Thanksgiving has come and gone and everyone looks forward to the holidays at the end of December. Whether you made it home for some turkey (or even live in the U.S.) you probably are looking forward to spending some time with family and exchanging a few gifts. I’m looking forward to seeing my own family but also planning on trips to the theater to relieve some of the cabin fever that inevitably occurs when adult-life meets childhood-life. I’m also looking forward to seeing the old gaming group and having some fun face-to-face rather than Skype-to-Skype time.
Many of you might be doing the same, or you might not game with your old group anymore but would love an excuse to get the gang back together. I recommend some neat one-off games for when you can’t commit to a full campaign and, while you’re at it, why not do something totally off the wall? In fact, how about drawing some inspiration from those same movies that are already planned for the holidays; a double-feature of cinema and games. When I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallowsrecently I was already thinking about playing a wand-wielding duelist laying low Death Eaters in a terrifying wizardingcivil war. Of course, there’s no Harry Potter RPG but why should that stop me? There are dozens of truly inspired and awesome role-playing games out there and more than one should fit the bill depending on the asthetic of the world you want to adapt. In fact, let me lay things out for three recently released/upcoming films right here and now!
Having just seen the new Harry Potter (HP) movie, I’ll start there. The HP bandwagon is a large affair with fans of varying degrees on board. I like it a lot and I especially like seeing all the duels in action. This seems like it would be the easiest to transform into an RPG but no one’s done it yet, possibly due to J.K. Rowling’s reticence to expand the franchise anymore. Regardless, the Vancian system of D&D is not a good fit for the Potter-verse where magical skill is an increasing and versatile thing. The slam-dunk choice is White Wolf’s Mage game, either Mage: the Awakening or the older Mage: the Ascension. The magical system in this game is almost exactly the sort of thing portrayed in the books and you can think of the different Arcana (or Spheres for the older version) as the theoretical divisions you see expressed in the Hogwarts education system: Divination, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Charms, etc. Your character has varying proficiency with all these different types of magic (stellar at Defense but rubbish at Potions, say) and the players create a team that supports each other which is a staple in the series. The other great thing about the current White Wolf system is that parallel games all use the exact same mechanics so they offer expanded options. Want to play a werewolf wizard like Remus Lupin? Try adding the Werewolf: the Forsaken template before the Mage one. Want to include a bizarre house-elf like Dobby or a goblin crafter from Gringotts? Use the templates from Changeling: the Lost. All it takes is a little re-naming and you’re off and running.
If you don’t have any of the White Wolf line (first of all, check it out) then you can also try the skill-based magic system from Green Ronin’s True20 system. The flexible character-creation system can let you make an intellectual Adept like Hermione or Snape, a skilled Expert like Harry or Sirius Black, or a blunt-force Warrior like Ron or Bill Weasley. Get some magical skills through feats on top of this then add some magic items from d20 Modern and heavily borrow fantasy creatures like centaurs and giants from other True20 or D&D 3.5e sources and you should go. The good thing about this is that once you get the innovative and neat True20 core book (available as a pdf from many sites) the rest is on the 3.5 SRD. You could even use d20 Modern all the way which has the advantage of being 100% free.
If I were doing this (and I just might) I would certainly leave Hogwarts behind and head into the wider world of Rowling’s books. Maybe you’re dragon-tamers in Romania or you are searching for dark wizards who refuse to vacate their corrupt practices in the tangled streets of Venice. You could also stay in jolly ol’ England and play wizards in the Ministry of Magic during the really dark times of the last book. Watch some Schindler’s List and then consider what it would be like to be one of the officials just trying to do their job as those of “undesirable breeding” are rounded up for interrogation.
Tron fans are on the edge of their seats for this movie, and anyone who watches the race scene with those cyber-bikes or considers walking among those graphic-cities must immediately think “I want that.” This is one of the farthest franchises from D&D but it is right up the alley of some other gaming systems. The first stop I would make is Shadowrun, currently produced by Catalyst Game Labs, a cyberpunk/fantasy setting which has an extremely robust Virtual Reality system for running computers. There are rules for using programs, for hacking, for fighting off automated security networks, for building bots to act for you… the list goes on. Details are left to the imagination for good reason but this also means that you can run Jeff Bridges almost as easily as an ork street samurai (if you don’t know, don’t ask).
