Ever finish a book and think “This would make a great role-playing game!”? Me too! My shelves are filled with role-playing games based on various books¹. Some were successful adaptations. Others, not so much. Having spent seventeen years selling RPGs, I have some ideas about what sort of stories adapt well to games and which don’t.
The most important element might be narrative space—room for characters other than the protagonists of the books in question. Worlds designed so that only a single or a small handful of characters are able to take meaningful action are too constrained to let players do their thing. Either the player characters will find they cannot accomplish anything or they will simply recapitulate the source material². I think Foundation, for example, would be too limited by the need to stick to Asimov’s Psychohistory to be playable, but the earlier Empire novels could provide an open-enough setting for a role-playing game³.
Here are six series, some new and some old classic, that I think would make interesting settings for RPGs.
Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite the Sun (also packaged with the sequel, Drinking Sapphire Wine, into one volume titled Biting the Sun) might seem like an odd choice, because in some ways the setting is very constrained: there are just three cities and all of them are apparent utopias where pain and death have been vanquished. The key phrase is “apparent utopia”. In fact, the cities are oppressive machines designed to deny their inhabitants agency, where death itself is no release. Pushing back at this guarantees a firm response from the quasirobots that run the place. Think of it as Paranoia’s smiling cousin, where instead of a laser bolt to the brain, players get a condescending pat on the head. Victory may be impossible but the struggle is worthwhile. Recommended for children of helicopter parents….
The Patternist sequence by Octavia E. Butler is very nearly a classic John W. Campbell-era Psionic Superman series, except for one trifling detail. The characters have been bred to have a variety of extraordinary powers because Doro, their creator, thinks psionic souls taste better. Player-characters would enjoy lives imbued with marvelous abilities, in a drama-rich context in which a wrong step could result in them becoming a psychic slurpee.
If trying to survive Doro doesn’t appeal, there’s a second, post-Doro era available. Gone cruel Doro, replaced by an equally inhumane post-apocalyptic post-human world of contending psychic autocracies. It’s not a happy world, but as they say, misery breeds plot potential.
Next up: the Roads of Heaven series by Melissa Scott. I’ve always regretted the fact that there are only three Roads of Heaven novels. This Hermetic/neo-Platonic science fantasy realm where alchemists guide starships across vast gulfs offers a grand stage for all kinds of stories, whether within the misogynistic Hegemony or one of the smaller polities not yet consumed by the expansionist empire.
Shadows of the Apt by Adrian Tchaikovsky—Tchaikovsky’s obvious RPG potential inspired me to ask the author if there was an existing RPG for his setting. One part steampunk fantasy Mongol Horde versus the Classical Greek City States to one part insect-themed superpowers and clan politics, the setting offers a myriad of character backgrounds plus all manner of cryptic communities where player characters could find themselves well over their heads.
Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence offers the modern world re-imagined as a magic-rich fantasy realm. Set after the God Wars ended one world order and birthed a new one, this world of eldritch corporations and the masses, of declining gods and triumphant lich-kings spans a diverse range of cultures and settings any player character would want to explore.
Tensorate by JY Yang is the story of two world systems at war, with the reality-bending Tensors, commanders of Slack, on one side of the conflict and the mundane Machinists on the other. The elite Tensors enable the centralized Protectorate, while Machinists offer the masses technologies all can use. This vividly imaged realm of gender-fluid mages and engineers lends itself both to stories of grand struggles against oppression and more personal quests of self-discovery.
1: Yeah, yeah, what about movies? Want a list of all the reportedly top-notch spec fic movies I haven’t seen? It’s not short. It’s not that movies aren’t my thing, just that science fiction movies don’t seem to be.
2: The infamous Indiana Jones RPG squared this circle by limiting the players to four characters from the movies. I don’t know how many licensed characters have to be included in a game before players feel there are enough to present them with a worthwhile selection, but I do know it’s a higher number than four.
3: It’s an academic question since, as he explained in an editorial, Asimov felt people role-playing in his settings were committing a form of plagiarism. As far as I know, he never considered selling RPG rights for any of his works.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.