Can a setting like Adventure Time work in a Tabletop RPG?

I’ll admit, I’ve done some brainstorming on how Adventure Time could work, either as a board game or tabletop rpg. Nothing serious, just some flights of fancy that never go very far.

The difficulty that Adventure Time, or ANY truly fantastical setting where anything is possible, poses is that rules exist to limit the infinite possibilities of fantasy. Most systems would ground a setting where nothing is grounded.

Let’s take a look at some characters-
Finn is essentially a powerless (or rather “unpowered”) character* whose problem solving abilities, luck, attitude and status as protagonist renders him invincible in what is actually an incredibly deadly and dangerous fantasy setting full of magical monsters and near unstoppable horrors.

Jake, on the other hand, has almost limitless powers as a magic dog with near infinite shape shifting and virtual invulnerability but, unless he has Finn helping him,  is pretty easily defeated due to his many character flaws (greed, egocentrism, laziness).

Ice King is a deranged, megalomaniacal wizard hellbent on kidnapping women. In Adventure Time, he’s a creepy joke, but in a more serious gaming setting, he’d be a pretty threatening high level wizard, armed to the teeth with cold and paralyzing magic.

Assorted monsters in Ooo are often either deceptively cute squamous horrors or squamous horrors thru-and-thru. One of the things they often have in common are some very specific weakness or blind spot that must be taken advantage of. Also present are every sort of evil undead imaginable.

All magic in Adventure Time follows rules, but in a self contained manner (i.e. each spell or artifact is subject to the rules that govern that specific spell/artifact, but variety of spells and accompanying rules is pretty boundless). If you can magic it, anything goes, unless someone can outmagic you, either through power or cleverness (like the strategic use of Cantrips in Wizard Battle). Also, magic powers are either inborn or artifact given, though people who’ve acquired them through either means can be wizards; there does not seem to be any distinction.

A diceless system that relied entirely on problem solving would be the best way to accommodate a setting like Ooo. Riddles, puzzle monsters, and negotiations for players to wind their way through would replace typical rolling for searches/traps/actions and punch-face tit-for-tat battling. Capture & imprisonment other than death, go back to start, do not collect 200 gold.

But is this really a “system”? How does one convey the danger, horror and hostility of Ooo, which rivals Carcosa? How does one deal with the threat of PC death in a tabletop RPG that is more Neverhood than Neverwinter? Can play be balanced? Should it? It’s the sort of thing that would only appeal to certain kinds of players, but could be a fun diversion from your typical dungeon crawl. Players and DMs would have to be ready for any possibilities and contingencies within the story and exploration.

*:I’m reminded of reading an article somewhere that went to the effect of “If a group of 1st-5th level characters somehow defeat a Lich, it doesn’t mean they outsmarted the Lich, it means the DM played the Lich wrong.”

One response to “Can a setting like Adventure Time work in a Tabletop RPG?

  1. A little slow on the response, but! I think a system based around narrative power will be your best bet.

    As you noted, Adventure Time is A.) far more interested in narrative meaning than realistic clashes, and B.) puts as much value (and often more) on emotional capability as much as martial capability. Finn often resolves situations not through direct assault, but by finding unique solutions and executing them in unorthodox fashion using unlikely tools. The simulationist bookkeeping needed to try and keep everyone in check would be formidable… and would also go against the spirit of the story.

    Check out Powered-by-the-Apocalypse (PbtA) games. Among other things, the PbtA system concerns itself with situational outcomes as opposed to the outcomes of specific actions.

    In D&D, your PC action might be “Fireball”, and you roll a d20 to see if the cast was successful, and then you roll for damage.
    In PbtA games, even though you will be throwing a fireball, your PC action would be something like “Show ‘Em You’re Serious” (attempt to threaten them and make them back down), “Check It Out” (trying to impress someone), or “Deal Bodily Harm” (trying to injure or kill). You roll 2d6 to determine how successful you were in that endeavor (10+ successful, 6-9 partial success, 5 or less, failure). Your ability to cast fireball is immaterial to how successful you are: If you fail, you still may well cast fireball, but it might also catch you on fire, or burn the town chapel to the ground, or accidentally kill the person you were just trying to rough up.

    The game (and therefore the story) turns on the outcome of these intentions vs D&D turning on the outcome of actions. Not only does this approach contribute more to keeping the story going (as it provides resolution, giving context to the action), but it also affords much greater flexibility in the _type_ of contest. D&D (and Pathfinder, among others) excel at facilitating deep tactical combat, but social conflict and the like get relatively little mechanical meaning. PbtA games, on the other hand, can handle an explosive conversation at the Duke’s dinner party where status is at stake just as easily as it can combat with literal explosions where life is on the line.

    If this piques your interest (and if it’s still relevant nearly a decade after the fact), check out City of Mist (a superhero noir investigatory thriller game), or Apocalypse World to see where it all started.

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