I’ve been referencing Chrono Trigger a lot as I talk about Faith, my players’ latest attempt to ruin not just one of my settings but several settings throughout history. But that’s not because I’m trying to run a Chrono Trigger campaign, because I’m not. If I was, we’d be reskinning thing much harder to fit with the four allowed magic types, I would have a system for double- and triple-techs, and I definitely wouldn’t be running in Pathfinder. But I still wouldn’t limit the campaign to only three players and I would be using my own world maps. The important things about Chrono Trigger to me aren’t the three-person party or Porre Village specifically. They don’t make things feel like Chrono Trigger to me as much as Lavos and Spekkio and tag team moves, and how my players and I feel about a work is the most important part of creating an tabletop adaptation for it.
When I say “adaptation”, I don’t mean “a copy in a new medium”. We’re not turning a book into a movie, trying to hit the same story beats while improving what we can with visuals and making the fewest concessions for time and budget constraints. Adapting something to tabletop gaming isn’t about doing the same thing over again. It’s about getting the feel of the original work and duplicating that feel in a new story with new characters because we like both the original work and the agency tabletop gaming gives us. We want the room to make a campaign that’s more of an homage than a copy, where we can leave our own mark on it while enjoying something we like in a new way.
The process of adapting something to tabletop gaming involves four big questions:
What are the most important parts of the work we want to adapt?
What does the work mean to you? What are the things you need to make a game feel like it’s part of the work? This sounds easy, but you have to strip something you like down to its basic points and be honest about what’s important to you. Do you need Jedi to have a successful Star Wars campaign? Does your Harry Potter campaign have to take place at Hogwarts? A lot of this is subjective, and you and your players might disagree on what makes the adaptation feel right. At this point, don’t get too bogged down in what’s mandatory or feasible. Just get a list of the things you need to be happy with your campaign.
This may work best with a running example. I’ve run two Legend of Zelda campaigns, one very good and one less good, and I’ve been playing Zelda games since 1992. I think I have a handle on what makes Zelda feel like Zelda, Breath of the Wild notwithstanding:
- A story that works through the cycle “explore -> enter dungeon -> get item -> fight boss -> acquire trinket/fashion/lady -> repeat”.
- The setting, either Hyrule specifically (Hyrule Castle, Death Mountain, Kakariko Village, Lake Hylia) or something similar.
- Iconic monsters, like moblins, octoroks, and wizzrobes.
- A mix of fighting, exploration, and puzzles.
- Getting unique items and using them to do said fighting, exploration, and puzzles.
These are not in any particular order. The relative importance of these points is something we’ll go through as part of the next steps.
How can we represent those parts in tabletop gaming?
I like to say the first step of any project is somebody saying “Hey, you know what you be cool?” The second step is “Seriously though, how would that even work?” That’s where we are now. Find out which of your important points easily work for tabletop gaming and which don’t. If you don’t have a specific rules system in mind, look at your options and see what fits best. If you do have a system in mind, work with it but acknowledge that something else may fit better and be ready to entertain other options. The goal here is to look at the viability of adapting the work at all; if the adaptation just can’t happen, you may have to accept that and try other options.
Porting Zelda to D&D 4E was pretty straightforward. D&D has a focus on fighting, room for interesting monsters and items, and a design aesthetic that rewards questing. We picked 4E partially because of the ease of reskinning and partially because we felt a gamist system would work best when adapting an actual game. As I dug further, I found exactly how much custom monster and item design I’d have to do to represent the things we wanted to see. 4E does this much more smoothly than 3E, especially with items. Instead of worrying about how much a given item would cost or how the DCs worked or whether its power level was appropriate, I just had to design powers and trust the system’s hard-coded math. It worked like a dream.
When I considered the setting, I found that it works in pretty much any system, which gave me no direction on what system I should use for it. That’s fine. The point is that it’s possible. If I was trying for a Super Mario Brothers campaign, I might want something with more robustness in movement mechanics, and 4E is great. If I wanted a Harry Potter campaign at Hogwarts, I’d want the setting and other characters to feel alive instead of feeling like window dressing, and 4E is not as good. It’s up to you to decide how big a deal each of your points is. If there’s something you absolutely cannot live without, start with that and world your way outward. You’ll probably find that several systems will tolerate it, as with Zelda’s puzzles, and you can consider all of them or only look into the ones where it works the best.
