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.


Picture courtesy of Unsplash

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

aramis erak

Well probably not considering at least one of those peers was CS Lewis. :)
Tolkien and Lewis were good friends, and essentially each others' editors... along with their grad students as proofers, assistant editors, and ARC readers.

Lewis has implied in commentary that both were sort of ostracized for their fantasy works.

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A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
The movie Blade Runner is on example that comes to mind of a movie being better than the written story/book. Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep was a fine story, but the movie is a masterpiece.

aramis erak

The movie Blade Runner is on example that comes to mind of a movie being better than the written story/book. Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep was a fine story, but the movie is a masterpiece.
The movie is a masterpiece, and while it shares most of the trope-set, still a VERY different thing. DADoES is itself brilliant. Blade Runner is brilliant in a different way. Both address the same key questions... and neither answers them.

The recent sequel, while also excellent, is yet another view.... maybe not the masterpiece of the original, but a definitely valid approach to the same questions... and it raises others while paying off the first film's character arcs.

And Hauer's brilliant rework of the speech is the height of letting a film go beyond its source.

It's worth noting that, while he never saw the final film, he saw portions...
Here's what he said:
Philip K. Dick; via Screenrant said:
This is not escapism; it is super realism, so gritty and detailed and authentic and goddam convincing that, well, after the segment I found my normal present-day "reality" pallid by comparison. What I am saying is that all of you collectively may have created a unique new form of graphic, artistic expression, never before seen. And, I think, BLADE RUNNER is going to revolutionize our conceptions of what science fiction is and, more, can be.

Ridley Scott's been brilliant with the Alien franchise, more faithful to it than Lucas was to Star Wars and THX-1138... Plus he brought us a lauded adaptation that isn't a poor adaptation, but a spiritual twin of its inspiring novel, in Blade Runner. And he's got 57 movies made and counting as a director. More as a producer.

Plus, he has a knack for promoting little known talent... Such as Olmos for that annoying detective in Blade Runner. A near perfect portrayal...

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