Society for Interactive Literature West

Game Design

From the Static to the Dynamic:
Adapting a Narrative to an Interactive Game

Copyright (c) 1991 Stephen R. Balzac, John O'Neil & Aimee Yermish
Society for Interactive Literature
Originally printed in ILF Metagame

So, you've just read a wonderful book (or seen a wonderful movie, or comic book, or whatever), and you and your friends think it would make a wonderful game. After all, the plots are there, the characters are there, the world is exciting, what could be bad? To help answer that question, the Society for Interactive Literature has retained a distinguished panel of experts:

Stephen R. Balzac has GMed twenty-six games, including Arabian Nights (based on The Thousand Nights and a Night), Dragon (based on the works of Steven K. Z. Brust), and Secrets of the Necronomicon (based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft).

John O'Neil has GMed twenty games, including Twilight of the Gods (based on Wagner's Ring cycle of operas), Watergate (based on real life), Shakespeare's Lost Play (based on the works of the immortal Bard), Foundation and Destiny (based on Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy), Arabian Nights, Dragon, and Secrets of the Necronomicon.

Aimee Yermish has GMed nine games, including Long Ago and Far Away (based on folktales from a variety of sources), Arabian Nights, and Dragon.

What are the legal issues surrounding the adaptation of an existing work?

Aimee: In some cases, there really aren't any. Arabian Nights and Long Ago, for instance, are based on literature that has long since passed into the public domain. Dragon, on the other hand, is very clearly set in Steven Brust's world. Before you commit your precious time to such an adaptation, contact the author (or his agent, or his estate). If you don't have an address, send your letter in care of the publisher, at the address you'll find on the copyright page. In a nice, polite letter, explain what Interactive Literature is, what you envision your game will be like, how many players will be in the game, how much money each will pay, how much your costs will be, and any other relevant points. Offer to pay royalties, and very humbly ask permission to begin work. (Personally, I think it's a good thing to offer the author a free membership in the game, incognito if desired.) If the author says no to your game, you lose. It has happened. Go find another project. Good thing you didn't book a hotel already, right?

The copyright for the game should also state that the game is based on the source works, used by permission. Don't say that the game has been approved by the author unless he has actually read the finished product and given it his seal of approval.

And, needless to say, permission to base a game on a source work does not mean permission to plagiarize. If you must use quotations from the source work, they should be clearly marked and referenced, just as if you were writing a research paper.

John: Foundation and Destiny wrote a registered letter to Isaac Asimov, c/o Doubleday, for permission. Although we never received an answer, our legal staff assured us that the letter was sufficient. In any case, if they had wanted to stop us, they certainly knew how.

What do you preserve from the source work? What do you leave behind?

Steve: It depends upon the work. Brust's world is basically built up from his characters; they're what make it interesting. Take away Vlad and Morrolan (or Khaavren and friends from Phoenix Guards), toss out their snappy wit and exciting characters, and you're left with a fairly typical elves vs. humans story (no flame intended). Plenty of those around. Lovecraft, on the other hand, is very character-irrelevant. What matters is a certain atmosphere, background, and mythos.

Aimee: Lovecraft's characters exist mainly to give the reader a pair of sympathetic eyes to see through. What's important about the world is what they see.

Steve: So you have to isolate the aspects of the work that make it unique, that made you interested in writing a game based on it in the first place, and work those elements into the game. Surrounding details can be varied, but those factors are crucial to maintaining the "feel" of the game.

John: In fact, surrounding details must be varied, to support the genre change. In any story, there are elements that simply won't fit into a game, such as certain characters having powers that they don't know about. Bugging rooms, disguises, and the like simply do not translate well.

