Translating From Video To Tabletop

At this point in time, most of us have video games we deeply love and want to share the experience of, games that have given us all kinds of entertainment and joy. Less experienced GMs have often made the mistake of trying to directly translate the experience from the limited scope and space of the video game to the open and freeform nature of the tabletop and learned the hard way that such experiences don’t survive the transition. Many of us have learned the same lesson about our favorite books and movies – no scripted plot ever survives contact with players, because even the ones who share the enthusiasm want to play it how they’d have done it, with 4th-wall-breaking knowledge.

Is it possible to transfer a beloved game successfully to a more interactive and less restrictive medium without setting it up to be destroyed by contact with the plot-annihilating nature of the players? I believe so, but it requires the GM to be willing to modify what they love so dearly, to aim to capture the essence of the game without trying to hold too firmly to the specifics of it. Some things will never be able to be transferred in this fashion, and if you try it on something popular you should expect to have plenty of moments where the players cheerily break the fourth wall, crack wise about the tropes they spot, and try to get ahead of you with meta-knowledge.

To provide an example of what I’m talking about, I’ll take one of the first video games I ever played and modify it to fit a tabletop experience. The original Final Fantasy, released for the NES console, certainly has some significant flaws that make it, as a baseline, completely unsuited for tabletop play. There’s no flexibility, no give, and no real freedom to deviate from the proscribed plotline. It’s on rails and careening down a box canyon that isn’t about to allow room for unimportant side quests.

The gist of the plot is that four young heroes arrive without explanation, holding the MacGuffin items – darkened orbs or crystals, depending on the translation of the game – and ready to go save the world. To do so, they have to first rescue the princess, who gives them a Chekhov’s Gun in the form of an ancestral lute in thanks, prompting the king to build a bridge to the mainland. From there, they fight a pirate for a ship, fight a dark elf to get both an elven crown and the seeing orb of the wise old witch. The witch helps them wake the elf prince, who in turn lets them into sealed areas to get the materials needed to let them out onto the world map.

The adventure shifts to hunting down the elemental fiends at this point; entities who have awoken and begun corrupting the four elements of the world, who need defeated to reignite the light of the orbs/crystals. Along the way, the party trades out their ship for an airship and they discover the ruins of an ancient and powerful civilization of high technology, which gives them the clues to go hunt down the source of all the trouble – the fiend Chaos, through a time gate that happens to be unlocked by the music of the lute. They go back in time, fight and defeat him, and all is well as they break the temporal loop that has kept the land in thrall.

It’s generic and cliche for a reason – this is where many of these video game tropes began. It’s also not easy at all to transfer to a more interactive format – if you try to skip steps or go out of sequence in the video game, it just doesn’t work. Mountains are impassable, oceans need a ship, rivers need a canoe, and some areas can’t be reached without an airship. There’s only one boat in the whole of the world, and you have to fight a pirate for it.

Step one is to select a game system for your conversion efforts; I’ve settled on Numenera by Monte Cook Games, since the game is designed with the assumption of ancient supercivilizations of unguessably high technology. Next, we need to figure out how the players enter the campaign – while there’s a certain temptation to have them bamf into existence without an explanation, it’s much better to give them a chance to tie their characters to the game. As such, we’ll say that the starting area is a kingdom fallen onto hard times, harassed and under attack by monsters. There are stories of how the kingdom had phenomenal treasures and great power at the height of things, but much of it was locked away against a need in the future, the key entrusted to the Elflands in the far south. The PCs are simply citizens of this fallen kingdom, fresh from the mandatory couple years of civil service as soldiers, healers, or crafters and scholars looking to keep as much as possible of the kingdom’s antique numenera weaponry fit for use.

Into this we have Garland, the knight who has just rebelled against the king. We’ll genderswap Garland and his kidnap victim to help keep things a little more interesting; Garland recently went to the Fallen Temple on the northern end of the island and came back with her personality changed, then kidnapped Prince Saren and fled back to the temple. The monsters have let them by, but certainly won’t be friendly to anyone else. Unable to commit the military to going after them due to the aggression of the surrounding creatures, the king calls up the characters as being recently released from service (or perhaps as their last requested duty before being released) and asks them to brave the wilderness and follow Garland to the temple in hopes of rescuing the Prince.

