There are times when we all have to make a fresh start. This series is going to examine the process in detail.
You need to start with an idea. While this might be an original concept, many people derive inspiration from existing sources.
Depending on what that source is, the idea may be more or less easily adapted to serve in a roleplaying setting. Each source has its’ own quirks and peculiarities, though some may share their particular brand of headache in common with other sources. This article is going to look at where you can get your ideas from, and what to watch out for, before examining the basic manipulation of those ideas.
This is the obvious first choice for me, because I find it so easy to come up with ideas; it’s always more about which ones I reject, as John West used to say in their advertising. There are two big problems with coming up with your own ideas: the first is that less of the work has been done for you (read: ‘none’), and you will have to make up the shortfall; and the second is that the increased workload can lead to a greater risk of errors, flawed reasoning, and falling in love with your own cleverness. But there are compensations: everything can be more original, with less baggage, and it can be customized to fit the needs of you and your players far more comprehensively. Every other solution is at least partially compromised in these areas. Coming up with your own ideas from scratch is the standard against which all other sources should be measured. All these are favorite topics of discussion here at Campaign Mastery, and will continue to be so into the future, so I don’t think there’s much more to be said in this article on the subject.
There are three ways that a rules mechanic can serve as inspiration. The first is that you can select a rules mechanic that you feel was underutilized or under-emphasized in the previous campaign, but that’s something that should be properly dealt with under “reaction” a couple of items down. That leaves two alternatives: chosen-system inspiration and imported-system inspiration.
Get out your rulebooks and game supplements for the game system that you intend to use, crack one of them (chosen randomly) open to a random page, and base your campaign around whatever ideas are inspired by the content on that page. Or, if none of it excites you, grab a different page from a different product. This works by taking the content as a source of ideas but shearing it of context, enabling a deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction into something new.
A long time ago, I came up with an ongoing series of articles to be used as filler when deadlines were looming in which I was going to do just that – grab a page or two from a random games supplement and see what ideas I could come up with, derived from it. I’ve still got that series tucked away in the back of my pocket, never having had to use it – I don’t even remember what it was going to be called now, though I seem to recall it was something clever.
The principle problems that come with this approach is that the ideas may not be all that brilliant. They may not go far enough, they may not be interesting enough, and there may be expectations issues on the part of players who know only what the context was in the original material. Used as a way to kick-start your own thinking, however, it can be brilliant.
By way of example, let me pull out a supplement that I inherited, but have never had time to read: the Eberron Explorer’s Handbook by David Noonan, Frank Brunner, and Rich Burlew. Closing my eyes, I open it to a random page – in this case, pages 30-31. What do we have? There’s a partial set of rules about Airships, there’s a partial example Airship, and there’s a magic item, the “Life Ring”. So ideas are either going to be derived from the concept of Airships, or from this magic item.
Airships first. Off the top of my head (and using magic as necessary to replace technology):
- Airships can be commonly used as premium freight transports, avoiding the dangers of highwaymen.
- Orcs were the equivalent of Mongol Hordes a couple of centuries ago, game time, separated from civilization by a range of mountains considered impassable. In the 200 years since, they have been absorbed into another civilization, discovered paper, movable type, gunpowder (explosives and rockets) – and airships, powered by air elementals. Now, here they come again… This idea turns on it’s head the established perception of Orcs as uncouth and uncivilized by making them more advanced than the “civilized” world in many respects. But they are still Orcs…
- If breathable air extends all the way up to infinity, airships enable travel – and trade – between different worlds. A variant Spelljammer campaign idea.
- If breathable air doesn’t go all the way up, what might it give way to besides space? Why not the Ether, i.e. the Ethereal Plane? Not the thin, almost inconsequential ether that exists at ground level, but thick stuff that you can (metaphorically) sink your teeth into. Filling your airship gasbags with this Ether creates an Ethereal Airship that permits travel, and trade, and diplomatic relations, between different planes of existence – including the Nine Hells and various forms of the Afterlife. And that, in turn, means that fundamental assumptions about the nature of significant aspects of reality would need drastic rethinking – questions like Life, and Death, and Ghosts and Undeath. Though, given the long association between the Astral Plane and concepts of Astral Travel, perhaps it would make a better choice – even if “Astral Airship” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
The Ring, next. There are two choices: make a campaign in which the magic item, as written, is central to the plot, or throw away everything but some key part of the idea (like the name) and give the item a whole new meaning. Looking at the description of the item, it’s essentially a life-preserver for an airship – not a lot of inspiration there. But taking just the name, “Life Ring”, and stripping it of that meaning and context, provides far more fertile ground for inspiration – anything from a ring that is the source of all life (and has just been captured by an enemy) through to a ring that extracts the passage of time from the wearer and passes it on to whoever is forced to wear its twin (shades of Dorian Gray. But, having demonstrated the principle above, I don’t feel the need to go into details; suffice it to say that about half-a-dozen ideas came to me almost right away.