With Shadowrun‘s system you can have characters in the real world plug in and out of the system as well, avoiding the same Tron plot of getting stuck in the machine. Maybe the characters have electronic empires that they use both in the computer world and the real world to achieve their goals. At this point you have to start using a lot more of the Shadowrun world and things get problematic. If this is your route, try the d20 Cyberscape rules instead, one of the later expansions for d20 Modern. The base rules for future settings, detailed in d20 Future and d20 Future Tech, are available on Wizards’ SRD but of course it’s BYORulebook after that. Still, the d20 Modern system is extremely flexible and the cyber-navigation rules of that system are only slightly less detailed than those in Shadowrun.
The third and least-ready option is to use the D&D 4e rules and a lot of hand-waving. It may seem crazy at first, but the plot of the original Tron movie is a programmer finding himself in a bizarre world where the customs are deadly and the rules of physics bendable. Change “programmer” to “knight errant” and you’ve got a classic Gygaxian campaign. The new movie plays even better. The boy’s father disappears and he has to travel to a distant world to rescue him from an evil dictator who could destroy the world. Take a little Inigo Montoya, a little Dragonlance, paint everything black and then add neon lines and go to town. Just make sure you call the longsword and fireball a cipher-blade and format-bomb respectively.
I don’t know if anyone else is looking forward to this, but I’ve watched the John Wayne original with my dad a dozen times. Rooster Cogburn, apart from having a better name than any Character Name Generator output I’ve ever seen, is one tough badass and he goes charging into battle with a zeal that makes a dragonborn paladin look like a sleepy kitten. The obvious place to start with a western like this is the premier Wild-West-themed RPG, Deadlands. This setting already has a helping of cowboy-themed classes and rules and even has playing cards and poker chips built into the system. Honestly, this is one of those games that remains on my “to-do” list but I’ve only heard good things from friends. The only issue with using it for a standard Western is that there are things like the Walkin’ Dead and magic-users chasing around the rules as well. Just skip the zombies, though, and have your players concentrate on other classes than the blessed, the mad scientist, and the shaman and you’ll be in business.
If you’d rather play something that’s a little more historical to start from try Werewolf: Wild West from White Wolf’s older line of games. Ironically, the setting of the Savage West with the rules from the Kinsfolk book for playing regular mortals makes a pretty good set of rules for running Westerns. I recommend this setting for the source material, but if you’d rather run the simple World of Darkness from the current edition of the rules then by all means. Just make sure you take a look at the equipment and skills lists before you turn your players loose.
If you’d rather stick to something familiar, try d20 Past instead. There are no Wild-West-flavored rules and no advice on setting, but there are six-shooters and feats and the d20 Modern system can handle anything at all in my opinion. Unfortunately, d20 Past is not one of the items on the Wizards’ SRD but it shouldn’t be hard to pick up a copy and it covers a wide range of historical settings in case you also want to try out Pirates of the Caribbean or Robin Hood. Combine with d20 Future as well for Cowboys & Aliens in the future.
So there you have it. If you’re looking forward to Harry Potter, Tron, and/or True Grit get your gaming group together and check them out. Then order some pizza and mix up the eggnog for a great no-strings-attached game to take home the action. Probably the most important thing is to work out the details ahead of time. If you’re running the game, make sure you know what system you’re using and send an email briefing your players on the changes. Don’t make things hard on yourself (re-naming things and leaving the mechanics should be enough for all the systems outlined above) but make sure you’ve got things under control before the event itself. If your players aren’t familiar with the new system either do an Internet search and see if you can find some quick play summaries to send out early and also think about making pre-generated characters. You probably know what the players like, it removes another element of time from getting the game underway, and it’s a one-off anyway so anyone who gets a character they’re not in love with can deal with it for the sake of the experience.
Stay tuned next Monday for some more suggestions of re-skinned games to take on movies. This time I’ll be looking at new DVDs coming out, so leave room on your gift list!