Licensed role playing games are simultaneously some of my favorite and least favorite games. Are those fighting words? I don’t know – I try to avoid the Nerd Rage fights about RPGs.
Unless they’re fun.
Why do I love licensed games? They get back to some of my creative roots. The first role playing a lot of us did when you think about it was back on the playground in grade school. Cops and robbers? Totally a role playing game! And I can’t be the only one that expanded beyond generic games of pretend to insert myself into my favorite existing stories, from playing the princess in the latest Disney movie, to joining the Ninja Turtles or the Power Rangers. And even after I outgrew playing on the playground, I still stuck close to playing pretend in someone else’s sandbox – I had a lengthy bibliography on Fanfiction.Net once upon a time.
Licensed RPGs fill that niche for me once again. I can be a hunter alongside Sam and Dean, or fight the same bad guys that the X-Men did. I can delve into the past of a setting, before the show or the book started, and create something that’s part of the established canon, or I can look way ahead and see what the actions of the canon protagonists effect in the future.
But I’ve also discovered these games can be quite frustrating if you’re not already a fan of the canon setting. Supernatural? Despite my well-documented issues with the show, it’s absolutely my guilty pleasure, and I love playing in that setting where I can make some small attempt to set right the show’s many wrongs. Then there’s games like Dresden Files where I have only a passing familiarity with the canon. I still enjoyed the game, but it can be very frustrating to always have to be the player asking the GM to explain how the fae work in this particular universe.
Lacking familiarity with canon also means missing out on little things, like minor shout-outs to canon – or even the main villain being an already established character, which is what happened to me during our Marvel Heroic Roleplaying when I had no clue why everyone was so excited for this Mojo character to show up. Even though I did know slightly better, I kept imagining it was Mojo Jojo showing up.
Licensed RPGs can give players and GMs some room to slack off a little bit on world building. Just like when writing fan fic, or even just discussing a beloved TV show, if everyone’s familiar with the property, there’s less need to go into detail because all of you already have a shared language. If you’re playing the Firefly RPG, and you’re all on Serenity, if every player is a Browncoat it can be a time saver to skip descriptions of the size of the ship and its amenities (few and far between as they may be). But if you have one or more players who have never seen the show, the GM’s job perhaps just got even harder than normal. Now you’re not only explaining the set pieces in detail as you would in a normal game, but you have to be asking yourself if you’re overlooking any details just because of how familiar this setting is to you. Did you remember to describe the already-established relationships among the crew? The background from the show about your recurring villain of the week? The socio-political implications of the Alliance? When an entire group is learning everything together along the way, it’s easy to remember to explain them. When only one person is learning this for the first time, if they aren’t confident enough to speak up and ask for clarification, it’s up to the GM to pick up the slack.
It can be a delicate balance if you’re playing in a mixed group with a licensed game. Balance it well, however, and everyone will end up having fun, and perhaps discovered a new TV show/movie/book series to add to their “must watch” list.
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