Stealing Like an Artist
30 Days of GMing Day 5
Today’s topic is Stealing like an artist: what inspiration have you drawn from other games, books, movies, etc? I struggled with this post a lot. One one hand I want to say I haven’t stolen anything in a long time because I can’t remember specific instances. On the other hand, I know I’ve been doing it because everyone does it. A lot. Which means I’m probably doing it without thinking about it. Everyone does it differently, but here are some things I like to steal.
Leave behind the particulars
There once was a time when I wanted to run a Star Wars game and have the party meet Luke Skywalker. I may still harbour that desire somewhere deep in the sub-cockle area of my black heart, but it’s been beaten into submission by my sense. I don’t like to steal fanservice type characters or scenes because it opens the door for people harping about it being unfaithful to the source material, and it generally introduces an uncomfortable level of absurdity. I won’t say I’ve never done it, I recall running a number of Buffy-style games in a private school stocked with webcomic characters, but the school itself was already absurd. So I leave behind the names and faces, filing off the serial numbers so I can do what I wish with their lifeless husks. I make off with the themes. Oh, the calm swordsage with the sunblade who freed his friends from the clutches of the evil crime lord reminds you of Luke Skywalker? What a funny coincidence.
Those themes tend to be more elemental, and if my players can get a good read on them I can use their knowledge of those archetypes to lead them astray with more familiar themes. The villain is a misunderstood or corrupted hero. The traitor turns out to be loyal in the end. The scoundrel with the heart of gold is overwhelmed by greed. Et cetera. It keeps them guessing but doesn’t make anything super-mysterious. The result is that NPCs are often easy to understand, which gives players an edge they enjoy (and one that I encourage them to use). And themes, accents, and moods are easy to take from all over the place. The bastard son who needs a good mothering and wanders between being playfully irresponsible and dedicated in his cause? Alistair, from Dragon Age. The perfect knight who loves his lord’s lady is Lancelot. They’re all over the place. Works best with players that consume lots and lots of media.
Snatchin’ all your values up
I love to steal moods, looks, and values from characters. I want to understand the thing that’s really important to them and express that in a similar character. Putting that thing in front of them let’s me see what drives them and helps me understand what they’ll do to get it. or keep it. Sometimes it isn’t an object, it’s a person’s well-being, a feeling they used to have, a memory, everyone is different. Having characters with a diverse array of values and motivations gives them concerns outside what the party is doing. It also gives the players a context for understanding their decisions. Sure, a profesor won’t help them with their research, but when they find out he’s overloaded with classes and spends his spare time writing love letters to the daughter of a half-ogre bartender, but if the PCs can alleviate some of his pressure, he’s more likely to help, and it builds a relationship with them. It’s too easy to think that a few gold pieces will motivate everyone, especially if it’s something inconvenient or dangerous. What would you do for 100gp?
The last thing I like to steal is techniques. Whether it’s story planning from the Alexandrian, wonder ideas from Campaign Mastery, or a neat magic item idea I find in an ancient D&D manual. I suppose it’s not stealing if they’re giving it away. the internet has introduced me to so many brilliant gamers who do amazing things at their tables. As a GM I tend to consider things carefully, hold everything in my head, and then fly by the seat of my pants. There isn’t a lot of organization and no one seems to notice or mind, but seeing the things everyone else is doing really inspires me to step up my game, try new things, and push myself as a GM with a helping hand from everyone else.