RPG XRAY

009 Licensed IP

April 01, 2024 The RPG XRAY Team
RPG XRAY
009 Licensed IP
Show Notes Transcript

This episode’s topic is Licensed IP, which provides RPG gamers the promise of being a hero in stories they already love, while utilizing their knowledge of a property’s setting and tropes to improve the tabletop role playing experience.  Join us, to learn how licensed IP can enhance, or break, your gameplay.

HOSTS:

APPENDIX X:

GAMES MENTIONED:

SUMMARY:

In Episode 9 we delve into the topic of licensed intellectual properties (IPs) in role-playing games.

We discuss the advantages and challenges of using licensed IPs in RPGs including how licensed IPs can facilitate play by providing familiar settings and narratives, lowering the barrier to entry for new players. We also consider how these IPs can constrain creativity due to their predefined worlds and stories. Our conversation touches on various examples, including "Alien," "Blade Runner," and "Terminator," exploring how these IPs have been adapted into RPGs and their impact on game design and player experience.

We compare licensed IPs with original content, discussing the impact of world-building versus story-building in games and the mechanics used by different games to capture the essence of their respective IPs. We reflect on our experiences playing RPGs based on licensed IPs and original content, sharing insights on what makes these games compelling and challenging.

Ethan:

Joining the x-ray team today are Brendan Power, Eric Saltwell, and

Erik:

So in appendix X, we do a little summary of all the media we're consuming

Ethan:

myself, Ethan Schoonover. As always, before jumping into the main course, we like to start things off with an amuse-bouche we call Appendix X.

Erik:

currently with a particular eye toward how it can be applied to gaming. Brendan, why don't you kick us off?

Brendan:

>> Yeah, so this week I have devoured the first two episodes of a new kind of investigative thriller on Hulu called A Murder at the End of the World. And the premise is very much kind of a modern Agatha Christie sort of situation where a variety of people end up in an isolated place and some of them get murdered one at a time over subsequent evenings essentially. The reason, I mean, it interests me and I think the reason that has applicability to gaming is that it does have sort of this single protagonist who is an expert investigator of a certain type. And she spends her time working through, trying to establish whether a crime was committed, how it was committed, and who did it, of course, all of which are sort of tropes that are central to the sort of investigative horror games that I really enjoy. As far as I know, there is no supernatural element to the show, but it does have kind of the sort of creepy,

Erik:

Is there anything you think that the show does particularly well that you'd

Brendan:

foreboding environment. It's set in Iceland and there's a variety of ways in which I can see sort of bringing back the setting to potentially an RPG one-shot. I think it's got a cast of characters which are as varied as your typical RPG

Erik:

want to call out?

Brendan:

party, a bunch of people who were assembled for a central purpose, in this case, to amuse a billionaire in helping him plan the future of humanity to some extent. And so, there's also, I think, it fits into the sort of typical sort of RPG

Erik:

Troop play, that's definitely an episode we'll have to do someday.

Brendan:

party assembly of people with intermixed backgrounds. And I think that that's sort of interesting to watch how the showrunners and writers knit together those people with different experiences. So, for example, there's... Yeah. I mean, for example, there... Sure. I think one thing that's interesting is that, for example, there is no doctor on site when a murder happens. And there is an astronaut, however, and the astronaut is summoned as the person to attempt medical aid, which is very much like an RPG troop looking for somebody to actually

Erik:

Ethan?

Brendan:

roll the first aid roll. Who has the highest score? Well, it's the astronaut.

Ethan:

>> I just wanna say that I told my wife last night that the murder at the end of the world was a new murder mystery starring Clive Owen. And she was very excited because she loves murder mysteries and she loves Clive Owen. So this was like the show made for her, yeah.

Brendan:

Yeah. So far, it's great. I recommend it. Although, my tolerance for things that are not quite so great is also extremely high.

Ethan:

[LAUGH] Yeah, no, listen, I'm a big consumer of just absolute trash and

Brendan:

I watch a ton of stuff.

Ethan:

I will not apologize for that. So I think if you don't consume trash in our modern media culture,

Erik:

Brain candy, yeah.

Ethan:

you're gonna have a bad time.

Brendan:

Absolutely.

Ethan:

Yeah.

Erik:

Ethan, how about you? What are you consuming these days?

Ethan:

I am consuming a book which when I give you the title, you're gonna think this must be a fantasy novel. I am consuming a book named Warlock, although some of you may be nodding along now and realizing what I'm talking about. And this is a classic American Western fiction novel by Oakley Hall. Oakley Hall was a writer, I wanna say he was from California. And he was in the Marines in World War II and he came back and wrote novels. Warlock, I think is his most famous novel and

Brendan:

Good luck, you're doing a terrific job.

Ethan:

I wanna say it was from the 50s or early 60s. Very much in the tradition of something like Unforgiven,

Brendan:

Interesting.

