Drawing Inspiration For Games

As a GM, one of the greatest things that I found kept me back when I first started trying to provide a gaming experience to my players was my desire to create an “original experience” for them.

This led to a number of things that didn’t work: trying too hard to be original can mean that you reject the useful methods of the past that have been proven successful, and it can also mean that to compensate for the lack of existing material, you simply pass over into the realm of spectacle.

One of the things that I want to briefly discuss is the concept of originality.

Originality is not necessarily simply making things from thin air. The human brain doesn’t work that way, and if you try to do that you will spend a long time in agony before your brain simply finds something you can’t consciously associate with other things.

With that in mind, your job as a GM, or a roleplayer, is to tell stories.

This means that you should borrow elements from your favorites and incorporate them into your own.

Note that this is not the same as lifting content wholesale. The player who brings in a character that’s plainly just someone from a different story with the serial numbers filed off (or worse, the guy who brings in a character that’s just someone from a different story with the identifying data intact) is likely not going to contribute a whole bunch to storytelling because there’s no originality.

But what you are looking for is inspiration.

I have had several campaigns where someone turns to me and asks:

“Is this just Kurtz from Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now?”

Yet they never say that in a disappointed way (the secret is to run the same idea with different groups, which has the added benefit of seeing how they react). They figured out what sort of story I was trying to tell, but I kept things fluid enough that they were just recognizing archetypes (in this case, the lone military man who loses it and goes beyond his original charter to catastrophic ends).

Because this is a story arc/character element that I enjoy, I can use it in a variety of ways and build a strong story around it. I keep five or six big things that inspire me up my sleeve, and play around with them and their interpretation: what if the Kurtz-archetype is simply doing what his superiors have ordered, and the PCs are actually sent to cover up their mutual bosses’ mistake? What if the tables are flipped, and the players are having to deal with this guy from an entirely different perspective (say, as locals)?

Your inspiration shouldn’t result in just aping the original content. It gives you a way to build out without forgetting the core of your story. This core is what gives you the ability to tell a story. If you lose your core, your game devolves to a series of random encounters, spectacles ad infinitum with the goal of causing the players to lose sight of the fact that they aren’t really accomplishing anything (and worse, once you start that road it all starts to look like meaningless spectacle, even when you have real plot points, but that’s a topic for another day).

The other great thing with inspirations is that you can blend them. That way you can work with multiple things that you’re comfortable with, and also keep creating things that engage and surprise. One of my other big inspirations is Mad Max, especially Fury Road, which has some great storytelling (no fewer than three satisfying and interconnected Hero’s Journeys in a movie that doesn’t stretch on and on?).

Channeling that metal post-apocalyptic vibe with other inspirations can really create a different feel, and a different atmosphere, for your game. Instead of being about following orders, the quest to hunt Kurtz becomes rage-fueled and full of heavy metal action as PCs storm through the desert leaving destruction in their wake.

The simple wrap-up is this. When you’re GMing, figure out what inspires you to tell stories, then pull that inspiration into your own game. Your players will respect your love for the content, and it will keep you from burning out and make the next step in the process natural for you.

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