The time of d20 adaptations is upon us in these lists. Six of the games on this list used the d20 SRD in one form or another. On the one hand, they could write their games as complete stand-alones, using the basics. This would allow them to offer a complete book without the need for the other products from WotC. In particular it would allow them to include certain kinds of character info, like the experience point/level tables. But that also necessitated repeating all of the basic rules like combat, equipment, and so on. For companies that’s a win in that it’s an easy page count. For buyers not so much as each game they buy has tons of repeated material.
Or companies could opt in to the more restrictive license, making the system incomplete and requiring that buyers also have the D&D Players Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. This allowed them better compatibility branding. It also meant they didn’t have to completely repeat the core rules systems. What’s surprising (not surprising) is how many companies went this route and still copy & pasted those sections to flesh things out.
I’m being cynical here-- I don’t know what the market pressures for these products were. Did one sell better than another? Was one more likely to be carried by local stores? Did buyers actually care about this? I don’t know. It’s easy to look back and make a judgement, especially with the benefit of hindsight. Especially knowing that 2003 would bring version 3.5 to the table and really signal the start of the d20 bust.
This list focuses on products which adapt novels, movies, video games, or comic books. I’ll generally restrict myself to official licenses. My comments offer a mix of context, commentary, description, and review. If you see something I’ve missed from 2001 to 2002, please tell me in the comments.
History of Licensed RPGs (Part I 1977-1983)
History of Licensed RPGs (Part II 1984-1985)
History of Licensed RPGs (Part III 1986-1989)
History of Licensed RPGs (Part IV 1990-1992)
History of Licensed RPGs (Part V 1993-1995)
History of Licensed RPGs (Part VI 1996-1998)
History of Licensed RPGs (Part VII 1999-2000)
History of Universal RPGs
History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs
History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs
History of Cyberpunk RPGs
History of Superhero RPGs
History of Horror RPGs
History of Wild West RPGs
Darcsyde Productions, which may well be the most 1990’s name for an rpg company, produced this adaptation of Michael Moorcock’s work. It’s a supplement for Stormbringer (I’m assuming the later version of the system) using Basic-Roleplaying. Corum’s a solid sourcebook for those who dig this particular incarnation of the Eternal Champion. Darcsyde was also supposed to release a Hawkmoon supplement, but that ended up being put out as a Chaosium monograph.
Dragon Lords of Melniboné (2001)
Chaosium takes a bite at the d20 apple. And why not? The Elric novels were a key inspiration for early D&D and other fantasy rpgs. Chaosium takes the smart step of offering this as a setting sourcebook rather than doubling down on a big new d20 full-scale line with it. This allows them to offer some mechanical material while repurposing setting details from earlier products. They would release only one other item for the line, the adventure Slaves of Fate. BB Publishing, an Italian publisher, released an additional adventure Una Spada Chiamata Tentatrice in 2002.
The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game (2001)
I’ll quote from an earlier review I wrote: “The Dying Earth is my favorite rpg that my players never want to play again.” You can see my full write-up of that here.
Dying Earth’s striking and Pelgrane did a wonderful job of adapting the feel of Vance’s stories. However it falls into a middle group of games which seem to aim for rules-lightness and story-focus, but actually have a lot of moving parts and systems (see also HeroQuest, Headspace, Atomic Robo). This is a personal reaction OOH.
Pelgrane supported this line with a ton of great material, including the Kaiin Players Guide, one of the best city supplements ever written. Like seriously, I want to see more stuff like this. In 2014 Pelgrane released The Dying Earth Revivification Folio. This would use the rules from Skullduggery to retune the Dying Earth and overcome many of the obstacles mentioned in my original review. I’ll admit I have not tried that out.
The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying (2001)
2001 saw the release of the most important fantasy film ever: The Fellowship of the Ring. Decipher, which had taken up the license after Iron Crown lost it, used their Star Trek CODA system as a basis. The first release, clearly intended to fit with Fellowship’s release timing, was a thin boxed set called The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Adventure Game. It features basic roleplay info, maps, counters, etc. Decipher released only a single add-on for this version, a boxed set of The Two Towers in 2002.
