Lost In Translation: Adapting Fictional Characters To Games
  • Lost In Translation: Adapting Fictional Characters To Games


    There are two ways of rating fictional characters that you want to add to role-playing games (and other types of games as well). These are the functional method and the emotional/perceptual method (for want of a better name).

    Photo by Thomas Schweighofer on Unsplash

    What's the difference? The functional depends on what the character can actually do, without regard to what others can do. The emotional/perceptual depends on the character's relation to the rest of the world. In that second method, a very powerful character will be rated as similar to the most powerful characters in the game rules you're using, regardless of what the character can actually do.

    An example from my own experience was my introductory D&D adventure through Moria, published in White Dwarf more than 35 years ago. There were no Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies at that time, but most prospective players had read LOTR. The party of player adventurers were the Fellowship of the Ring. Assuming most players had read LOTR, I let new players play the familiar characters to make it easier for them to understand what was going on. (Keep in mind, RPGs were relatively new at the time; even today there are many millions who have no idea how an RPG works.)

    I relied on what the characters could actually do. Consequently, Aragorn was a seventh level ranger with a magic sword (keep in mind this was first edition D&D) and Gandalf was an eighth level cleric with a Ring of Fire and a magic sword. At seventh rangers got an extra attack every other round, and had a lot of hit points with high constitution required (and one extra D8). Gandalf could not raise the dead as a ninth level cleric could, hence the limit to eighth - and even at eighth, the D&D cleric uses a lot more magic than Gandalf. (Gimli and Legolas were fourth fighters, and I gave the hobbits an extra level to second.) If the party included experienced players, they played Gandalf and Aragorn.

    Some readers wanted these characters to have sky-high levels because they were so much more powerful than virtually anyone else in Middle-earth. "But they were two of the most powerful figures in the world!" is the emotional/perceptual response. Yes, but it's a world almost entirely lacking in powerful figures, and in magic, compared with the typical FRP world. Imagine Gandalf as a 17th level cleric creating one miracle (in Middle-earth terms) after another. If Gandalf had been anywhere near the level some readers desired, he would have been a god within Middle-earth's low magic setting. Or imagine Aragorn at 16th level, slaughtering trolls, ogres, giants, wholesale.

    So I focused on the functional, believing that the emotional follows in the long run. In this case Aragorn and Gandalf are still very powerful compared with the other characters. The only similarly powerful character involved was the Balrog, which was probably more powerful than either Aragorn or Gandalf just as in the book itself. (Keep in mind the Balrog back then was much less powerful than the Balrog is in D&D now - AC2, 10 hit dice, two good attacks (2-12 and 3-18), needed +3 weapons to hit IIRC.)

    So I just avoided the ridiculous, avoided giving far too many choices to the players, and also avoided the problem that Advanced D&D mechanisms broke down when you got much into double-figure levels. It just didn't work anymore.

    Functionality is part of modeling, characterized by a term called "correspondence," or less mellifluously "analogousness." My word allowance doesn't let me go into details here, I can only summarize. There are three questions to ask (generalized for all games, not just RPGs):


    • Do the actions of the player-controlled characters/assets in the game correspond with what happens in real life (or the fictional reality) we're modeling?
    • Does the non-player activity in the game correspond to what happens in the (possibly fictional) reality we're trying to represent?
    • Do the strategies a player follows correspond to something in that reality?


    Gandalf as a 17th (or more) level cleric will result in No's for all these questions, as will Aragorn at 16th+ level ranger. But at the levels I chose, we can get Yeses.

    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 45 Comments
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      Interestingly, 1st edition Stormbringer has a small section on playing Elric, which I thought was interesting. As a player it never occurred to me to want to be the fictional character, constrained by their actions and motivations. But I guess there was a desire among some groups to do just that.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Many fictional characters are distinguished as much by their motivations and commitments, as by their capabilities. This can create modelling challenges for an RPG.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Many fictional characters are distinguished as much by their motivations and commitments, as by their capabilities. This can create modelling challenges for an RPG.
      I suspect (as always) system matters a great deal. How you might model Belgareth in D&D is different than say how you might in Rolemaster or FATE. The notable exceptions, even though systems vary wildly, is super heroes. I think the old Marvel Super Heroes did a pretty decent job of modeling the comic characters. Where as the DC games, from what I heard, always had some issues.
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      Modeling fictional characters in RPGs is a bad idea. PERIOD.