They do so, successfully fight Garland off, and return to the kingdom with the Prince, who shares the troubling news that Garland spent much of the time talking about the coming death of the world and how only the two of them would be safe in the Temple; he begs the PCs to venture to the Elflands, certain that this is the time that the treasures of the sealed vaults were stored away to fight. The PCs cross the grand river north on the ruins of an ancient bridge, passing by the dwelling of a small settlement of varjellen nanos who ask the group to keep an eye out for their scrying devices.

At the main port town on the shore of the inner sea, they meet the captain of a skimship; he can either be fought, as his crew is causing trouble around the town, or bargained with to hire his services. His ship is an ancient vessel, one that can cross the inner sea in a few days rather than the weeks that the sailing ships of the other captains need. There are hints that it might be capable of more – it hovers above the surface of the water and occasionally bobs a few feet higher as whatever devices keep it aloft surge with strength.

Going to the Elflands reveals a forested landscape that’s half organic and half mechanical, nanotechnology embedded in the living material of the forest. The discovery of the Elf city-kingdom reveals that what appear to be individual creatures are all semi-autonomous bits of a single hive mind. The problem for them is that the core of the system – the prince – is in a sleep mode after one element went rogue and sabotaged the prince’s interface with the system. The varjellen enclave might have a solution, but without their scrying device they’re unable to be of much use.

The remaining elves can relate that the rogue element – ASTOS – went rogue after stealing a numenera device from creatures while out scouting, the device matching the rough description the varjellen nanos gave of their scrying device. The PCs have to go to where ASTOS is hiding in the bottom of a swampy cave, desperately trying to interface with the scrying device and seed its own hive intellect to replace the Prince. Retrieving the scrying device allows the varjellens to create a patchwork interface to allow the Prince to awaken, even though he remains immobile in his chambers, and the PCs receive what they need to open the chambers beneath the castle as a result. He cautions them that the land is sick, the keepers of the world have fallen silent, and that this creeping darkness is what allowed ASTOS to perpetrate its foul deed.

Returning to their home allows them to open the sealed chambers, revealing both powerful tools to augment their abilities, a power unit that can recharge the skimship enough to let it cross the shallows between the Inner and Outer Sea, and four crystalline devices that look like they should fit something larger; each one is marked with a glyph that Prince Saren can identify as something Garland was obsessing over, the ‘Four Wardens’ whose corruption was bringing about the end of all things. Additionally, one of them has a small indicator that shows a direction to travel.

If the players need external prompting rather than simply setting out on their own, Prince Saren will ask them to follow the indicator to see what it means; the indicator leads them, after a week and a half of travel across the Inner Sea, the Shallows, and the Outer Sea, to a massive island chain where the ground seems to be alternating between rotting bogs and salty marshes, with a town feebly clinging to the shoreline and a towering metal mountain rising from the central point of the chain. The locals will relate that the troubles began within living memory, the antique devices that once cared for the land slowly breaking down or going berserk until only feral ones remained that transformed verdant fields into the current morass.

Venturing toward the peak – the rough and rotten ground keeping the skimship at bay – leads into a cavern complex that shows signs of horrible neglect and decay; at the center is a massive machine attended by a shuddering humanoid automaton that fights to keep the PCs at bay. After defeating it, inspecting the machine reveals a blackened, charred replica of the device with the indicator, which can be removed and replaced with a little effort, after which the massive machine hums to life. It disables all of the rogue machines in the cave network and on the surface, which is accompanied by the sound of things clattering into inert heaps, followed by a scan that washes over the PCs as the control systems reboot. The PCs get a bonus reward out of this – the system, after scanning them and determining that they repaired it, grants them custom-designed symbiotic nanites that gives them a +1 on Recovery rolls from that point on. Whether or not the system bothers to inform the PCs what it just sprayed them with is up to the GM.

By the time they get back to the little town, numenera devices are already hard at work cleaning up the mess left by the rogue machines, draining the marshes and extracting the rot from the bogs to process into fertilizer to renew the land. The locals express their gratitude, as the effect on the health of the residents is already evident, when one of the remaining devices begins to blink with an indicator light.

