On the Value of Generics
Ars Arcana 2.2
Ars Arcana 2.2
Travis Joseph Rodgers
Scenario 1: Someone has been captured.
Version 1: A group of brigands are holding the Lord's child, asking for the release of one of their members.
Version 2: Armed mercs stormed the local university, kidnapped a Senator's son, and are holding him as collateral, asking for the return of their seized funds.
Scenario 2: Workplace Hazard
The bots that patrol the nuclear facility have begun targeting workers for extermination.
Victims of a recent trauma have risen from their slabs to attack the morgue workers.
The principal value of a generic approach to game design is its tremendous adaptability. By changing the setting, the technology level, and the flavor, you can very quickly adapt adventures - yes, even good ones - to different games. I here do two main things: explore why you might want to do this and then consider how you might do it.
Why Adapt a Module?
I suggest there are two main reasons why you might want to adapt. The first appeals to the craft of RPG design. The second is a very practical point about readiness and the unpredictability of life. Many GMs are wedded to their world and their creative process. There is a great thrill to be had in the knowledge that you have handcrafted every piece of your world (well, with input from the PCs, of course). And there is a tremendous value, too, in controlling how the pieces fit together. The benefit manifests itself in the authenticity of the world, as opposed to a patchwork jumble of ideas and cloisters.
You are a skilled world builder, but you are not the only one. There are skilled story tellers, too. Not considering their work is akin to turning your back on the possibility that others possess a skill or can craft a product as good as yours. Do what you want, of course, but know that there is something out there that will work well with all of your plans with just a bit of tweaking.
On the other hand, even if your preference is to create the world from scratch, the world unfolds beyond your control. A group of players falls apart, a new group appears, or you’re offered a million dollars to run a single shot in the next hour. I mean, it could happen. So your ability to understand a generic approach and your openness to adapting a generic module are now practical boons to your continued enjoyment of the hobby.
How Adapt a Module?
I don’t claim that all modules can be adapted. Perhaps some cannot. Even where some could be adapted, the effort might be too great to make the endeavor worthwhile. But there are a great many other modules that can be adapted fruitfully and in a timely manner. Here are some guidelines for doing that.
The scenario is the idea that draws your interest, so you really shouldn’t have to adapt it very much. I began this article with two variations on a common scenario – a kidnapping and a workplace mishap. Both thrust the characters into the story without suggesting how things must be handled. The workplace hazard makes it fairly clear that the scenario requires survival, but the collateral scenario seems much more open-ended. If you don’t like the idea of a survival/escape type of scenario, then don’t run it. You can think of it, however, as a good way to start a party or for a single-shot. If a group must rely upon one another in order to survive, that should foster cohesiveness. Then, when they escape at the end, if the party is interested, you may have the beginning of a campaign rather than a mere one-shot. The cause of the workplace hazard could be unique to your campaign, etc.
The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for the collateral scenario. There’s no specific way that the characters should come together, so that’s your “in” as a GM to do some world building. Why would the PCs care? What would be larger questions in the campaign? E.g., what are the roles of the various groups – the brigands, the lord, etc.?
NPCs can probably be adapted quite seamlessly. Levels should be easy enough to translate, for instance. Preserving the function of the NPC is more important than directly translating the character, however. For instance, suppose a character is one of those brigands mentioned in the initial scenario. The brigand’s skills of short sword, horseback riding, and gambling do not necessarily have to be preserved in moving to the present-day political scenario. They could be, of course, as pistol, motorcycle riding, and gambling, but if the mercs work on different things in your world, then why can’t the merc be skilled with a baseball bat (for intimidation), safecracking, and hacking?
In general, if a character is a grunt in one game, they’re a grunt in another. If they’re a boss or a mini-boss type character, that, too, is preserved. It’s more a question of getting the flavor right for your game and your world.
Melee weapons are melee weapons, unless they’re not. If a short sword is the “go-to” weapon in one system, but the go-to is a pistol in another, then substitute freely. If weapons are ubiquitous in one world and scarce in another, drop the weapon skill or make it an unarmed combat skill. Same goes with armor – a knight with full plate might be a corporate suit with a Kevlar vest. But perhaps not. Perhaps that corporate suit has bodyguards instead. Perhaps they travel in a bulletproof vehicle.
Not everything is about combat, obviously. Non-combat items can be translated quite easily, too: transportation is transportation; wealth is wealth; quest items are quest items. Drawing inspiration from some of the survival-type videogames, crafting resources are crafting resources, etc. In brief, with a bit of imagination, you’ll be able to preserve the flavor in the translation.
It makes sense to reserve a section for “special stuff” that hasn’t been covered up to the present in this document. Still, on one hand, the general guidelines so far presented should be universal enough to address nearly everything you wish to translate. An ornate door can be a door – or a safe, depending upon the role it plays in the adventure and what you want it to do in your world. A holotape recording of a deceased family member can be a document or an heirloom. All that remains is the sort of thing that cannot possibly be covered in a document that seeks to address the generality of a universal approach to gaming.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that nothing can be said or that there are untranslatable items. On one hand, much can be said. Much has been said, in this document, for instance. Preserve the flavor and the role of the thing you’re trying to adapt, rather than worrying about slavish insistence that “this two-handed weapon be a two-handed weapon here, too,” and the like. And while I haven’t said that there are untranslatable items, there might be true. This is one of the pitfalls of a universal system, just as much as it’s a pitfall of any attempt to translate from one system of anything (not just RPGs) to another. I encourage you to try before abandoning the process, especially if you’re fond of the module or scenario you’ve found.