Ok, here's my post on why the Covenant books wouldn't make a great RPG. I'll be borrowing heavily from a post that a friend of mine made about the Culture novels by Ian M. Banks. I think I have more licensing experience than him in general, (my day job is all about licensing) but he has a ton of experience in licennsing RPG's, having been a designer for Last Unicorn Games (Star Trek and Dune), WotC (Dune, WoT), and Decipher (Trek and LotR's)
Without further ado, here I go.
Why is the Land not a good RPG setting? Rather, let's run down what makes a good RPG setting.
1) Lots of source material.
If you have to do a lot of work to "fill in the gaps" for your favorite setting, then why exactly are you paying for a license? Licenses aren't bought simply because you'll sell more copies of a licensed property than an original property, that's something which may or may not be true, depending on a number of factors, most of which you have little control over. They're also bought because at least some of the money you spend on the license is money saved because some of the work was done for you already. You save time and money on outlining, writing, development and most of all, art.
Obviously you don't want a license no-one's every heard of. Preferably, you want a license with a presence in multiple categories. Books, movies, TV shows.
3) Many main characters.
Prospective players need to understand how they, as a group, interface with the setting. If you've got one main character, instead of a cast of characters, then the group has an automatic disconnect. The canonical example is James Bond. It may sound keen, but you don't want the James Bond license. Because every single gamer who picks it up is going to think "Well, who gets to be 007?" They'll want to play, they'll hope you've got a good answer, and you may. But you're starting behind the rest of the pack, you've got a built in hurdle to overcome. But why go after the Bond license, when there's Mission Impossible? Same exact thing, but geared toward the gaming group. No-one's going to wonder how the group gets together, or what roles everyone takes. The answers to those questions come built in.
4) Iconic characters
It doesn't do a whole lot of good to have a large cast of main characters if none of them are iconic. Meaning "existing as a symbol for themselves." Han Solo, Ben Kenobi, Luke Sywalker are iconic characters. Han is the Scoundrel, Ben is the Wizard, Luke is the Hidden Monarch. These ideas sell themselves and the setting along with it. You don't have to explain what function Han Solo, or characters like him, fill in the setting, everyone already 'gets it.' Trek has this, LotR has this. Even Dune has this.
5) Problem solving.
The characters need to solve problems. Preferably in a pulp way. I think it's one of the reasons so many designers want to work on Pulp games. The plots are perfect for RPGs, even though most gamers don't know pulp. The Plot Coupon method of moving through the story is perfect for RPGs.
Let's look at Star Wars and the Fifth Element, both stories with a large cast of main characters who solve problems. Star Wars has the heroes solving one problem. Defeat the Empire. And the problem they solve radically alters the landscape of the setting, thereby undoing the work the author did in establishing everything.
The Fifth Element, on the other hand, has a group of characters saving the universe, but A: they do so by collecting plot coupons, so they're really solving many problems and B: they save the universe, but it doesn't alter the setting. More stories in the same vein could easily be told. This brings us to:
6) Setting independant of the characters.
The great thing about Trek, as an RPG setting, is that from the get go it was a setting independant of the main characters. There are lots of starships out there, they can all be doing amazing stuff. In fact, you could reasonably presume that there might be MORE interesting starship crews out there somewhere.
Dune, LotR, the Covenant Novels, and Star Wars, all have a problem in this department. The setting exists to serve the actions of the main characters and thus makes little sense independant of these characters.
7) IP Held by experienced licensors.
This may seem a strange point, but you'd be astonished to learn how much of a difference it makes when you're dealing with a person or company with experience with licensing, and when you're not. I've seen beautiful full color core rulebooks where virtually every picture and graphic element on every page was provided by the licensor. Book looks spectacular, with very little work on the creator's part. Likewise I've seen fantastic projects held up because the holder of the license was so inexperienced with licensing that they'd sold the same rights to multiple people.
Alright, so let's look at the Land.
1) Lots of Source Material.
Nope, not really. There are 7 novels and we'd need more books, a lot more, before we know enough about how everything works. We know the basics of how Stonedowners and Woodhelvennin interact, but who provides the food for the Lords? What do the Lords do when the Land isn't threatened? Otherwise, whoever does the RPG would have to do MORE work, a LOT more work than Donaldson himself has. You'd need to do art, which means inventing the look of the Land, as well as a million other things. Ideally, we'd like a movie to be done first, better yet, a TV show. TV shows are great for licenses because they automatically solve so many of these problems.
Not popular enough. Amazon's got his newest book (The Runes of the Earth) ranked somewhere around 18,000th in sales. I'm not sure if his books hit the bestseller lists, but I don't think they do. Point is though, most gamers playing today need to know about it for it to be 'popular' and I don't think most gamers today have read Donaldson. This would have been different 15 or so years ago.
3) Many main characters.
No. One main character for 4 books, with two main characters for 3. Lots of sidekicks who come along to move the plot. People familiar with the books will say "But who do we play?" You might have a great answer (playing Lords is a great answer) but you'd rather not have your fan base, remember these are the guys who ALREADY know about the setting, are ALREADY sold on it, asking what the hell you DO in it as players in an RPG. If your core fans are puzzled, it's a sure sign you'll have problems attracting new fans.
4) Iconic Characters
Hell no. In fact, the opposite. Covenant is an asshole, the antithesis of what you're looking for in an RPG setting's main characters. I mean, even the World of Darkness which is one big iconoclast has dozens of factions for people to belong to and be part of. Even in the most iconoclastic setting, the main characters all identifyably belong to one clan or another.
Having your main characters defined by the ways they reject the setting you're selling is another example of working against the built in tropes of the setting.
5) Problem Solving
The plots are all BIG. The Land is in danger and Thomas Covenant is the only one who can face Lord Foul and win. Time and time again Covenant is told that he is the only one who can save the world, nothing anyone else does will change things. The Lords will fight, but they'll lose. Most gamers don't want to play losers.
6) Setting Independent of the Characters
Not really. For most of the books Covenant doesn't even believe the Land is real.
7) Experienced Licensor.
No. Working with Donaldson might be great, he might be really easy to deal with, but he doesn’t have a CD Style Guide with hundreds of images, logos, signage, costumes, etc… From what I know, he’s really smart and savvy. But he’d still probably be learning most of what he knows about licensing from dealing with you. That’s a resonsabiliy I’d be comfortable with, because I know a lot about it. . .but I’d feel bad for the guy if he was dealing with a less experienced licensee.
What this is all about, in the end, is fighting against perceptions, or working with them. With the Land, you’d have to fight against what people know about the setting in order to orient them toward the game. If you’re sitting there thinking that the books would make a great RPG setting, you’ve already jumped past those hurdles and probably didn’t notice it. It’s not obvious to you why other people would have a disconnnect. But every time you say ‘All you’d need to do is…’ you’re saying “this is not a good RPG setting.” You’re identifying those areas where YOU’D have to do the work to make it an RPG.
My final conclusion: the Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever series is a high candidate for filing off the serial numbers and making your own version of. (Which is something Monte Cook did with Arcana Unearthed.) Being recognizably like something else is a high selling point, while being your own thing means you’re building your own IP. And let me tell you, if you put out a good game that looked great (think the Dune RPG or LotR's), you’d be on your way to possably getting a TV series or a comic book series done. Because your game, by virtue of BEING a game, would look a lot more like a TV series than the actual Covenant novels. If you’re going to have to do most of the work anyway, why not make it work on your own thing?