Game Mastery

Creativity Theft

by on Aug.25, 2008, under writing

As someone who has appreciated unique, novel ideas, it makes me incredibly happy when my players tell me my games are original. I put a lot of effort into making sure that my games are something the players have never seen before (and more importantly I as the GM have never seen before either – otherwise I’d get bored while running it). I suppose it shocks people a little when they ask me where I get my ideas, and I tell them, “I steal them.”

Back when I was writing sketch comedy in college I obsessed over coming up with an original premise for each sketch. Leave the boardroom sketches for the rest of the troupe, I wanted something original. Well, there wasn’t a lot of original material to work with. It seemed like everything had been done. There was even less available when you stopped and considered all the sketches I hadn’t seen before. With no way to know what was and wasn’t original I asked a friend there for some help. What he taught me is that you can pretty safely assume that any premise has been used before. What makes it original is where you go with it. There have been a million boardroom sketches before. Probably a thousand of them have involved George W. Bush. But how many times has he taken up communism because he sucks at democracy? That’s new and original, even though it started with an overused trope.

This applies to D&D too. Take a premise or scene and push it in whatever direction you like with your own personal spin. It diverges from the original even more when you realize you have to bring your players to the premise, and the approach they take will be unique too. Approach * premise * exit will be something unique, even if the premise wasn’t.

I wrote up an example of me ripping off a movie scene for a forum. As much as I’d like to retype it, this thread is about stealing so it’s copy paste time. At least it’s only my own words I’m yoinking…

Here’s an example. A couple games ago I’d watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly while planning game start. I wanted to copy the scene where Tuco is getting hanged for his many crimes and Clint shoots the rope so he can collect Tuco’s reward in another town. Well, it’s D&D so thematically speaking shooting the rope doesn’t make sense. I also didn’t want that to be the plot, just an introduction. I’d always wanted to execute a player character though and I really like messing with expectations. So let’s hang a PC. Oh and let’s not just set him up for the hanging, let’s actually go through with it! At this point I talked to a roommate who was playing in the game. He’s big in the larp writing community and appreciates attempts to mess with players heads. I told him we’d be introducing his character at the second session, but for the first game he’d have to play this Belkar clone and not to tell the other players that it wasn’t his real character.

Through various other means the players all arrived to see the hanging. They were surprised, but not shocked when a PC arrived with his head in a noose. I’d been spreading rumors that the guy being hanged was innocent (he had murdered quite a few people, but was being hanged for another crime that wasn’t his). The convention here would be for the PCs to jump in and save him. They were nervous about it, but told me that they weren’t about to jump the guards over some rumors especially when it was pretty clear that the guy being hanged deserved to die. Okay. Halfling hangs and players apologize for making the other guy roll up a new character.

It didn’t quite go as planned of course, but what fun would GMing be if it did? The resulting session was new and interesting, and it took the PCs out of their comfort zones as none of them had been in a situation like that before that went against their expectations.

So just to sum up, the intro was a standard D&D introduction where a bunch of people are brought to one place (in this case it was a festival culminating in a tourney and execution), a ripped off and distorted scene from a popular movie, and a broken convention that left the PCs wondering if they did the right thing. And it all started with that ripped off scene.

I’ve always like the philosophy that the journey is more important than the destination. This is true in game, in both the story and the meta sense. You can write a game that takes a scenic tour between famous scenes in Hollywood. Each of those scenes by itself is unoriginal, but the path you take in getting from one to the next and what you pick up and carry through each of those scenes will be something new that your players ought to enjoy.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Story Time! The Tale of the Schizo Ranger and His Imaginary PC friend. - Game Mastery

    […] played through it.  This extended story is the best example I can give to justify my article on creativity theft. More details have come to light since I spoke with Phelmore’s player. Tyler was actually […]

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