      Fictional character's capabilities are based entirely on literary function. If its useful for them to cast Meteor, they cast it. If it's not, they don't. End of story. They do not have daily allotments of spells except for when the story calls for that to matter. They don't have to prepare or memorize spells except for when the story thinks that's important. They can kill a man 9 different ways with only their thumb because the book says they can, grapple checks need not apply.

      If for whatever insane reason you decide to include a fictional character from literature in your game there really should be nothing more on their stat sheet than their name. When you want them to succeed at something, they do. When you don't want them to, they don't.
    1. billd91's Avatar
      billd91 -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Many fictional characters are distinguished as much by their motivations and commitments, as by their capabilities. This can create modelling challenges for an RPG.
      That has not been my experience. For the most part, role playing motivations and commitments is pretty easy. Most often, they need no mechanical expression at all.
      But for times you do want that kind of expression, Pendragon pretty much nailed the hell out of the idea with its Traits and Passions. And the subsystem that covered that is actually fairly portable to other games like D&D.
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      System matters a lot. It's easier to model fictional characters in games like Fate, Cortex Plus or Heroquest, than in DnD type games. Games with levelling, and/or heavy emphasis on nitty gritty mechanical details are especially bad at simulating fictional characters. Using Fate, I could probably recreate the LoTR characters, because the aspect system in Fate is so good at narrative elements.

      Games that are designed to mimic particular shows or books sometimes work and sometimes don't.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by SMHWorlds View Post
      I suspect (as always) system matters a great deal. How you might model Belgareth in D&D is different than say how you might in Rolemaster or FATE. The notable exceptions, even though systems vary wildly, is super heroes. I think the old Marvel Super Heroes did a pretty decent job of modeling the comic characters. Where as the DC games, from what I heard, always had some issues.
      I like Marvel Heroic RP's approach, although I've only seen a few characters in action (War Machine, Nightcrawler, Bobby Drake, Wolverine are the main ones).

      And I like Burning Wheel's Tolkien-esque approach to elves and dwarves.

      Quote Originally Posted by Arilyn View Post
      System matters a lot. It's easier to model fictional characters in games like Fate, Cortex Plus or Heroquest, than in DnD type games. Games with levelling, and/or heavy emphasis on nitty gritty mechanical details are especially bad at simulating fictional characters.
      When I think of emulating fictional characters in D&D, I only think in 4e terms. AD&D generally isn't flexible enough. But Gandalf is tricky even in 4e (maybe a STR cleric with INT secondary and multi-class wizard?).
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      Yeah, DnD is not the game for LoTR. AiME does a surprisingly good job, but even it is hampered by being DnD, and in my mind is inferior to The One Ring. Gandalf is Gandalf, and is neither a cleric or a wizard. On top of that, I suspect we never really see his true essence or power.
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      In terms of the functional vs perceptual debate, I tend to side with the OP - better to model the characters based on what they can do, rather than assigning high levels because they happen to be the most powerful characters in their settings. Not all settings are created equal.

      However, I'm much less concerned with the levels assigned than with how the character would get there. If the game is supposed to be modelling a given setting, it really should be possible to create the characters for that setting as viable PCs, without stretching the rules of the setting too far. That is, in a Star Wars RPG, Luke Skywalker (as we first see him in the first film) really should be a viable starting character. In a Lord of the Rings game, the four Hobbits really should be viable starting PCs, and it should be possible to create PCs that could level up (or its equivalent) to match Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir.

      If not, if the game insists on giving Luke stats that can't be achieved using the default generation system (or by cheating, if that system is random), or if Legolas and Gimli are forever out of reach, then there's something wrong with the system.