I haven’t talked about creating a new, custom system for an adaptation. That’s intentional, not because it’s a necessarily bad idea but because that’s a topic too complicated for this post and slightly out of the depth of a gaming advice blog. If you decide you can’t port the original work you want to an existing system and you want to write your own, that’s a valid option but, you know, good luck.
What do we have to add or or change in the system to work with the original?
Very rarely are you going to find a perfect match for what you want. At some point you’ll have to make concessions, but you can reduce those concessions by finding way to tweak the system to fit your concept. Consider reskinning, alternate rules, and expansions. If you can’t find anything, you can also create house rules that do what you want, like adding a custom draenei race for your Warcraft campaign. Don’t be afraid to limit the rules to a certain subset if that’s what it takes. For example, if you want a Final Fantasy campaign and you feel divination magic doesn’t work for the setting, ban divination magic. Just tell the players up front about anything you’re changing and, unless they had their heart set on a diviner character the moment you said “Final Fantasy”, they’ll understand.
We did have some issues porting Zelda to 4E, but none were insurmountable. Zelda doesn’t use experience points and D&D does, and static quest XP doesn’t work for a Zelda campaign. Whether Link gathers all the missing cuccos at the beginning of the journey or the very end, he still gets the same reward. So we did away with experience points entirely and instead awarded only Heart Containers (from bosses) and Pieces of Heart (from quests). Every full heart container gave the players one level. This let the cucco-gathering quest remain relevant at any level, it pushed the players to solve every single quest they found, and at least once it let them level up twice in one session, which is something I think few DMs can say.
Further, fights in D&D tend to be long affairs, especially at high levels where even mundane orcs can take an hour to put down. Zelda has long bosses but normal fights are usually quick, plentiful, and relatively easy. To address this we used the house rule we developed in which all monsters except bosses lose three hit points per level, and I also made the fights smaller. The party fought three monsters far more often than they fought the five recommended by the rules. Yes, they could use their encounter powers more often, but that meant the resource balance of the game shifted to healing surge management, and you haven’t seen happy players until you’ve see them beat a boss when half the party is straight-up unhealable.
What parts of the original cannot be represented in the system, and how much of a problem is that?
Sometimes there are things you can’t fix. Something about the original work you want to adapt is completely incompatible with the system that allows for everything else, or maybe it’s incompatible with tabletop gaming in general. If you come across something like this, do what you can but acknowledge your limitations. Decide whether losing that element is going to be a game-breaker and, if it’s not, find a way to adjust your interpretation of the work to fit the game. Consider Pokémon, where most players run around with six monsters within reach at all times. If you don’t want the possibility that suddenly thirty creatures will join a battle, you have to declare that players can only have one Pokémon out at a time, or that they can only carry one with them. Both are violations of the original work but they’re necessary to have a functional tabletop game.
The biggest issue I had around adapting Zelda was Link himself. In the games you play a lone wolf strong enough to carry steel cubes and tough enough to fight for days without sleep but charming enough to flirt with every girl alive without saying a word. He solves most of his problems by himself, he barely talks to allies, and he always has a new trick up his sleeve for any occasion. He is a terrible D&D character. Emulating him in PC design not only isn’t viable, it’s also not a good idea. While adapting Zelda for 4E we chucked Link right out the window. In D&D the party is the focus, not one character, and we weren’t willing to compromise on that. Luckily, nobody cared. I might contend that nobody even noticed.
If these steps sound vague, that’s intentional. There’s no one true way to adapt a work to a system. One group might decide they want their Avengers (the comic books, not the spy series) campaign to have huge power variance between characters like in the actual comics, and another group might want all characters to be roughly even for game balance and player mood. Both are fine. I can’t tell you what you want in your adaptation, only what worked for me as I adapted something myself. Over time I’ve even changed my mind on how to adapt specific works, so there’s no way I can pretend the way I’m doing it now it the best. It’s just the best I can do for my current resources, technology, players, and emotional state.