7 incredible pop culture worlds that should be turned into tabletop RPGs, from His Dark Materials to Avatar
Who wouldn’t want to play a Sesame Street TRPG?
With a tabletop roleplaying game based on book series-turned-Netflix show Altered Carbon currently up on Kickstarter, it seems like as good a time as any to ask the hypothetical question of which other rich pop culture franchises the Dicebreaker team would like to come to the tabletop.
There are already several well known tabletop RPGs based on existing universes including fantasy RPG The One Ring, which is set in the world of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as well as the recent roleplaying game based on another sci-fi novel-turned-television show The Expanse, which was published by Green Ronin last year.
But now the doors to every film, television, anime, video game and graphic novel franchise have suddenly been thrown open, with the Dicebreaker team free to choose whichever setting they desire to experience a daring adventure in. It could be an intense combat-driven roleplaying system like Pathfinder or a lighter storytelling RPG along the lines of Star Crossed, these are our dream tabletop RPG adaptations of pop culture franchises.
1. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Look, shut up - I know a Robin Hood TRPG already exists. There are several, in fact, but here’s the thing: I’m not asking for just any Robin Hood TRPG, I am asking - actually I’m begging - for one set specifically in the cinematic universe of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Prince of Thieves is the best thing to come out of the ‘90s apart from Jurassic Park which, let’s face it, would also be an excellent RPG. It’s a combination of preposterous action sequences, smouldering sex appeal, wry humour, bouffant hair and a sense of earnestness so potent that, by rights, it ought to collapse under its own weight into a denim-lined black hole.
Instead it survives not just as a prime example of the handsome man blockbuster that made Kevin Costner a star, but as one of the greatest and daftest action movies of all time. It’s camp and hypermasculine all at the same time and it’s that exact chaotic energy I’d love to see replicated in an RPG. A game in which the Sheriff of Nottingham is deluded and vain but also deliciously, hilariously self-aware; a system in which you get a bonus for when someone attacks downwind and reeks of garlic; a world in which your dad is played by Brian Blessed and he is always on horseback and always bellowing. A dad-rock soundtrack would be mandatory.
My character would be one of the Merry Men with a special ability called ‘To the Trees’ whereby I can yell “To the trees!” in a stupid voice anytime I want and people have to do it. Thank you for listening to my pitch, I will now accept a million pounds to take a sabbatical and write this game.
2. His Dark Materials
Phillip Pullman’s seminal young adult book series received its second visual adaptation last year - a rather excellent BBC series starring James McAvoy and Ruth Wilson - and I think it’s about time we saw a more interactive medium take a stab at bringing Lyra’s Oxford to life. (We don’t count that video game based on the terrible 2007 film, The Golden Compass.)
His Dark Materials takes place in an alternative world where everyone's souls take the form of a dæmon, a sentient animal that is intrinsically tied to its human counterpart. This alternative world also diverges in terms of technology, with the first trilogy of books taking place in the cultural equivalent of the early 1900s where characters rely on zeppelins and hot air balloons for travel. Oh! There’s also magic - with giant bears (known as panserbjørn) and witches occupying the icy lands of the north - and eventually entire separate worlds to explore.
From magical artefacts capable of telling the future to literal angels and gods, there could be so much for GMs to use and players to engage with thanks to Phillip Pullman’s incredibly detailed world-building. Also, I’ve always wanted to create my very own dæmon and I’m sitting here now just imagining what that process could be like. (You roll a d20 and your number would correspond to a certain animal - because dæmons choose their own shape - then you develop their personality and abilities entirely separately.) Whilst the narrative of His Dark Materials is undeniably epic it also has its fair share of tenderness, wry humour and a general disdain for self-righteous adult politics that I’ve always loved; perfect for a TRPG.
3. Final Fantasy
As maybe the most influential roleplaying video game series of the last three decades, it’s somewhat surprising that Final Fantasy has never been brought across into the land of pen-and-paper. (Well, officially anyway - a number of impressive fanmade TRPGs exist.) It’s also a downright shame, because it’s the perfect video game to be made into a tabletop RPG.