But, if you’re going to strip something of context and build something new around a deconstructed reinterpretation, why not go the whole hog and pull out a source of inspiration that is completely unrelated to the campaign that you intend to run? I’ve grabbed the core gamebook for the Star Trek The Next Generation Roleplaying Game (another inherited item) and randomly opened it to pages 188-189. What inspiration for a fantasy game can I find?
- There’s part of a description of the Tal-Shiar, the Romulan intelligence service – that idea can be useful. Perhaps applied to the Drow?
- There’s a description of Artaline-IV and the Artalines, a symbiotic species that is part plant and part animal; we have a description of their society, and the suggestion that they are on the fringes of at least two much larger societies (the Federation and the Romulans). Translating this into a minor kingdom caught between two great empires – one friendly and one not – that struggles to maintain its independence and achieve the respect of their neighbors while preserving the peace – could make for a very interesting campaign. Perhaps stirring in some elements of Harry Harrison’s “Planet of The Damned” regarding symbiosis, but making it more benign. This could serve to separate and distinguish the inhabitants of this Kingdom from those of the surrounding Empires.
- There’s a writeup on “Collapsar 49″, a dead star that gives off dangerous radiation and possesses a gravity well that tends to drag unwary ships into the star. So… a kingdom where everyone died, that contains, or is rumored to contain, some great secret that keeps dragging people into it. Or perhaps it possesses some sort of siren-like ability. Anyone who attempts to settle there, dies. Everyone is convinced that some terrible weapon is responsible, and that if they can master it, all would be forced to bend the knee…
- There’s a writeup on the Palmas, an agrarian caste society near the Romulan Borders. The writeup here does nothing for me; the race in question was created for a separate game supplement. (Kudos to the game designers for including it in their core material reference section, though).
- There’s part of a description of Psellus III, which used to be part of the Romulan Empire but which was left on the Federation Side of the border with the establishment of the Neutral Zone. Before they left, the Romulans blew up everything worthwhile, including the bulk of the locals’ industrial capacity. They have now started to rebuild and recover. There are some intriguing ideas here. A province that fell into the hands of the enemy in a peace settlement? That sort of thing happens all the time, just look at how WWII reshaped the borders within Europe. If we do away with the act of spite and have the province devastated as a scorched earth policy during the retreat of the Empire they used to be part of in order to buy time, local support for their former political relationship could arguably remain high, especially if they were abandoned by a friendly, democratically-aligned Society for one that was repressive or exploitative in one or more ways. Now, the Government is trying to, and achieving some success in, rebuilding. Some subversive factions want to act as spies for their former Political Affiliation; others want to reignite the war in hopes of rejoining their former affiliation; others want peace at any cost; and still others are resentful of having been abandoned and have become wholehearted supporters of the new regime. And some want independence, and not to be the plaything of others. And all of them are capable of, and intend to, pursue radical means of achieving their agendas. Trying to hold the whole thing together are an elite group of PCs – each of whom privately sympathizes with at least one of the factions…
- Finally, there’s a writeup of a Nebula-class Starship. This is designated a Cruiser, and that brings to mind the original PC computer game, Sid Meier’s Civilization, in which the Cruiser is one of the “Ultimate weapons” of naval warfare, the other being the Aircraft Carrier. So what would happen if some remote Kingdom discovered and restored such a vessel from a long-forgotten past, and tried to use it to conquer the world?
To be honest, the last idea is not my favorite amongst those I’ve up with. I like the Psellus-III multi-faction society idea, because there are lots of groups for the PCs to interact with and the prospect of them having a decisive impact on the game. A sort of Superspy-in-Wizards-Robes idea.
Advantages and Weaknesses
These two variations serve well as sparks to get your creative juices flowing. The first, being specific to the genre that you want, will be more easily adapted; the second offers far wider scope, and is more likely to produce something original, but will require more work to translate genre-incompatible elements.
Another obvious solution is to simply run a sequel to a campaign that worked and was popular with the players. This has the advantage of having lots of time and effort invested in it already, and it suffers from the disadvantage of having lots of time and effort invested in it already. It may save time up front, but it can stifle creativity because so much has already been done. If this avenue suits, I refer you to my two-part series on sequel campaigns, “Been There, Done That, Doing It Again”: Part One, Plot Seeds, is about generating ideas, and Part Two, Sprouts & Saplings, is about developing them.