Decipher poured more energy into the large scale, full-color hardback iterations of their LotR license. This built on the CODA mechanics as well, but for a fuller game rather than a light intro. Despite its promise and big budget presentation only five real products came out for it: the core rules, a Fellowship sourcebook, the Fell Beasts and Wondrous Magic bestiary, Helm’s Deep, and Isengard. Everything offered smaller, lighter materials like the Maps of Middle Earth set. Decipher’s last releases came in 2005 with the last lotR material published alongside the final two Star Trek sourcebooks.
After their West End Games’ collapse, Yeti Entertainment purchased them to form a new company. But Yeti was in turn owned by Humanoids Publishing, making it part of an even larger European comics publisher with Heavy Metal magazine in its portfolio. They hoped to expand into the American market. There was perhaps a time in the 1980s when a Heavy Metal rpg might have grabbed real attention, but that was past. Instead the publishers gambled on one of their most popular properties: Metabarons.
Which would have been great-- it had amazing art, a strong backlog of material, and was written by filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Not surprisingly, it had a Dune-like vibe. They released a striking corebook with gorgeous illustrations, a refined version of the d6 system, and contributions from veteran designer Aaron Allston.
But no one really knew Metabarons in the US, outside comics collectors and those who followed avant-garde sci-fi. The lack of interest led to the publisher shutting everything down. A few French-language supplements supported the line, but it ultimately went nowhere.
Guardians of Order
The prolific and problematic publisher GOO released three anime sourcebooks in this period: Serial Experiments Lain, Parallel Dual!, and Hellsing. All of these were compatible with GOO’s house system: Big Eyes, Small Mouth. While the first two came in single 112 page editions, GOO split the Hellsing supplement into two volumes. Like the other products in this line these leaned more towards being fan guides than gamable material. They had mechanics, but those very much took a backseat to providing setting background.
While online fan sites for these series existed at this point, they hadn’t grown into the archives and phenomenon that they would in the decade to come. The GOO fanbooks offered one of the few good ways to find out more about these series. The publisher clearly hoped these products would expand their reach into bookstores and mass distribution, but they never reached that level. Throughout the late 200s and early 2010s you would find many of these sourcebooks in the bargain bins of shops at conventions.
A reminder that that you should google the publisher, Mark C. MacKinnon, before buying or supporting the new edition of BESM.
The Legacy of Zorro (2001)
Zorro’s a series which has never gotten it’s due. Despite Disney TV series, comics, movies, and references in other media (like nods to it in Batman) it hasn’t lit a fire of excitement. It’s too bad as it open sup another angle to “Wild West” stories both in culture and heroism.
Gold Rush Games released this short, stand-alone rpg using their Fuzion system. The book itself clocks in at only 32 pages and is clearly intended as a starting point rpg. It has complete rules, pre-gen characters, and cut-out figures. GRG only ever released this product, leaving Zorro on the shelf until 2020’s Zorro: The Roleplaying Game from Gallant Knight Games.
Rune gets overlooked as an innovative and interesting game design. First, it’s a GM-full game, with players trading off responsibilities for creating scenes and setting up scenarios. Second, it’s a competitive rpg with characters scoring points for successes and victories. The former would become a mainstay of indie design in the 21st Century and while we can see something like the latter in the recent Agon.
Keep in mind this would have been the same time we started to get some important indie designs (Sorcerer, De Profundis, Little Fears). But Rune came from an established company with a decent reach, Atlas Games. And it was a radical approach to take with a licensed product.
A product, mind you, that you might have completely forgotten by this point. Rune was an action-adventure video game in the mold of Unreal or Heretic. It had a rich Viking-based mythology and a strong multi-player component. However it didn’t garner great reviews and only saw a single expansion pack and a bad port to the PS2. A sequel would come out almost two decades later which ended in a studio closure and legal wranglings.
