Flickering Lights: A Brief History of Silver Screen Licenses in RPGs, by S. John Ross

"In Hollywood, a marriage is a success if it outlasts milk."

- Rita Rudner

In Anytown, USA, a game designer struggles to meet the needs of the gaming public and the needs of a picky licenseholder at the same time. The work, when it's done, is thousands of words of text and dozens of graphics.

In Los Angeles, months later, the approvals staff for Big Movie Studios stare at the thing in horror, knowing that they'll make ten times the money by spending thirty seconds approving a coffee mug with a logo on it.

In Othertown, USA, a Game Master hears word of a game based on a film his gaming group loves, but he's concerned: Can it capture the spirit of the film? And even if it does, can he?

Cinematic licensing is a beast that can defeat the mightiest financial backing and humble the most heroic game designer. The success stories are few, and impermanent. They do, however, include three of the most influential games in the hobby's history.

Licensed to Kill

James Bond 007 designer Gerry Klug dedicated his game to publisher Eric Dott, citing his understanding in allowing the games rules to be designed "they way they had to be done." Dott, who'd rejected Dungeons & Dragons a decade earlier when offered it by Gary Gygax, had apparently gained new insight as RPGs steadily bullied his wargames onto the back shelves at retailers. He'd gained something else, too: a major license that would allow Victory Games to compete in the RPG arena. It was 1983, and James Bond 007 emerged as a major player immediately, netting industry awards and rave reviews for both the core game and the steady stream of support material that followed.

007's eye-bending blend of charts and modifiers seemed streamlined at the time, and while it hasn't aged well, it was clear to everyone that Klug had committed a noteworthy act of game design. 007 pioneered unrepentantly cinematic-style rules, providing results that mirrored the films well and rejected mundane reality as a nuisance. The rules included detailed gameplay where character decisions would be most prominent (gambling, seduction, fighting and vehicular action) and shamelessly abstracted those areas the films glossed over. There were no language rules, for example, suavely side-stepping a design hurdle most other modern-Earth RPGs struggle to climb over.

So, James Bond was more than a marketing gimmick; it was a milestone design, standing firm against two competing espionage titles released in the same year: Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes (Blade/Flying Buffalo) and Espionage (Hero Games). Only the limitations of the genre itself determined the ceiling of its success, and the game remained available until Avalon Hill (and therefore Victory) closed its doors.

The First Wave

James Bond had the advantage of being a decades-old cinema property with literary roots[*]. The next thing to try would be something based on something fresh in the theaters, to take a risk on something entirely new. In 1984, TSR had a go at the best of both options, with the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two.

2010 came first; TSR released it at Gen Con 17, even before the film hit theaters. Unlike Bond, it really was just a marketing gimmick, cashing in on the legacy of Kubrick's classic and the buzz surrounding its sequel. Before they went to the movies, gamers could have deckplans for the Leonov and stats for her crew!

TSR achieved this feat by skipping game design entirely; both titles were released as Star Frontiers modules. By using an existing game, TSR could strike while the iron was still heating in the coals, creating well-made but deliberately disposable supplements with no real plans for long-term support or reprints.

TSR also released Adventures of Indiana Jones that year, a full-fledged RPG with trademarks to spare and the hopes of a long-lived film franchise to support it. It was well-regarded, but, like James Bond, it had competition in the same year: Hero Games released Justice, Inc., their own "pulp adventure" RPG, stealing the hearts of many gamers that might otherwise have devoted themselves to the TSR game. And unlike Victory's Bond, TSR's Indy didn't have the stuff to compete.

1984's minor entry into film licensing came from the biggest name in television licensing: FASA's powerhouse Star Trek game. Their Star Trek III Sourcebook marked their first entry into official adaptations of the silver screen. FASA's second and last foray into film licensing came in 1986 with Star Trek IV, but that year would be dominated by cinema gaming's second milestone: West End Games' Ghostbusters.

Are You A GOD?!

Sandy Petersen and Chaosium, creators of the most enduring literary-license RPG of all time, seemed to have a natural claim on a movie as obviously Cthulhoid as Ghostbusters. WEG's role as the kings of smart comedy (via Paranoia) seemed a perfect fit, too. And it was. Petersen scored a second Impale, creating a game that, like James Bond before it, would build a milestone in game design as well as licensing success.