      (And, all that said, it's worth noting that D&D isn't intended to simulate LotR, or Conan, or Elric, or the rest. So while you should be able to create characters rather like those from the stories that served to inspire it, it's much less necessary that they be perfect, or even particularly accurate, simulations.)
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by delericho View Post
      D&D isn't intended to simulate LotR, or Conan, or Elric, or the rest. So while you should be able to create characters rather like those from the stories that served to inspire it, it's much less necessary that they be perfect, or even particularly accurate, simulations.
      I think this is a tricky issue. Page 7 of Gygax's PHB says that

      Swords & sorcery best describes what this game is all about . . .

      This game lets all of your fantasies come true. This is a world where monsters, dragons, good and evil high priests, fierce demons, and even the gods themselves may enter your character's life. Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made of!!

      And the famous Appendix N (DMG, p 224) adds:

      The following authors were of particular inspiration to me. . . . From such sources, as well as just about any other imaginative writing or screenplay you will be able to pluck kernels from which grow the fruits of exciting campaigns.

      If the game doesn't deliver experiences, in play, that in some sense simulate these classic fantasy works, then I think that counts as under-delivery.

      But one complexity is that what counts as "simulating" Conan or LotR or whatever else is itself controversial. For instance, the XP-for-treasure rule seems, at least in part, intended to imbue PCs with Conan-esque treasure-seeking motivations - the classic stuff of S&S. My own view is that, in fact, it produces radically non-Conan-esque play experiences, as many Conan stories involves Conan forgoing the chance to take the treasure so as to do the right thing instead; and there is no Conan story where he scouts and raids a dungeon in the Advance Squad Leader style that classic D&D tends to favour.

      But clearly there are other RPGers who see the motivation, rather than the resulting play experience, as being at the heart of the "simulation" - because one quite often sees the XP-for-treasure rule being praised on S&S grounds.
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      If the game doesn't deliver experiences, in play, that in some sense simulate these classic fantasy works, then I think that counts as under-delivery.
      It should provide experiences like any or all of them, but it's not "The Conan RPG", or "The Elric RPG", or whatever. So while you should be able to create a character that is like Conan (or whoever), I don't think it's necessary to be able to create Conan himself.

      (Conversely, if it were "The Conan RPG", I would expect to be able to create Conan as a rules-legal, though potentially high-level, PC using the system as given.)
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      In the RPG Gandalf and the fellowers of the ring would ride giant eagles towards Mordor, and Tolkien knew then the story would be too short. And almost all fantasy novels aren't created to be adapted to RPGs. The characters from "Song of Ice and Fire" (Games of Thrones) aren't going to become 20th level warriors to defeat hordes of minions like in a musou videogame.

      About adaptations from books, comics or movies, I would rather to create a mash-up, a reboot with radical changes, for example mixing Starfinder with Eclipse Phase, Spelljammer, Star Wars, Star Treck, Stargate, Starcraft, Halo, Mass effect and other famous sci-fi franchises. Then the players aren't sure what is going to happen.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by LuisCarlos17f View Post
      In the RPG Gandalf and the fellowers of the ring would ride giant eagles towards Mordor
      Only under a fairly narrow set of assumptions as to what RPGing involves.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      Modeling fictional characters in RPGs is a bad idea. PERIOD.

      Fictional character's capabilities are based entirely on literary function. If its useful for them to cast Meteor, they cast it. If it's not, they don't. End of story. They do not have daily allotments of spells except for when the story calls for that to matter. They don't have to prepare or memorize spells except for when the story thinks that's important. They can kill a man 9 different ways with only their thumb because the book says they can, grapple checks need not apply.

      If for whatever insane reason you decide to include a fictional character from literature in your game there really should be nothing more on their stat sheet than their name. When you want them to succeed at something, they do. When you don't want them to, they don't.
      D&D is a game of imagination. If some group wants to battle or play fictional characters, more power to them. I have never ran, or played in, a campaign based on fictional characters but I have based many NPC's on fictional characters. Having a well developed mental image of a character helps make them more realistic. I will also base an NPC's on someone I know in real life. The trick is to change them just enough that the players don't realize who you are basing them off of.
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      I usually avoid using well known characters from popular settings in my RPG sessions. There's a huge risk that either the game rules or the person in control of those characters will not do them justice. So if I ever ran a LOTR campaign, there would be no Gandalf, Legolas or Aragorn. There would be the player characters instead.

