5 Franchises That Should Have an RPG (or Have an RPG in Print Again)

This weekend we have a guest post by author, freelance writer and editor Anthony Jennings.

​It’s strange to think that some of the most popular franchises of the last 30 years are still awaiting a publisher to license them and develop an RPG. Franchises such as Star Wars, DC Comics, and A Song of Ice & Fire currently have RPGs being published, but for whatever reason, some franchises – despite how popular they are or how many movie tickets they’ve sold – still linger waiting for a publisher to license them. Creative game masters can always modify existing systems to suit their needs, and some companies have produced generic systems that emulate these genres like Spectrum Games’ Cartoon Action Hour for roleplaying in 1980’s style cartoons. Nevertheless, the lack of an in print RPG for the following five franchises boggles the mind.


1. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero

For someone who grew up watching cartoons in the 80’s, the lack of a G.I. Joe RPG is confounding. Although previous iterations of the G.I. Jose action figure line existed, the modern G. I. Joe property began in 1982 with the launch of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, a line of action figures supported by a weekday afternoon cartoon and monthly comic series from Marvel Comics. This line introduced characters such as Snake-Eyes, Duke, Scarlett, and Stalker, and their antagonists the terrorist organization known as Cobra. G.I. Joe has retained its popularity ever since. Most recently, Jon Chu directed the live action G.I. Joe: Retaliation; yet, despite its continued popularity, no one has ever published a G.I. Joe RPG.

The central plot of G.I. Joe is that a highly trained special operations force must defend the world against a terrorist organization determined to rule the world. With the massive amount of comics, TV shows, animated films, and live action films, G.I. Joe offers an endless variety of options for an RPG. G.I. Joe selects its team members from the best and brightest of the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, foreign militaries, police departments, and secret ninja training facilities. Players would have a variety of character options such as Green Beret, Navy SEAL, combat medic, Air Force Pararescue, Delta Force Operator, or ninja assassin. Character sheets could replicate the appearance of the G.I. Joe file cards found on the back of the action figure packaging and include space for a code name, game statistics, and a short biography. Honestly, this RPG would write itself.

A G.I. Joe RPG should have two modes of play. The first would replicate the feel of the 1980’s cartoon series – a bloodless and pulp adventure with some science fiction elements and characters leaping from tanks just before the missile impacts. The second mode of play would appeal to fans of grim and gritty realism. Cobra would be a darker and more sinister organization and character deaths and severe injury would be more common. This would simulate the feel of the more recent comic books by IDW publishing and appeal to fans of modern first person shooters like Call of Duty.

The thirty plus year history of the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero franchise has an endless amount of material to inspire additional supplements and adventures. The Marvel Comics series and the IDW comic series offer complete campaign settings with numerous NPCs, plots, and adventure hooks. With all the material available, players would be able to develop and explore their own versions and vision of the G.I. Joe Universe.


2. Transformers

If Hasbro’s decision to not license a G.I. Joe RPG is inexplicable, then the lack of a Transformers RPG is just silly. Beginning in 1984, Hasbro created the Transformers, a new toy line meant to capitalize on the success of G.I. Joe. They lazily rebranded two different Japanese toy lines and hired Jim Shooter and Dennis O’Neil to create the back story and characters for the new franchise. Marvel Comics created a comic series and a television series also followed. Transformers has had many iterations over the last 30 years, including new TV series such as Transformers: Beast Wars and the Michael Bay directed Transformers live-action films.

The premise of the original Transformers series is a tale of environmental destruction and endless war over resources. The Transformers – beings who can transform between bipedal robots and vehicles – have fought a civil war for centuries to control Cybertron, their home planet. The Autobots, on the verge of defeat due to a lack of resources, depart their Cybertron in search of a new home and a new source of energon, their fuel. The Decepticons follow, and both ships crash land on Earth in the distant past. The Transformers re-awaken in the modern world, and in order to hide from humans, take on the shapes of modern vehicles and gadgets. They continue their war on Earth with the Autobots protecting the planet’s resources from exploitation by the Decepticons.

With the option to design their own Transformer, decide what kind of vehicle they would turn into, and pick and upgrade accessories, the possibilities for character creation are nearly endless. The massive amount of source material – nearly 30 years of animated shows, animated films, comic books, and live-action films – could provide inspiration for numerous sourcebooks that detail new types of Transformers such as gestalts like Devastator or different eras like the Beast Wars.


3. Mass Effect

Mass Effect, a relatively new franchise from EA/Bioware, began as an award winning video game released in 2007. Since then, two sequels, several comic books, an animated film, and four novels have explored Mass Effects’ rich and complex universe. Taking place in 2183, humanity has discovered faster than light travel that uses a series of mysterious mass relays to travel across the galaxy. After a few fumbling missteps humanity has joined the Council, a sort of Federation or United Nations, but humanity is not content to remain a small time player while the more advanced races rule the Council. The Mass Effect videogame trilogy follows the exploits of Commander Shepherd as he or she explores the galaxy and seeks to discover the mystery of the Reapers, an extra-galactic threat that was responsible for a previous galactic mass extinction.

