Adventure

Writing for Popular IP (at a Wizarding School) – The Warlock’s Tunnel

May 25, 2019

Harry Potter has a special place in my creative consciousness not only because of my love for the books and movies, but also because I got to design and produce the very first Harry Potter videogame (a whirlwind of a production that I’ll save for another time, but all-in-all, fond memories of the insanity). A few months ago, I was lucky enough to get to visit the Harry Potter Exhibition in London. It’s a fantastic, museum-level tour through all the sets, costumes, and sights of the Harry Potter movies, and the sheer desire to dive back into the world overcame me.

In designing GURPS Harry Potter and the Warlock’s Tunnel, I actually got to apply a decade of expertise building games in someone else’s IP. While the guidelines vary from property to property, there’s ones that still stand out in my mind when it comes to JK Rowling’s universe:

  • Obey the Canon – This one is the most important when it comes to Harry Potter. Working on the videogames, there were strict rules around the spells Hogwarts students would learn at different years, the locations of the classrooms, the rules of magic, and lots lots more. At the time, this felt restrictive… but over the years it came to be all of those details Potter fans would love about the franchise. So when I wrote the adventure, I decided that 100% of the adventure would be canon* But to give myself some flexibility, I set the adventure a few years before Harry arrived at school, so there would still be some mystery and newness to players who were deeply familiar with the lore.
  • It is a School Story – The charm of many of the Harry Potter books (and likely the reason the Fantastic Beasts films haven’t found the same success) is that 80% of the plot is highly relatable to anyone ever attended grade school. All of the magic and wonder is set dressing around stories of clever students, bullies, and inscrutable adults. To reflect this, I made sure that the adventure stayed almost entirely contained within Hogwarts (no hexcrawls through the Forbidden Forest…), with the obstacles being other students and professors first, magical foes a far second.
  • It is a Mystery – One of the other patterns the Harry Potter books establish, especially early on, is that the primary plot is a mystery. Who let the troll into the school? What is Fluffy guarding? Who opened the Chamber of Secrets? Who is Sirius Black? There’s a lot of mysteries, big and small, all over the books. I took a similar approach and made sure that the central plot was a similar mystery — what is the Warlock’s Tunnel? Why are students getting sick?
  • A Scoop of Fan Service – Harry Potter fandom has spread like a venomous tentacula. Potter fans playing in an RPG are going to expect to see familiar faces and situations. But I also realized that it’s easy to go too far in this regard. RPGs are about original adventures, not running around in the shadow of famous characters. So I took a measured approach to fan service: I included a couple of familiar professors to make sure it felt right (welcome, Snape and McGonagall to the Warlock’s Tunnel), added more minor elements that only hardcore Potter fans would recognize (the Architect of Hogwarts statue being a main element, an elder Parkinson, a Thunderbird transfer student), and then created some original elements that will give deja vu to fans (Welsh Crimbils, a new ghost, a Syrpens Mask). Surrounding the new elements with both well-known and obscure Potter lore will, I hope, make it almost impossible to tell what’s original and what you can look up in detail on Pottermore.

With my guidelines in place, and armed with hundreds of photos from the Exhibition, the adventure took shape quickly. It helps when I’d already spent over a year of my life working in this world professionally!

I played the adventure a few weeks later, with a mix of adults and young teens. I got great feedback on the adventure, which I incorporated into the final version here. My players wanted to discover the identity of the big bad before the very end of the adventure (although figuring out who the big bad is in the last chapter is very Harry Potter…), so I allowed some smart play to uncover his identity before the tunnel is discovered. I also realized that my mystery had some big plot holes in it, so I had to go back through the adventure and create a more clear timeline for myself to fix that up. Fortunately, my players never spotted the inconsistency, but I learned a valuable lesson – if you’re going to write a mystery adventure, make sure it’s clear what actually happened before you write it!

I’m especially keen to know how this adventure runs in other groups. I imagine groups will challenge the GM in unique ways if they know the Potter world well, or push off course for some sightseeing (“let’s get Trelawny and go check out the whomping willow for signs of the Prefect!”). The adventure doesn’t really cover all these scenarios, as I think that would require it to be the length of one of the later books…

*To the best of my ability. Keeping up with all of the official Potter lore may be a full-time job. But if you spot anything terribly wrong, let me know!

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