As Kevan Davis, Alex Fleetwood, Holly Gramazio, and James Wallis point out In their excellent book The Boardgame Remix Kit, “Almost all board-games based on TV programmes (sic) or films are a let-down. Not all of them, but enough that we can say with some certainty that you shouldn’t waste your money.” The same can be said of many licensed role-playing games. I have even heard some players say that licensed games are where creativity goes to die. In advancing their argument these players will point to a copy of Justice League Monopoly or one of the many awful Spider-Man video games that have been made over the years, with derision.
It would be easy to draft a list of 10 high quality licensed games (the West End Star Wars game leaps immediately to mind), or 10 licensed games that are just plain terrible (the Big Bang Comics Role Playing Game might make that list). That isn’t what I want to do here. It is true that some of the games listed below will be less than stellar games, but others will be quite good. The key to this list is that they will be “strange” for one reason or another. Most of the time they will be on this list because they violate one of these two rules for making a licensed role playing game.
- a) Know who your audience is. If you are making a licensed game, it should bring new players into gaming and it should appeal to some segment of the existing gaming population. If it doesn’t, you are doing it wrong.
- b) Make a quality game aimed at that audience. Not only must the game be good, but it must also have some appeal to the audience for which it is designed. Making a Transformers role playing game that is as complex as Advanced Squad Leader would be insane. Most of those who are fans of Transformers would find such rules daunting, and most ASL fans would scoff at playing giant robots.
Other times, they’ll be on the list for the mere fact that they made me go hmmm…
10) Pok?mon Jr. – Wizards of the Coast
Copyright 2000 Wizards of the Coast
What happens when you take one of the hottest licenses in the world and combine it with simple mechanics designed by talented game designers like Bill Slavicsek and “Stan!“? It comes close to becoming a classic in both the hobby and mainstream market, but fades into obscurity. Pok?mon Jr. was nominated for the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game of 1998. It lost out to the Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG. Pok?mon Jr. was initially sold in the mainstream market with a ticket price of $11, but very few people bought it at that price. When the price was eventually lowered to a discount level Pok?mon Jr. sold like hot cakes. Then it encountered licensing hell, and faded into obscurity. Pok?mon Jr. was a game that should be a long lasting staple of the hobby, but that no one plays.
This is a shame because Pok?mon Jr. is possibly the best introductory role-playing game ever written. The game includes 26 power cards, which are in actuality Pok?mon cards representing the various pocket monsters. Due to a couple of repeats in the set, there end up being 22 unique Pok?mon for use in play. The game book is written with the intention that parents run the stories as narrators and their children play the Pok?mon trainers. The stories are basic encounters taken from the television show and challenges are resolved by a very simple mechanic: the trainer picks which power their Pok?mon uses and then rolls one 6-sided die to determine success or failure. So far, it’s all basic stuff. Where the game excels as an introductory role playing game is how it teaches storytelling skills. At certain times during each adventure, the players are asked to describe both their actions and their surroundings. This kind of player engagement is a hallmark in narrative indie RPGs, and it is a great component of the Pok?mon game.
Pok?mon designer Stan! has gone on to work on another introductory role playing game based on a popular children’s IP – Warriors. The Warriors game is well designed, and like Pok?mon Jr. it isn’t getting the attention it deserves.
9) Amber Diceless Role Playing Game
I want you to close your eyes for a minute and think about your favorite role playing game. Now I want you to think about what physical components it requires for optimal play. You are probably imagining the following:
- a) A rule book
- b) Some form of map, but not necessarily a tactical battlemap.
- c) Some miniatures or other counters. Before you disagree here, let me remind you that even Runequest which included material by “RPGs are the next great performance art” advocate Greg Stafford said of minis in its 1980 Reston Publishing edition “These are optional, but give the play some focus and help settle arguments over who was were.”
- d) Dice, or at least some form of randomizer.
