From The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle to Dallas: 10 Strange Licensed RPGs

Friday, July 26, 2013 at 6:00 am


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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) Pokémon 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. Pokémon Jr. was nominated for the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game of 1998. It lost out to the Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG. Pokémon 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 Pokémon Jr. sold like hot cakes. Then it encountered licensing hell, and faded into obscurity. Pokémon Jr. was a game that should be a long lasting staple of the hobby, but that no one plays.

This is a shame because Pokémon Jr. is possibly the best introductory role-playing game ever written. The game includes 26 power cards, which are in actuality Pokémon cards representing the various pocket monsters. Due to a couple of repeats in the set, there end up being 22 unique Pokémon for use in play. The game book is written with the intention that parents run the stories as narrators and their children play the Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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 Pokémon game.

Pokémon 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 Pokémon 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:

  1. a) A rule book
  2. b) Some form of map, but not necessarily a tactical battlemap.
  3. 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."
  4. 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"

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