Aimee: It's important to walk a certain distance from the source work in order to make sure that players who are familiar with it don't have an undue advantage over those that aren't. It goes almost without saying that you have to include good background material. If someone hasn't read the book (or seen the movie, or listened to the opera, or snored through the Senate hearings), he may not know how to play the character or what to expect of the world. Conversely, if one of your game secrets is actually far from mysterious because of revelations in the source work, you're really making life tough both for those who rely on keeping it secret and for those who are trying to uncover it without having read the books.

John: Some games maintain the "look and feel" of a work without borrowing any of the plots at all. For instance, Shakespeare's Lost Play was very successful in maintaining the atmosphere of the plays, without directly using any of the original plot material. After all, most of it is either too well-known or too thinly plotted for direct use.

Steve: In many ways, the characters, plots, and events from the source work will serve simply as a jumping-off point for your game. They won't be the game itself. Nor should they be.

What are the differences between a book and an interactive adaptation of the book?

Steve: In the book, whether Brust or Lovecraft, the action only focuses on a few characters at a time. Only one character really matters as far as the action is concerned: the viewpoint character. In Brust's Vlad books, that is Vlad. Other characters effectively exist only when the spotlight is on them. Lovecraft, on the other hand, has a slightly different motif: investigator stumbles onto mystery, dies/goes crazy; nephew/son/brother/friend arrives too late to save him, but continues his researches and saves the world. Fine for a story. The problem is that neither the Brust or Lovecraft plot work as such in a game: a game doesn't have one character, or even two or three, but a few dozen. Most of those players are not going to be very happy if the GMs expect them to sit around for most of the weekend while a handful of characters get all the action. The fact that Brust's Jhereg is Vladocentric doesn't mean that the game based on those books can be Vladocentric. You're not writing a book: you're writing a game.

John: In adapting a book to a game, the first problem a GM bumps into is this: how does one turn a novel (with at best only a few main characters) into a game which requires at least 40 "main" (i.e. viewpoint) characters. For some novels this may be impossible; for other novels (e.g. Asimov's Foundation trilogy) it was rather simple.

Naturally, changing the number of viewpoint characters may have repercussions throughout the plot structure. Omnipotent characters (like Morrolan) are very boring in a game, not only for the other players but also for the GMs and the person playing the omnipotent character. So you balance things somewhat. Also, a GM must insure that all the characters are strongly connected to the game, and that no characters have a "privileged" position vis--vis the game plots.

Steve: Maintaining the feel of an author's work and remaining true to his writings can force design decisions on a game. For example, in Dragon, we had to choose between making Morrolan extremely powerful, in deference to the books, or smoothing the curve somewhat more as typical game wisdom dictates: don't make anyone overwhelmingly powerful. Unfortunately, the latter choice didn't fit with the world in which we were working: for Morrolan's oath to have value, Morrolan must be able to back it up well enough that anyone will think twice (or more) about breaking it. Change that, and you've changed a very essential piece of the world you're writing in.

Aimee: We actually considered making Morrolan a GM character, so he wouldn't get out of hand. However, it's not as much fun for the players to manipulate a GM character as it is to manipulate a player character, because they know that the GM is only pretending to be fooled. Putting those powerful characters into the game may feel risky, but if the GMs don't take any risks, the players don't feel like they have any control.

Steve: Our solution was to give Morrolan his powers, but make them not directly useful to his accomplishing his goals. Morrolan's problems simply could not be solved by brute force. He had to use his brain instead. Even so, in neither run of the game did he gain his main objective, which was to become Warlord of the Empire. However, what he did do, what he was forced to do, was make use of those characters who would act only as "filler" material in one of the books.

Aimee: Face it, most of the characters in any given book are bit parts and plot devices. But your players aren't paying for bit characters and plot devices. Every character, so we say in our advertising, has the potential to change history. If you've got seventy-five characters in your game, you've got to write seventy-five main characters, and enough plot to handle them all. There's a really strong tendency in many new GMs' games to focus on a few important (read: favorite) characters, letting the rest of the game radiate out around them. In a game based on a book, it's extremely easy to fall into this trap, having the "brand-name" characters be the center of all the action.