Dice are such a central part of the role player’s world that there have been books written about the obsession. Show me a gamer and I’ll show you someone with a dice collection. That’s right…”collection.” Strange multi-sided dice are almost synonymous with the hobby. That’s what makes Erick Wujcik’s Amber Diceless Role-Playing Game a perfect candidate for this list. Who would have thought that anyone could design a diceless role-playing game? Moreover, who would have thought that a game that used a resolution system of “whoever has the higher stat wins…always wins” would be a workable game? Not me, that’s for sure. I would have been wrong. Amber is a fantastic game and its Game Master section should be read by everyone who wants to be a GM regardless of the game they play. In the section on combat resolution, Wujcik provides advice on game mastering that demonstrates how one can become a fair and engaging arbitrator of rules and interactive storyteller.
The strange thing about Amber is that the resolution mechanics seem very limiting – who has higher x? That person wins – but by the time you finish reading the book and playing for a while you are better at GM-ing any kind of game.
8) Alternity: Starcraft Edition – Wizards of the Coast
Copyright 2000 Wizards of the Coast
The Alternity role-playing game was published in 1998 and was marketed as a role-playing game where players could play any science fiction story imaginable. Unlike TSR’s first science fiction role playing games – Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World and Star Frontiers – which each featured their own individual game mechanics, Alternity was meant to be a universal rules set that could be applied to multiple world settings.
Alternity was meant to be a kind of D&D for science fiction settings, and the release of AD&D style rule books (both a Player’s and Game Master’s guide were published) reinforced this presentation of the brand. The game featured an innovative “die step” mechanic and was supported by a number of quality source books. Among the best of the support material for the Alternity game was the X-Files-esque Dark*Matter campaign by Wolfgang Baur and Monte Cook.
If Dark*Matter was the highest point of the game system, then the Starcraft supplement/introductory product was the strangest. It isn’t strange that the role-playing game industry’s leading publisher would seek to publish a product based on one of the hottest science fiction games out there (no matter how much of a resemblance it bears to 40k). What is strange is that they would do so when it was clear that Alternity was going to be cancelled as a brand as the company’s new owners were prepping for the release of 3rd Edition D&D – and eventually for d20 Modern and d20 Future. When one looks through the Alternity Starcraft set, one is struck by two things. First, that the product is clearly intended as an introductory product meant to lure in the computer gamer – the box was designed to look like a video game box. Second, that not a lot of thought was put into answering the question “what’s next?” While this introductory set had a simplified version of the Alternity system, the company never released any expansive campaign material. I don’t know how many units of this game set Wizards produced and sold. I do know that they might have been better served releasing an Alternity: Star Frontiers product.
7) World Wrestling Federation Basic Adventure Game – Whit Publications
I’m going to share a secret with you. I really like professional wrestling. I used to be quite obsessed with the WWE(F) and WCW and had regular viewing parties with roommates and friends as we eagerly awaited the next big pay per view. I also really like role playing games…but you already knew that. So it should come as no surprise that I own a couple of professional wrestling role playing games, Know Your Role and The World Wrestling Federation Basic Adventure Game are a part of my collection. I’m going to share another secret with you. Not many of my fellow RPG fans are big pro wrestling fans, and not many of my pro wrestling fan buddies play RPGs. Which leads one to wonder what kind of player/fan are these games designed for. Are they intended to bring wrestling fans into the gaming hobby? Are they intended to convert gamers into diehard wrestling fans?
The WWE: Know Your Role role playing game that came out in 2005 tries to do a little of both of these things. It uses the familiar d20 system to simulate pro wrestling, and in the process proves that the reason the grappling rules in d20 are so crazy is that they are in fact a perfect simulation of pro wrestling. Know Your Role also provides extensive material about the WWE and its talent. It used a ubiquitous game system in an attempt to turn gamers into wrestling fans. It also had enough color pictures and biographic/narrative information to appeal to wrestling fans. Fans who might in turn become gaming fans. Tony Lee and crew knew what they were doing when they released Know Your Role.
