This week, I want to talk about something that’s very important to roleplaying. Inspiration. Or, as might sometimes be more accurate, outright theft. From day one, I’ve been lifting ideas from films and books and just about anything else I can get my hands on for ideas. As a game master, I’ve taken plots from TV shows, events from history, and monsters from movies. I once ran a Babylon 5 game where I took Event Horizon almost word for word. My players hadn’t seen it, so they didn’t know where I was going. It worked out very well. I’ve used creepy images from David Lynch films to help set up mood. Whatever I could get my greedy little hands on, I’d take and rework into something usable for a game.
It was actually this hunger for ideas to use in games that helped me become more of a film buff. I started to appreciate a wider variety of film, partly because I could find little useful nuggets in the most unusual of places. And awful movies that many might simply dismiss could still produce gems.
This sort of ‘inspiration’ isn’t anything new. Shakespeare did it. Akria Kurosawa did it. And Quentin Tarantino made a career out of doing it. The art comes not in the act of theft, but in what you make of it. I bring this up this week, because, I’ve just struck gold. As readers of this column will know, I’m trying to get back into roleplaying, and thanks in large part to the monstrously frustrating harlot, scheduling, I have yet to be able to even sit down and make up a character with my first player. It’s getting a little ridiculous at this point. However, a few days ago, while not getting together with Brad, due to something coming up, I ended up watching something that gave me a really swell idea. And suddenly my plan to just run him through a simple, pre-published one-shot from the back of the Call of Cthulhu basic book was dropped. No. Now I’ve got what I think is an awesome idea, that will work very well as a one-shot, but could also expand into a mini-campaign with some extra players added if that becomes an option. All spawned from watching one thing, and really liking a couple ideas from it.
I’ve run with those stolen ideas, and created a story that has NOTHING to do with the original. Or very little, anyway. Not only adapting it to fit with the Cthulhu mythos, but changing era, adding an extra weird bit of science fiction, and connecting it directly to the character idea Brad came up with. Frankly, I’m now much more excited about running this game.
In film, you can see this a lot. I mention Akria Kurosawa, because a movie frequently cited as the source of many remakes and/or rip-offs is his awesome Samurai picture, Yojimbo. But what few realize is that Yojimbo is itself based on the excellent Dashiell Hammett novel, Red Harvest. A lone, mysterious man wanders into a corrupt, nearly dead town, run by two warring factions. Then he plays each side off the other, bringing the whole thing to a boiling point. It’s a great story, and one can see how it could so easily translate into feudal Japan (Yojimbo), the American Old West (A Fistful of Dollars), a run-down future(Omega Doom), and a sex charged fantasy world (The Warrior and the Sorceress). And eventually made it back to something more closely resembling its source (Last Man Standing). Each of these films took a basic idea, stripped away the trappings of setting and culture, and made a new film. Sure, some of these are absolute crap. But the story remains sound.
Now, because the nature of a roleplaying game means you can’t map out exactly how things will go, transferring a plot directly doesn’t quite work. But, you can take the ‘set-up’ or even some of the same key ingredients. So, for example, take a film you really enjoy, say The Thing. You want to use it, but you’re going to be running an Ars Magica game. First, consider what some of the key elements of The Thing are, and what makes it so cool. First, there’s isolation. The film is set at an Antarctic research station, and there’s a storm rolling in. Doesn’t get much more removed than that. Second, there’s the creature itself. An alien that was frozen in the ice gets loose and infects/consumes people, making itself into near perfect copies in a bid to survive and spread.
But how would that translate into a magic rich Europe at the end of the 12th century? Well, isolation could be fairly easy in a land with small population and little in the way of long distance communication. But you could take this one further, especially if you really like the snow motif. Set the game in the Alps, or perhaps in half-pagan Scandinavia. Perhaps at the beginning of a long winter? And the Thing itself. What about that? Frankly, I think brining aliens into Ars Magica would be a mistake. It sure wouldn’t work for me. Not to say aliens in the Middle Ages wouldn’t work. But it’s not something I’d want in Ars Magica. And the creature seems too insidious to be a simple magically monstrous creature. It doesn’t seem to be the right style for the fairies. But, it actually works in a similar way to the Infernal. So, perhaps this Thing, found under the ice when an ancient stone box is dug up, is a spawn of Hell, actively trying to infect mortal men with its corrupting evil, taking their faces to lure in more unsuspecting folk. Now, you’ve got the basic story of The Thing, but set in the Mythic Europe of Ars Magica.
Not every film, or book, will work quite so easily, and some will work better for certain games than others. Creatures, items, or other details can sometimes be easier to translate. Like, if you’re running a game of Star Trek, it wouldn’t take much to drop a Predator in, either directly, or modified as you see fit. Nor would it be very difficult to translate the character of Adolf Hitler. Change his species, who he preaches hate against, and what he wants to conquer, and you can still use his life story, with details changed, as the source of a compelling and particularly vile villain. Or, what if you’re running a Traveller game, and you really want to drop your players on the planet from Pitch Black. Again, it’s not hard. And if you don’t want anyone to guess, change a few details. Perhaps, it’s a swampy place, not a desert. Maybe the temperature is too cold for the creatures during the night phase, and it’s only with the dawn that they begin to wake up.
In changing little details and figuring out what effect that might have, you are often inspired with many other cool ideas that help make the story your own. So, while I may start by saying “I’m going to use the ‘squid’ tech from Strange Days.” I then have to ask what if I put this into an existing Cyberpunk 2020 game. Well, the tech would certainly seem to blend in pretty handily, but if you add the ability to hack, or be hacked into the equation, as well as the virtual world and 2020’s version of the internet things could take a very different shape. Boost that tech forward a few years, to the point where you’ve got squid-heads in every alley, overdosed on people’s memories. Where you’ve got war correspondents sending back their impressions of battle, right up to and including their own deaths, so real you can feel the bullets hitting. And where even someone without any jacks installed could still be doing some corporate espionage. In fact, the squid units could totally remove the need for hardware jacks, making people with them seem old-fashioned and antique. Maybe even second class. You could have a whole underground of hackers still trying to keep up the old hardwired systems.
I guess my point for this week is, never ignore what could be a potential source of good ideas, and when you’re putting together scenarios, never be afraid to steal. Just do what successful film makers and playwrights have been doing for generations. First steal from the best. But don’t be afraid to steal from the worst. Then make it your own.