Where do you get your ideas? This is a question, but also a bit of a setup…I can’t tell you where your ideas come from, obviously. I’m not in your head yet (still working on that mind-control WordPress plug-in, but that’s another post).
I can tell you where I draw inspiration from. There are likely and unlikely sources I draw from.
The Usual Suspects
- TV – I don’t watch much TV. When I do watch TV, you can rely on me to be watching:
The Ultimate Fighter
UFC replays on Spike
UFC replays on Spike
My focus is brutal, narrow, and intense. If I’m watching something else, it’s because I’ve been harassed by at least five friends on this show that must be watched, and I’m then viewing it on borrowed DVD. I don’t get a lot here, and mostly I don’t think there is as much to be gained here as one might think.
- Books -I actually read books to recharge my writing muscles. Here’s the problem I have with books: They are very different from the medium of roleplaying. A book = one author with “control” of the characters telling you a story through careful crafting of events. An RPG is several players at a table mashing together thoughts and scenarios glued together with dice and systems of resolution. Fiction is a great jumping board, but I don’t get far before I arrive at a place where I think “Man this would be better in the book I was just reading than in an RPG.” But still, I read a lot of books, and I’m sure I’m stealing borrowing a lot of ideas that gelled together in my subconscious long enough that I convinced myself I was being original.
- Manga -Most manga is trash. There are some incredibly good manga out there, but they are buried under steaming piles of drek. But I’ll tell you, if you’re willing to “dumpster dive”, manga will reward you with incredible sources of inspiration and ideas. Look at this way –if you go crazy enough, one of these days you’ll have to be crazy brilliant, right? Right? Well, anyway, it applies here. Here’s something: The “Bet Your Life” skill challenge was actually an idea lifted from the pages of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure takes all that crazy and works into a body of fiction unlike anything else I’ve ever read.
- Other Games –I know you may or may not believe this, but I play other games than 4e. I spend a little bit of time every week looking at the rules and the settings of random games on my shelf, and pull those elements into my games.
- Hip hop — In short, there is hip hop out there that does not glorify violence and/or misogyny and is full of brilliant imagery and wordplay. I’ve based entire sessions or campaigns on the verses and lyrics in my favorite hip hop songs. Sometimes I get characters, sometimes whole encounters or stories. The title of this series is actually from one of my favorite albums.
- Fighting Games –this is the category of video game you’re most likely to find me playing (commiesutra is my gamertag on Xbox if you want some games!). Good fighting games are studies in game psychology and tension/conflict mechanics. Lessons learned in the last few rounds of Street Fighter come into my RPGs as mechanics and encounter dynamics.
- Political Websites –without going into my personal politics too much, this last election cycle saw me become something of a political junkie. I’m still a GM at heart though, so any good headline can get expanded into background for one of my games.
Tapping your Sources
You’re a GM and/or player of RPGs, so I know that you have your own list of sources. The world is waiting to be tapped for your creative use. The question remains though, how best to tap these sources for what is most useful for your game? Just consuming sources sometimes works, but sometimes it doesn’t. Consistency is our mantra here, so I’ll offer up the following to help you bleed your sources dry:
- Set an objective. If you’re watching horror movies for a horror game you’re going to run, determine that you’ll find the key ingredient common to all the movies that makes them worthwhile horror movies. If you’re vegging in front of your favorite T shows, find the best characters in each show and determine what makes them so. Most of the time you’re only going to get what you’re looking for, so make sure you are looking for something first.
- Identify patterns and situations. Roleplaying games are unique storytelling mediums is that they require multiple people to contribute elements in “real-time” to make the story progress. It’s what makes it an amazing hobby, but also makes it different from the storytelling in your sources that you tap. As I’ve mentioned, very little of what you pull from a book will survive the translation to the RPG form. What you can pull out are situations, and patterns of genre or storytelling style. situations and patterns are open enough to get pulled into your game with only a little tweaking, providing a framework, a skeleton from which to hang the flesh of your RPG story from.
- Take it Further. A simple scenario or scene can be expanded and fit into an RPG just by asking questions and answering them for yourself. How could it have ended differently? Why did that character do X instead of Y? What if this had happened in place of that? In stories that are published and distributed to you, the choices have already been made; to make something worthy of an RPG, you have to open it up so that the players can make their choices within that space.
- Talk about it. My wife, bless her soul, here’s more ramblings and rants than any other person should ever have to suffer through. I get a lot out talking through ideas or media I just experienced. My wife offers clever counterpoints or additional information, and by the end of the rant I’m usually have something ready to use. All I have to do is type it out.
Thanks for reading! Next up…homework? Some exercises and more audio/video on generating ideas.
- The Deadly Art of All-Night Brainstorming, Part 1: The Sea of Thought
- The Deadly Art of All-Night Brainstorming, Part 2: Your New Best Friend.
- 4th edition and the case of the hideously long combat.