Ethan:

where it's a kind of an unvarnished look at the American West. It's less idealized. I mean, I think that there are still idealized tropes in the book, but it's really pretty raw. And the interesting thing that I'm noticing reading it is that it very much reminds me of season one of Deadwood, the TV series Deadwood. And I have to, it's hard to not believe that the Deadwood writers sampled Warlock very heavily in terms of like just the general structure of the characters. For instance, there are two competing gambling joints in town, both kind of involved in prostitution as well, which is very much the dynamic in season one of Deadwood. You have Tolliver who comes to town and competes with Swearingen's joint. And also just the whole character, the kind of the Tolliver equivalent character in Warlock is very much like this silver fox, card shark character who is ruthless, which is very much the Tolliver character in contrast to Swearingen's character, who actually does seem to have some sort of, it turns out, some moral code of a type. So, yeah, fascinating. You know, I love Westerns, especially the kind of the gritty reboot Westerns like Unforgiven and Deadwood. And Warlock is certainly that for me. And it just is, you know, you have your vigilante parties, you have your strong heroic types who are flawed. It's great RPG material to mine or for the table. I have not seen Bone Tomahawk.

Erik:

That's awesome. Okay, I'm sorry, I need to go meta.

Brendan:

I'm curious, Ethan, have you seen, sorry.

Erik:

Go ahead, start it over, Brendan. No, no, you go.

Brendan:

Ethan, I'm curious, have you seen Bone Tomahawk?

Ethan:

I don't even know what this is.

Erik:

My God, I feel like I've heard about Bone Tomahawk, but

Ethan:

Is this a movie or a TV show?

Brendan:

That is a.

Erik:

I am totally unable to place it, Brendan.

Brendan:

It is a movie starring Kurt Russell and others. It's set in the Old West and it is absolutely worth your time. I think especially if you are into sort of gritty Western issues. The central plot is that some townsfolk are kidnapped by cannibals. And there is an effort to rescue them, but it is, shall we say, a relatively dark movie. But it has, I think, sort of, from a Western tropes perspective, there is the sort of crew of people trying to catch up to the cannibals to rescue the people who have been kidnapped. And there are hidden caves and a lot of murder, which does, I think, follow the central plot of many RPG campaigns, obviously.

Ethan:

Absolutely.

Erik:

Yeah, so I just picked up a copy of Blood Meridian, and

Ethan:

Oh, that's great.

Brendan:

Something is lost, something needs to be returned.

Ethan:

Well, good recommendation. Oh, great.

Brendan:

There's a bunch of murderers and there are, in fact, Tomahawks and similar devices. It is very gruesome, but worth your time.

Ethan:

Okay, I'll check it out. All right, Eric, what are you doing? Yes.

Erik:

don't throw shade at me, everybody, I've not read Blood Meridian. I know everybody talks about how amazing it is. But I was just having a discussion, I forget if it's on this podcast or if it was in our last play session, where we were talking about Blood Meridian as if you kind of squint and look sideways, it's kind of a hex crawl. And, yep, exactly.

Ethan:

Yeah, I mentioned specifically that it's a hex crawl. I really recommend if you don't have a map in the front of your book

Erik:

So anyhow, that super interested me, and given that plus how everybody is always shocked and appalled when I tell them I don't read it, that I am very excited to take a look at it from that perspective and see what it's like.

Ethan:

to like just look online for maps of the route of Blood Meridian. It helps to just sort of like cement the progress of the narrative

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

because of a physical space. Whether or not it's cemented in a mythic space is another question, but I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Erik:

Yep.[LAUGH] That's great. Well, why don't we move on to today's episode, which is Licensed IP. Brendan, you were the person who talked about this topic and discussing it today. So why don't you lead the listeners into that?

Brendan:

All right. Thanks, Eric. Yeah, I think that the general conceit of licensed IP versus original IP from a game design perspective is interesting because it starts with my own initial beginnings in the RPG world, where the first RPG I ever purchased for myself as a nine or ten year old was the boxed set of the Ghostbusters' frightfully cheerful role-playing game from West End Games, which in retrospect, having done some research prior to this episode, the game was actually written and designed by Sandy Peterson, Lynn Willis and Greg Stafford from Chaosium, but published by West End, all of whom are clearly luminaries in the game design world.

Erik:

Yep.

Brendan:

And so I was surprised that they had been involved with a licensed IP because it doesn't seem, I mean, obviously Call of Cthulhu is licensed, I suppose, but generally speaking, those guys have a lot of creativity. You know, when I was a tween trying to convince other tweens to do this nerdy thing, it was a lot easier for me to pitch to them the notion of, OK, so you just saw Ghostbusters because we've all seen it. And you understand the premise here is we're Ghostbusters. And the pitch was sort of wrote itself. And I think the advantage in a lot of cases for licensed IP is that, you know, rather than having, you know, world building can be exhausting for people, especially trying to keep track of the details that a GM offers week over week and month over month. And when you are working with a licensed IP, you have some amount of sort of built in credibility about, but not just the actual setting details itself, but the tropes that people are going to be pursuing within the game. The, you know, the the the central activity is clear. Like if you say, I want to play a Ghostbusters game, you can assume there will be some ghosts and they will get busted. And, you know, you know, there'll be some amount of humor and probably a hearse involving, you know, a ghost logo on the side. And the the the startup costs to a game like that are are reduced because you're really just pitching to them, pitching to your players. My goal is to replicate the experience of watching this movie, but in a collaborative storytelling way. And so there's obviously quite a few new licensed properties out in the world today in the RPG space. We've talked about Alien in the past, one of the ones I really love, but there, you know, the Free League also publishes a Blade Runner game. There is, you know, I just I just received my PDFs for the next series, next books in the Terminator RPG series. And some of these work better or worse for me than others. But nonetheless, I I don't mind not having wholly original content because it is for me a way of pulling, bringing more people, especially more casual people into the RPG space. Have you guys have you guys played a bunch of licensed IP?