And game design was the key. While Reitman's supernatural comedy was a gamer favorite, it seemed an unlikely prospect for a great game: Who would the players portray? There are only four Ghostbusters, after all. And, ghosts or no ghosts, they're really just exterminators, most of the time. Without a new world to explore or a clear idea of what the PCs would be, many gamers were skeptical.

Petersen answered the challenges by exploring a new genre - a kind of "new age pulp" of mad Fortean adventure, where alien invaders and bigfoot were just as likely to crop up as an ordinary free-roaming vapor. Played straight, it's the world of the X-Files or a dozen other modern settings, but it was unheard of in 1986, at least in pop culture. To give the PCs an excuse to get a brown jumpsuit and proton pack, the game introduced Ghostbusters, International, a global franchise spun off with cash Venkman and company earned from saving New York. Unlicensed nuclear accelerators are even cooler when mass-produced, after all. With the franchise angle in place, GMs (Ghost Masters) were encouraged to explore the supernatural and comedic potential of their own hometown.

This odd stew was so well written, and tied to such cunningly fresh game mechanics, that it all but reinvented RPG design. Ghostbusters had not a whiff of the wargaming roots the hobby had been founded on. It had clean, fast, funny rules driven entirely by dramatic and comedic necessity (and a cute die with a ghost on it). James Bond had been beaten at the Baccarat table, and every new RPG to follow would be influenced, directly or otherwise, by Ghostbusters.

Point Five Past Lightspeed

The first real progeny of Ghostbusters would prove stronger than the master, and would prove to be the third and greatest milestone in the history of film-licensed roleplaying games.

Greg Costikyan's Star Wars RPG (1987) combined Ghostbusters-influenced mechanics with an even more fertile setting. West End didn't need to reinvent Star Wars to make it the ideal gaming setting; "Hokey religions and ancient weapons" were already what gaming was primarily about. All they needed to do was live up to that setting's potential.

They succeeded so admirably that their relationship with Lucasfilm grew into something greater than just a license. West End became one of the keepers of the Star Wars continuity, charged with the task of cataloguing references, ships, systems, characters and more from the galaxy of new creations constantly appearing in the Star Wars universe beyond the films - because, as game designers, they had to do it anyway. Like Ghostbusters, Star Wars expanded the universe it took place in, but better still, those expansions were incorporated into the master property itself. Until fiscal difficulties later tore everything apart, it was the most productive and friendly "Hollywood marriage" in gaming.

But licensing remains a tricky business under the best conditions, and West End and LFL had their rough moments, amusing in retrospect. Former WEG staffer Eric Trautmann recalls a crack-of-dawn weekend phone call from an agitated Lucasfilm rep:

[She asked] if we, West End Games, had sought General Motors' permission before we identified a particular spacecraft as a "Corellian Corvette." My response was quite natural: I laughed and asked, "No, really...what can I do for you?"

Several hours of explanations and faxed pages from reference books later, LFL was satisfied that not all corvettes had wheels.

Experiments and Failures

Star Wars joined the ranks of the world's most popular RPGs, making skillful use of a dream license. For more than a decade, it was the source of admired supplements, improved editions, and the Star Wars Adventure Journal, a high-quality periodical featuring fiction by "name" authors, solitaire adventures, and ready-to-go gaming material (a unique high watermark in game magazines).

But Star Wars would be the last of the real milestones. The late 80s and early 90s would be a time of experimentation, for West End and for others, with no real success stories.

TOR broke new ground in 1988 with Allen Varney's Willow sourcebook (coauthored by Star Wars designer Costikyan), but it was ground nobody seemed to want. The Willow book was a real first, a film-licensed worldbook, clearly written and designed with roleplayers in mind, but without new game mechanics or ties to an existing game. It included sparse "generic" gaming notes clearly written with D&D in mind, but was essentially a system-free book. The film didn't hit, so the book didn't either, and no one has tried that approach since. In 1989, West End released a completely revised edition of Ghostbusters called GBI which, like the film's own sequel, lacked most of the charm that made the original worth seeing.

The 1990s introduced a new player to the field, a small company looking to leverage its way into the upper ranks with licenses, just as West End and FASA had done. They were Leading Edge Games, and they failed.

Leading Edge worked with the same approach that TSR had used earlier, focusing on current movie releases as well as established favorites. Alien[3] was heading for theaters in 1992, so they got the license for the Aliens universe and released the roleplaying game in 1991. In the following year, they released Bram Stoker's Dracula and Lawnmower Man. There were even lead figures (although, sadly, no RPG) for Army of Darkness, but Leading Edge didn't live to see the middle of the 90s, much less the end of it.

