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Inspiring the Game

Posted By John Arcadian On October 28, 2008 @ 2:14 am In GMing Advice | 13 Comments

I know when I get the urge to start GMing again it is usually because I have seen something so awesome, so incredible and so inspiring that I immediately think: “Wow. I need to run a game that gets at that feeling!” Sometimes this inspiring moment comes from reading a book, sometimes from becoming engrossed in the story or the mechanic of a video game and sometimes from an exquisite movie or T.V. show, or a board game I played, or a card, or a picture that I saw on a website . . .

Ok. So I get inspired by a lot of things. I see something awesome happen and want to recreate that same feeling in the current game I’m running or even run a whole new game that gets that kind of feeling from my players. The feeling that is triggered by some forms of media can indeed be ported over into a gaming environment, but as with any transferal to a different kind of media, there will be changes.

Books
Books are incredible inspiration sources for gaming, as is aptly proven with Lord of the Rings and the first editions of Chainmail and D&D. The rich and detailed landscapes and characters that are brought to life in a reader’s imagination can provide great stimulation for game ideas. Plots and subplots weave together to create islands of “Whoa, that was awesome” and lingering memories of cool moments that remain through the more mundane story-keeping aspects. Tabletop RPGS tend to flow in this same way. The plots are carefully detailed; the characters are integrated into it and inevitably change the outcome. Ask any author if their idea of the story has changed as they’ve gotten to know the characters better. They’ll back me up. Taken in this light, it is easy to incorporate inspired moments from favorite books into gaming sessions.

Tricky Wickets When Inspired By Books:

One snag in the way of this is the change of audience. Books have a single person as the audience for each copy of the book. The reader isn’t vying for spotlight or being distracted by other factors. Eyes meet page, continue story is a different environment than ears meet narration, meet other player’s narration, meet your own interpretation and action, meet rolling to determine outcome, etc. You get the idea. Another snag in getting at the same type of inspiration in a game is that books control the characters and NPCs and the plot points. If the hero needs to escape from a bond, he does. If the bad guy needs to monologue to inform the reader of the things they missed, he does. If the sidekick needs to mess up, but in a funny way, he does. This is definitely not the way it happens in a game.

Movies & T.V.
Movies and T.V. can be great for inspiring a game because they add the visual element to the story in much the same way as players and Game Masters add the visual elements in their imagination. Movies and T.V. are great at using visual cues to lead the audience. Certain lighting styles, certain aspects of characters being shown on the screen and certain angles for the cameras can all change the way a viewer thinks about the story being presented to them. There are some valuable lessons that can be learned from Movies and T.V. If you describe the single shaft of light that breeches the darkness of the cold and dry stone jail cell, you are working in much the same way as a T.V. camera panning down from the window, following the shaft of light down into the bottom of the stone cell to settle on the prisoner there. As the Game Master, you control the camera with your description and can help route this in the player’s minds.

Tricky Wickets With Inspiration From Movies & T.V.:
Getting the same kind of inspiring moments in a game that you get from a visual media can have its own problems. The first thing that must be overcome is the lack of the visual element and special effects. An image can cement an idea in someone’s mind in a way that words cannot. With an image, you also get the shared experience of the audience on the same starting point. Seeing an action hero make an incredible jump is shared between the group, while explaining it tends to give a different image in each mind.

Video Games
Video games are a prime source of inspiration for me and are one of the easier media to transfer into roleplaying and tabletop gaming. With a video game, it is already understood that the story and outcome is not entirely static. Turning left instead of right in a video game might cause a different ending cinematic or a longer path to the final goal. Also, video games and roleplaying games share many of the same elements: Detailed characters, interesting weapons, gaining of powers over the course of the story, overarching plots, central villains with hordes to fight against, etc. There is a lot of great ground for inspiration in video games because of this. Talking about a character’s fiery dual swords is one thing, seeing them portrayed in vibrant graphics on the screen, tracing the curve of the blades with your eyes and picking out the detail of the stances of a character as it is rendered can cement the wow factor of the fiery swords in a mind.

