Worlds of Design: Lost in Translation

Adaptations of any fiction from one medium to another tend to suffer from unnecessary changes, including tabletop role-playing games. Unfortunately, what’s necessary and unnecessary is often a matter of opinion.

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The Curious Case of Artemis Fowl​

When the Artemis Fowl movie was released on Disney+, my wife and I watched. We found it a little confusing, but OK. The movie is generally regarded as a failure, though, so I decided to read the very popular book that the movie is based on—and it is much better in my opinion. Why the difference?

There’s always a temptation for movie people to change a movie from the book it’s based on in order to “make their own contribution” look more important. Many changes nearly happened to the Lord or the Rings trilogy of movies, but in the end Peter Jackson and company mostly stuck to the books (e.g. cutting out filmed scenes of Arwen Evenstar fighting at Helm’s Deep!).

But in the case of Fowl, I suspect this happened: the producers were able to get well-known actors Judi Dench and Colin Farrell to play parts in a movie otherwise devoid of well-known actors. So the movie was (re?)written with parts for both, even though Dench’s character doesn’t exist in the book, partially replacing a much better character; and Artemis’ father does not appear in the book except offstage. The result is a much worse story in the movie.

Adaption Decay​

Adaptations of any fiction from one medium to another tend to suffer from unnecessary changes. Fans want the movie to reflect the original. Makers of the movie want the movie to appeal to a larger audience, hence are willing to change it. Unfortunately, what’s necessary and unnecessary, good change and bad change, is often a matter of opinion, not fact.

On the other hand, sometimes the story you’re adapting from is pretty “B Grade”. The designer of the video game Prince of Persia campaigned for a long time to have a movie made, even as he noted that the story had to be different (better) than the game.

An example of a changed role in a movie that works is the air pirate captain in Neil Gaiman’s movie Stardust. It’s a very small part in the book, but the producers got Robert DiNiro to play the captain in the movie, so the part was greatly expanded, pretty successfully I thought. (I saw the movie before reading the book, just as with Fowl.)

DiNiro’s addition did not change the story much; Dench’s addition changed the story a lot.

Adapting to and from RPGs​

The obvious equivalent in the RPG space are licensed games from other mediums like movies, comics, and novels. Role-playing games require much more detail about what happens “off screen” and therefore can be a significant source of lore about the world. This is usually a boon for fans of the original setting … until a sequel comes out and the producers/authors don’t feel constrained by what was created by the RPG. Star Wars is a prime example of how much has to go right for an adaption to work in multiple mediums.

There are other challenges in adapting your RPG to other markets. Trying to design a game to match what you think the market desires can have its own pitfalls, like when a lot of companies adapted their existing systems to the D20 open game license. With the Fifth Edition open game license, it can be tempting to whip together a hastily-converted setting. Yes, you want to aim at a large market, but trying too hard to “match” can result in a “soulless” game that many people will not enjoy.

Good and Bad Marketing​

One of the major motivators to translate a setting to another medium is that it's a known brand advertising to a new target market. Marketing looms larger than it would for smaller settings. Most adaptations suffer from the influence of marketing, to a greater or lesser extent, especially “big” settings. I once heard an experienced video game producer say she spent more of her time battling marketers trying to change the game, than on anything else. Many marketers don’t care how the game plays, they care about advertising/selling. It's possible this is what caused so many changes to the movie adaptation of Artemis Fowl.

Every RPG designer who wants to make money on sales must be aware of marketing. Some topics, and some ways of designing a game, are going to be more popular in the market, that is they are likely to make more money. Your target audience is a strong determinant of how many copies of an RPG you can sell.

Furthermore, in the 21st century buyers are often more influenced by presentation than by the actual play of a game. This generally manifests in the use and quality of artwork. Adaptations from other mediums often have built-in advantages because it’s a known setting with established art (in the case of comics and movies), but that usually comes at a price. Games with a lot of artwork will cost more but may nonetheless sell more.

For many decades the conventional wisdom about novels was that a good novel with a poor cover would sell poorly, while a poor novel with a good cover would sell well. That can easily apply to RPG adaptations.

Your Turn: What successful RPGs were adapted from existing settings in other mediums?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
I never understood the argument that the book was better than the movie or vice versa, and always seemed like comparing apples to oranges They are two different mediums and aren't meant to reflect one another 100%. As long as it's still recognizable to the source material some differences and changes are to be expected when one is adapted to the other.
 


Off the top of my head the only movie i can think off I liked better than the book is Rules if Attraction. I like the book, but I thought the movie did a great job so nudge it up slightly over the book.

Realistic maybe American Psyco is better as well. The book has more deep dives in Huey Lewis, but st time the description of gore is overwhelming.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Off the top of my head the only movie i can think off I liked better than the book is Rules if Attraction. I like the book, but I thought the movie did a great job so nudge it up slightly over the book.