The fourth major source of inspiration is to look at what was important in the last game, and do the exact opposite. If there was a part of the world or the game system that was underutilized, make it the central plank of the new campaign. When the Rings Of Time campaign was still running, before the untimely death of Steven Tunicliff, one of the two key players, I started generating a campaign to follow it. Rings Of Time was about global politics and multi-planar magic and the role of the Gods and big-ticket themes. The “Shadow-world” campaign was going to be about two people wanting to become “The Ultimate Thief”, but having very different ideas about what that honorific would describe. It was going to be all about small scale interactions, the seductive dangers of Magic as a way of doing things (and the need to indulge in it just to remain competitive), and about the price of ambition. Along the way, the pair would be caught in the periphery of major events, but always the focus was going to be on the two PCs – who would be allies half the time and rivals the other half, repeatedly forced together by the needs of survival and ambition. Some of the thinking behind this campaign also made its way into the Shards Of Divinity campaign, where it formed a minor (but important) textural element.
The big problem that this source of ideas faces is that there might be a very good reason why “X” was not the center of attention. Maybe the players aren’t interested in doing that? Maybe the GM is not as inspired by it? Maybe the game mechanics involved are clunky, or flawed? The big advantage is that there is an automatic contrast between the new campaign and the last, and that means that you will be developing a part of your game that hasn’t had a lot of its ideas tapped yet. If your old campaign was suffering from any sort of Burnout, this may very well be the best answer, an anodyne to the wounds of excess.
If you’re a smart GM, from the moment you start involving players in a campaign, you are taking note of all the things that they say they wanted to do but weren’t able to, and all the things that particularly interested them at the time. Anything that a player would like to be able to do in the current campaign but can’t is something for you to at least consider delivering in the next one. Listen to your players, both compliments and complaints, wishes and winces.
Take on board various inspirational messages and quotes, and look for ways to make them the foundation of your campaign. An early draft of Fumanor was built on the concept of the reluctant messiah, prepared all his life (without knowing it) to fulfill a prophecy that he doesn’t particularly like or want to be involved with, inspired by the suggestion that “The most worthwhile lasting changes are made by those who don’t want to make them” – implying that the desire to achieve something gives the individual an agenda, which in turn devalues the longevity and value of their efforts. It’s not a philosophy that I wholly subscribe to, but the whole point of the campaign at that time was to explore the question.
And that’s the key – choose something that seems to have a grain of truth, but which is not wholly supportable or universally applicable, because that creates a philosophic conflict that can form the foundation of the campaign. Individual expression vs Social Conformity, for example: Instant conflict, instant story potential.
Be wary of the superficial, of the “McNuggets Of Wisdom” as The West Wing once phrased it (if memory serves me correctly). These have the virtue of accessibility but usually lack the depth necessary for meaningful impact on the campaign. The harder you have to think about something to fully extract its value, the more ways there will be for it to manifest within the campaign, and hence the more suitable it will be to serve as foundation.
Which brings me to the other pitfall: these are, of necessity, abstract thoughts. Not everyone excels at finding ways to manifest them into practical nuts and bolts; it’s easy for a campaign to become wishy-washy if this is imperfectly done. A good way to find out if this is one of your abilities (and to get some practice in) is to take some nasty group in your existing campaign and find a way for them to reflect some virtuous philosophical statement, or vice-versa. For example, “a ruthless dictatorship crushes individual freedoms – including the freedom to act corruptly.” Or, “The price of choice is the danger of choosing poorly.” “I hate what you are saying and disagree passionately with every word you utter – but will defend with my life your right to say them, because that right also gives me the right to say what I want to say.”
Art & Music
These can be great sources of inspiration, if used properly – something very few people do. They key to both is not to take them literally, but instead to focus on what they make you feel, what thoughts they inspire when reduced to abstracted principles. One of my favorite works, in terms of inspiration, is Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence Of Memory” with it’s melting clocks. I have deliberately linked to the image and not to the discussion page at Wikipedia about it because I want to strip it of context, including what the artist was trying to express, and what the critics thought he might have been inspired by, and so on.
- “Time is fluid.” At times, it rushes past us, and before we know it, the moment is gone. At times it crawls languidly, and moments seem to last forever.
- Can time be dammed? Made to do work? Can it be placed under pressure? Can it freeze, or evaporate? Can it be stretched? Will it snap back? Does it flow, and can the course of that flow be changed? Can you drink time, consume time, bathe in time, wallow in it?
- “Time changing shape on the ledge” reminds me of the dichotomy between how distant the remote past of our lifetimes seems to be, and yet how close events can sometimes seem.