Tricky Wickets With Inspiration Generated By Video Games:
The inspiration that is gotten from video games is probably one of the easiest to render in a tabletop RPG style. However, it might feel a little lacking at the table because of the lack of the visual element. Running a game that is inspired by a video game can generate a lot of “You know how it looks in …” moments. If the video game isn’t something the group has shared then the Game Master has to find alternative ways to share their enthusiasm. Also, because of limited options in the Video Game, it is easier to move towards a unified goal. At the table, unlimited options and varied player responses to the game idea can lead the game in an entirely different direction that fist envisioned.

Tips For Transferring The Feelings of Inspiration
No matter where the inspiration for a game comes from, if you want to get an equivalent response from the players there have to be changes made. Looking at the type of media that inspired and asking how they got that inspiration out of you can help lead to methods that can be used to get it out of players. Was it the visual element or the special effects? Think of how you can incorporate things like that into the game. Do you want to visually create a huge explosion? Print a picture of one and drop it down onto the battle mat. Was the most inspiring thing from a book the intricate subplots in a book? Why did those grab you? Did you feel like a participant in them because you knew all the angles? Consider making each character an important cog in the puzzle, and let every player know more of the story than their characters do. It will make them feel more involved in the overarching story while leading them to empathize with their character.

Mostly I would say that picking out the elements that inspired you from an experience, and thinking about what made those work in the media is the crucial key. We will never get an exact, or even very close, experience in a game that we can from other media, but we can find the similarities and emphasize them. So, what do you find most inspiring in other media? What games or books or movies & TV. make you want to jump in and start GMing? What other techniques that mimic the aspects of other media have you employed? Its time for you to be my next source of inspiration.

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




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13 Comments To "Inspiring the Game"

#1 Comment By tallarn On October 28, 2008 @ 2:29 am

There is a moment in the musical “Wicked” during the song “Defying Gravity”. Elphaba, the Wicked Witch as she becomes to be known, denies everything about the world, saying “Some things I’ll never change, but till I try I’ll never know” – and starts to fly on sheer willpower and magical talent.

That moment, when a character has a massive internal change that is followed up by a physical change, too – that’s something I want to create in a game.

#2 Comment By SmallBlueGod On October 28, 2008 @ 7:24 am

In the song “New found power” by Damageplan the lyrics speaks of realization of true inner power that was previously chained and ignored.

Like Tallarn’s it’s a massive internal change that is then followed up by the realization of their own power. A great ‘level up’ song. Makes me really want to play Mage when I hear it. :)

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On October 28, 2008 @ 9:31 am

Great breakdowns– I like the clear identification of the Sticky Wickets. I’m enjoying a game where I’m playing in Star War’s Knights of the Old Republic Setting. The bad part is that I’m the only player who didn’t play the video game, which doubled the DM’s required description. [“You know how it looks” moments didn’t work for me.]

Are you planning a followup post with other inspirational elements (pictures, music, a card, or board games)? I’m curious to see how you’d translate a board game… usually the scale is larger than an RPG’s character focus.

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 28, 2008 @ 9:42 am

I think “Stardust” is a great example of a movie that — while it is certainly steeped in fantasy and has many familiar elements — has its share of “tricky wickets” for translating it to a game. I want witches and airships of the sort from that movie (not to mention an over-abundance of NPCs with over-the-top personalities), but making it all work within the context of your meat-and-potatoes dungeon crawling group would require a lot of work.

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On October 28, 2008 @ 9:44 am

@tallarn & SmallBlueGod: I feel the same way. I’ve never quite gotten that in a game though. Getting players so invested into their characters is often hard to do. I also think geting that deep is highly dependent on the system. Massive internal struggle rarely happens in a hack and slash dungeon, but seems to be par for the course in a properly run white-wolf game

@Scott Martin: I may try to do some follow up posts to this. Originally I was going to write it about video game moments inspiring and transferring to RPGs, but expanded it a bit. I’ve actually used board game elements in RPGs. Not for character or story elements, but for the mechanics or set pieces. I took the old game Mouse Trap (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mouse_Trap_(board_game) and repainted it, then had the characters move about it as if it was an Indiana Jones style set of traps. That was fun.