Realistic maybe American Psyco is better as well. The book has more deep dives in Huey Lewis, but st time the description of gore is overwhelming.
I liked the movie version of Stardust more than Neil Gaiman's book, but I think that's the only one.
 


Hussar

Legend
Like pretty much anything, Sturgeon's Law applies.

Shawshank Redemption is considerably better as a movie than as a short story - it's a good short story, true, but, the movie is a lot better.

But the point about the broader audience is very, very key to understanding changes. A novel might be written with a very small audience in mind. Lord of the Rings for example was not being written with the idea that it would be read as widely as it is. The Amazon Rings of Power though, is starting from a very different point. They absolutely know that they are reaching audiences all over the world right from the outset. So, the Rings of Power has to be different from Lord of the Rings because of that.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Like pretty much anything, Sturgeon's Law applies.

Shawshank Redemption is considerably better as a movie than as a short story - it's a good short story, true, but, the movie is a lot better.

But the point about the broader audience is very, very key to understanding changes. A novel might be written with a very small audience in mind. Lord of the Rings for example was not being written with the idea that it would be read as widely as it is. The Amazon Rings of Power though, is starting from a very different point. They absolutely know that they are reaching audiences all over the world right from the outset. So, the Rings of Power has to be different from Lord of the Rings because of that.
I very much doubt that J.R.R. Tolkien would have changed his magnum opus based on how many people might read it. There are plenty of reasons he could and did over the years, but appealing to the masses wasn't one of them.
 

aramis erak

Legend
I never understood the argument that the book was better than the movie or vice versa, and always seemed like comparing apples to oranges They are two different mediums and aren't meant to reflect one another 100%. As long as it's still recognizable to the source material some differences and changes are to be expected when one is adapted to the other.
Some stories are more intelligible in one of the consumptive media than the others... (Reading, Listening, Watching, Viewing).

Complex interactions between two people are best consumed in video (Watching). The subtleties of tone and face come across, conveying a lot of information very quickly and naturally. But it's not a good medium for complex asides nor backstory.

Voice only is excellent for presenting non-technical information, it allows for emotional content, but is not good at visual based information.

Text is excellent for technical information, for stories with many asides, for presenting backstory in sidebars or chapter headings, providing technical data.

Viewing graphical data and illustrations, either alone or with text or voice is great for showing complex relationships between elements; family lineages, character appearance, maps, places... but not for showing action, nor accurately conveying emotional aspects.

The Wrath of Khan, for example, visually shows a LOT of material; the novelization's got a lot of material about backstory that is absent in the film; the film has a much better emotional content. I'm told the audiobook has much of the emotion... but both the book and audiobook require the consumer to be able to visualize the fight while consuming, and that requires that they, like Kirk, can think in three-D. And a pure pictorial sequence (such as the photonovel or comic, but without the text bubbles) would be excellent at conveying the three-D, and better than text alone at the emotion, but not as good as voice; without the text, however, the backstory, the dialogue, and much of the story, is absent, and no one comes to realize David is
Kirk's son.

Each mode is a different approach to the same story and will have different impacts upon the consumer. In the end, my preference would be for multiple modes; failing that, the story is optimized for big screen movie.

Roleplaying games are a creative and consumptive medium at the same time. So is live storytelling - albeit less active by the consumer and more so for the storyteller than RPGs - but still the storyteller interacts with the viewers, and can vary pacing, add asides, and alter the story to better fit the crowd's reaction.

Now, while I'd love to see a Ringworld movie on the big screen... but it would miss 90% of the novel... a crying shame. It would be better served by a TV series, but the budget would need a LOT of funding for SFX, and lots of location imagery. It's best as a novel, where the scope is manageable. It's a perfect excuse for a campaign in an RPG, too. (And I suspect Niven's well aware of that. Especially since Chaosium wrote a licensed Ringworld RPG.) It's later added elements (the Pak storyline in the sequels RWE and RWT) may make it less than ideal - almost guaranteed to get a lot of flak if the Pak are part of it. And yet the Pak are essential to the overall arc of Ringworld, and several of the later Known Space novels. Yet the Pak are incompatible with most of the biological sciences as we know them. Even some fans find the Pak element a problem. So, likely, it's not going to happen...
 

Hussar

Legend
I very much doubt that J.R.R. Tolkien would have changed his magnum opus based on how many people might read it. There are plenty of reasons he could and did over the years, but appealing to the masses wasn't one of them.
Not really my point though.

Tolkien expected his books to be read by a handful of university students and that was about it. Heck, he had to get a textbook publisher just to get the thing in print. IOW, he was very much not writing for a mass audience. Which is fine. That's perfectly fine. There's no reason why his book of poetry and historical linguistics would be expected to be read by a mass audience. It is widely read, sure, although, one wonders how much of that had to do with being forced to read it in school, but, nevertheless, it's widely read. But, that was never the intent.