- I am always reminded by this work, even though the connection is ephemeral at best, that there is no such thing as time; what humans perceive and measure as time is the pace of change in something. That change might be physical, chemical, electrical, mechanical, optical, or audible. A digital watch or clock doesn’t measure time; it counts oscillations in a crystal or an electrical circuit. The fact that we have agreed that so many such vibrations are equated to a fixed interval of time is self-defeating, in terms of defining time itself; because we you first need the concept that each such vibration requires a fixed interval of time in which to occur.
- Awareness of Time is an emergent property of consciousness, and it is entirely plausible that a “higher order of consciousness” would view time in an entirely different way.
- The measurement of time requires a perfect measurement of length (wavelength, to be more precise, in the most accurate clocks that we know how to build) – and yet, quantum mechanics tells us that this is impossible, there is always an uncertainty factor, a limit to resolution.
- “Time is an illusion, Lunchtime doubly so.” All we ever perceive is “now”. The past is comprised of memories of past “Nows” and the future, the anticipation of “Nows” to come. The fact that the current now seems to connect to the “now” that was a moment ago may be mere illusion; the universe may have been destroyed and re-created a billion billion times in between. It doesn’t matter if we can’t perceive it happening.
- Because we can’t perceive time directly – it might not even exist, in that sense – we are reduced to speaking of it in metaphor and analogy and through symbolism, through abstract thought and hard numbers that have meaning only because we have defined a common meaning for them to have.
- Are experiences like waves rippling across the surface of time, traveling with the speed of communications? Has the pace of the modern world really quickened – or are we simply more aware of the events that mark it? Ten years seems like a long time – yet, the turn of the millennium doesn’t really seem that far past, and the turn of the century (even though it’s the same thing) seems to be even closer – at least to me. Your subjective perception might be different. But that brings me back to where I started, so this seems a good point to jump off this sleigh-ride.
I can get lost in such abstract trains of thought for hours, musing on the symbology and meaning of this particular image. And any one thought can then manifest itself as the core of a campaign premise.
In one of David & Leigh Eddings’ novels, there is a form of invisibility created by a Troll-god – he breaks off a portion of each moment between perceptions like the frames in a reel of movie film, and hides his followers within that smaller piece, unnoticed, untouchable, and undamaged by environments that would otherwise kill them. Perhaps this space “between frames” is where Lovecraft’s monsters dwell, in the fringes of reality as the PCs know it. What else might lurk there? I could easily build a campaign around a Wizard who develops the ability to move himself – and others – into the “frame” and exploits that for the military advantage of his realm, or his personal domain, little realizing that he is opening the door to horrors unimagined. Or perhaps he knows, full well, and has taken precautions – but, in the first adventure, the PCs steal the knowledge in order to defend their realm from his armies, without this key knowledge. Six months later, and the realm is ready to put it to the test…
Music differs from a visual image in that any given event is transitory, like a single thread in a tapestry, and it is from the accumulation of many such moments that a broader image appears. In fact, that’s one of my favorite metaphors for the entire concept of a campaign – isolated events that accumulate to form a bigger picture. It follows that a piece of music can serve as inspiration for a campaign, simply by treating the sounds of the current passage as a metaphor for campaign events and translating that metaphor. The results can be far more dynamic than basing your inspiration on a still image. In fact, the two can be complimentary – choose an image, or group of images, of sufficient symbolic depth, and explore it/them through music. Now the music is martial, now wistful, now spiritual, now brash (but with a slightly discordant undercurrent of threat), now uplifting… relating each of these emotional impressions to different stages of the campaign to come gives a war, a tragedy, a spiritual experience, an overconfidence perhaps stemming from a perceived victory that is not as complete as it seems, and then a final victory over something.
Pick a piece of music – a whole album, in all likelihood – and use it as the soundtrack to your campaign (it’s easier if it’s instrumental). But beware of choosing something that’s iconic and instantly recognizable, like the Star Wars main theme, unless you can make that work to your advantage – much trickier to do. Obscurity is your friend!
Lyrics & Poetry
Poetry, and especially song lyrics, are something of a halfway-house between Music and Literature in terms of sources of inspiration. They combine the emotive capacity of the former with the narrative elements of the latter – but necessarily compromise the narrative in favor of the emotion. When I was starting out in RPGs, the two big tickets were Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” and Uriah Heep’s “Demons And Wizards”, but there’s been a whole heap since then.
Where these fail, you can extract inspiration from song titles, dissociating them from the content and context of the lyrics, as I showed back in Melodies & Rests: ‘Euphoria’ by Def Leppard, another of those prototype “open series” that didn’t seem to really take off, and that was rather more work than I was expecting at the time, so it has never reappeared. These are often as useful, if not more useful, than the lyrical content.
