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Writings > Dragavan's Den (closed) > 11: Inspired by Movies & Books
11: Inspired by Movies & Books
Published by Dragavan on 2007/9/27 (6943 reads)
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Inspired By or Plagiarized

Where Do Those Game Ideas Come From?

When creating an adventure (be it a one-shot or a whole campaign setting), you will most likely have been at least inspired by something. It's nearly impossible to create any story without having to admit (if you really look deep enough) that at least parts of it were inspired by other sources. Where this starts to bother people is when they start to wonder if they are too heavily influenced and think they are simply plagiarizing the work of others.

The question I have when it comes to gaming is does it really matter where the line is? Isn't gaming supposed to be all about just having fun and playing games? If you can do that by copying something you've seen or read, is that wrong? I am not talking about the legalities of it all, since these would only come in if you decide to publish your adventures or stories, just the act of using them for game.

Should the stories, characters, and whole adventures be as original as they can make it, or should you borrow where you need and want to make it as good and fun as possible? Where is the line that should not be crossed? Is there even a line? This is the question I am going ramble on about today.


Some people say there is nothing new in stories (be it books, movies, or even games) any more, just different takes on the same old stories. Okay, a lot of people say that (in some form). If that is the case than it's not a matter of to copy or not, but more to what level are you going "borrow" from those who came before. What is acceptable and what is not?

Imagine if you will a game where you are going to play a number of people who have been freed from an artificial reality (used to control and dominate your species from some reason) and now are on a quest to free the rest of them. You can "hack" into the AR system to gather information, expose information to the trapped, and even battle the captors control within the system. Outside the AR world you live on battle worn planet, where you are hunted by the captors and have to live and fight from hidden bases and bunkers. You are the heroes of this force; chosen to fight, lead the rebels, and free humanity from the enemy.

Sounds rather familiar, doesn't it? You could say that it's a pretty much a heavy copy of The Matrix, even if the fine details end up having many differences (like perhaps the enemy is aliens and not robots). Does the fact that it is pretty much the story of the Matrix make it sound any less fun to play in? Not really. You could still do a lot and have a blast playing this game.

This "borrowing" of large themes, settings, and even stories has been common and rampant in the RPG world since it started. Just look at what the first real RPG was and what it borrowed from. D&D was pretty much a mix of wargame and Tolkien Middle Earth wish fulfillment for gamers. The races, the setting, and a lot of the feel came right out of Lord of the Rings, but nobody complained. It was fun and that's what was important.

Most of the games that followed did the same thing on the large scale, although there were some that were far more original and less derivative of other set stories or series in other media. Most games were set in some somewhat familiar setting to those who read or watch the right things, allowing them to get into and enjoy the game faster and easier. Often it was why they got into it, because they wanted to play in a game based on the books or movies they like. Nothing wrong with that.


Where some people start to have issues with it seems to be when the individual stories or adventures starts to "borrow" heavily from one or two sources. Stories "ripped from the headlines", as TV dramas like to say, only in this case they are "ripped" from other media sources (books, movies, TV, etc.). If you change it enough, to where people might not even catch on to what it is taken from, you can usually get away with it without complaints, but stick too close to the source and people start to have the "seen it" attitude.

I don't think this is fair, since they are still good stories and how they play out will depend more on the players than the original source anyway. Players are not going to follow the scripts of the shows or books when they are presented with the same set-up, so using the same set-up is not necessarily a bad thing. Hell, even different gaming groups (or even different characters within the same group) are not going to react to the same set-up the same. That's the power of RPGs. You get to change where the story goes through your actions.

Take this set up for example: A diverse group of characters, who are mostly strangers, end up on a seemingly deserted tropical island. They realize rescue is not coming any time soon and have to find a way to live on the island. They form a community of huts and a loose leadership structure to survive. Soon enough they realize that there are a number of odd things about the island and that they are not even completely alone there. This is the set up for the campaign you are about to embark on.

How they play it and what the characters do can make this go a number of different ways, as well as what the GM throws at them. Are we going to have a serious mystery, fraught with dangers, like on "Lost"? Are we going to have some silly madcap adventures, filled with in-jokes and cameos from other characters, like "Giligan's Island"? Are you going to have a realistic struggle for survival, with some challenges thrown in, like "Survivor"? Even a monster-infested island you have to battle through, like "Lost World", could come out of this. But the odds are that it will be NONE of these, since the players will take their characters in completely different directions.


Large sections of story plot can even be lifted directly out of other sources and plugged into your game. Again, this is something a lot of people vocalize their disagreement with but I think it can be done perfectly well. There have been several times that I lifted ideas or even whole story plots right out of movies and books and plugged them into my fantasy setting for Karn. They don't even have to be fantasy sources to work for this, with a little work all sorts of plots can easily fit into any genre of game.

This is an area a lot of people seem to not grasp when it comes to genre and settings. Fantasy, being the most popular genre, does not simply mean all stories have to be epic adventures of heroes and monster slaying. You can easily plug in stories that incorporate all sorts of other ideas and even sub-genres. The same goes for sci-fi, western, steampunk, and nearly any other genre. Take nearly any story you want and it can be converted to work in the setting you are playing.

Take the well-known story of Alien (for example) and turn it into a playable RPG adventure. You have your character(s) put into a situation where a mysterious monstrous creature is stalking them after having "infected" their property with their kind. Its goal is to pick them off one by one and grow its own brood from them, while the character's goal is to survive and escape or defeat it. This could make for a great survival horror game in nearly any setting or genre. The plot is directly from Alien, but the story would change depending on how the character(s) act.

It would be easy to do this in a sci-fi setting, since that would match the movie perfectly, but think about other settings and genres this could be worked into. In fantasy it could be some kind of giant intelligent monster attacking their encampment deep in the woods. In a more cyberpunk setting it could be a high-tech killer android trapping them in a building. In the old west it could even be some smart rabid animal trying to pick them off. The story is pretty much the same no matter how you play with the genre or setting.

The Matrix idea would work as the science tech they were in the movie in a good sci-fi game, but it could also be worked into numerous others. The easiest alternate setting would be fantasy, as you could have magic or psionics used to trap people into an illusionary world of some kind. This could be through a spell or even as a special power of some kind of monster or creature.


Don't be afraid to be influenced, borrow, or even blatantly steal ideas and stories from anywhere for your games. Movies, books, TV, and more can all be great sources of ideas and stories for games. Use the setting, set-up, story background, and even characters from the source material to get your game underway, just don't expect your players to follow it. The main thing to remember is to not try and force the players to follow the solutions and actions of the characters in the source material. They will be far more diverse and possibly even more creative than the story based characters.

Players are the main source for creative stories in a game, use them. Don't fret over the use of inspiration and ideas from other source material (especially if you can't come up with something on your own so easily), just get things rolling and let the characters loose to shake things up. Imagine how different Star Wars would have played out if you tossed your gaming group into the Millennium Falcon on approach to the Death Star via tractor beam in Episode 4: A New Hope. Think they would have saved the princess, disabled the tractor beam, and sacrificed the old man in the same way?

In the end the only thing that really matters is that you all have fun. Don't fret over where the setting or story that started the fun comes from. Even the most overused story or plot can be made fun with the right group and twists thrown into it.

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