Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. As you know, I recently published a blog post here on Literati about worldbuilding – both canon and new worlds. Here with me tonight to discuss the difficulties of using other people?s intellectual property for the setting for a roleplay is my good friend Kaelas. Kaelas runs a Harry Potter based game called Potterless on my forums, of which I am a member, and has done a Buffy/Dresden Files crossover with me in the past, which we call TK.
Kaelas: Greetings readers… should I have port? I feel like I should have some kind of port… anyway. Hopefully we don?t bore you too much and maybe we?ll even pass on a trick or two. At the worst, maybe you?ll avoid a pitfall I?ve stumbled into. Regardless, thanks for taking the time to read our little chat.
Yami: One of the things that nagged me when I was writing that article was that I was making worldbuilding sound way too much work, or rather, that I was making using an existing IP too attractive. It?s just so easy to do it badly, and I really want to give the readers some idea how to avoid that. Thoughts?
Kaelas: Well, you mentioned this in your article but it honestly can?t be said enough- read the source material. A lot. Even right now, as I?m running Potterless, I?m re-reading the Harry Potter series yet again- and I keep the entire series a foot away from me when I post and oversee the forums.
Yami: I distinctly recall spending an entire summer obsessively watching every single episode of Buffy. And my poor bookshelf.. I had to add a second one to keep up with my various series. Do you think it?ll be harder or easier now that everything?s moving to ebooks?
Kaelas: I could see it helping a bit, but it could also be annoying at times too. You?d be able to have all your books in one spot, right there at your fingertips but, at least for me, it?s harder to skim through electronic mediums when you?re trying to find what color socks Harry gave Dobby for Christmas fourth year. Mind you, I?m not sure why you would ever want or need to but the point is there.
Yami: There?s always readers with search functions though. Assuming your google-fu is strong.
Kaelas: Might be showing my Giles-side but I?ll always have a bit of a soft-spot for printed paper… Still, the benefits of e-books isn?t something to scoff at.
Yami: I almost agree with you on the books, for one reason: yes, it takes longer to find the thing you?re after, but then, I often find other, interesting tidbits on the way there. I?d probably end up going with ?both? as a valid answer if you assume infinite money (though, in this economy….)
Kaelas: Also easier to lend out paper books, given that not everyone has an e-book. Which ties nicely into another thing you have to watch out for with using IPs- not everyone has read the IP you?re using. And even if they have, they might not have read it as well or as often as you (or worse, they?ve read it more than you!). So you have to be careful about assuming everyone knows something and not explaining things.
Yami: With certain ebooks you can lend them out, you know. But more importantly, if they?re DRM free you can distribute them to the whole group. But I acknowledge your premise. Do you think you should accept players with incomplete knowledge? What if the IP is something obscure or something obscenely long like Star Wars? expanded universe?
Kaelas: I think you almost have to let in people with incomplete knowledge, particularly when dealing with huge IPs or ones with smaller fanbases or you simply won?t have enough players. The real factor is whether those players are willing to learn about the setting now- which is something the GM should help with by answering questions at the very least. Giving links to wikis or fan sites can also help. Granted, not as much as the canon material itself but links are free.
Yami: How much knowledge is enough? For example, if I?ve seen all of Buffy but none of Angel, that ought to be plenty. But what if I?ve never heard of Jim Butcher and I want to play in TK? How much would you ask me to read before you?d let me start making a character? What if I wanted to make a Potential? Could I get by with knowing nothing about half the setting? After all, it doesn?t impact my character, right?
Kaelas: .That would actually be okay in my book- my absolute cut-off for letting someone start playing would to know the minimum their character would know and what there character is. So for your example, as a newly discovered Potential in the Buffy-verse, the player would need to know basic world knowledge (depending on where they say their character is from) and what a Potential is- a possible future Slayer (and thus what a Slayer is). Anything beyond that would be great but they can pick it up as their character does.
Yami: That?s a nice theory. But then, okay, so I?m playing my potential. And then along comes Thomas. And I read ?the vampire walks in? and go ?oh hey, bumpyt face, kill?. And then wonder why Harry?s mad at me (assume pre-HFT). That?s not a character mistake – Thomas looks nothing like a Buffy vamp. Then, while I?m sorting that out, someone shows up who was in France last thread and I call foul, metagaming and godmoding. Wait, what? Nevernever? What does that mean? Et cetera. I no longer can keep pace with the game because I don?t understand anyone else?s posts. See what I mean?