One of the obvious sources of ideas, but there are several notes of caution to be sounded. The first is that the choices and behavior of the PCs will probably be completely different to the actions in the source novel – so don’t expect to be able to extract an entire plot and have it be viable. The second is that by restricting your selection to genre-specific sources, you run the risk of whatever you come up with being a mere rehash of something that’s been done to death. In any event, you are trading ease of adaption for confinement of inspiration.
Sometimes there’s more than enough inspiration to go around in the source material – No-one has yet plumbed the entire depth of The Lord Of The Rings (and associated writings like the Silmarillion) and I doubt they ever will. Once again, though, the ubiquity makes it hard to be original.
The term “related-genre” is a weak compromise, because I simply couldn’t think of a better one. For example, Fantasy as a genre has fantastic elements, and so does Science Fiction, so the two are reasonably related. So do comic books, for that matter. On this basis, Stephen King and co are in (so far as Fantasy are concerned), but John Grisham is out, and so is most (if not all) Tom Clancy.
On the other hand, if the target genre was Pulp, selected Grisham and Clancy might well be in, but Tolkien may be a bridge too far. By far the most osmotic genre is Superhero, because it can steal from just about anywhere – it is the “English language” of genres. Some genres may suit a particular campaign better than others, but that’s about as far as it goes; I have no problem having an encounter between Borg and Daleks in the Underdark, so long as the internal logic holds together. Aliens at the OK Corral? Aside from not liking Westerns very much, I don’t have a problem with that, either. I can even seize and work with Western Tropes without difficulty. And some westerns are at least tolerable, if not favorites – Back To The Future III, Evil Roy Slade, Tremors – and the latter two go beyond tolerance into entertainment for me!
The key is to have a level of the fantastic – however scientifically plausible it might be – that is tolerable within the target genre, facilitating a translation from one setting to another.
The key to turning science into magic is to shuck explanations and replace with flavor, while making the “apparent mechanics” compatible with those within the game system. Instead of refracting a laser beam, you might need a fun-house mirror to serve as an arcane focus, for example. The key to turning magic into science is to strip most of the flavor out and replace it with a pseudo-scientific explanation resting on a foundation of invented jargon – if no-one knows what a “Violic Shield” is, no-one else can say what it can and can’t do – and imposing limitations and interactions on the result. And, above all keeping it consistent. Just because your Laser Rifle has become a “deadly ray” spell doesn’t mean that it should be inconsistent in Spell level, range, duration, etc, relative to all the other spells in the rulebook.
Beyond the related-genre works you have the vast world of non-genre fiction. Some of this may be directly relatable to your campaign, for example political thrillers can often be translated relatively simply, simply by compressing everything down into a situation to be encountered by the PCs, or that is at the heart of the campaign. Sometimes, it doesn’t work that simply, and you have to abstract your source material in order to strip them of the absence of the fantastic. And that’s often the key – remembering that your PCs will have capabilities far beyond those of the source material’s participants.
Once again, be very careful not to expect a particular reaction from the players, they will almost certainly react differently. At one point I attempted to convert a political/spy thriller (“The President’s Plane Is Missing”), but the players tumbled to the solution of the central mystery that was supposed to drive the whole plot almost immediately. I had to improvise a very different plot, and it was never as satisfying as the original would have been.
While not every factoid lends itself to being central to a campaign, there is enough value in non-fiction that it should always be a go-to source. Anything from books on political structures to a book like “How The States Got Their Shapes” can be brilliant source material.
For example, let’s pick a book that very few would consider as an RPG sourcebook, “Grand Prix 1988″ by Nigel Roebuck and John Townsend. This book tells the story of the struggle between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost for the 1988 World Driver’s Championship in Formula 1. To translate that into a fantasy campaign, I need simply recast the contest from a sporting one into some other field of endeavor, for example, Politics. The personalities of the two protagonists then translate directly into the differences between two men vying against each other for political supremacy. The structure of the race team, especially the personalities of it’s owners and team bosses, then become the person they are trying to influence and the rest of the court, while the other drivers become the politicians and lesser nobility who might dream of the ultimate power, but will have to settle for a lesser degree of accomplishment – but who can nevertheless prove instrumental in the outcome. Incidents in the course of the season then get translated into political equivalents that will produce the same reactions on the parts of the protagonists. All that you need to do is figure out where this initial foundation will go, plot-wise, and where the PCs will fit in.
In a similar vein are isolated facts. These can be used in two different ways, depending on their nature; this section will look at the first, which deals with events. For example, you might decide to translate the Boxer Rebellion into the foundation for an RPG campaign. This approach essentially takes the facts and transposes them into an appropriate milieu, be it fantasy, sci-fi, or whatever. Or perhaps the Battle Of Britain (which lends itself to space opera very readily), or the Desert Campaigns of World War II with their myriad of deception and counter-deception.
