"I myself have dreamed up an intermediate step between Dyson Spheres and planets. Build a ring ninety-three million miles in radius—one Earth orbit—which would make it six hundred million miles long. If we have the mass of Jupiter to work with, and if we make it a million miles wide, we get a thickness of about a thousand meters. The Ringworld would thus be much sturdier than a Dyson Sphere. There are other advantages. We can spin it for gravity. A rotation on its axis of seven hundred seventy miles per second would give the Ringworld one gravity outward. We wouldn't even have to have a roof over it. Put walls a thousand miles high at each rim, aim it at the sun, and very little air will leak out over the edges. The thing is roomy enough: three million times the area of the Earth. It will be some time before anyone complains of the crowding."
— Larry Niven on the dimensions of the Ringworld
Few people are as capable of building believable, complex worlds as Larry Niven. From the twisted interplanetary colony gone wrong in Destiny's Road to his brilliant, modern reimagining of Dante Alighieri's vision of Hell in Inferno, the man breathes true life into every world he creates. But none of his works can compare to the science-fiction masterpiece that is the Ringworld. As a series of books, Ringworld and its sequels are enjoyable, engrossing reads. However, if there was ever a series that demanded to be turned into a video game, this was it.
One's first inclination might be to view it as an opportunity for the world's most insanely massive MMO. After all, the Ringworld is quite literally one of the most massive worlds ever imagined. With three million square miles of space to work with, it could potentially be expanded on indefinitely. Four books worth of source material would provide plenty to work with, not only in terms of landscape, but even in terms of playable races. The Ringworld features dozens of genetic offshoots of human beings, enough to give any fantasy game a run for its money. Certainly it has the makings of a truly incredible MMO.
However, at its heart, Ringworld is really a video game story imagined before it was really possible to tell stories using video games. It has a cast of unique, even eccentric characters, each of whom he thinks brings a different talent to the party. Indeed, the four primary characters were chosen and brought together for the specific purpose of exploring the Ringworld, and it's this facet more than anything else that highlights it as a perfect candidate for an RPG.
"Louis Wu and his Motley Crew." This phrase marks the first two chapters of Ringworld, and exemplifies Louis Wu's role as the ignoble leader of the party. Even in the book, Louis is the reader's avatar throughout the story. His perspective is given the most attention over the course of the book, and he is a natural fit as the player character. Louis was chosen because he is a survivor. He's been everywhere, seen everything, and lived to tell about it. At two hundred years old, one might think him immortal; he certainly hasn't gone out of his way to stay safe. Over the course of the books we see him as an adventurer, a philanderer, and an addict. Within an RPG, Louis would be a typical protagonist character, capable of doing many things well, but not as well as others. There are many potential mechanics that would fit his character, but as a "survivor," he doesn't really fit the mold of usual RPG class roles. That said, his abilities in a game could translate as easily to noncombat concepts as combative ones. Tactics, diplomacy, and knowledge in general would give him a wide range of traits to draw on.
Nessus is the organizer of the Ringworld mission, and a truly bizarre personality. He is part of a race called "puppeteers," whose defining characteristic is a hyper-inflated self-preservation instinct. As a species, they take no risks, are meticulous in everything they do, and think in terms of millennia rather than days, months, or years. The journey to the Ringworld itself is in hopes of finding a way to survive the approaching shockwave from the Galactic core going supernova — a shockwave that isn't set to reach populated space for nearly twenty-thousand years. Nessus himself is unusual, even for a puppeteer, as he is classified by his people as insane. For them, this merely means that he is willing to take risks that no sane puppeteer would ever dream of, such as landing on an unknown and potentially hostile world. Regardless, he is a coward through and through, and does everything he can to protect himself, including surrounding himself with people who he thinks give him a better chance of survival. The puppeteer is a natural fit as a support character. His instinct for self-preservation means his skills would naturally revolve around defense, medicine, and support technology.
Speaker-to-Animals is, essentially, a giant space tiger. He's large, ferocious, and intelligent, and he has a nasty temper. A party tank if there ever was one, Speaker was brought onto the mission for one sole reason: he's dangerous, and hopefully more dangerous than anything they might encounter on the Ringworld. Speaker shares more characteristics with typical game characters than any of the other protagonists, and it's easy to see him filling an RPG role.
Finally we come to Teela Brown, easily the most unique and intriguing character in the book, and mechanically speaking, potentially the most interesting character in an RPG version of Ringworld. Teela is a human being like Louis, but only a tenth of his age. She has no special skills to speak of, and isn't particularly intelligent or clever. Her purpose on the party is essentially that of a rabbit's foot or a four-leaf clover: she has been selectively bred, over several generations, to be the luckiest person in the universe. She's physically stunning, fit and healthy, and has never been seriously hurt or injured her entire life, and as a result, is virtually a stranger to fear. Her uncanny luck guides the story in unpredictable and shocking ways, playing on the coincidence-driven God Machine that drives most works of fiction.
From a gameplay perspective, Teela Brown is one of the reasons I think that Ringworld would make for such a fascinating game. Luck is such a key component of RPGs, and yet we rarely pay much attention to how important it really is. In an RPG, everything is calculated based on probabilities and random number generators. If your attack misses, it's because the dice didn't roll in your favor. If you land a critical hit, it's because you rolled high. Teela Brown, as a character, has the potential to turn this entire concept on its head. The possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of the game's designers. Maybe she has a really high critical hit ratio? Perhaps she can actually manipulate the under-the-hood dice rolls in her favor? The sky's the limit.
Admittedly, the Ringworld story does not engage is very much combat, but it is ripe with adventure, and with a bit of poetic license it would work marvelously as an RPG. The story only stretches across a fraction of the Ringworld's surface, but there are also four books to draw from — more than enough content to fill at least one, if not several RPGs. It would work equally well as either a plot-driven JRPG-type game, or as a Fallout-style open world adventure. But its biggest strength isn't the vastness of the world itself, but the fact that the story begins with the assembly of the perfect adventuring party. How can that not be made into an RPG?
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