The same cannot be said of the people at Whit Publications. When they published the World Wrestling Federation Basic Adventure Game in 1994, they created a product that had an extremely complex game. The game includes over 150 wrestling maneuvers in over 300 variations. It has everything from Leaping-off-the-Ropes and Irish-Whips to rules for distracting referees and participating in interviews to build fan base. Do you want to play a Face? There are some great rules for how to do that, but why do that when you can be a dastardly Heel and use a Cheap Shot to win the Intercontinental Title? The game has almost everything one could want from a professional wrestling game. It is fun, it has rules that can be extended into campaign play, and it features the most popular wrestlers of its era (Lex Luger, Macho Man, Razor Ramon, and Shawn Michaels to name a few).
It only lacks two things. While it has stats for Shawn Michaels and crew, it lacks any biographical or storyline information for these characters. It’s one thing to know that Razor Ramon’s signature move is the Razor’s Edge (Crucifix Shoulderslam) and that it is a level 2 maneuver. It is quite another to read about the Shawn Michaels/Razor Ramon ladder match from Wrestlemania X. Let’s just say the wrestling fan in me wishes the WWF RPG had included some good narrative background material. It also lacks an easy-to-learn or familiar rule set that can be used to convince your gamer buddies to give a wrestling game a try.
It’s a good game. It’s also a game that didn’t do its best to provide what wrestling fans would want from such a product, and it did even less for recruiting gamers who weren’t already wrestling fans. The percentage of people who play RPGs is pretty small. The percentage of people who play RPGs and are wrestling fans is even smaller. That makes for a strange choice for a licensed game.
6) GURPS: The Prisoner – Steve Jackson Games
Copyright 1989 Steve Jackson Games
This is a popular culture website, so the likelihood that anyone reading this article has watched the cult classic television show The Prisoner is pretty high. The Prisoner was a surreal spinoff (or was it?) of the Patrick McGoohan spy thriller show Danger Man. You might think that I selected this as a strange choice for a licensed RPG due to the fact that the number of gamers in 1989 who might have seen the series would be fairly small. While that is true, it isn’t why I think the choice is strange. It’s the bizarre surrealism of the show and the difficulty of translating that surrealism into the GURPS game system that I think made this a strange licensing decision. Let me give you a famous example from the show:
It makes for great TV, but could you imagine trying to maintain the level of paranoia and suspense of the show? How about maintaining that tension while telling your players that they are being chased by a giant glowing beach ball? I think that maybe Robin Laws or Kenneth Hite could run a Prisoner game, but that’s about it. On the other hand, the GURPS The Prisoner sourcebook is really cool. It’s also how I found out about the show in the first place. I still don’t think that the GURPS rules set – which I love and which can do almost anything – fits the tone of the setting. If I were to do a modern day license for this property, I’d publish a game using the Skullduggery, Fiasco, Gumshoe, or possibly Hillfolk systems.
I can see the opening gaming session now…
“Where am I?”
“In the Village.“
“Cool…I attack No. 2 with my Battle Axe.”
“You are No. 2”
5) Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game
Copyright 1994 White Wolf Publishing
Making a role playing game based on the highly successful Street Fighter franchise seems like a no-brainer. Right? You’ve got compelling characters in a world that is filled with espionage and kung fu battles. Port that combination into a smooth and cinematic game system like Feng Shui or Savage Worlds, or into a highly tactical system like Hero or GURPS, and you’ve got pure win. That’s not what happened here. In this case, the license was secured by White Wolf Publishing. You may know them as the company that:
a) Brought thousands of emos and goths into the gaming hobby with their World of Darkness role playing games.
b) Fueled a revival of the classic game “rock, paper, and scissors” in the emo/goth community, because that’s how vampires get things done.
c) Had a game so popular it had a television series and a video game, based on it. Not to mention a certain film franchise or two that…well…that clearly has NOTHING to do with White Wolf’s World of Darkness. Wink, wink.
d) Inspired the creation of the Dresden Files series of novels, a series of books that were ironically licensed for the FATE rpg system.