Even more range is available with this approach, because it permits a more diverse selection of source material. Again, some items work better than others.
For example, the duck-billed platypus captures insects not by seeing them, but by sensing minute changes in the electrical field within their “beaks”, according to something I read today. Not much value there, except perhaps for doing something unusual with Dwarves and their mining abilities.
But consider; The stems of one type of wild Iris are not strong enough to support more than one blossom at a time. A flower blooms each morning, then dies that night to make room for the next. Taken as a metaphor for the entire game world, the Prime Material Plane of a D&D / Pathfinder game, you quickly derive some very interesting ideas:
- the end of the world is supposedly nigh. The barriers that keep the elemental planes separate are breaking down, and soon they will collapse completely, destroying the center of existence (so far as the PCs are concerned). Mutually incompatible, they will be ejected from the heaving mass of energy and matter that results, leaving trails of themselves to crash back together and – eventually – to form a new stable configuration, i.e. a new Prime Material Plane. The Sages and Wizards of the world have detected this; some are cooperating in a vast conspiracy to save what they consider worthwhile, and will stop at nothing to succeed. Others have discovered the same fate, but – lacking the philanthropic egos of the conspirators – have simply given themselves over to the worst forms of debauchery.
- In part one of the campaign, the PCs stumble across this conspiracy, only slowly coming to realize how widespread it is, and how ruthless it is, but NOT what their purpose is; the participants know that the truth would create panic, and anarchy, and only hinder their efforts. The PCs know too much, and are hunted by the Conspirators against the backdrop of Wizards running amok. When the PCs finally learn the truth:
- …Part two begins. The PCs can either aid or fight the conspirators, but the first is more likely. They will be turned lose on the “Dark Wizards” who are threatening to bring chaos and anarchy into the world, and who are also hampering the Conspiracy. Along the way, they may be dispatched to retrieve some other priceless goody for preservation.
- Phase III is the construction of fortresses to contain the goodies somewhere in the outer planes, against some very hostile locals who don’t want to be “invaded” by refugees from the Prime Material Plane.
- Phase IV brings the PCs back home, as someone has finally let the secret slip; while everyone with power demands – by force – to be rescued from their fate, the PCs have to protect the shipments of artifacts and the conspirators, and retrieve their families, who have earned a place in the Refuges by virtue of the PCs aid.
- Phase V is when the PCs witness the destruction of the Prime Material Plane, the last to leave, and the Conspirators attempt to set up a new social order amongst themselves; now that their mutual goal is complete, cooperation will soon come to an end. The PCs have to keep a lid on a powder-keg of hostilities, because they are the closest thing around to a neutral party.
- Part VI brings the creation of the new Prime Material Plane, and the beginning of resettlement, and a fresh round of squabbles – which are abruptly settled when invaders from the outer planes (and survivors from the elemental planes) attempt to invade. The PCs, their lives prolonged unnaturally by magic, have to protect the new beginning. Only when the new plane is finally safe can they rest…
An epic campaign, but one that (for the most part) is fairly localized and confined in nature to small-scale “pieces of the puzzle”, this draws upon sources as diverse as “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov, “Armageddon”, “Deep Impact”, and “Tobruk”, to name but a few. But at the heart of it all is the fact of the wild Iris, and its tale of death and rebirth.
Why not take a single tale out of mythology, rewrite it a little to change the participants, and make that the central plot of your campaign? You may need to take some parts of it as metaphor, but that’s okay – for example, if you were to base your campaign on the tale of Sif’s Hair, the Hair might need to be a metaphor. As jokes go, it’s not particularly funny. Make each of the participants the exemplar of an entire population or group – so Loki, a deceptive, manipulative trickster who buys and bribes his way out of trouble as often as he creates trouble for his own perverse pleasure, might be Drow, or Demons, or Elves in general, or Dwarves, or the Gods in general. Sif becomes the race/society from whence the PCs derive, and Thor is the PCs themselves, and so on.
People have spent millennia developing and refining myths – why not take advantage of that creative effort?
Take a look around you. The world is full of stories and situations, playing out even as I write. Some of these situations have to be rendered as metaphors for use – the search for the black boxes of the Air Asia aircraft – while others, like your local political situation, can translate far more readily. Or take a domestic activity, and scale it up, mixing metaphor with an extremely literal interpretation of events. The entire population goes shopping at the land-mass-scale equivalent of a supermarket – it might not be for food, though agricultural land will be part of it. What you have is an age of exploration by a new and growing colony.