I’m not saying Rune directly influenced future designers, but it is indicative of the new approaches starting in the new millennium. Atlas released two supplements, Enter the Viking and Crouching Wizard, Smashing Hammer, the latter being a short, booklet adventure. In 2003 they released Last Hero in Scandinavia, an adventure which has both d20 and Rune stats. Rune must have had a substantial print run as copies can still be found for a reasonable price.
The Wheel of Time (2001)
On the one hand, I admire the optimism of putting out a Wheel of Time rpg in 2001. The hope that what would come later wouldn’t invalidate your material. On the other hand, by this time nine massive books would have been out and if that isn’t enough to draw on, I can’t imagine what would be.
WoT opts for the complete and stand-alone d20 adaptation approach. As I mentioned at the start, rather than requiring the PH and DMG, you could play just from this. But a lot of this book is spent representing the basic rules and systems of the d20 SRD. What’s added isn’t that revolutionary, instead tweaking and modifying existing d20 classes and concepts. Complaints about that repetition appears in several reviews. WotC only released one supplement for this line--Prophecies of the Dragon—which presented a large campaign adventure in a hardcover edition.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Roleplaying Game (2002)
The arrival of Buffy's arguably one of the most important developments in popular horror. It added new tropes and refined others. It also managed to balance humor, drama, and horror pretty well. Buffy offered a contrast to Vampire which wasn't solely parody or snark. Instead it presented a way you could have horror combined with real concerns about life, struggles for identity, and questions of existence- without what many saw as the self-indulgence and posing of some VtM games and gamers. Eden smartly went with a lighter set of rules, Cinematic Unisystem. BtVS plays pretty well and the sourcebooks do an excellent job of offering game material and fan reference.
Unfortunately the line ended before we could see products in the pipeline like Welcome to Sunnydale and The Initiative sourcebook. Eden followed up this success with the Angel Roleplaying Game in 2003. It’s a missed opportunity as this was a great line with really well-presented books.
EverQuest Role-playing Game (2002)
Released from White Wolf’s Sorcery & Sorcery Studios, the Everquest RPG was an ambitious adaptation to a d20 system. The core book was a huge stand-alone book with all the classes, races, and spells from the original video game. The first three releases were a Player’s Handbook, a Game Master’s Guide, and a Monsters of Norrath bestiary. The company would support the line with several releases over the next couple of years. In 2005 they put out two books for Everquest II to work with the newly split MMORPG. That would be the end of the line, despite talk that future releases would feature stats for both versions.
It’s interesting because this split and tapering off parallels the same one which happened with Everquest and Everquest II. That split the player base, with many opting to remain with the original game. And just as EQ bled players to other, shinier new mmos, d20 games would feel the pinch when D&D 3.5 and 4e collapsed the d20 bubble.
Was this game unfairly cut off like the series it came from? idk. Farscape chose the alternate route of not making a stand-alone core book, instead requiring the d20 Player’s handout for character creation and other core rules. It’s a good move that ought to have allowed them to focus more time and space on offering setting material. But it does tie them to the fate of d20 itself...which I keep mentioning and foreshadowing.
But Farscape didn’t escape from the rule-reprint factor that plagued d20 games of this era. While it requires a couple of elements found in the PH & DMG, allowing it to use the full d20 branding, it reproduces a lot of the core rules. These eat up a ton of the page count for the back half. On the other hand, the first hundred plus pages are a dynamite sourcebook for the series. It’s also one of the few licensed games from these lists you can still buy copies of. You can get this on DTRPG as a pdf.
Steve Jackson only released two licensed products for GURPS in this period, but they’re both kind of amazing. The first, GURPS Conspiracy X (2002), reworked Eden Studios’ game of modern conspiracy investigation. It’s one of the largest GURPS sourcebooks out there. The writers did a great job adapting the original. They also provided a ton of source material, background, and ideas. It’s super solid. In particular the material on the different strings PCs can pull depending on which agency they come from is dynamite. This is one of the best GURPS sourcebooks.
The other release, GURPS Alpha Centauri (2002), is great in other ways. While it's the size of other sourcebooks, it’s also one of the few hardcover setting books for the line. It is also not for the faint of heart. All of the legendary GURPs crunch comes into play here combined with a hard sci-fi approach to presenting the background and materials. It disappointingly doesn’t provide much in the way of tools for a generational or long-term historical games. You can read my full review of it here.
Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying (2002)
A really lovely little game and sourcebook I regret not picking up when it came out. I've knocked Steve Jackson Games in the past for odd licensing choices (GURPS Planet Krishna?). Hellboy's a dynamite choice. It combines action, horror, and strange powers. The game also came out a couple of years before the first film, so it had that combined with a successful comic book line. While Hellboy's both a sourcebook and an rpg, the book entangles the rules with the sourcebook material more than other similar products. That works against it more than a little. Readers looking for extensive background on the series may be put off by the stats and numbers everywhere. They have to read around the game.
GURPS Lite powers the rules. I don’t dig GURPS’ approach to Supers. I know some gamers generated great campaigns with it, but I disliked its clunkiness. Hellboy covers a much narrower set of powers and abilities. It has interesting options, including ritual paths and psychic powers. GURPS supplements and sub-systems work when they operate in a narrower and better defined range. Hellboy doesn't have to cover everything. I'm unsure how well it did for SJG. It arrived just before they transitioned to GURPS 4e which I expect drew attention away from it. You can still find copies online for a decent price.
The second of the four (so far) Judge Dredd rpgs. Mongoose's first whack at the setting uses d20, and requires the Players Handbook to play. Players choose between Street Judges, Psi-Judges, and Citizens for class. The last choice seems to be on offer if a group wants to play a criminal game set in Mega-City One. If someone pitched me on a Dredd game where we didn't play judges, but instead the people who get killed by Judges I'm pretty sure I'd less-than-politely decline. As you can imagine there's a plethora of new feats, crunchy combat options, and lots of equipment from robots to guns. The line did well enough for Mongoose to publish many supplements, the majority in the Rookie's Guide series. They released the last books in the series in 2004; several years later they came back with a version based on Traveller.
Red Dwarf: The Roleplaying Game (2002)
Comedy is hard, but rpg designers keep making comedic rpgs. The Red Dwarf rpg has the advantage of being built on an existing and beloved franchise. It smartly avoids the fact that there are only really four characters in the universe by having the players make up alternate reality versions of the Red Dwarf crew.
The production isn’t that great-- with black & white interiors and promo images. Surprisingly for this time, it isn’t a d20 game. Instead it builds on a simple 2d6 attribute+skill vs. difficulty test. It’s workable and simple and lets the focus be on the characters and absurd situation.
Deep7Press only released three products for the line: the core book, a GM screen, and a series sourcebook going over every episode.
Slaine: The Roleplaying Game of Celtic Heroes (2002)
Slaine’s a 2000 AD property I’d never heard of. Then husband and wife Pat Mills (Nemesis the Warlock, Marshall Law) and Angela Kincaid (The Butterfly Children) created and wrote the series. Slaine’s a barbarian fantasy series based on Celtic mythology with a distinct heavy metal and neo-pagan vibe to it. It’s a d20 game, requiring the use of the D&D PHB.
Most reviews for it are pretty positive-- liking the game’s classes, new character elements, and general feel. This, alongside Judge Dredd mentioned above, was one of the first two rpgs produced by Mongoose though they’d been turning out d20 products for a while before this. They supported it with nine supplements over this and the following year-- with a strong focus on splat books covering the different tribes of the setting.
The d20 Bust hit them in 2003 and they closed this line down along with several others. In 2007 they returned to Slaine, offering it as a setting book for their line of Runequest products produced under license from Issaries, Inc.
Star Trek Roleplaying Game (2002)
The Star Trek license had been going great guns under Last Unicorn when they lost the license to Decipher. As mentioned on a previous list, the change came suddenly with many LUG titles cancelled despite being almost finished. This version took a combined approach—lumping all eras of play together into a single ruleset. Modiphius would follow this lead with Star Trek Adventures.
Decipher released eight core and sourcebooks, including ones for the Mirror Universe, Creatures, and Starships. The final releases came only three years later in 2005, though it wouldn’t be until 2007 that they gave any official notice of shutting down the line.