The series already has a clearly defined set of character classes - black mage, white mage, dragoon, summoner and more - that interact and complement each other in interesting ways. There’s a long list of spells, from simple elemental attacks like Firaga and Thundaga to buff/debuff abilities like Float, Reflect and Charm, that could comfortably slot into a party’s options in and out of combat. All it would need is a dice-based system to adapt its traditional turn-based battles into a slick tabletop equivalent and it’d be pretty much there.
As far as the setting goes, Final Fantasy is one of few pop-culture universes that can rival the likes of Dungeons & Dragons in terms of imaginative monsters, creatures and locations. Who wouldn’t want to have a moogle companion, or call on - or fight - summons like Bahamut and Ifrit? While the single-player entries in the series take place in (largely) separate worlds, online multiplayer instalment FFXIV has a ready-made setting, Eorzea, that could make for a fitting overarching world to explore. And we all know sourcebooks detailing Final Fantasy VII’s Midgar or Final Fantasy IX’s Gaia would sell like gysahl greens at the local chocobo farm.
Crucially, Final Fantasy isn’t just about pointy hair, oversized swords and more pyrotechnics than a Kiss concert. The video games’ sprawling stories have delved into heavier topics including environmentalism, racism, capitalism, religion and the use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians. With the right treatment and a group of players willing to explore more serious subjects, a Final Fantasy tabletop RPG could be well-placed to go beyond typical sword-and-sorcery monster-bashing and dungeon-crawling. Of course, there’d always be the option to mess up a cactuar or tonberry, followed by a round of Triple Triad or Tetra Master with the locals, if you wanted to keep things light.
With other big roleplaying video games such as Dishonored and Fallout making their way onto the tabletop, it seems only right that Final Fantasy should join them. Until then, we’ll have to be content with series’ biggest contribution to tabletop RPGs being an absolutely banging soundtrack for your next campaign.
4. Sesame Street
I’m quite new to the world of tabletop roleplaying, so to be honest, I’m still very much excited by the OGs and am really just keen to try them all at this point. I want to dip my toes in as many of the pies as I can and sample all of the RPGs on offer!
You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that *shockingly* Sesame Street doesn’t seem to have a TRPG. It is now my life’s mission to make this a thing, so I can run around Sesame Street kicking butt and doing an annoyingly squeaky voice while I’m at it. Make this dream I’ve had for all of five seconds a reality, please!
I’m loving the thought of everyone playing as a Muppet (let’s be honest, there are so many good ones to choose from - The Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Bert & Ernie, Elmo etc.) and yet you could play it in whichever way you fancy - maybe Elmo is a dark soul who takes no prisoners and is all action? Are Bert & Ernie deadly rivals who can’t stand to be near each other or do they remain the famous power couple and fight in tandem? How would Big Bird kill a man?
It would be interesting to create this in a way that would allow several different options for play, that it could be made meaty and dark for an adult audience but also include a simplified, stripped back ruleset that would allow families to play with younger kids.
I want to be in this world, but I would also love to create more tabletop RPGs that allow kids to join in!
5. Avatar: The Last Airbender
I’d absolutely love to see an RPG adaptation of the Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series and its sequel, Legend of Korra.
It’s set in a world where certain people can manipulate the elements. For example, an earthbender can tear chunks of rock out of the ground, while a waterbender can summon up waves, or use the forbidden art of bloodbending. There are also combination elements, like metal, lava or lightning, which can be accrued through extensive study - or sheer dumb luck.
Each element has its own unique culture, origin and heroes. As larger cities spring up in the later timeline of Korra, benders become part of sprawling urban developments and cause all kinds of problems, especially among the less morally-inclined practitioners.
I think a combat system that allows less for spells and focuses more on environmental manipulation effects would be really fun. So instead of casting a water bolt, you might instead roll to gather up air humidity, then decide to lump it together into an ice shard. You could also use elements in curious ways to solve issues (like falling or dealing with natural disasters) and in retaliation to other moves, such as using air to divert fire attacks.