Radio plays have to tell their stories without visuals, which makes them directly analogous to roleplaying games in many respects. In fact, since we get to use the occasional prop or illustration, we’re one step ahead of the game. Pick a situation from a radio play or serial (if you can find one on the net) and use it as the basis of your campaign. The odds are that your players won’t know it.
Older TV – from the time when special effects were simple – can also work quite well. There was a need to compromise verisimilitude for reasons of production capability and budget, but the recompense was a relative freedom of imagination. Adapt an episode of The Twilight Zone to a medieval fantasy setting and call it a campaign. Use Gilligan’s Island as a metaphor for a remnant of a fallen empire. Get creative and liberal in your interpretation and you will discover that there’s inspirational gold to be had.
Newer TV has different compromises to make. In particular, the settings and contents are far more recognizable. You can either take advantage of that – telling the story of a medieval equivalent of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, for example – or sufficiently reduce the ideas into abstract forms that the origins aren’t all that obvious. It can actually be quite hard to separate plot from characters, from “setting”, and too many of the plots are used so frequently that they have become tropes; these are additional hurdles to be overcome.
Movies have an even bigger budget to play with. Everything that was said about Newer TV also applies here, unless you go a LONG way back. But recasting “Metropolis” as a Fantasy? That could work.
Intersections & Collisions
Often, the best ideas occur when one source of input contributes a thought and another offers a second – and the two intersect, or collide, to produce something that is either greater than the sum of their parts, or a point of disagreement between reasonable positions that can be expanded into an idea. An example of this is shown by my 2014 article, “I know what’s happening!” – Confirmation Bias and RPGs, and the earlier Super-heroics as an FRP Combat Planning Tool, both of which owe their existence to such intersections of ideas.
This is more than simple free association; it’s not a connection between random thoughts in the GM’s mind, and nor is there any of the association and contiguity characteristic of a stream of consciousness. Instead, it’s about perceiving a relationship between applications and implications of the ideas themselves. I have the personal belief that this happens all the time, and is in fact the source of many of the original ideas that people come up with; but that we are usually not aware of the process, which can take some time. It’s not a “free” association, therefore, it’s something different (I lack the terminology). Most of the ideas that we come up with are lost; in order to be noticed, appreciated, and implemented, the idea usually has to either offer a clear opportunity to achieve something that the thinker wants to achieve, or be a solution to a problem that has been formulated and the subject of some thought. If neither of those is the case, then immediate documentation is needed, or the idea will melt like yesterday’s snow.
Working with inspiration
Ideas are plentiful – so much so that there has to be something about them that makes them ephemeral and transitory, or we would have many more of them out there. Some problems are harder to solve than others, either because they are very technical, very subtle, not clearly understood, or have other restrictions placed on the solution. That’s why new game rules structures can be difficult to create; it’s not a problem coming up with ideas, it’s a problem coming up with ideas that are playable, that work, that integrate with the rest of the game system, that have the right degree of flexibility, and so on.
In fact, ideas are so plentiful that success or failure in solving a relatively open question like “the basis of a new campaign” has to be more about the ideas that you discard than about those you keep (and about how effectively an idea is developed, something that will be dealt with in Part 4 of this series). If an idea is too small, or too much work, or too complicated – throw it back and catch another one. Or, better yet, write it down somewhere for use some other time!
In fact, let me clue you in on a little secret. One of my players has repeatedly expressed awe at my ability to come up with subjects for articles, week after week, month after month, year after year. Well, while I am helped by knowing about the subject, and by being naturally creative and analytic, and by being able to see both the big picture and a piece of that picture in fine detail at the same time, my biggest asset is this – as soon as I think of a possible article subject, I write it down. And, what works for me, as a writer about RPGs, will work for you as the GM of an RPG campaign. It’s that simple.
In other words, Inspiration is not as important as what you do with it once you have it, and that process has to begin immediately by the rejection of ideas that aren’t good enough. This will be an ongoing theme through the next couple of parts of this series, but the immediate need is such that some notes should be presented immediately.
Don’t Be Derivative
It’s better to have an empty box labeled “idea goes here” than to have an idea that has been employed so often that it has become a cliché within your genre (it’s a little better if you are adapting it to a new genre, but only a little). My art teacher used to rail against what he called “Paint-by-numbers”, insisting that everyone at least attempt something original in his classes, no matter how poorly executed or vaguely conceived. I remember getting high marks for a painting of an old fireplace because I painted the brickwork of the walls and parts of the floor, then deliberately left the picture to dry and fade in the sun for a couple of weeks before painting everything else. It didn’t work, because the paint didn’t fade enough, but the very idea was enough to get me a high pass at the time.
If you’ve seen it on TV, or in a movie, or read it on a page, it’s been done a hundred times before – or soon will have been. Don’t use such ideas as-is – impart some spark of originality to them.