That list demonstrates one thing very clearly. White Wolf Publishing is masterful at creating games that depict a horrific gothic milieu in which young gamers can immerse themselves. White Wolf was into vampires and self-loathing before they were cool. I would argue that they were a part of the movement that helped to make those things cool. The storyteller system designed by White Wolf fosters wonderful role-playing experiences. In the system, players have to grapple with personal stakes (Humanity, Rage, Banality) as they engage with a grim world. White Wolf games – as the system’s name might give a clue – focus more on story than action. The inclusion of traits like Humanity and Banality magnify that the stakes are personal and internal.
What the heck does that have to do with bashing in the skulls of Zangief and M. Bison? At the time White Wolf released the Street Fighter game there was a tonal disconnect between the system and the licensed IP. That disconnect would be less in the modern post-Exalted and post-Scion era, but it’s still there. The storyteller system just doesn’t feel right as the basis for a “fight game.” It would have been a masterpiece as a Feng Shui expansion, but it fizzled as a White Wolf one.
You doubt me? Tell you what. You grab your copy of the game – mine’s on the table next to me – and we can play a session or two together. What’s that? You don’t own a copy? Hm…that’s strange.
4) Flash Gordon and the Warriors of Mongo – Fantasy Games Unlimited
Copyright 1977 Fantasy Games Unlimited
Early in the company’s tenure, Fantasy Games Unlimited was very much on the cutting edge of the role playing game industry. With the publication of Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo in 1977, Fantasy Games Unlimited published one of the earliest Science Fiction/Science Fantasy role playing games. The first two games in this genre were TSR’s Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) and Ken St. Andre’s Starfaring (1976). In addition to being one of the first SF role-playing games, Flash Gordon was also one of the first fully licensed role-playing games. In his classic Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick claims that the Dallas Role Playing Game was the first officially licensed game (on page 423, if you are wondering). This is a rare case where his invaluable resource is incorrect. Flash Gordon predates Dallas by three years and lists the following under its copyright notice, “This rule booklet is published under license agreement with King Features Syndicate.” I don’t know if Flash Gordon was the first licensed game, but in was one of the first.
In addition to the distinctions above, Flash was one of two games Fantasy Games Unlimited published co-written by Lin Carter — yes that Lin Carter, the one who is responsible for most of Appendix N being in print. The other game co-written by Lin Carter was Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age.
Sword & Planet tales are a perfect milieu for adventure gaming and Flash is one of the premier characters of the genre. Well…it’s also strange to think that Lin Carter had a hand in writing the rules to a role-playing game, but that’s another conversation entirely and that isn’t what makes this game a strange licensed game. What makes Flash such a strange choice is the way the game rules are set up. There are very rudimentary rules for character creation and task resolution and then some interesting rules regarding how to properly use a schematic map to guide the campaign. If you are interested in how the game works, I wrote up a review a couple of years ago.
This game could have gone down as one of the best licensed games in the history of the hobby. The reason it didn’t is because the designers did not put the time and effort into creating a complete rules set that could be understood by gamers new and old. The game features all the strengths and weaknesses of the games released in the first few years of the gaming hobby. It is imaginative and inspires creativity, but it is vague and doesn’t quite convey what is being attempted.
Instead of “Flash! Ahhh!,” we get “Flash! Awww….” (Sorry. That had to be done.)
3)The Masters of the Universe Role Playing Game – FASA
This is another no-brainer when it comes to the types of intellectual property that should be converted into a role-playing game. In fact, one of my favorite gaming memories involves playing a Masters of the Universe themed adventure. I can remember well when Darg, Tae Pao Kee, and Sniggab Oblib found themselves lost inside a complex maze with the choice of facing off against Beast-Man or a Death Knight. We chose Beast-Man. We chose poorly. He used the hypnotic powers of the gem on his chest, and the rest is history. I thought it was awesome when my friend pulled out the Beast-Man action figure as he described our characters’ doom. That’s the kind of action that could be inspired by the Masters of the Universe IP. That is exactly the kind of action that does not result from playing the Masters of the Universe role-playing game. It’s a game that would be better described as the Masters of the Universe rip off of the Talisman board game, but less fun and where the rules are presented in comic book format. You learn the mechanics of the game from panels like this.