However, the combat is not the main thing that intrigued me about the TV series - although holy moly, was it bloody good. I fell in love with Avatar’s overarching world, which is steeped in Eastern philosophy, folklore and mysticism, and is chock-full of other planes of existence. These include magical entities, like Koh the Face Stealer, a sinister centipede who collects visages - leaving its victims to wonder around faceless for eternity.
As well as dabbling in the esoteric, Avatar covered a fascinating range of issues from the legacy of horror left by colonialism and the rupture of the environment to full-blown genocide. Despite its darker themes, Avatar remains hilarious and very moving throughout and, shockingly, alright for kids!
Even better, the Avatar world has some of the most psychedelic animals you’ve ever seen. As well as the protagonists’ lovely pets and mounts, a host of beasts roam about, including a giant flying bison, a polar bear dog and a snow leopard caribou.
In essence, I want elemental manipulation powers, weird as hell pets and the chance to surf through multiple spirit planes in search of ancient secrets.
Gladiator has long been one of my favourite films and I've always been excited by the prospect of games using gladiator houses as a theme, both in video and tabletop form.
From what I can tell though, nothing has really scratched that itch in the tabletop roleplaying world - and I reckon we're missing a trick by not having a system in the world of ancient buff dudes getting oiled up and chopped in half.
Imagine, if you will, an asymmetric system in which most of the players are your average, meathead warriors, strapped in hastily-assembled armour sets and basically falling apart from session to session. One of your players could take the role of the master of the house - putting together a winning team, brokering deals and acquiring new meat for the grinder. It’s got the potential for a brutal and gritty system with some serious imbalance in power dynamics and potential for a Spartacus-style uprising in which both sets of players are pitched against each other.
Session to session you’ve got to wrestle with the cruel life of a person whose own mortality is offered up for entertainment for the masses, establishing heels for your champions and bitter rivalries with fighters from a different ludus gladiatorius. I’m completely enamoured with the idea of your character’s life being decided on the thumbs-up or down of the emperor as the crowd shouts to either grant you mercy or death based on your reputation.
Basically, give me any excuse to play the Gladiator and Rome: Total War soundtracks as we play an RPG.
As one of the most popular co-op board games in existence, it’s surprising that Pandemic hasn’t gotten its own tabletop RPG yet. (Although, Pandemic Legacy is practically halfway there.) It might seem like a strange choice considering that the games don’t involve any combat, and its characters are almost entirely limited to a single card with a special ability. However, the whole point of Pandemic is to save its world from certain chaos, so why not make that world into something actually worth saving?
Imagine creating characters that inhabit the mysterious disease-struck world of Pandemic. Characters that are suddenly thrown into a terrible crisis - whether they’re prepared or not - and must step up to help find a cure, care for the sick, protect the vulnerable and support their fellow emergency responders. With the variety of things that can go wrong in Pandemic there could be a myriad of scenarios for GMs to play around with, beyond just a straightforward mission to cure a disease. Pandemic is all about the ripple effect, after all.
What’s more, once you take into account how many different versions of Pandemic are out there - including one that takes place during the 1800s in the Iberian eninsula, and another set during the height of the Roman empire - there really is no shortage of creativity for both GMs and players to experience.
When considering what kind of roleplaying system would work with a Pandemic TRPG, my mind hovers around previous titles designed to inspire tension within their players - such as Dread or Call of Cthulhu - because, ultimately, the series is about taking risks and being stressed. What if rounds were measured in the rate of people getting infected? At the game’s start, a single round could equal three people acquiring the disease, but once things begin picking up, a round could mean thirty people getting infected and so on. The thought of it is enough to make me kick up a sweat, which is exactly what I’d want a Pandemic TRPG to do.
And that’s our wish list of pop culture franchises we’d like to see get adapted into tabletop roleplaying games. If you’d like to read more about TRPGs, have a look at our rundown of the tabletop RPG releases you should play this year, or our list of the best fantasy RPGs.
What do you think of our suggestions? What pop culture world do you think should be turned into a tabletop roleplaying game? Let us know in the comments.