Erik:

So let me ask--

Brendan:

I've played a bunch of licensed IP.

Erik:

So actually, I am just coming off of-- I feel like Jason has just run a series of licensed IP games, including Star Trek Adventures, Dune, Blade Runner. Brendan, you've been running Aliens for us, which has been great. And so I will say, constitutionally, I am not a guy who leans towards licensed IP. But I was surprised, even in some of the cases where I was really dreading the licensed IP aspect, like Star Trek Adventures, that it was better than I thought. And I would love to talk about why. But let me-- Go ahead. So first of all, I'm not as much of a fan of Star Trek as I am of the rest of the IP we've played-- Aliens, Blade Runner, Dune. These are clearly in my wheelhouse. I watched a ton of Next Generation when I was in college, but is less appealing to me. And for me, the problem with licensed IP is that you can start to feel like you're just playing someone else's story. Robin Laws in Over the Edge has a great quote where he talks about how sometimes when you're playing, you can feel a little bit like a war gamer who's recreating a historical battle. And so there is a difference to me between let's play Napoleonic battles versus let's play the Battle of Waterloo. I think Ron Edwards, he calls this pastiche, which is like, rather than creating your own story, you feel like you're reliving in other people's stories.

Brendan:

I've played a bunch of licensed IP.

Erik:

And he talks about that in terms of theme and premise. But I think however you phrase it, I often have a challenge with licensed IP where the licensed IP is telling the story that-- it implies the story you're about to tell.

Ethan:

Okay. Okay. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.

Erik:

And I find that deeply unattractive. Please.

Ethan:

So let me just push back on this for a second.

Brendan:

I've played a bunch of licensed IP.

Ethan:

I mean, I agree with all that.

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

I'm just going to say the wrong word. So I think that there is a real tension between IPs which are constraining because of the weight of their content. And I think the Alien universe is an excellent example of this. And Brendan, you are our resident Alien IP expert. And I mean that truly and deeply.

Brendan:

I've played a bunch of licensed IP.

Ethan:

For those who don't know, Brendan actually is mere

Erik:

Mm-hmm.

Ethan:

Alien themed pinball machine in his basement, which is a spectacular device. And he also is metaphorically sitting on a wealth of knowledge about that entire universe. But what's interesting to me about Alien is, you know, I absolutely, I would say Alien is probably one of my favorite films, if not my favorite film. And I've always, you know, one of the things I loved about it is that it was so pure. There was sort of this pure gestalt of looking at the world building in that film and just trying to intuit like, oh, what are those, you know, look at those strange symbols on the hull. They must mean, you know, obviously they mean something. They have some sort of, you know, visual iconography, but it's never, you know, they don't go too deep. They just go, it's just sort of there ambiently. And because of that, the world feels very alive. Because when you over-describe things in an IP, when you have your, you know, your codified Bible of the world, as a lot of IPs do now, especially once they grow to a certain size, it can be sort of calcified. And after a while, the Alien universe started to feel a little overburdened to me because it was like, you have to reference so much stuff. And maybe that's less of a good example.

Erik:

Mm-hmm.

Ethan:

But there's so many layers that you're constantly trying to like, that we're not consciously

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

harmonized to start with, but you are sort of retroactively trying to harmonize them, that it becomes a little bit of, there's so many backflips that you end up doing. I can feel like that becomes that pastiche that you're mentioning, Eric, especially.

Brendan:

I've played a bunch of licensed IP.

Ethan:

I can also see it in a way that when you have sort of a calcified IP, that it becomes like just a really good reference work for role-playing in a way. It's possible, and I don't know if that's true or not. I would like to explore whether or not a calcified IP is a stronger foundation. Like it's calcified, but it's also strong, right?

Brendan:

I mean, I think, you know, to Eric's point earlier about potentially replicating the

Ethan:

Is it a strong foundation for role-playing, or does it lose something? Does it lose some of that vibrancy? I don't know.

Brendan:

experience or the stories within the licensed IP, I think Alien really does run the risk of that because like clearly the central conceit of the movies is that there exists, you know, a XX whatever xenomorph that has these characteristics and over time those characteristics shift as the various movies sort of layer on their own elements to it. But fundamentally the movies are about humans and their, you know, sort of intra-group squabbles and how that impacts their ability to try and survive, you know, this sort of horrific experience of encountering a xenomorph, which clearly does not work out well for most people. But that sort of central activity, you can't just play that over and over again because the experience of being, oh, surprised, hey, it's an alien again, oh my God, is not one that is I think particularly satisfying, right? Because you wouldn't have the sort of sense of discovery of an unfolding plot if the premise is just, you know, my spaceship is once again infested with, you know, eggs and facehuggers and the like. And so I think one of the things that Alien does well for me is that they've created this, the game operates in these two modes, right? It has this cinematic mode, which is effectively a one-shot where, you know, the characters are all pre-written and their individual motivations are pre-written and in such a way as to cause intraparty conflict. And then the, you know, the game is also essentially timed, right? The cinematic mode games have a finite lifespan of, you know, just a couple of sessions, but you have a core activity that is similar, I would say, to the plots of the movies, but is pivoted so that it's not going to be a one-to-one replica of the plot of Alien, for example, or a plot of Aliens. And so you have people, you know, people can enjoy it in its own terms and they can try to figure out how, you know, how best to have these fun sort of fights or conflicts within the game. You know, Alien does also have a campaign mode, but I think that for me, I have not run an Alien campaign, so I am not speaking directly from experience, but I think it would be much harder for me to sustain, you know, novel and interesting plots in the Alien universe over, you know, 35 sessions or 55 sessions or something, because you would just sort of, you know, the central tropes of the game are, you know, corporate malfeasance and, you know, humans surviving against the odds. And I just don't know that that, you know, it would be harder for me to figure out how to work within the guardrails expressed by the system and the setting to sustain that long-term. So I much prefer the cinematic mode play in that regard, because it feels like, you know, like you can dabble in it and enjoy it for what it is, and then, you know, eject to something else that has sort of more longevity to it.