? 1985, MATTEL Inc.
That’s right, on Eternia you use “the power of your inmaination (sic).” Whatever else inmaination is, it is also evidence that the product was in serious need of a copy editor. The game’s editorial mistakes weren’t limited to the hand lettered panels of the rule book. The game came with an additional errata sheet that informed players of changes that needed to be made to some of the cards used in play. It’s strange that FASA – a company that was responsible for the excellent Star TrekRPG – could so badly botch a Masters of the Universe game. If I could travel back in time, I would give the staff of FASA one small piece of advice when designing the game. I would tell them to hire Larry DiTillio. Not only was Larry the author of one of the greatest role playing game adventures of all time (The Masks of Nyarlathotep), he was also one of the writers on the He-Man cartoon. If one of the people working on an IP is a HUGE gamer, don’t you think it’s strange to not use that person when designing a game? I do.
2) Bullwinkle and Rocky Role Playing Party Game – TSR
? 1988, TSR
What can I say about the Bullwinkle and Rocky Role Playing Party Game that hasn’t already been said many times before? Oh…right. Go out and buy this game right now! Like many games of the Lorraine Williams era at TSR, this game breaks many of the rules regarding what a role-playing game should be. Take a look at Toon. Toon is a fantastic game about cartoons that has mechanics and presentation that most gamers recognize as a role playing game. Bullwinkle has almost none of that. Bullwinkle has character stand ups, spinners and hand puppets. Yes…hand puppets. Bullwinkle also has a three step process to teaching players how to role play in an interactive and improvisational manner. Playing this game can help any role playing group have more fun with whatever their regular role playing game is. The “Everyone Can Do Something Game” is a blast.
None of this is a surprise considering the design team. When you’ve got Warren Spector – who worked on Toon and those Epic Mickey video games – and David “Zeb” Cook working on a game you know it has a good chance of being fun. The thing is that this is a strange IP for the biggest name in gaming to create a game about. It is also a strange game to introduce to your friends – gamers or otherwise. It has hand puppets for heaven’s sake. Hand puppets?! Can you imagine walking up to some emo/goth Vampire player asking him or her to come over and play with your hand puppets? That way lies madness!
Still…go out and buy this thing.
1) Dallas – Simulations Publications Inc.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Dallas was the hottest show on television. It was the NCIS of its day. Thirty-three million people watched the show’s final episode in 1991. That’s all you need for a good reason to license an IP right? Sorry. An IP also needs an audience for which you can make an appropriate style of game. Dallas isn’t that kind of property. Don’t get me wrong. You could probably run a perfectly reasonable Dallas campaign using the Fiasco role-playing game rules. It would even be fun for a one shot or short campaign, but I don’t think you would find a lot of people interested in playing it.
I think the acknowledgement of most people’s reluctance to play a traditional role-playing game based on the Dallas TV show explains a lot about the game’s mechanics and design. Well…natural reluctance plus the fact that in 1980 most people associated role playing with either sexual bondage or satanism. The mechanics of Dallas – if played exactly as described in the rule book – are more of a card game than a role-playing game. Players take the “role” of JR, Bobby, or some one else and attempt to acquire “assets.” They do this by playing cards, spending tokens, and rolling dice. If their die roll succeeds, they acquire the asset. If they have all the assets they need at the end of play they win. That’s all. It’s a bit like Go Fish with die rolling and a Dallas theme. If, on the other hand, you are willing to throw out the rule book you can have the players get up from around the table, dress up in costume, and act out most of the negotiations and resource expenditures. You can turn Dallas from a boring card game into an exciting liv- action game. In this case, I recommend replacing the die rolling with the official resolution system of all the best live action games.
All it would take is good costumes and the power of your inmaination (sic) to make Dallas a fantastic experience!
What are your entries for “strange” licensed rpgs?