Book review

Supernatural role playing game, by Jamie Chambers

Douglas Schules

University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fan culture; Paranormal; Participatory culture; RPG; Television

Schules, Douglas. 2010. Supernatural role playing game, by Jamie Chambers [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4.

Jamie Chambers. Supernatural role playing game. Williams Bay, WI: Margaret Weis Productions, 2009, hardcover, $39.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1931567497.

[1] Supernatural Role Playing Game is one in a series of role-playing game (RPG) rule books published by Margaret Weis Productions that focuses on a popular television show or book series. Supernatural Role Playing Game builds off the CW Network's television show Supernatural (2005–), which follows the exploits of two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, as they hunt monsters and, in the current season, literally try to prevent hell on earth. In early episodes, the brothers were aided in their endeavors with the help of their father's journal, which contained all sorts of mystical tidbits and occult knowledge, as well as clippings of odd newspaper stories, Post-it notes, and photos stuffed between the pages.

[2] The format of Supernatural Role Playing Game approximates the layout of the famous Winchester journal. Pages typically contain two columns of information directly explaining the game rules, but this information wraps around photos from the show, torn notebook fragments detailing potential story ideas, and newspaper articles describing weird events. These materials are "clipped" to the rule book pages with a photographic paper clip. They enhance the information in the main columns: nothing essential is conveyed, but these extras offer interesting distractions and reading material. In addition, the book assumes multiple voices, shifting between a sarcastic tone reminiscent of Dean Winchester, one of the main characters, and a more neutral, informative tone emblematic of technical writing.

[3] The book is divided into eight chapters that cover the game world, the rules, ideas for stories and campaigns, and a bestiary detailing supernatural and mundane creepy-crawlies. A brief nuts-and-bolts version of the game setting, rules, and character creation are given in the first three chapters so that players who want to begin playing immediately, or those familiar with the rule system on which the game is based, can do so. For readers who need more explanation, chapters 4 through 6 explain how the rules work and how they apply to character creation. Chapter 7 offers advice on creating stories and the game atmosphere, including techniques of storytelling, and the final two chapters outline the various creatures players may encounter, from the paranormal to the just plain normal.

[4] The organization of the Supernatural Role Playing Game is quite different than older generations of RPGs, such as the iconic Dungeons & Dragons (TSR and Wizards of the Coast, 1974–) and the short-lived Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG (Palladium Books, 1985). Whereas older generations of rule books foreground the rules, explaining the nuances of die rolls and the technical aspects of character creation, the Supernatural revision lessens the importance of rules and attempts to make the game more organic. This point is made early on and is repeated throughout the text:

[5]First off, the game is supposed to be fun. You're telling a story—one that's full of drama, suspense, humor, and action. The rules should make this easier, but sometimes, they get in the way. Sometimes, they just don't cover some crazy ass idea that the players come up with. In that case, the Game Master should keep in mind that the story is key, not the rules. Wing it using the basic game mechanics, and when in doubt, give the players the edge. (19)

[6] The emphasis on developing a gaming experience guided by the rules, not determined by them, is an interesting and perhaps necessary step to counterbalance the computerization of RPGs. Although many RPG rule systems have made the digital leap (such as Bioware's implementation of the Dungeons & Dragons rules), these digital versions are governed only by rules, sublimated into computer code; the organic approach advocated by the Supernatural RPG does not easily make the digital transition. Speculation about the digital application of RPGs aside, Supernatural's position on rules actually stems from the more generic Cortex System of rules of which it is composed. The Cortex System, a creation of Margaret Weis Productions, is essentially a set of broad, generic rules designed to be applied to any number of game worlds. Supernatural Role Playing Game is one game using these rules; others (also authored by Jamie Chambers) include Serenity Role Playing Game (2005) and Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (2007).

[7] The Cortex System assigns a die number ranging from d2 to d12 to a character's attributes, and combining this number with a similar number for skills generates a third number representing a character's proficiency with a certain action. The higher the number, the better the attribute, or the more proficient the player is at the given task. For example, in the course of game play, a character discovers an old tome written in archaic runes. The player's ability to identify the origin of the runes may be based on a combination of intelligence (an attribute) and knowledge of lore (a skill); combining these numbers results in the score representing proficiency, which, when rolled against a game master–determined number to represent difficulty, would be used as a baseline to determine whether the player could read the text.

[8] The underlying Cortex System that informs Supernatural Role Playing Game could be seen as a transformative work, given that the rules are meant to evolve through game sessions. Different groups of players will create and modify different sets of rules to meet their needs; in other words, variations in the same basic set of rules potentially produces a multitude of fan identities.

[9] The connections that that rule book explicitly makes with the television series offer more fertile ground in exploring the book's transformative potential, although the game doesn't present anything groundbreaking in this regard. The design of the book itself, as mentioned earlier, seems like a scrapbook. This choice evokes the television show, where the Winchesters frequently solve mysteries and locate monster weaknesses by reading their father's journal, composed of newspaper fragments, notes, pictures, and a host of other random texts. In mimicking the design of one of the show's most recognizable items, the rule book invites users to keep the show in mind as they play.

[10] But keeping the show in mind does not necessarily mean that players or game masters will engage with it as they play. For this, the rule book explicitly incorporates characters, villains, and even plots from the television series into the game world. In the character sections, for example, Dean and Sam Winchester are fleshed out in all their pen-and-paper glory, complete with histories and statistics, for use in the game. Likewise, several old villains from the show make their way into the bestiary as specific examples of the supernatural creatures that are discussed.

[11] Including these existing and familiar characters in the game isn't that innovative; after all, TSR, the first owner of Dungeons & Dragons, has been incorporating characters from books into their game settings since the 1980s. But this fact doesn't diminish the potential connections fans can make between the game and the television show. Incorporating well-known characters and villains into the game allows players and game masters to fashion their own stories, to expand on and alter the existing television story line.

[12] Supernatural Role Playing Game doesn't contribute anything too novel to the genre of RPGs. Although the rule book emphasizes story and experience over rules, this is not an innovation of this text but rather one of the premises of the more generic Cortex System that forms its base. Even the incorporation of the television show's characters, monsters, and plots into the text as potential campaign suggestions parallels industry practice, but this does not diminish the potential of players and game masters to appropriate the show and make it their own.

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