#6 Comment By John Arcadian On October 28, 2008 @ 9:49 am

@Troy E. Taylor: Stardust makes shivers run up my spine. I LOVE that book/movie. The only way I can think of to properly translate something of that complexity and depth over to a game scenario would be to have “cutscenes” that the players are privy to. Maybe through someone’s visions, maybe through NPCs retelling of events but setting up some visual elements to give it more of a cut scene feel or maybe just because and let the players separate out of character knowledge.

Man I love stardust! Now I want to run a game that emulates that!

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 28, 2008 @ 10:14 am

Lamia: Limbus grass! You dare to steal truth from my lips by feeding me Limbus grass! You don’t know the big mistake you’ve had made, Ditchwater Sal.

All you need now is a “bubbling” candle, errr “Babylon” candle, and off we go on a new adventure.

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 28, 2008 @ 2:00 pm

I get my best game ideas by reading historical fiction or non-fiction, and sometimes by watching TV. Historical fiction doesn’t require much of a jump into a game world, as most of our game worlds are somewhat based on the real world. My current muse is The Republic of Pirates, which details the rise of the Golden Age of Piracy.

Television is the other medium, and the episodic element alone makes TV closer to RPG campaigns than anything else out there (OK, comic books… I’ll give you that). Current TV shows that make me want to run an RPG are The Unit, Fringe (even though I haven’t even seen any yet), and Terminator.

#9 Comment By Swordgleam On October 28, 2008 @ 7:12 pm

Songs are definitely a common source of inspiration.

My latest campaign, I got lucky – the entire thing was inspired by a single, relatively common aphorism. “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Getting my interpretation of the quote across required has been tricky, but I think it’s finally sinking in.

#10 Comment By V. Hobbs On October 29, 2008 @ 3:17 am

The game that I’m currently working on preparing was inspired by a documentary on the National Geographic Channel. The show was about a group of scientists and explorers who were trying to study and explore a cavern full of massive crystals, a place with very high heat and humidity. It was an amazingly beautiful and very unusual cave. But the crystals were razor-sharp and could have cut them to ribbons if they weren’t careful, and the heat and humidity were so bad that even with special protective gear, they could only stay there for a half-hour at a time at most. I was immediately fascinated and wondered if I could work some of the elements of that cave into a game. So I started writing it, and it’s coming along slowly, partially because I know that I need challenges beyond the hostile environment to make a game in a fantasy setting more interesting. I haven’t decided how to deal with that yet.

#11 Comment By Lee Hanna On October 29, 2008 @ 11:09 am

The biggest sticky wicket I’ve found in trying to translate a story is that most stories have A Hero, not a Party of different skill sets and motivations. Overcoming that is often the challenge.

#12 Comment By John Arcadian On November 4, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

@Troy E. Taylor: That’s why I like systems like BESM or my personal favorite: Silvervine (Disclaimer: I write Silvervine.) because they allow for more narrative control over how things like that happen. When the focus is more tactical it is hard to have those unique detail elements when doing something like casting a spell. Man, now I want to run stardust the RPG.

@Kurt: And here I would have thought you would get inspired by televangelists ;)
http://www.gnomestew.com/specific-rpgs/1e-spotted-alive-and-well-in-a-livingroom-in-southeastern-pa#comment-2826

@Swordgleam: Did you play the song in the sessions for the campaign? I’ve used soundtracks or given characters and npcs their own background music before, but generally tried to keep it instrumental. I find people rarely listen to the words of a song at the gaming table.

@ V. Hobbs: Have you ever seen the Planet Earth series? Wow. That makes for wonderful inspiration like you are talking about. Just the scenery and wonder evident in the landscape.

@ Lee Hanna: You are absolutely right about that! Most stories tend to have a protagonist that the partaker can identify with. It makes it hard to get that epic feel when your players are your partakers are your protagonists. The spotlight has to be shared and the audience has to interact and then take turns watching. This is probably the biggest sticky wicket for transporting and re-creating those inspired moments.

#13 Pingback By Inspiration from the Emerald Isle – Dungeon Mastering – Dungeons and Dragons blog – DM tips, D&D books, RPG fun On December 11, 2008 @ 11:06 pm

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