Erik:

I certainly see how in--

Brendan:

Yeah.

Erik:

or to agree with you, the campaign play. I don't understand how campaign play doesn't either become Gilligan's Island, where every session is just, how do we get off the island? But becomes, how do we escape the xenomorphs? Or it doesn't diverge from what feels like an alien kind of story, right? It all of a sudden becomes, I don't know, Blade Runner or Firefly, but with xenomorphs.

Brendan:

I think the—sorry, go ahead, Ethan.

Ethan:

>> No, it's okay. I just was gonna say, I can kind of imagine actually something like, well, I'm thinking about the Gibson screenplay, which I know is, I don't know if that's canonical or non-canonical, or where it sits in the whole genre, in the oeuvre of aliens. But I can imagine you could take the alien universe and kind of run a Deep Space Nine situation where you have all of the parts, but you're kind of recasting them into a slightly different episodic environment.

Erik:

Mm-hmm.

Ethan:

Or you're having to deal with the political structures which are implied, political corporate structures which are implied, but they seem to be the central aspect of the alien movies, of course, for obvious reasons, because you wouldn't have a lot of action necessarily. But you could maybe do small episodes or small sessions like that, I'm not sure. And maybe those wouldn't work, and maybe they would feel un-alien, because they just don't have the right action mix. But...

Erik:

So Brendan, is this-- hearing us talk now, it makes me think maybe this challenge, though, is not so much about the fact that we're using licensed IP, but because aliens in particular is so wrapped up in survival horror. And maybe this is just a problem of survival horror, not about licensed IP. I don't know. I'm just thinking out loud.

Brendan:

>> Yeah, well, one way to try and tackle the sort of campaign play, there's one of the supporting books for the RPGs, the Colonial Marine Handbook, which has a campaign setting frame, which is the players are colonial marines, and they, of course, are sent to various planets to do various colonial marine things, primarily dealing with political and military kind of subplots. And the campaign, I'll loosely describe the premise of the campaign because I don't want to spoil it for anybody, but the campaign is primarily actually about political drama between various government factions and various governments. And so there are aliens of various types, not just the classic XX121 or whatever, but they are more of a background menace in some ways than a foreground one, which I think gives you the space to try and understand the way in which all these political machinations unfold. But it's interesting because obviously the setting material that people are familiar with, primarily the movies, doesn't offer a huge amount of context for any of the political stuff. And so you actually, either you have people who have read all the various exorable novels and/or listened to the audio books

Erik:

Mm-hmm.

Brendan:

who have a sense of how all the governments intersect with each other, or you make it up as you go and the GM is the only one offering those constraints. And so it's one of those areas where the vast majority of people who play the alien RPG will have no idea how the colonial Marines roll up to which particular government and which governments they're in conflict with, and that will only be uncovered for them as they play. And so I think there's an interesting distinction between that and the central activity of, "Oh, here's an alien. I need to run away."

Erik:

You know, what's funny about Alien is that I was just saying how I find licensed IP is not constitutionally what I think I'm interested in. But I will say, when I was preparing notes for this session, I wrote down that Aliens is my favorite licensed IP to play in. And I think part of that is because I don't feel like I'm playing Ripley when I am playing it. I feel like it is just space survival horror. And almost everything else is, to me, is freedom for us to create and to make space. And yes, there are the themes of corporate greed and how that screws everything up and how capitalism eats the little guy. But I don't know. Maybe I'm just not being self-consistent here. But I-- OK, sorry. I was reading an article from-- unrelated to this-- from GM Baker. He is a Substack. I think he's an author. And he was complaining about stories and how modern stories, the current-- and I think especially, he's talking about movies-- that the current fad is to do world-building, not story-building, right? And so if you look at what people tend to love about Dune, about Lord of the Rings, about even The Avengers maybe, that is, people are like, wow, this world is so great. And I love to see a story set in this world. And what's amazing is the world-building and not the story-building. And to take it back, Ethan, to what you said about calcification, I wonder if that isn't a piece of that puzzle that some IPs that focus on world-building

Ethan:

That is really interesting. So, okay, here's my premise though, or my pitch is that we

Erik:

enable you to really make them very, very gameable. And this, I think, coming back to what you said, Brendan, about setting, whereas ones that are really story-building-- and I think Lord of the Rings is kind of the top of my list here-- that that is harder to play in without feeling like you're playing in somebody else's story. Yep.

Ethan:

have all played Lord of the Rings, right? And you know where I'm going with this, which

Brendan:

Yep.

Erik:

Right.

Ethan:

is that if you crack open the Dungeon Master's Guide, first edition, in the back, of course,

Erik:

Yep. Over that list that we already have.