Kaelas: Of course. Like I said, I would really prefer they know more but as long as the player is mature about their mistakes and doesn?t make a huge mess of things, it could work out. One thing that can really help mitigate things like that happening is a ?Handy things to Know? thread complete with glossary. Sure, there might be some misunderstandings but (hopefully) nothing so big that it can?t be handled with some grace and explanations. And if the player (or another player) melts down over something as small as misunderstanding a post, better to find out quickly that they?re going to be a bit of a problem child.
Yami: But that can only help so much… I really don?t have an answer, mostly because I?m, not the type to join a game where I have zero knowledge. Related is the issue of imperfect knowledge. I know you and I differ on using third-party or external sources…
Kaelas: I do find myself wary of using auxiliary sources such as author interviews- too often I?ve found tiny contradictions between interviews or between interviews and the official source material. Then there?s the rather daunting task of tracking down and reading each and every interview. I?ll look at official sites (looking at you Pottermore) but even those can be annoying to use. On the other hand, if it?s the official site, then it?s just as legitimate as the original material so… really the best I can say about that is decide if something is ?official? for you and then let your players know what you decided. It doesn?t really matter which way you go so long as everyone knows which way you went.
Yami: At the same time, I?m wary of making too much work for myself. If something?s come up, the odds are good that the author thought about it at some point too – if I can google the query and come up with a quote from, say, the RPG of Dresden Files or a Rowling interview which says the author?s intent was X, then odds are, unless X is something like ?tent pegs make you gay? [I?m here thinking of the infamous Tent Peg interview with Pern author Anne McCaffrey], I?ll go with X. Why should I spend hours working through logical outcomes of Y and Z when the author?s done that for me?
Kaelas: Backing away from that little gem (sorry Pern fans!)… Honestly, I can see that being possible but I?ve always found it easier to figure out my own answers than wading through interviews or the like. I would say that it?s more a matter of GM preference than anything else. In the long run, your players are eventually going to go somewhere Rowling never even dreamed of (can unicorns and dragons have babies? Yes, of course. With each other? …oh.) and you might as well get used to it.
Yami: The answer is, I have a shotgun and I?m not afraid to use it, stop asking inane things 😀 No, but in all seriousness, what about authorial intent? Yes yes, death of the author, but if I?ve written something and you ask me and I say ?unicorns and dragons are two very different species who would not be attracted to each other because the scent is all wrong, it?d be like mating with your neighbor?s cow?, and I publish an interview saying that, and you say ?Hmm, but, I think I?d prefer dragicorns, so, I?m going to ignore that?… why are you playing in my world then, you know? It seems disrespectful. Write your own book 😀 I know I?m a bit of a hypocrit but… [I?m here thinking of an Anita Blake game we participated in where we blindly ignored half the canon because… well… Anita Blake.]
Kaelas: Yes, well, who could blame us? Thanks in large part to a rather annoying high school literature teacher, I?m firmly in the ?if you didn?t say it in the books, tough, it?s not official? school of thought. Having to know the author?s life story in order to understand what they meant in the book is just bad writing. Now, I?ll admit, reading interviews or blogs by the author isn?t exactly the same thing but the principal carries over a bit. Again, sometimes I?ll use non-source canon particularly when it?s gathered together into one big database (a la Pottermore) but even that gets a funny look from me- it?s probably not going to be accepted in whole.
Yami: But that?s just it. If in book 6 Harry and Hermione suddenly began being all, ?By the way, dragons and unicorns can?t have babies.? ?Oh really?? ?Yes, I thought I?d mention it while we?re stuck in this lift in Hogwarts, on our way from our Potions lesson in the basement on the left wing, second from the right, to our Transfigurations lesson in the northwest tower in the fourth classroom from the left on the third floor.? ?That?s good to know, Hermione!? You?d kill Rowling. Not every fact is going to come up in a novel – as an author (just like as a GM) you typically know much more about the world you made than you can use in a single story.
Kaelas: Fair enough- I would probably get rather bored with such an author to be honest. But that?s why you have a GM: to fill in the blanks and round out the NPCs as needed. Well, hopefully your GM does a bit more than just that but those are rather important.
Yami: But let?s get back to that Anita Blake game I mentioned earlier for a minute. I?ve been thinking about that- we ran into a lot of… problematic canon elements, and I?m actually kind of proud of how we handled it. We didn?t really cut out much, come to think of it – for example, the ?shapeshifting goo? that?s really just a sign of the author?s bukkake fetish was still present in that game, but just not nearly emphasized as much. Similarly, when one species of were was given random powers that no other type had with no explanation, we expanded our world so that every species has a special power – the ones shown in canon are just more… subtle about it.