Steve: In a book, when Vlad tells Kragar to go and find out about something, Kragar can disappear for a few chapters and show up again when the author is ready to inject the new information into the story. In a game, the means must really exist for Kragar to find out what he needs to learn (preferably from other players, rather than from the GMs), and the GMs have to be prepared for him to do it in far less or far more time than expected.

John: In fact, in those books the universe was centered on a small subculture (i.e. the Jhereg). We had to create much of the rest of society in order to have a believable universe in which to have a live roleplaying game. In order to support that society, we needed to have characters who were from throughout society -- even though Brust or Lovecraft would be unlikely ever to write about such people.

At a guess, only very small proportions of Dragon and Secrets of the Necronomicon were actually derived from anything written by Brust or Lovecraft. That's why, despite the fact that, in both cases, we adapted a series of books for a game, our work was utterly original.

Aimee: The number of different poles for the conflict needs to be greater in a game, to allow the players many options in choosing their allies and actions. "Bad guys" of various ilks must be somewhat sympathetic (at least to themselves) and must have a chance to win. As a GM, you can't rely on fate favoring the true of heart. In fact, you are obligated to see that it doesn't favor anyone.

Steve: No matter how black and white something is in the book, it must be gray in the eyes of the characters in your game. Otherwise the plots polarize too quickly. In Secrets of the Necronomicon we didn't just tell characters that they were loonies who wanted to destroy the world; rather we gave them characters who had rationalized their actions by means of some totally perverted logic. The thing to remember is that characters in books are static. Their life is determined. From the first page of the book to the last page, everything is set down in black and white. No matter how many times you read the book, the ending simply doesn't change. An interactive game, on the other hand, is dynamic. Characters, relationships, events are constantly changing and almost certainly won't change in exactly the same way from one run to another. You can't look ahead and see how it's all going to turn out because the players haven't gotten there yet. Also, in a book, the main characters rarely fail in a major way or get killed off. No one doubts that Vlad will solve the mystery, or Professor Ainsley from Miskatonic will cast just the right spell to banish the darkness, etc. In a game, there are no such guarantees, or shouldn't be. It is the very fact that the hero could fail which makes his achieving his goals so satisfying.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working in someone else's world?

Steve: It can be very much of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it gives a stable reference point and an already existing world with existing referents for the players. On the other hand, it can greatly restrict the GMs. Plots have to make sense in the context of the world. Characters have to act they way they are expected to in the books, whether we're talking about characters taken from the books or new characters who are supposed to exist in the world of the game. The GMs must constantly balance the need to maintain the "feel" of the world against the need to write a consistent, playable, enjoyable game for 60 or 70 people.

John: In Watergate (which was adapted, in a sense, from real life), there was no problem in creating 70 real characters -- since they were based on real living people. There was also no shortage of plots; in fact, there were too many which had already been invented by various people. The difficulty the Watergate GMs faced was in deciding how to use that wealth of information to create a playable and enjoyable game. This required highlighting some plots, ignoring others, and twisting some to fit in our fictional universe.

Aimee: An annoying thing about working in someone else's world is that you are limited, often quite sharply, by what the author thought would make a good world to set his books in. If the author says that sorcery can do well-nigh anything, you have to make your mechanics handle it. If you leave out the powerful spells, or the ones that may be tough to mechanic, you are changing the balance of power in the world, which may seriously change the way characters will interact. Not only that, but it's more difficult to make things up, because you can never be sure if you're screwing up something the author wanted. For instance, Dragon was written before the publication of Phoenix. We wanted to include a sea power, to provide a third pole for the conflict between Dragaerans and Easterners, but the notable lack of mention of such a thing in the four previous books suggested that it didn't and shouldn't exist. Now that we know about it, it can be written into future runs of the game, but we felt that our adding it would break out of the world we were given. You're always looking over your shoulder to see if the things you add to the world actually fit in it, and you don't have an expert opinion available. If it's your own world, you can decide what you want and don't want based on what will make a good game. You know what fits in your world because you are the expert opinion.