Ethan:

is Appendix N. And Appendix N is like, "These are all the IPs that we ripped off." And they're really explicit about that. It's the kind of thing you would, I think, not... You wouldn't

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

see that today, right? They would be like, "No, we'll get sued." If we acknowledge that

Erik:

Right? Right.

Ethan:

we ripped off, it's like a large language model. It's like, you don't want to really

Brendan:

Sure.

Erik:

Yep. Jack Vance, yeah.

Ethan:

talk about how much you've really stolen in terms of content. That's no fun. No. So, but it's clear that they were deeply inspired, quote unquote, by Lord of the Rings and a lot of the other fantasy works that are listed in Appendix N. The works of Jack Vance, which is all... That is actually the interesting situation, right? Is that you

Erik:

Me too.

Ethan:

have... And maybe it was slightly different in the mid-70s. But by the 80s, I don't feel like there was a lot of popular Jack Vance reading among my cohort that was playing D&D.

Erik:

Mm-hmm.

Ethan:

We had all read... Yeah, we'd all read Tolkien. We had not read Jack Vance. And because of

Erik:

Mm-hmm.

Ethan:

that, I think that we just didn't have... None of our games had a Jack Vance vibe, which is a totally different vibe, much funnier vibe, right? And we really focused on that

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

Tolkien, small group of hobbits, tromping off into the wilderness to do stuff. That feeling, which worked out well since we were small kids, tromping off into the Wisconsin wilderness to do stuff all the time. We've played that IP in a way, or at least aped

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

it, mimicked it. And I think that D&D obviously is... It's that fantasy Tolkien experience. So I'm trying to think actually of games because of that. We often hold up D&D as an original IP, but it's certainly not. I think that we can make that case. Maybe today it's evolved into a "original IP", but it just is drawn so heavily in everything else. But I wouldn't categorize it like that. Are there any role-playing games that you can think of that have a non-IP based or non-strong IP inspired origin story? I'm trying to think. There might be... I'm trying to think of the Monty Cook game, Invisible Son, which I've not played. Is that an original

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

IP? Would you call that an original IP? Has anybody explored that?

Erik:

So I've not delved deeply into Invisible Sun, though I've read a bunch of it. I think that that's pretty original IP. I think a lot of Monty Cook, the, what's the one that's like post-apocalyptic, there's weird technology all over the place. Numenera, I feel like that's pretty original IP. The one that I love, love, love, okay, I don't know, I was gonna say Band of Blades, which is Stras Asimovits, sorry Stras if I totally butchered your name there, I'm sure I did, but actually that is super influenced by Black Company.

Ethan:

Yeah. Yeah. And I think those are interesting examples. That actually is a little... So

Erik:

Like that is a Black Company game, and so like, never mind.

Ethan:

there might be two things happening here. One is... Three things. One is you have direct

Erik:

Yep. Mm-hmm.

Ethan:

IP games like Alien. And frankly, D&D is to Tolkien. This is... Okay. It's not... It's

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

Whitebox Tolkien. Okay. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That would be good. That would be good. So

Brendan:

I'm going to circle back to challenge that in a moment, but I want to let you finish your thought.

Ethan:

let me just lay out the three types that I'm proposing, though, which is like the direct

Brendan:

Yeah.

Ethan:

IP games or stolen IP games. Then you have games that are also like D&D, which draws on an IP that nobody has read. Okay. And I would even say, in a way, Band of Blades is

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

like that because a lot of people that play Band of Blades probably haven't read Black Company. I don't know. I mean, I have, but I feel like it's not as common a connection. You won't say like, "Oh, yeah. Band of Blades." A lot of people wouldn't say, "Oh, yeah. Band of Blades. That's a Black Company." You know what I mean? Even though like, "Boy, please read the Black Company because you'll get so much out of it and it'll enhance your play."

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

And then there are games which would be more like some of the Monty Cook games that we just mentioned, which would be fairly original-feeling IP, which is actually interesting to me because

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

I think that they might be a little... For me, I still think it's harder to get into an original IP game that doesn't have a lot of common world-building tropes to draw on that vocabulary. You just don't have the full deck of cards in front of you.

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

So Brendan, you are going to challenge my point. Please just knock me down. Knock down

Brendan:

Well, so, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Ethan:

my house of cards that I spend a lot of time building.

Erik:

Yep.

Brendan:

I mean, at least last couple of minutes.

Ethan:

1. What is your favorite game? 2. What is your favorite game? 3. What is your favorite

Brendan:

I think, Sue, when thinking about the sort of adoption of token creatures, as your example was earlier,

Ethan:

game? 4. What is your favorite game? 5. What is your favorite game? 6. What is your favorite

Brendan:

and the appendices of original D&D, I mean, the actual mechanics of D&D at that time were not truly token-esque in that they did not, I mean, the sentence, you know, token, actually the one-ring licensed game does a really good job of this,

Ethan:

game? 7. What is your favorite game? 8. What is your favorite game? 9. What is your favorite game? 10. What is your favorite game? 11. What is your favorite game? 12. What is your

Brendan:

is actually a struggle against internal corruption, clearly, and these super, you know, pathetic hobbits, whose primary strength is, you know, internal rather than external, mostly running away from many, many things, right?

Ethan:

favorite game? 13. What is your favorite game? 14. What is your favorite game? 15. What is

Brendan:

So, like, they, you know, of course, you know, are trying to evade ring rates the entire game.