OTOH, Amazon KNOWS that it's show is being broadcast (streamed) all over the world. It's not being published by some tiny little textbook printer banging out a couple of thousand copies. It's being watched by literally millions of people right from the first day. Which means that the priorities for Amazon are considerably different. Tolkien probably didn't care one whit that there wasn't a female character in his story (barring being buried in the appendices). He probably didn't care one whit that all his characters were very, very white.

Amazon, OTOH, DOES care about this. They have to care. If they didn't care, they would get absolutely pilloried and rightfully so. When a very large chunk of your audience is female and quite probably not white, you need to care. The realities of the medium and the time impact any creative endeavor. It can't not have impact.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
Tolkien may not have anticipated the enduring popularity of LotR, but it was written explicitly as a follow-up to the popular The Hobbit. So at least a moderately mass audience could have been expected. The publisher was certainly hoping for a sequel as popular as Bilbo’s tale.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
Tolkien was a Professor at Oxford, pretty prestigious in itself, I remember hearing about him being rather annoyed that the 60's counter culture like his Hobbit and LotR books.
 

Hussar

Legend
Tolkien may not have anticipated the enduring popularity of LotR, but it was written explicitly as a follow-up to the popular The Hobbit. So at least a moderately mass audience could have been expected. The publisher was certainly hoping for a sequel as popular as Bilbo’s tale.
Again, let's remember here, that the original printing of LotR was what would be called a vanity printing today. A couple of thousand copies and that was it. No one else would publish it. Which is the point I'm making, although I think i might not be doing it very well. Because there was zero expectation that Tolkien would be read beyond a tiny, tiny number of people, he could do pretty much whatever he wanted to do in the book.

Amazon does not have that luxury. Amazon knew, even before the first line of the script was written, that they had an audience measured in the millions. Plus an investment measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. So, of course they were going to have different priorities. I'm not saying anything controversial here I think. Plus, Amazon didn't have the bonus of using their position to get their show on the syllabus of hundreds or even thousands of schools in the English speaking world. Best marketing strategy in history.

But, the point I'm making is that of course whenever some book is translated to the screen, be it small or large, there are going to be massive changes made to it. Heck, look at something like the newest Dune movies. That's about as close to line by line recreating the novel onto the screen and it's still different in lots of places. It has to be.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
I'll bet he was met with dripping sarcasm by his peers at Oxford, "Published another book now JR? Elves and magic rings is it?"
 

Hussar

Legend
I'll bet he was met with dripping sarcasm by his peers at Oxford, "Published another book now JR? Elves and magic rings is it?"

Well probably not considering at least one of those peers was CS Lewis. :)

My point isn’t to rag on Tolkien though. My point is that the priorities and decisions that Tolkien had are completely different from Amazon.

Same with any production where you take a novel and turn it into a movie or tv show. The monetary investment alone means that priorities are totally different.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
Well probably not considering at least one of those peers was CS Lewis. :)

My point isn’t to rag on Tolkien though. My point is that the priorities and decisions that Tolkien had are completely different from Amazon.

Same with any production where you take a novel and turn it into a movie or tv show. The monetary investment alone means that priorities are totally different.
I remember reading CS Lewis did exclaim "not another elf!" while reading the unpublished manuscript.

I agree though, a modern media company is creating what they hope to be a saleable product, not a work of art.
 



ART!

Legend
Regarding Tolkien caring about the presence or balance of female characters, IIRC he realized after finishing LOTR that he had under-written Arwen. Also, he created Galadriel pretty much while writing her scenes, and liked her so much that from then on he wrote her into his earlier-set tales. So, he was aware of some need for more and better-written female characters in his work.
 

Puddles

Adventurer
One aspect of RPG adaptations that intrigues me is the idea of narrowing the focus to a specific part of the IP rather than using it whole. For example, I really liked the narrow focus of the original Warhammer 40,000 Dark Heresy RPG where the party made up the retinue of an Inquisitor. It gave players an avenue to explore something not shown in the tabletop war game (exploring Imperial cities, and rooting out hidden corruption), while feeling very immersive and faithful to the IP. In contrast, I bounce off the modern Wrath & Glory WH40K RPG which I think tries to encompass too much of the IP at once and also tries to fit it into a the classic D&D style adventuring party; meaning you could have a party made up of 1 Space Marine, 1 Imperial Guard Commisar, 1 Eldar Ranger etc etc. The end result feels much less evocative to me, and is jarring to the existing IP.

I think it’s a interesting consideration for adapting other IPs for an RPG. Do you try and fit every element from the source material, or would the game benefit from being more selective in what it explores?
 

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