Steve: An adaptation is essentially an interpretation of the author's works by the GMs. This is important: the resulting game is not the work of the author, it's the work of the GMs resulting from the interactions between the author's work and the GMs perceptions, interpretations, and compromises to make that work playable. The problem is that people don't interpret things the same way. One person's interpretation of Brust's work may not match another's. We got complaints from a few people who said, essentially, "That plot is unreasonable. X would never act like that." To which the answer was, "We think he would." We were told in a couple of cases, "You're wrong. You don't understand this book at all." GMs need to agree on an interpretation and stick by it; the players need to realize that the GMs' interpretation may not agree with what any individual player may have come up with on his own. At some point, players have to decide that, whatever their own opinions, the GMs are the people writing the game, and their interpretation is what goes.

Aimee: It does make the "void" stage of game-writing (when you're defining the world and the major plot elements within it) much easier, because it's already been done for you. Some people find that stage difficult; they have a hard time building a world that they think other people will have fun playing in.

Steve: On the other hand, it can also be very easy to fall into the trap of being afraid to add anything to the world at this stage. Fortunately or unfortunately, you have to do it. The book is simply not going to provide enough information for you all by itself.

What kinds of works are easiest to translate into games?

Aimee: What makes a good book isn't always what makes a good game. In fact, I really don't think the two overlap anywhere near as much as most people seem to think. An author can get away with a lot -- he can make one faction much more powerful than another, design natural laws ("mechanics") that handle his plots but aren't built to handle things he doesn't need his characters to do, make the occasional slip-up or inconsistency, have his characters always do the right thing at the right time to move the story along in an entertaining fashion, and so forth. GMs can't count on the powerful group not making its move until Sunday morning, or on the players only asking to try a small subset of possible actions, or on the players not noticing or caring about the inconsistency, and certainly not on the players doing anything predictable. Too many GMs write plots that are based on particular players taking particular actions at particular times, just because that's how they behaved in the books, too many games are choreographed (subtly or not-so-subtly) to prevent the players' creativity from taking the game somewhere the GMs didn't expect. These errors, I believe, come from looking too much at a game as if it were a book on its hind legs.

Steve: I think the best works to translate into games are those which are basically episodic: stories that are "a day in the life of" type stories. The Vlad books are this way: they begin at an arbitrary point in time, end at an arbitrary point in time, and the events in question matter only to the people involved. Lovecraft is a little different, but not much: so long as the forces of sweetness and light succeed, there's always a universe to go back to and it really hasn't changed much since the beginning of the story. A game just becomes another, more elaborate, episode. Epics, on the other hand, have a problem: they have a definite beginning, a definite ending, and the whole story is getting from point A to point B. If point B is not reached, something out of the player's control happens to the universe: for example, what sort of game would The Lord of the Rings make? Everyone knows the score. Long quests can be fun to read, but playing them is just a D&D game.

John: However, for the dramatically minded, epics make fine games. The opera Twilight of the Gods had the most definite ending possible -- the universe ends. Imagine our (i.e. the GMs) disappointment when the players weren't willing to take the plunge. Despite that, the game recovered. The point of adapting something for a game is that a static art form may be made into something with unlimited possibilities.

So, what's it all mean?

There's a lot of pros and cons to adapting an existing work to a game. On the one hand, you get the pleasure of seeing your favorite characters come to life in ways that the original author never imagined. On the other hand, you have to risk seeing your favorite characters, the very people who always survive by the might of the authorial pen, get toasted. You trade off a ready-made world and free publicity for lack of control over information and players telling you how you should have done it. Is it really worthwhile? That's something you have to decide for yourself. Obviously, we've all enjoyed it, at least enough to do it once or twice.

Good luck!

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