When trying to take existing franchises and emulate them in a tabletop RPG, one problem comes up over and over: How do you capture the feel of a story originally revolving around a single protagonist while making it suitable for a group? Some franchises lend themselves naturally to adventuring parties (e.g. X-Men, Ghostbusters, Star Wars) while others – such as The Legend of Zelda – almost exclusively follow solitary heroes.
The solution, I think, will vary from franchise to franchise. Here are some options for Zelda:
- Don’t make it Legend of Zelda, just make it "adventuring in Hyrule". No one plays Link. It’s basically just D&D with races, locations, and magic items from the Zelda canon. This could be cool, but I don’t know that it would really feel like Zelda.
- Promote side characters. One person plays Link, but other characters along the lines of Zelda/Sheik, Midna, Navi, Darunia, etc. are also PCs, and have more "screen time" and agency than they would in a Zelda video game.
- Use the Four Sword or a similar artifact. The Four Sword is the item featured in the Four Swords games, which allows Link to multiply into two to four copies of himself, each wearing a different color tunic. For a tabletop RPG, you’d want to give each Link different abilities and a different personality. Maybe each separate Link represents one part of his persona and skill set, and when Link is combined, he is collaboratively played by all players at the table?
- Use time travel. Links from various times/timelines (i.e. different Zelda games) must unite to save Hyrule. Unless you exaggerate the differences among Link’s various incarnations, the group would be way too homogeneous. (Dibs on playing eighties cartoon Link!)
- Use something like the transforming masks from Majora’s Mask. This way, everyone can be Link while playing different races and "mixing in" personality traits and abilities from other characters. (In Majora’s Mask, these masks were created from the spirits of deceased characters.) Of course, if you use the masks verbatim, you still have to come up with a reason for why multiple Links exist at the same time. (Four Sword + transforming masks = adventuring party?)
What would I do? Here’s an idea: in the initial "cutscene" of the first session, an experienced Link and a diverse group of sages (one per player) are trying to defend Princess Zelda from Ganon. Ganon hits Link with a spell that splits his spirit into several shards. Lucky thing the Sages are present! They’re able to keep Link alive if they each take one spirit shard. Thus each sage transforms into a combination of Link and his/her former self, much like the mask transformations. But Ganon also takes one, becoming a version of Dark Link.
The shards can only be reconstituted through an ancient song of the sages, and its parts (each of which must be sung/played by a sage) are sealed deep within the temples of Hyrule. When performed, the song will coax the shards back together.
You can handle PC death by saying that the sage dies and Link’s spirit shard finds a new host (probably the monster that killed the PC). A new sage must take his/her place and recover that shard.
Naturally the final boss has multiple forms, the first being Dark Link. When Dark Link is defeated, recovering the final shard of Link’s spirit, the sages can reconstitute Link Captain Planet-style in Fierce Diety form, just in time to battle Ganon’s next stage.
This solves several issues. First off, everyone gets to be Link. (No one is the "main" protagonist.) Second, it’s fine if their personalities don’t feel Link-ish enough. (In most Zelda games Link is more or less mute, so he’d be hard to play at the table.) Third, you can get various races and powers in the mix. Fourth, you have a campaign goal: save Zelda and reassemble Link’s spirit. The biggest problem is that it doesn’t accommodate new players joining, unless someone else leaves or the new player wants to be a non-Link side character.
I’d run the game in a hacked Fate Core (borrowing several ideas from Save Game, and start with collaborative world creation. Everyone together decides what this particular incarnation of Hyrule is like. Each player gets to describe the culture of their sage character, and a temple belonging to that culture. (The GM designs the actual map and puzzles.) They could even create new races.
One more thought: as for gear, I’d divvy up some of Link’s signature items among the PCs during character creation, modeling them through stunts, aspects, and skills. The Master Sword, however, is split along with Link’s spirit, and partially inhabits each of the sages’ signature weapons. Items obtained during the game (e.g. in dungeon treasure chests) can be passed around as desired, or the GM can design items intended for specific PCs.