West End's own experiments with current-release licensing didn't fare much better. Their Masterbook universal RPG, a retooled version of the Shatterzone engine, was used primarily as a platform for licensed settings. These included TV, literary and computer-game worlds, as well as films. Tank Girl and Species (both 1995) appeared alongside the films that spawned them, and The World of Indiana Jones (1994) resurrected the license that TSR had botched in the 80s.

Masterbook titles were supplements that required the Masterbook core rules as a separate purchase. That, combined with mixed reactions to the game engine, made the licensed worldbooks a less appealing "impulse buy" than they might have been. Of the entire Masterbook library, only Indiana Jones had any degree of real success, with a series of well-regarded supplements and a moderate fan following. While never a "hit" in any sense, it fared better than its predecessor from TSR.

West End's final foray into film licensing abandoned the Masterbook approach. Men In Black was a complete RPG based on the film. Like Ghosbusters, it was a comedy game of fortean adventure. Like Species and Tank Girl, it was a pre-arranged license released along with the movie itself, and it came with its own set of design headaches. WEG veteran Timothy O'Brien recalls:

The MiB property came with draconian rules about what images to use, the backstory on several characters, names, which fonts to use, and so on. The MiB RPG was ready to print when an alert came down the pike telling us that we'd used the wrong fonts and that a half-dozen things would have to be changed. They pointed us to a different font they wanted used. A header font. They wanted it used as a body font.

Naturally, they didn't alert anyone to the last minute switch in alien names and the editorial film cuts that reduced some of the alien descriptions in
MiB to contradictory gibberish. Some of the licensees could switch the toy boxes, but the MiB RPG book was hosed, and we found out when the designer, George Strayton, saw the movie.

Men In Black enjoyed only moderate sales, and the company didn't last long enough to build on it. In 1998, with Misson: Impossible and Stargate: SG1 licenses trailing unrealized in the water [*], West End Games went down in a flurry of debts, layoffs, lawsuits, and fingers of accusation, and the Star Wars game went with it - on the eve of the resurrection of the film franchise.

A New Hope?

Star Wars didn't stay dead very long. Struck down, it returned in 2000 in the hands of Wizards of the Coast, with a creative team led by long-time West End veteran Bill Slavicsek. Time will tell if the new incarnation has the legs to match its predecessor. Like Lucasfilm's new Star Wars prequels, it must contend with both the high standards and justifiable nostalgia of the old fans, and the needs of a newer, younger audience.

But, "there is another." The greatest hope for the near future of film-licensed RPGs may be Guardians of Order, a small Canadian publisher which has, in the tradition of publishers past, launched itself into the spotlight with a winning combination of licensing and much-admired game design.

Animated feature films have seldom been licensed in the past. Wizards (Whit, 1992) and Project A-Ko (Dream Pod 9/Ianus, 1995) were the only examples until Guardians released David Pulver's impressive Demon City Shinjunku RPG in 1999. While the film's niche status guarantees that the game will never be more than a standalone, the action-horror RPG blends the elegant Big Eyes, Small Mouth "Tri-Stat System" with one of the most complete gaming sourcebooks ever assembled based on a single movie, rivaling West End's film sourcebooks in both detail and quality. With GOO acquiring new licenses by the carload, similarly good animated-film RPGs are probably on the way.

More importantly, Guardians proved their flexibility and willingness to innovate with a live-action license: Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (2000). Like most other licenses based on a current film, the game is likely regarded as disposable, but rather than a lackluster book of stills and stats, Ghost Dog is an unusual game, combining modern action and drama with a rare focus on one-on-one campaigning and a well-presented primer on organized crime. It also proves that GOO's Tri-Stat system can handle worlds beyond anime, so they might have the muscle to succeed where Masterbook and Leading Edge could not. Clearly, the Force is with someone.

This article had originally been written for a print magazine, but I retracted it when a helpful colleague warned me that the magazine was having difficulty paying writers. Rather than be grumpy about seeing it printed without pay, I decided I'd rather share it on my very own website: I still don't get paid, but nobody's paying to read it, either, so that's fair! Please email me with any comments, corrections, recipes, or insights into the nature of life. Read more cool stuff on the Blue Room, or at Cumberland Games. Copyright ©2001 by S. John Ross; All rights reserved.

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