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Translating World of Warcraft into a Tabletop Roleplaying Game: The Content Challenge

What works and what doesn't when you want third-parties to extend your game world? In this exclusive article, World Of Warcraft tabletop-RPG co-ordinator Luke Johnson discusses how White Wolf worked with Blizzard to extend the massively popular franchise into RPG books.

[Many game developers are in the throes of creating a product based on a license. But how do game developers co-ordinate their IP with other media? Here, Gamasutra presents an in-depth look at the creative process that went into producing World of Warcraft tabletop RPG books, courtesy of Luke Johnson, the co-ordinator of the book series at White Wolf's end. What works and what doesn't when you want third-parties to extend your game world? Suggestions and solutions follow...]

The Warcraft world, without limits. That's what we wanted to create.

No matter how advanced and brilliant a computer game is, it limits your actions. Say you want to stop the arcane corruption in the Barrens. If you're playing the World of Warcraft computer game, you gather some buddies, head into the Wailing Caverns, fight a bunch of guys, find treasure, tell Naralex's disciple that it's time to revive his master, and hold off some monsters while Naralex returns to wakefulness.

That's pretty advanced, for a computer game, but it's limited. You can't collect materials to wake up Naralex on your own. You can't talk your way past Lord Serpentis. You can't dress up like a druid and infiltrate the druids' ranks.

In a tabletop roleplaying game, the only limit is your imagination. Players can do whatever they like. Also, the Warcraft world of your home roleplaying game isn't tied to the "real" Warcraft world with which we are all familiar, so players can alter the world however they like. They can play a group of tauren paladins, topple Stormwind, or watch angels descend from the sky.

It's a tempting experience, and that's why I was thrilled to have the chance -- along with the brilliant minds at White Wolf, a team of top-notch freelance writers, and the geniuses at Blizzard -- to create a tabletop roleplaying game set in the hugely popular Warcraft world. The game allows fans to immerse themselves in the setting to an extent not otherwise available.

worldofwarcraftrpg_core_book.jpg Of course, the transition wasn't without difficulty. While designing World of Warcraft: The Roleplaying Game (the WoW RPG), we faced a number of challenges. The largest was content.

The nature of a tabletop RPG line is that you release a "core book," which contains everything you need to play the game. In our case, the WoW RPG core book is 400-page, full-color tome that we hope anyone would be proud to have gracing his or her bookshelf.

After the core book, you release any number of books containing supplementary material. These books come in many varieties, but most of them include some amount of both rules-related content (additional spells to cast, character types to play, monsters to kill, treasures to find, and the like) and setting-related content (history, cosmology, descriptions of lands and characters, and the like).

The WoW RPG line is no exception: We released supplementary books with titles such as More Magic and Mayhem (which included new spellcasting classes, new spells, new magic items, and new technological devices), the Alliance Player's Guide (which included a slew of material for Alliance heroes), and Lands of Mystery (an in-depth guide to Kalimdor, with little rules-related material). At the time of this writing, the WoW RPG supplement books number six (if you include Dark Factions, which is not yet released). All our supplements were hard-bound, quality books, and most had 224 pages.


A 224-page RPG book contains about 168,000 words. The average novel has about 90,000 words. Thus, each of our books has about as much content as two novels. Not including the core book, we're staring at content equivalent to that found in twelve novels.

RPG books obviously include a lot of content; an RPG line includes an almost staggering amount of material about its setting. This fact can be both good and bad.

Good:

• RPG books can serve as an outlet for information that would otherwise be difficult to get into the fans' hands.

• RPG books can serve as excellent reference sources. I suspect that many people who buy our books don't do so because they want to play the game, but rather because they want to read about the Warcraft setting.

• RPG books allow you a lot of room to create stuff that doesn't (yet) exist in any other source.

wow_rpg_supplements.JPG

The supplement books for the WoW RPG -- on my dining room table.

 

Bad:

• You need to fill those books with content.

This last issue is the one that got us. Of course, a lot of material about the Warcraft setting already exists, and we could print it in our books: what happened during the War of the Ancients, a description of the Dustwallow Marsh, and the story of Arthas's fall, for example. We did indeed print all these things -- despite the fact that true fans probably knew them already or knew where to find them. Our books were not complete without this information, plus we wanted the books to serve as a compiled reference source for the Warcraft setting.

We wanted to add additional content to the books as well. RPG books can be a great resource for material that, for whatever reason, you can't release in the video game, and we wanted to use that potential. Also, fans have a right to expect new content in their RPG books.

So we asked Blizzard for more information. And they gave us some -- information from expansions and patches that were in development at the time, or things that they hadn't yet had a chance to deliver to the fans.