Some aspects of human life are so fundamental that they remain relevant over hundreds of years – which is why Shakespeare is so revered, as the first to codify many of them into narratives that have survived. But anyone who wants to employ a Romeo & Juliet plot needs to find some originality in setting, in characters, and in perspective, or they will be mercilessly attacked for the lack of originality.
Roleplaying games might be perceived as low down on the creative totem pole – they certainly don’t get the recognition for writing as mainstream literature does – but that should not be an excuse for laziness. Even if you’re the only person who will ever read about it, aim to be as original and creative as you can possibly be, within the time and capability limitations that you have to accommodate. Any ideas that are too derivative should be the first on the scrap heap.
Inversion/Subversion has been done before
It’s often thought clever to invert or subvert a meme or trope, to do it backwards as it were. Darth Vader and the Empire are the good guys, and the Rebels are the bad guys. The politician is honest to a fault – which is why he’s being accused of corruption. The maverick scientist is an idiot.
For a week or two, strictly time-limited to an hour a night, explore TV tropes dot org – the restrictions are because the site is a black hole into which time streams, never to be seen before, use a Kitchen Timer! – paying special attention to any inverted tropes. See, for example, the article “Not A Subversion”. You will soon come to realize that if you are being “clever”, it’s been done before. Doing it again is just as clichéd as the original would have been.
The Metaphor Looking Glass
You don’t have to read Campaign Mastery for very long to realize that I love a good metaphor. Heck, this article alone should stand as proof positive of that. There is a temptation to build an entire campaign out of metaphors if you’re even half like me. Don’t Do It.
Metaphors are wonderful things, fresh perspectives, shorthand explanations and descriptions for use when more substance is not required, a way to have your conceptual cake and eat it too. They let you take the substance of an idea, strip it of context and meaning while retaining the relationship between the elements, and then apply them in a fresh way to something else, so that the metaphor actually comes to represent a new meaning within the new context. Since so much of processing ideas is to do all of the above, metaphors naturally lend themselves to manifestations as new ideas.
But every metaphor that you implement in this way makes the end product more ephemeral, less substantiative. They leech solid manifestation out of the campaign premise. Put too many in, and there is nothing left but symbolism and abstract representation, a philosophical discourse that might be very interesting to read or debate, but is not likely to be great to play. Such campaigns don’t exist in any plausible reality; they can only be found on the far side of the Metaphor Looking Glass – which is a one-way mirror with no way back out.
There are things that you can do to ground your campaign. The first is that for every metaphor employed as a conceptual basis for a campaign, you should have one predefined and concrete manifestation of that metaphor incorporated as foundation for the campaign – for each metaphor. Think of these as bricks being laid into the foundations to anchor the metaphor and stop the campaign floating away into never-never land. Three metaphors requires three practical manifestations each, for a total of nine. Four need four each, for a total of 16. Five need five each, for a total of 25.
A measure of practicality can be imparted by the presence of non-metaphors within the campaign construct. Each of these counts as one metaphor-brick each. Without these “universal anchors”, it quickly becomes impossible to meet the requirements I’ve just imposed – well, recommended, if you insist. Rules are made to be broken, after all.
Think back to the “Iris Plant” example, and how grounded in plausibility it was. That one metaphor was spun out into multiple practical manifestations – the helplessness felt by some, the determination to defeat the problem by the conspiracy, the reactions to events of outer-planes residents, the panic and desperation by the ordinary citizens – these are all reasonable reactions to imminent doom. The trick in the example is to frame the course of events in such a way that the PCs get to experience it all in reasonably-isolated chunks rather than in one overwhelming whole. And that lets each stand as a separate “Metaphor Brick”, anchoring the whole fantastic plot in plausibility. Which is, of course, the point.
The Wrong Idea
Any number of times, you can invest heavily (in terms of time and effort) into developing an idea, only to find that it was the interplay of characters with the circumstance or setting that was what you found appealing in the first place. In other words, you can take the wrong ingredients from your source material, only to discover your mistake much later.
Make sure that what you have taken from a source that appeals to you is really what you want to preserve and incorporate before you invest a lot of time and effort into it – and set aside any that are The Wrong Idea.
It’s also worth reminding yourself that you aren’t generating this campaign for yourself; no matter how much you might love an idea, if your players aren’t going to buy it, don’t try and sell it.
Ideas are plentiful, but before they can be properly assessed and correlated, no matter how clearly inspirational they might be, you need to sweep away unwanted preconceptions, biases, and other baggage. You can’t do that before coming up with your initial ideas because some of that baggage is a source of ideas; so a program of “detox” is the next step in inventing, or reinventing, a new campaign.