Kaelas: Given that the IP in question is… well, we?ll go with ?belongs in the Red-Light section of the bookstore? I?d have to agree about the problematic canon elements. But that?s the fun of RPing in an IP- you have the right to change whatever you want. Sure, you have to make sure all the players involved know what you?re changing or deleting but beyond that, feel free. You have to be careful about what you change in case it unbalances something or leaves a plot point dangling but don?t let yourself be restricted. If something doesn?t fit in your game, adapt!
Yami: Again, though, I do suggest caution. I find it more challenging and more rewarding to make sure my changes alter as little canon as possible. For example, Buffy has a shady government program called The Initiative; a second shady government program would be entirely plausible to deduce from the canon evidence, so long as they don?t have a branch in Sunnydale (because Buffy would have noticed). So when I wanted to bring in a new element of super-soldiers, I made something similar to The Initiative and located them in… where were they? Alabama or something?
Kaelas: I think so- it was a mid-west state anyway. It wasn?t really around long enough for the base?s location to matter.
Yami: (Laughs) Yeah, Kaelas [the character] pretty much ripped it a new one didn?t he 🙂 But we explicitly set a lot of our plots in ?Not-Sunnydale Not-LA Not-Chicago? for that reason.
Kaelas: …hey, I?m not the one that set off the self-destruct. I might have be why it was set but… moving on! That?s actually one of the major decisions I made for Potterless- it takes place in Hogwarts and involves a lot of the faculty but that?s it. I carefully decided on three years after Book 7 to make sure all of the students we?re really familiar with have graduated and that none of them would have kids enrolled yet. This has a lot of good points- chief among them, I don?t have to settle the massive free-for-all over who gets to be Harry/Hermione/Ron/Draco (or whoever).
Yami: That, and you?ve got a lot of head canon for Potterless, if I remember right? A lot of behind-the-scenes changes to make the school make a little more sense, ushered in as a response to the events of the books…
Kaelas: As much as I loved the series, they were originally designed for children and it shows in places. A simple but important one? I had to decide how many students actually attend Hogwarts- at one point (a Quidditch match in book 2, I believe), she implies that there are almost six hundred students attending. And yet Harry?s year has eight people in his House. Do the math and you get about 225 students.
Yami: Yeah. They added a few more in the movies and games but basically yeah.
Kaelas: And don?t get me started about how one professor can teach all those years and classes… I spent over an hour making a weekly schedule for just the first year students for Potterless. I started at it afterwards, tried to think of how to do the other years, then threw my hands up. I decided that part of being a professor at Hogwarts involves either magical clones or time travel. Lot?s of it.
Yami: (Laughs) Yeah, that?s always a pain in the ass. When your canonical answers are ?Rowling is bad at math?, you?re kind of stuck. At least it?s not tent pegs though!
Kaelas: (shudders). Magical tent pegs… (shudders). Moving on again! But yeah, sometimes you have to fix things just to make the transition from book/movie to a playable game where your PCs can and (will go) behind the backdrops. And if you?re moving away from the canon setting, either in time or location, then there?s more changes to be made. For Potterless, I tried to stay true to what would have happened post-series but I probably nudged things a bit towards ?progressive? in areas. For instance, given what happened to both Voldemort and Harry, I decided that the staff would be paying a great deal more attention to student?s home lives.
Yami: Which serves the game well, as several of us had unsavory backgrounds, so it gave a good starting place before the Sorting where we could play.
Kaelas: That?s a good thing to keep in mind- if a change doesn?t improve the game, don?t make it. Sometimes you might want to just alter things because it seems cool, but that just complicates things for no payoff. Go through your story idea and see if anything needs to be modified, look at your character apps for the same reason- if something needs to change, do it. Other than that, leave it alone until something comes up that requires a change. In short, if it ain?t broke, don?t fix it.
Yami: I think that?s probably the best advice we?ve come up with today, to be honest.
Kaelas: Why thank you!
Yami: On that high note, we should probably wrap this thing up. It?s been a pleasure, and I hope you?ll join me again soon for a chat about worldbuilding. I need to get the Not Developed Here taste out of my mouth (laughs)
Kaelas: Now now, be nice- we might have some issues with certain details (or with the creators) but we?ve had a lot of fun in our borrowed worlds. And, done right, so can others.
Yami: Agreed. Now go write me a post 😀