! Cthulhu (by Modiphius)

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Those won’t be the last roleplaying games to be based upon books, who knows what the future holds? I’ve been very vocal in the past on my own blog and Youtube about my longing to see Harry Potter become a roleplaying game that would inspire a new generation of gamers to use their imaginations at the game table.

But what book series would you like to see make the transition into tabletop roleplaying game? Let us know in the comments below!