      This is one of the things that has kept me from running a Jurassic Park campaign. Most of my players are familiar with the movies, and few of them are familiar with the books. But this tends to set certain expectations regarding well known characters and events. As a DM I find it important to have the freedom to change things on the fly. The entire campaign should not be derailed because someone decides to kill Alan Grant. Nor would I want to run the risk of having one of the players play the part of Alan Grant, and doing a bad job at it.
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      D&D is a game of imagination. If some group wants to battle or play fictional characters, more power to them. I have never ran, or played in, a campaign based on fictional characters but I have based many NPC's on fictional characters. Having a well developed mental image of a character helps make them more realistic. I will also base an NPC's on someone I know in real life. The trick is to change them just enough that the players don't realize who you are basing them off of.
      Styling an NPC to be like Gandalf is absolutely NOT what the OP was talking about and is a completely unrelated endevour.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arilyn View Post
      Yeah, DnD is not the game for LoTR. AiME does a surprisingly good job, but even it is hampered by being DnD, and in my mind is inferior to The One Ring. Gandalf is Gandalf, and is neither a cleric or a wizard. On top of that, I suspect we never really see his true essence or power.
      Absolutely. AIME does a surprisingly good job of a Dark Ages feel but even so I think it has issues.

      Gandalf is a particularly difficult character in no small part because he really is an NPC. Some of the other characters in the Fellowship are PC-worthy but Gandalf really isn't. Much of his power is kept off-screen so you're right, we never really see what he does.

      In addition, Middle Earth is deeply magical but the magic is really quite different than D&D's more utilitarian, game balanced, and often much more grandiose Vancian magic. For example, nobody really has fast travel. The closest are the Nazgul on their aerial mounts, Gandalf mounted on Shadowfax, and the giant eagles, but even they have to travel from Point A to Point B and all points in between. Only Gandalf seems to have any kind of direct damage and even he needs to make use of raw material such as pinecones to make that work.

      D&D really wasn't built with this in mind so it's unsurprising it's not very good at it.

      If you want to read just how deeply magical the First Age was, check out this article about Luthien, who is, IMO, a very powerful sorcerer or bard in 5E terms, with courage to spare and then some.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      Styling an NPC to be like Gandalf is absolutely NOT what the OP was talking about and is a completely unrelated endevour.
      "D&D is a game of imagination. If some group wants to battle or play fictional characters, more power to them." Was the first line of my response.

      I am not so presumptuous as to tell others the correct way to play D&D. If they want to play Gandalf and Frodo, and have fun doing it, then I say go for it. If everyone is on board, who cares?

      D&D isn't the system I would choose to do so, it is pretty clunky. I would think Middle Earth Role Playing would be more appropriate (for obvious reasons!).
    1. Garthanos's Avatar
      Garthanos -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      When I think of emulating fictional characters in D&D, I only think in 4e terms. AD&D generally isn't flexible enough. But Gandalf is tricky even in 4e (maybe a STR cleric with INT secondary and multi-class wizard?).
      I seem to recall there being several fairly satisfactory translations of Gandalf (my favorite only missed out on cantrips) these often involving the Shielding swordmage some times the Avenger. Early paragon with level 11 or 13 in most cases for Gandalf the White.

      Aside from that Gandalf is a DMNPC argument.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      One thing that creates a tricky point is that D&D, and most RPGs, are based on starting off early in their career, whereas most fictional characters are generally conceptualized at the height of power (one-shots do not necessarily suffer this problem). Back in the day, I had a player make a character based on Elric. He certainly wasn’t getting a Stormbringer, despite his requests!

      For my part, if you’re going to take inspiration from a fictional character, I think it far more interesting to take the spirit of the character and recontextualize them in the new setting, than to just try to model their power. What happens if I take proud Thorin Oakenshield and put him in Shadowrun? Let’s make a Warforged version of C-3PO I have a character that is pretty much “Raistlin in Space.”

      As for Gandalf’s level, his power was greater than what he wielded, as the Istari were forbidden from directly matching Sauron’s power with their own.
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