Like other sci fi franchises, Mass Effect has an enormous variety of species such as the feminine and psychically powerful asari, the resilient, lizard-like turians, and the warlike but endangered Krogans. The videogame trilogy allows players to choose from six classes: the sturdy and reliable Soldier, the Adept with powerful psionic attacks, the Engineer who specializes in hacking computer systems, the Vanguard who is equal parts Soldier and Adept, the tech-savy Infiltrator that specializes in sniper rifles, and the Sentinel who combines the abilities of the Adept and Engineer classes.

While the adventures of Commander Shepherd and his/her battle against the Reapers are the focus of the video games, Mass Effect offers an enormous number of possibilities for roleplaying whether it’s stopping the intrigues of the Council, leading diplomatic missions to calm hostile groups, exploring ancient Prothean ruins, or deciphering the mysteries of Cerebus and the Illusive Man. The Mass Effect franchise can support almost any type of adventure no matter how small or large
Green Ronin Publishing has already licensed and released Dragon Age, another EA/Bioware computer game. The AGE system that Green Ronin created for Dragon Age was further refined and published as a generic system, Fantasy Age. Fans are already creating their own Mass Effect RPGs using other systems such as Traveler and Eclipse Phase, but with Green Ronin’s success with Dragon Age and the popularity of the Mass Effect IP, it’s a no-brainer that someone (hopefully Green Ronin) will eventually license Mass Effect as an RPG.


4. Frank Herbert’s Dune

Unlike the above IPs, Dune has previously been licensed as an RPG; however, Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium had one of the smallest print runs of any RPG. Published by Wizards of the Coast after their acquisition of the original publisher, Last Unicorn Games, WotC released Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium at Gen Con in 2000 with a limited print run of 3,000 copies. Although copies regularly show up on eBay (the asking price is typically over $250.00), this book is all-but unobtainable.

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, humanity – the sole intelligent species in the universe – dominates the cosmos, but due to an ancient war against “thinking machines” (artificial intelligences), humanity no longer uses computers. Instead, they rely on specially trained humans such as the Guild Navigators whose powers allow them to instantly travel across the universe, Mentats who can perform perfect calculations and simulations, and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood who can read minds and control others with their voice. However, all of these special powers and abilities rely on the spice mélange which is available only on the desert planet Arrakis also known as Dune.

Dune is the story of Paul Atreides, a messianic figure, who is the product of an ancient breeding program to create a superhuman. Paul attempts to defy his destiny but finds that he cannot escape his fate. The plot of Dune combines courtly intrigues, ecology, vicious hand to hand combat, the giant sandworms of Arrakis, and the power of religion in a complex and complicated universe. All of these factors come into conflict on Dune, the source of the spice, and the most important planet in the universe.

Although originally published in 1965, Dune remains popular today. Frank Herbert wrote five sequels and his son, Brian Herbert, along with Kevin J. Anderson, have written sequels and prequels to the original series. David Lynch adopted Dune to the big screen in 1983, and the SciFi Channel produced two miniseries based on Dune and its first two sequels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. Dune has also been the inspiration for a variety of computer games, including Dune 2000, a well-received real time strategy game.

However, despite all these adaptations, the Dune RPG never made it to retailers, and since 2000 no one has attempted to publish another one. With such an enormous amount of material set in a complex and exciting universe, Dune should be turned into an RPG again.


5. Marvel Comics Super Heroes

It’s inexplicable that some of the most popular and long lasting TV series and video game franchises have not had an RPG based on them. It’s even more confounding that as of this writing that no one is currently publishing an RPG based on the exploits of the Avengers, X-Men, the Agents of SHIELD, and the rest of the Marvel Universe. Marvel has licensed the rights to a Marvel Universe RPG twice. Originally, TSR held the license and produced the Marvel Super Heroes RPG, one of the most popular super hero RPGs of the 1980s and 1990s. Prior to the rights reverting back to Marvel, TSR also published the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game using the card-based SAGA system, but despite good reviews, the game never found a following. A long dry spell followed until Margaret Weis Productions licensed and released Marvel Heroic Roleplaying in 2012. Once again, the game received good reviews, but by early 2013, Margaret Weis Productions ceased publication of the game due to low sales. Once more, the license reverted back to Marvel, and for the last three years, no one has published a Marvel Super Heroes RPG.

In the meantime, Marvel has released some of the most popular, exciting, and highest grossing films of all time, but the rights to a Marvel RPG have remained locked away in the Disney vault. While IPs like G.I. Joe and Transformers play on the nostalgia of Gen X childhoods, Marvel is currently a cinematic juggernaut that has changed the way that studios approach film making.

No one needs to be told what kind of characters or options would be available in a Marvel RPG. Pop in your favorite Marvel film or read your favorite X-Men graphic novel and you’ll find a thousand possibilities for adventures and characters. No other franchise has the crossover popularity of Marvel Comics, and no other franchise needs an RPG more.

Anthony Jennings is a freelance writer and editor of Pathfinder and 5E compatible adventures and supplements. He is also the author of a chapter in Shattered Dreams, a forthcoming supplement for Werewolf:  The Apocalypse. He maintains the blog Read the Damn Book, where he dispenses unsolicited gaming advice and opinionated reviews of your favorite RPGs.