There are more pre-created settings in role playing supplements than you can shake a stick at. There are even more settings out there in other creations outside just the role playing industry. These include TV shows, movies, novels, graphic novels, comic books, and video games. Some of these have already been adapted to a role playing system (Dresden Files, Mistborn, Robotech, and many more). What do you do if you want to represent an existing Intellectual Property into a game of your own? There are a few steps to it.
Keep it Private or Get Permission
You are free to adopt anyone’s intellectual property into your private games. There are no restrictions there. So long as you don’t turn it into a “public performance” or make a profit off of your efforts, you’re free to delve into another creator’s world to your heart’s content. Let’s clarify a few things here. A public performance would be something along the lines of an “actual play” podcast, a YouTube channel, or other distribution method. Playing in the backroom of your FLGS around others would be okay. I’m no lawyer, but I don’t feel that playing the game “in public” would constitute a “public performance.” I’m pretty sure “don’t turn a profit” is pretty clear, but this basically means that you’re not allowed to pad your wallet with cash from others while running the game. This includes publishing your material. Another point of clarity: Giving it away for free still constitutes a copyright violation. While the game, NPCs, PCs, specific settings you create, and so on will be yours, it will still be based upon (and most likely make use of) copyrighted items in the existing creation. If you’re going to make your system/setting highly derivative enough that the original work can’t be recognized, then you may as well make your own, unique setting.
If you’re not sure what route you should go, I would consult a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property rights. I need to add a caveat here. I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t even play one on TV. I have done serious research in this area, but I can’t give legal advice. The above paragraphs should not be construed as such.
Choosing a System
Unless you’re going to homebrew an entire system of mechanics to handle playing in the world, you’ll probably want to go with a generic system. Some of the top systems currently on the market are Savage Worlds, Fate, GURPS, Hero System, and Cypher. There are, of course, others. If I were to adopt an existing setting into an RPG campaign, I’d go the easy route and try to find an existing RPG system that can handle the nuances of the setting. If the setting just can’t properly fit into a generic system without breaking the setting or the system, then it might be time to create your own RPG to reflect the fiddly bits and details of the setting. I’d be willing to bet that with a little work and expansions on a generic system, you’ll be able to get one to work with whatever setting you choose.
If the setting comes from book (and especially if it’s a series of books), then Wikipedia can become your friend. Point the newcomer to the setting to a Wikipedia page or two about the setting. If the property is popular enough, then it may very well have its own instance on one of the free, public wiki sites out there. This is true for Mistborn, Dresden Files, Buffy, and many other properties. Summaries of key characters, important events, and setting details can be found there. This will save you the time of writing up a summary. Someone has already done it for you!
Making It Your Own
The interpretation given to a property by you and your players will make it your own. If the campaign is based on a series of books, it’s trivial to set the campaign before the books begin, between books, or at the end of the series. This will create a tangent from the main storyline that will give you the freedom to do as you please with the PCs at the table. You can also choose locations only mentioned in passing in the novels, or choose something outside the main plotline of the property. To take a page from Dresden Files, most of those novels take place in and around Chicago. If you wanted to play a team of spell-slinging private investigators in Denver, go for it. There’s nothing stopping you. I actually highly encourage picking an obscure setting just for the liberation it gives you to tell your own tales.
Avoid using the high-powered canon characters in your campaign as NPCs. These include people like Han Solo, Harry Dresden, Buffy (the Vampire Slayer), Elric, and many others. If the NPC somehow gets drastically changed or killed off, then it can break the suspension of disbelief for your players. They know that these characters “are still alive” in the setting, and the fact that they died can create high levels of cognitive dissonance. They can also become targets for the PCs that desire to change the world, which can distract from the story. Likewise, you may feel inclined to provide some level “plot armor” for these important characters, and that can unnaturally stymie what the PCs want to try to accomplish.
If you need Buffy to be dead (or kidnapped or removed from the direct story) in order for your campaign ideas to work smoothly, then kill her off (no hate mail please, she’s fictional). Yes, this breaks the canon of the setting as presented in the TV show, but that’s fine. This is your story to tell in collaboration with your players. Just make sure you have a good reason and think out the impacts of removing the character.
If you need a certain captain to be in charge of a certain Star Fleet ship in your Star Trek game, then do it. Don’t worry about breaking canon because you didn’t have the time or want to take the time to research things. If a player challenges you on the “mistake,” just point out that this is an “alternate universe” or a “reboot of the series” like what Hollywood is becoming infamous for. Most players will let it go or the change will intrigue them enough to deepen the hook into the unfolding story.
Relax and Have Fun
Lean On Your Players
When you’re GMing a game, there’s lots to keep track of. If you’re focused on the flow of the story or a mechanic within the game, a detail about the setting can easily slip your mind. Don’t be afraid to look over the GM screen and ask the players about a small detail involving something from the property. Just be careful not to tip your hand about what might be coming at them from around the corner. If you’re not sure of a detail and don’t want to tip your hand, call for a five minute break in the game to let people refresh their drinks or relax and socialize a bit. This will give you a chance to look up details online using your phone, tablet, or laptop if you have one handy. The wikis mentioned above come in very handy.
In the Dresden Files RPG I’m currently running, I lean heavily on my players. I’ve read the books (fiction and RPG materials) and various short stories, but my memory is almost as bad as Swiss cheese. Both of my players have an uncanny ability to quote dialogue from the books. I don’t get it. However, I like it. This allows me to pick their brains for details before and during the game to make sure I’m close to the target, but they completely understand that I’m able and willing to break canon. However, when I break canon, I make sure to not break the “rules” of the setting as laid out in the core material.
What’s your favorite setting you’d like to turn into an RPG campaign or published material? What settings out there would you like to see adapted to an RPG setting book for a generic system?