From there, the PCs make a lengthy voyage to the east, navigating shallow rivers and narrow canyons, until they reach an open valley with a massive structure that reaches from a lava-filled crater up to pierce the clouds, with streams of molten rock coursing down channels in the sides. The indicator makes it clear the PCs need to go inside; if they have the Captain along, he’ll suggest checking a glacial cavern the party passed to see f there are any heat-resistant numenera inside. Exploring the ice cave reveals both several artifacts for protecting the PCs from the heat and a fully charged power node for the skimship, allowing it to stop simply hovering and begin to fly across the terrain, ignoring impediments to travel. This also allows the party to get off at the top of the foundry-spire, where the air is thing but the rivers of molten rock provide ample heat.

Descending into the foundry shows numenera devices gone mad, including monstrous spiders spinning molten rock into glassy webs that force the party to find ways to bypass them. Eventually, at the heart of the foundry, they find another of the massive machines, this one covered in glassy webs with a truly massive spider-machine guarding it. Defeating the spider-machine and replacing the blackened, burnt-out node with the one with the indicator on it reboots the machine, sending spiders tumbling into rivers of molten rock and metal as they shut down and the corruption is purged from the network. This system – a climate control system for the entire island chain – bestows 10 Armor on the PCs against all purely environmental effects as a reward for restoring it, which takes the form of an iridescent sheen across their skin.

By the time they emerge from the foundry, another indicator light is on, and the party has to head north, where the effects of the climate control system are already thawing the glacial masses and revealing a half-sunken citadel of gleaming metal and synth, surrounded by turbulent water and feral sea beasts, including a massive biomechanical squid that keeps attacking the shoreline communities as the ice thaws. The PCs have to take rebreather devices and delve into the passages of the citadel, dealing with powerful currents flowing down the passages and hostile marine animals along with inscrutable and hostile machinery until the reach the central chamber.

The central machine is wrapped in the tentacles of the squid-thing attacking the coastline, making it clear how immense the creature is. They have to bypass the tentacles somehow – no easy feat, as the hide of the beast is tough, the flesh blubbery and quick to heal, and the muscles incredibly strong. Replacing the damaged control device causes the central tower to reboot and send an electrical shock into the squid, forcing it to withdraw as the machinery reboots and control machines are sent out to drive the creature off into the deep ocean.

The hydrological control system doesn’t grant the PCs a reward, but the thankful villages along the coast certainly provide them everything they can, including a construct that they say came from the Spire in the desert – something that, as the climate system continues to work, becomes visible from a great distance away, much like the Beanstalk from the Numenera core book. The last of the devices indicates that it needs to go somewhere in the sky in that direction, leading the group to head toward the Spire, using the skimship to cross the trackless desert safely until they set down outside an unassuming-looking structure at the base of the Spire itself.

The device provided by the villagers proves to be an activation key for the pods arrayed around the Spire’s base, allowing the group to ascend the structure until a massive fortress-like shape emerges from the darkness of space above them; inside it are malfunctioning technological constructs of all kinds, airless spaces blocking their path, a powerful war machine that hunts them through the fortress, and – at the end – a nanoswarm entity that fights to keep them away from the last of the control systems, using electrical discharges and electromagnetic manipulation against the party.

The last control system, when the module is replaced after the fight, restores function and power across the fortress, beginning a long and slow repair process that will eventually achieve functional weather control and stability across the islands. Meanwhile, the system rewards the PCs by giving them a device, explaining in stilted language that the corruption that disabled the systems is still present in the region, at the master control center buried beneath the Fallen Temple. The PCs, with the blessing of the control system AIs, will have to get past the corrupted defenders of the central hub and restore the system before it can re-infect the control systems.

Taking the skimship to the Fallen Temple will reveal it to be a hub of activity, with creatures from the various system locations in their corrupt forms swarming the temple; the players have to make their way past them, including freshly-minted renditions of the beasts that guarded the central systems, until they reach the heart of the central hub and face the ultraterrestrial horror that has infected it, fighting it off while they upload the fix into the system; after a pitched battle they get the fix in, and the defense systems of the control hub come to life, purging the creature from the face of the universe. The players get to return home to find the monstrous populations falling off as the harsh climate softens, providing ample space and supply for everyone.

And that, with a bit of fanfare, is a conversion of Final Fantasy 1 to a tabletop gaming system. Difficult, with many of the specifics cut away, but recognizable if you’re looking at it and aware of the origin.

Thanks for reading this far! I certainly didn’t expect to put this much into it. I’ll see you next time!

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Translating From Video To Tabletop

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