Sunday, November 13, 2011

Creative Short Cuts

There is a comic book called Knights of The Dinner Table, it is about five friends who play a Dungeons & Dragons type game called Hackmaster (a game that was later actually created, partly based on the original D&D engine).  I used to buy it but I 1) was running out of room to store comics and 2) I could not justify the price because once the Hackmaster game was created KOTDT became a Hackmaster supplement magazine and the price went up.  So I could not see why I should be a magazine where half the material was stuff I was not interested in.

Anyway, in one issue one of the players, Dave, decides to take a  crack  behind the GM screen and the results are...less than stellar.  The dungeon, you see, was just the layout of his house.  Because Dave was a first time GM and had difficulty coming up with something he fell back on something he knew.

As silly as the plot was, as funny as the strip struck me, the principle used is not.

First time, or even veteran GMs may be hard pressed to come up with original material and can find running a game to be very intimidating.  In an earlier post I referenced online sources for pre-generated adventures and this is one avenue.  But what if you want to run a longer lasting campaign and are having difficulty creating supporting characters, kingdoms, plots and these online sources are not helping?  The fact is there is plenty of material to pick and choose from, be it old television programs, motion pictures, books, history, etc.

I am not talking about ripping off a plot whole, but there is nothing wrong with being inspired.  For example, Star Trek's Balance of Terror is obviously inspired by The Enemy Below, but it is still very much a Star Trek story.  And sticking with Star Trek, the writers and producers were obviously influenced by modern events at the time, with the Klingons and Romulans playing the part of the Soviets and Communist China.  There were episodes where the Klingons and Federation were indirectly involved in conflicts much like the Soviet Union and United States were during the Cold War.  Looking at other fictional worlds, even a legendary writer like Robert E. Howard has gone this route; he used ancient Egypt as the blueprint for the Hyborian kingdom of Stygia.  Hell, Harry Turtledove does not even hide the fact that he has used the American Civil War and World War II as the basis of two fantasy series.

EDIT: I completely forgot about George Lucas, who has admitted that two of his inspirations for Star Wars were Flash Gordon (he actually wanted to do a Flash Gordon movie but was unable to because someone else had the rights) and The Hidden Fortress.

What do you know about the region where you live?  Here in Michigan there are two interesting stories that could make for good one-short adventures or long or short campaigns.  During the height of the logging industry there were guys who would steal logs as they floated down the river: log rustlers.  It might sound silly but at a time when wood was the number one construction material in places without quarries logs were a very valuable commodity.  Perhaps your adventurers have stumbled into a situation where loggers, frustrated with the loss of revenue, have hired the wandering adventurers to put an end to the rustlers?  It is a change of pace from the standard dungeon crawl and PCs might have to deal with unusual environments to fight in (imagine a pitched battle on logs snarled in a river.  The wet, uncertain footing, the possibility that the wrong move could shift the entire pile and send people falling into the water, PCs crushed between logs or trapped beneath the pile, drowning!).  Another incident is the "Toledo War" where a conflict erupted between the state of Ohio and the territory of Michigan over the city of Toledo.  In the late eighteenth through early nineteenth century Toledo was a thriving and important town due to it's geographical location on Lake Erie and the creation of the Erie canal (before railroads the canal systems played a major role in the movement of goods, with mule-pulled barges floating up and down them).  Imagine two kingdoms warring over a small town due to it's economically important location.  The town is split into factions, factions eager to hire adventurers to protect their goods as they ply the river.  Perhaps the PCs must come up with some way to find a resolution to this conflict?  What if the loggers from the earlier idea run their logs down to this town?  So just by using two pieces of Michigan history I have come up with a possible long term campaign.  Sure, it might not be to everyone's taste but not every adventure should revolve around abandoned dungeons and bags of gold and jewels that are just laying around.  Too much of that sort of thing and players run the risk of growing jaded.

With a little homework I could adapt Detroit politics into the political framework of a fantasy or sci-fi city.  Have you heard of Tammany Hall?  There is a fantastic blueprint to create a corrupt political machine.  Why knock yourself out trying to create all that material?  Unless you love it, of course.  If that is the case then knock yourself out.  I am just saying for those of you hard pressed to create this stuff, there are avenues to pursue, resources to exploit.

This principle does not necessarily have to apply only to an adventure or a setting.  Perhaps you are simply having trouble coming up with NPC names?  My friend Dave, for one of his campaigns, named the members of one mighty house after characters from an anime.  You could use famous people from a historically important event like the battle of Thermopylae, perhaps modify their names a bit.  Leonidas becomes Leon, Demophilus becomes Demo, Themistocles is now Themi (the latter possibly even being a good female name).  Xerxes?  Zerk, maybe.  There, I just came up with the names for a cyberpunk biker gang, the Chrome Spartans.  Maybe use foreign boy and girl names for the names of regions and cities.  Aimery, Arbogastro, Zosime, Chace are all French boy names, ones likely not known to English speaking players, they would be ideal names for cities and countries. Italian girl names?  Ghita, Perlita, Zoila. Three of the members of the super villain group the Company of Wolves were named after my brothers, that was done more simplicity's sake because at the time their first names were not that important.

What about villains?  When I began my Vindicators campaign I created a lot of poorly defined background because I wanted to give the players the feeling that they were not the first heroes in this world, that paranormals had been making an impact on it for decades.  So I worked up a timeline and sprinkled numerous fictional events in it (I was very much inspired by the Watchmen comic, where Alan Moore succeeded in showing how the existence of super heroes would impact the real world).  With some I had some ideas that would be addressed in the game eventually, with others I just put them there for color.  One of them was a guy named Lord Dread.  I had never intended Dread to be anything more than a Doctor Doom knockoff and I had never intended to use him.

Not without giving Doom royalties!
But then I came across an image online and I thought they were so cool that I simply had to expand on Lord Dread, only what could I do to make him unique from Doom?  Two things sprang to mind.  The first was Dread's numerous defeats have worn him down over the years.  When you look at Doctor Doom the guy loses.  A lot.  Seriously, has any of his successes had any lasting impact on his enemies or the world at large?  Not really.  You would think a guy who has lost so many times would just give up, right?  And that is what Lord Dread did.  He gave up.  Beaten once too often, he has ceased in his attempts to conquer the world and as a result he has become forgotten, a punch line.

And then...he got old.  And now he is dying.  And now he has decided to go out with one last gasp.

So while I was inspired by Doom-hi tech villain who wears armor and has his own country-I have taken it someplace else.  I added my own twists.  And yeah, maybe some comic book writer has done the same thing, but if they have I have not read it.  Believe it or not, but it is very difficult to come up with something new.  I thought my friend Joe had invented the idea of the super hero reality show when he ran his Avant Guard PBeM, then I discovered DC had done it during the nineties with some of their New Blood characters.

Chances are you are surrounded by inspiration: historical texts, paperbacks, comic books, DVDs, the internet. You have at your fingertips entire worlds to adapt to your campaign.  The hard part is to give it enough of a spin that makes it yours, make it fun for you and your players.  Just try to have more vision than to simply use your house layout for your dungeon, or your brothers as the bad guys. :)

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