Yet this information still wasn't enough. So, as writers, we started making up stuff. That's what we generally get paid to do, after all.

apg_interior.JPG
For the RPG, we had to delve into unexplored aspects of Warcraft lore, like high elf culture and history.

Such a turn of events was both unavoidable and unsurprising. When you're writing these books, you need to make up things. How orc culture feels about mages, for example, or what the streets of Stormwind would be like for a poverty-stricken child. We extrapolated from existing material, coming up with a clearer and more detailed picture of what Azeroth would be like for someone who truly lived in it.

However, Blizzard didn't feel comfortable allowing a third party, like us, to invent stuff about the Warcraft world. That's understandable, certainly, but definitely a problem if you're a roleplaying game line.


Our Solution

Unfortunately, neither White Wolf nor Blizzard could think of a good solution to this problem. We tried numerous strategies, including:

• Making the books more rules-heavy and less setting-heavy.

• Asking lots of questions of Blizzard before adding material to the books.

• Getting even more content from Blizzard that we could add to the books.

These measures weren't enough. Remember, each RPG book has the equivalent of two novels of information. We ended up with the following procedure:

1) We would write the books (using the above strategies), making stuff up when necessary. Then:

2) The good folks at Blizzard would check the manuscript to make sure that a) everything in it was consistent with both their vision of the Warcraft setting and the information that had already been presented in some other format (the video games, the novels, and the like); and b) that we didn't add anything that they didn't like.

3) The writers would then alter the manuscript as per Blizzard's requests, and we'd return to step 2.

This process -- while it eventually resulted in a great product that made everyone happy -- was long and arduous. The people at Blizzard spent a lot of time going through the manuscript and making requests, and the writers spent a lot of time making changes. In addition, the folks at Blizzard are busy people (for reasons that I assume are clear), so they needed to focus on other matters before turning to the RPG manuscripts.

Thus, the process required a lot of resources from both Blizzard and the writing team -- enough resources that we all started to wonder if the line made sense from a business standpoint.

In addition, we were not able to release the books as quickly as we would have liked, which irritated the fans. The problem continues to plague us: We started writing Dark Factions in December of 2005, and it still hasn't been released.

Other Possible Solutions

If someone else wants to create a tabletop RPG based on a licensed property, I have a few ideas that might help you avoid a similar problem.

• Allow the writers more freedom. Obviously Blizzard couldn't do this, because the Warcraft world is immense and spans many different media. If your IP isn't so gigantic, you might consider using the RPG writers as a good source of new ideas for your setting. You don't need to accept everything they write, of course, but you could go into the relationship assuming they'll come up with stuff you want to use.

• Declare that the books aren't canon -- that is, the information in them isn't "correct," it's just derived from an existing IP. Such a strategy has obvious pros and cons. I don't think it would be appropriate for the WoW RPG books, because people want to use them as reference for the setting.

However, one of the best things about tabletop RPGs is that you can take a world you love and do whatever you want with it -- but all those things don't "really happen" in the video game's setting. Expanding this freedom to encompass writers as well as players would solve this issue. However, both the writing and the companies' statements would need to make this distinction abundantly clear.

• Don't outsource the RPG stuff -- create an RPG division in your company. You might only need one or two employees in this division; the other help could come from freelancers. If the people responsible for creating content the game are within the company, they will have ready access to the information and people they need.

• Use a different release model. The standard system for an RPG line is to release one large core book and a number of sizeable supplementary books. Instead, you could produce smaller releases; perhaps each book could be one-half or even one-third the size of our books. Release perhaps six each year (instead of four). You'll have less content to fill and perhaps a bigger time cushion with which to fill it. (Note: I'm no marketing expert, and I have no idea if this plan would work well or not.)

• Use an online release system. This idea is similar to that presented above, but you wouldn't use printed books at all; you would release them all in electronic format. Doing so would allow you to update the books immediately in response to changing information (which was another challenge we encountered with the WoW RPG). It might also make the fans more forgiving of receiving content in bite-sized chunks, perhaps in some sort of subscription-based system. (Dungeons & Dragons looks to be experimenting with something similar -- we'll see how it goes.)

We experienced a number of other challenges while working on this game -- for example, after the books were complete but not yet published, new information appeared in the video game -- but the content issue was our biggest hurdle. We caught our collective foot on it. It may have even struck us in our collective groin. My hope is that it does not do the same for you. However, overall the books have been a very helpful learning experience that should hopefully be a lesson to all in what works and what doesn't when you want third-parties to extend your game world.

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