Ethan:

your favorite game? 16. What is your favorite game? 17. What is your favorite game? 18. What

Brendan:

They, the primary, you know, I mean, the thing that marks hobbits themselves are that they are, you know, essentially pacifist farmers.

Ethan:

is your favorite game? 19. What is your favorite game? 20. What is your favorite game? 21. What

Brendan:

And sure, they run into an Aragorn and a Boromir and, you know, some riders of Rohan, etc. But nonetheless, like, the, you know, the primary protagonists of the novels are, you know, physically weak.

Ethan:

is your favorite game? 22. What is your favorite game? 23. What is your favorite game? 24.

Erik:

Yep.

Brendan:

I'm not sure if you really could say that they level up over the course of their pursuit.

Ethan:

What is your favorite game? 25. What is your favorite game? 26. What is your favorite game?

Erik:

Yep.

Brendan:

But, you know, I think, like, when you think about the, and then clearly D&D did not license the creatures that were in the back of the book, but they were presented, I think, more as a, you know, foil for your character to defeat, gather gold and treasure from and move on, which is, like, very, very dissimilar to the actual experience that, you know, the hobbits go through when they're on route to, you know, Mordor and Mount Doom.

Ethan:

27. What is your favorite game? 28. What is your favorite game? 29. What is your favorite game? 30. What is your favorite game? 31. What is your favorite game? 32. What is your

Brendan:

And so I think, you know, there's, this is one of those ways where I imagine if you were playing D&D in 1981 and, you know, the DM threw in, you know, cave trolls or whatever other Tolkien-esque creatures, it was familiar to you because you had read Lord of the Rings and understood the premise of those creatures.

Ethan:

favorite game? 33. What is your favorite game? 34. What is your favorite game? 35. What is

Brendan:

But the actual core activity was, I would argue, completely different, or not completely different, but different enough that, you know, it's actual Lord of the Rings and in fact, The One Ring is not really a power fantasy.

Ethan:

your favorite game? 36. What is your favorite game? 37. What is your favorite game? 38. What is your favorite game? 39. What is your favorite game? 40. What is your favorite game?

Brendan:

It's more about the, you know, the experience of getting there and evading or dealing with your own internal struggles.

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

41. What is your favorite game? 42. What is your favorite game? 43. What is your favorite

Erik:

Yep.

Brendan:

Yeah.

Ethan:

game? 44. What is your favorite game? 45. What is your favorite game? 46. What is your

Brendan:

That's a great idea for my next bedroom update, though. Just three different bands of red and orange, you know?

Erik:

Mm.

Ethan:

favorite game?

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

you yes thank you please I I'm for real like I have zero interest in playing on human characters and it's for that exact reason it just yeah boy it is a huge straight jacket and maybe that's sort of the the calcification that we were talking about before but this is one of the reasons why I'm not interested in any sort of 5e derived properties or like compatible with 5e and things like that because in you know there's a an advertisement I heard the other day on a podcast and it was for a 5e compatible product and it was like it sounded neat but one of the things that I just couldn't get into is like they were like okay dwarves in this setting are this and elves in the setting are this and it's like well why it's like it's like every board game had to be based on a Monopoly board and it just drives me nuts you know so this is an example of like IP calcification taken to an extreme that has infected the industry and I feel like we should burn it to the ground you okay you>> Over to you, Brandon.

Brendan:

Yeah, I think a lot of what appeals to people in some of these settings is the, you know, replicating the sense of the hero journey, right? And so when you have your licensed IP, like, you know, Dune, for example, you mentioned people porting Dune into Dark Sun. I think, you know, that's probably what some people did because Dark Sun is, you know, set in a desert similar to Arrakis. But I think the thing people really want to capture in that way is, you know, Paul Atreides becoming himself. And that sort of hero journey, I think, similarly with things like Harry Potter, which is an IP that, as far as I know, there's no RPG, but the -- is a remainder of a very popular one, you know, the sort of premise of, you know, becoming yourself, becoming individual, maturing, becoming more powerful. Those same sorts of tropes appeal to a lot of people. The sort of subdivision of people into, you know, houses of a British porting school. All that stuff has relevance to how you might structure a game wherein people want to develop and grow their characters. And so, you know, you can imagine that lots of these licensed IPs are influential in the ways that they help people to structure the plot and premise of a game, irrespective of whether or not they actually replicate the trappings of it. You know, you don't need to have a boarding school. You can have something that is akin to it that gives -- still gives people the sort of, you know, ability to sort themselves into like-minded groups and compete against others and, you know, grow their characters towards some sort of epic conclusion in the same sort of plot structure, right? Which I think, you know, I -- embarrassingly, I've never read Joseph Campbell's book, but, you know, allegedly all of these plots have been recycled many, many times over the years.

Ethan:

>> So that makes me think of a question for the Delta Green players here. Eric, I'm thinking of, you feel like you probably have more experience with Delta Green, but I don't know if this is true for both Delta Green and Fall Delta Green. So, Brendan, when you're talking about recreating the Paul Atreides experience, that actually seems super hard to me to do in a role playing game successfully because it's super compelling to read, right? It's super compelling to want to go on that journey.

Brendan:

Yep.

