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Day 5: Stealing like an Artist

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“Good Artists Copy–Great Artists Steal” is the old adage, and it’s rare that you find something truly original out there in the stacks. I talked a little bit about creativity in my last post about using pre-published adventures vs. writing your own, but even if you are coming up with your own material, you’re still incorporating your entire media history in some fashion, consciously or no.

I’ve been reading Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon on and off since I picked it up for a dollar via a Kindle Daily Deal, and though it has a provocative title, it’s really about acknowledging what’s come before so you can learn from your foundations and give them your own twist. One need not look any further to see this in RPGs than the original D&D, which drew heavily from Sword & Sorcery novels and especially Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series (you can check out this Goodreads list and vote for the best “Appendix N” novels).

The way I see it, there are two ways you can integrate material from other sources in your campaigns: 1) enlisting your players as knowing accomplices and 2) keeping your players in the dark.

If you pitch the idea to your players from the get-go and they are on board with it, you don’t have to worry about coming across as unoriginal or a cheat (even if that wouldn’t necessarily be the outcome–there’s always that fear). My boyfriend and I saw the trailer for 47 Ronin today at the theaters, and from what we’ve seen it looks like it was made to be an L5R campaign. We might yet try to get our group to come see it with us, “or hell, we could play through it” suggested Ryan.

The other option is to keep the setting or story the same but change some “minor details”: I’ve longed to play in the AU Star Wars campaign where Artoo and Threepio never make it to Tatooine, but the galaxy still needs saving from the Empire. And I’ve talked about stealing the premise from Dr. Who/Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle/Kingdom Hearts and running with it, which I’m determined to make happen one of these days. And of course, my group had a ton of fun playing as the “Magnificent Seven” converted to Deadlands: Reloaded, bandit attacks and all.

If you’re going to re-use material and there’s a chance your players will recognize it, I would try to change as much as you can. The last thing you want at the table is for your players to be jarred out of the experience by the intrusion of all the feelings they associate with the original work, whether they are good or bad. Gnome Stew has a great article about Filing Off Serial Numbers to transfer the essence of the plot arc/hero’s journey into your own setting or story, though the author was lucky enough to have his players respond positively to “the reveal.”

In my own experience, my Second Darkness Pathfinder campaign veered completely off-course after the first adventure path, and I set the rest of the game sessions in the city of Bemmea from the Midgard Campaign Setting. I took the concept of Scriveners and modified them to better match the magic-users of the same name from N. K. Jemisin’s cosmology in her Inheritance Trilogy. I knew that none of my players had read the series, so the different scriveners just felt like a natural part of the setting to them, without having any preconceptions about them or the work. I also managed to discreetly borrow a little bit of Warhammer’s Araby to use in my Marrakesh campaign, as well as the Disreputable Dog from Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series.

At the end of the day, I would say that the axiom “you are what you eat” applies to GMs as well in terms of the games they run compared to the media they consume. Don’t be shy about it. Save yourself some prep time and nab the good parts and leave the rest. And better yet, bring on your players as partners in crime.

What inspiration have you drawn from other games, books, movies, etc? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on worldbuilding.

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  1. 30Days of GMing, Day Five | Renaissance Gamer - […] Stealing like an artist: what inspiration have you drawn from other games, books, movies, etc? […]

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