Ethan:

But it's very hard to structure successfully in a way which doesn't feel almost cartoonish to me. And I think that's because we lack the narrative tools to do that. You have to almost be a writer, right? You have to be a, like you, which we all are in a sense when we're creating a role playing game experience, okay? But my question is really like with Delta Green, like you're, so you could create like the hero's journey for sure. I think that happens in early D&D. It happens in certain games that are focused on sort of creating a zero to

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

hero experience. I think a lot of modern F20 games focus on hero to hero, which is not the same

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

journey. It's not a journey at all, right? It's just a, it's a slow ramp, which is a lot less exciting to me. So you can create that hero's journey.

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

You could create though in Delta Green, you have a different arc, which is the

Erik:

Mm-hmm.

Ethan:

process of yeah, hero to zero, right?

Brendan:

Hero to zero.

Ethan:

Like you're, it's the process of breaking off all those bonds and losing what makes you yourself from a social perspective, at least your strengths and

Erik:

Mm-hmm.

Ethan:

your, you know, you become slowly like wounded and scarred emotionally and

Erik:

Mm-hmm.

Ethan:

scarred physically. I'm not sure. So if we have Alien, which is like survival horror and we have, you know, you're sort of like your fantasy Tolkien experience. Like what is, what is that Delta Green genre? It's not, I don't want to just say Cosmic Horror either. Like there's something else happening there.

Erik:

So I think we talked about hero to zero,

Ethan:

Okay. Hmm.

Erik:

which was the first thing I thought about and Brendan talked about. But I think what makes Delta Green so special and interesting is that it is in some ways a combination of, to a much lesser extent than D&D, hero to zero combined with zero to hero. And what I mean is this. In Delta Green, you are really gaining truth about reality. And the

Ethan:

Oh, interesting.

Erik:

problem is that comes at a cost, which is I guess a very Cosmic Horror trope. But your characters are burning everything that's human about them in order to have the ability to eke out one more day of existence and plug that hole in the dam of reality.

Ethan:

So I would actually just say that versus some of the, the heroes arc in a

Erik:

Mm-hmm.

Ethan:

fantasy game, the fantasy game would be like a dramatic arc. The fantasy game would be like a dramatic comedy and this would be a

Erik:

That's right. In a previous episode, Ethan, you talked a little bit

Ethan:

dramatic tragedy.

Erik:

about play that's based on at what cost, like at what cost can I make this successful? And that's where I think

Ethan:

Hmm.

Erik:

Delta Green has a special role to play in that theme of humanity versus agency or protection or whatever you want to call the other side. It's really good at highlighting that choice.

Ethan:

Yeah. Okay.

Erik:

All right.

Ethan:

So I just want to like in my head, I'm thinking about the two different things that we're drawing from our licensed IPs or, or just, I, they're not

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

necessarily licensed in some of the examples we're using. I realized that, but we're drawing both tropes as sort of like the playing cards that we construct our, our, you know, our house of cards. And we are also drawing the structure and, and the, so it's interesting to me

Erik:

Yep.

Ethan:

like, and so thinking about why Alien is so fun to play besides Brendan being

Erik:

Super compelling. Holy cow.

Ethan:

an awesome GM when he runs the games for us is that survival horror experience

Erik:

Yeah. You know, something that you talked about, Ethan, earlier, you touched

Ethan:

is just really compelling.

Erik:

on Vance and the influence of Vance. And one

Ethan:

Yeah.

Erik:

of the things that I think D&D really took away from Vance was its rule system. So in terms of like, what else can you steal? What else can you steal from Vance? In terms of like, what else can you steal? Right. And so this is just like

Ethan:

Yes.

Erik:

if people play, I'm sure that there's a game based on Brandon Sanderson's, what's the name of his most popular

Ethan:

I know it.

Erik:

series? Final Empire? Something like that. Anyhow, you know, he

Brendan:

Oh, geez.

Erik:

has a very well-developed, like he's exactly this world builder.

Ethan:

Yeah.

Erik:

And if you play his game, it really does imply a rule system. In some ways, playing Lovecraft, I think, implied a rule system

Ethan:

Yeah.

Erik:

for Sandy Peterson when he made the Doom Spiral of Sanity. And maybe that's even the best thing that you could possibly take from an IP and is also super stealable because you can probably take credit for it without anybody calling you out. But I think that's pretty interesting.

Brendan:

I think the games that really co-opt, you know, the central premise of an IP in some sort of interesting rules codification, you know, really makes those games succeed or fail. You know, I think when you think about GURPS over the years, you know, GURPS -- I'm sure -- I definitely had some license to IP at some point, but the -- GURPS is this sort of generic simulationist way to represent, you know, success or failure, and then they grafted on various things to it. But I don't think they really -- you know, the majority of GURPS implementations felt pretty samey to me. They did not feel unique to their premise.

Erik:

Yep.

Brendan:

Whereas I think Free League has done a really great job of figuring out how to modify your zero engine to make the games feel, you know, a little bit different, but in key ways that are representative of their IP. Alien has, you know, stress and panic mechanic that is, you know, key to the experience. And as you -- it's similar to the doom spiral of Sanity and Call of Cthulhu, but as you get more and more stressed, you both are potentially, you know, more successful at some roles because you are rolling more dice, but you're also more likely to panic and cause, you know, a terrible chain reaction of just like in the movies. And so, you know, I think -- I haven't actually played Blade Runner yet, although I've read all the material. You guys, I think, did. And Blade Runner has, you know, the sort of mechanics around, you know, replicants and humans and how they, you know, how they're different, how they're the same. And it has its own sort of unique take on the mechanics that I think sounds really appealing and interesting. And, you know, that can give players who are familiar with the IPs a sense of, you know, connection to the sort of things that they've seen on the screen, for example. And I think that that is pretty powerful when game designers are able to, you know, figure out how to make the system replicate the core experience of a property.

Erik:

Yeah, one of the really interesting things that they do with

Brendan:

>> Thank you.

Erik:

Blade Runner is that they structure it as into time blocks. And so really the time block is kind of the granularity of the atomic unit of that play where you say, "Here's what I'm doing." It structures scenes where every player, every detective says, "Here's what I'm doing in the morning of day one. Here's what I'm doing in the afternoon. Here's what I'm doing in the evening. Here's what I'm doing," whatever. You have four moves, four scenes a day. And it plays into the detectiveness of Blade Runner where you're having to uncover this mystery and it creates time pressure and it creates this sense of urgency of like, "We have to figure this out." And is you know, it's not directly obvious how that comes from the IP of Blade Runner, right? Like I could use that in pretty much any investigative game and it would probably work super successfully. But I think it is a really

Brendan:

>> I was just going to say that I think the detective-y nature of it, you know, Free League has done a good job by creating all these physical artifacts in the initial box set that, you know, players use for the pre-made campaign where you have to investigate sort of Sherlock Holmes consulting detective style, you know, the artifacts in order to get a sense of, you know, where to go next and what the leads are.

Erik:

great mechanic.

Brendan:

And I think that that's an interesting, powerful idea. But it also, I think, is hard for people to replicate in their home games because it ups the ante, you know, in trying to plot out an adventure, you know, an adventure that you make in terms of having to create, you know, all of this sort of collateral that may or may not be used depending on how players proceed within the context of their investigation. But it is a really neat way that they have created, you know, an investigative mechanic akin to the first Blade Runner movie.

Erik:

>> So in play, actually, Brendon, I find that those handouts and the way that they're being used, I know they're intended to be really play aids in that you look at a picture of an apartment and it's almost like a find the hidden click kind of adventure where you're like, oh, I investigate this picture or this tabletop. I did not have a strong experience of that at play. When we played, I didn't find it super useful. But boy, does it evoke

Ethan:

Yeah.

Brendan:

>> Interesting.

Erik:

the tone and the setting in an amazing way. And so I really loved it, but not for the reason maybe they intended.>> All right. Well, that feels like a great place to wrap up today. That's right. That's

Brendan:

So it was not mechanically useful.

Erik:

exactly right. So less mechanically useful.>> Yep. No problem.>> I think this is a great place to wrap up. Let's wrap it up with the what are we going to take away from this in our play at the table? Ethan, you want to go first?

Ethan:

For me, I, I really love the Yellow King role playing game world and IP, so to speak, from Robin D. Laws and Pell Grain Press. And it's at the same time, I feel like I have never really successfully tapped into its potential 100%. And I am really inspired by this episode to rethink sort of what to try to mine what the core of that IP is for me. Like there's a vibe that I get reading sort of the original source material, and it's not cosmic or right in Robin Laws calls it reality or and I need to really think about I feel like there might be a missing mechanic in that system that can bring it to life. And whereas you have like a call of Cthulhu and Sandy Peterson, you have the the doom spiral and sanity. What is it that would really create what mechanic is missing that would really create for me the sense of reality or what that means, like where you have survival horror experience in alien, you have cosmic horror and call of Cthulhu. What is the mechanic? And so in other words, not just the tropes, but what is the mechanic that that IP needs to really create a sense of reality or and I, I would like to think about that, like maybe there is something there that could be unlocked. So I'm going to try and pick that lock.

Brendan:

I think the takeaway that I have taken away from this is to think about the ways in which, you know, these licensed games can be constraining. I really do enjoy using them as a way to, you know, glean interest from people because I think that there is a lot of advantages to being able to make a comparison to something people have read or watched, especially a really popular IP because that, you know, Star Wars, you know, Alien, etc. You know, people have this sort of inherent goodwill built in that allows them to sort of reach out and try new things. And so I like to lean on those systems because I, you know, I'm constantly trying to solicit people to play these games. And, you know, it's a little bit tougher sell when you are pitching something that is, you know, either wholly novel or, you know, from, you know, yes, the Yellow King is, I suppose, a licensed IP in that Robert W. Shabers wrote a short story a long time ago, but is probably not familiar to most people. And so, you know, I think that those things are a little bit more difficult to get people into. And so when I, you know, but I think Eric's point earlier about the constraints that licensed IP provides does create a problem where, you know, you can end up sort of pushing people down a core path because of the characteristics of the IP that doesn't allow them to sort of explore the more creative elements of things. And so the more, the richer the setting, you know, that you are adopting, the more constraints you have. And I got to think about how that impacts my ability to create new and interesting stories within that context.

Erik:

>> So for me, I think I've been thinking a lot lately about theme and premise. And this is all based on kind of Ron Edwards' narrativist style of play, which I have some challenges

Brendan:

Transcription by CastingWords© The Ballot Office 2016

Erik:

with. But this thought that, boy, especially in true play, it is very hard to feel like at the end of the day, you've created a story that expresses any real theme rather than just being a series of events. And what I really was struck by in our conversation today was how the use of licensed IP can really be a tool to, for example, in the aliens case of evil corporations, how it is a very powerful tool to do that in a way that I don't know that I found any other powerful tools that are as good. So that's what I think I would take away from this.