Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Stealing From The Best (And Worst)

So I was talking to my Traveller GM today before tonight's upcoming session. I was suggesting to her that the next time we're in jump space on a passenger ship, a little "Murder on the Orient Express" type mystery might be kinda cool. She thought this was OK, and also mentioned that she had a number of Agatha Christie mysteries, and had I read any of them? I said no, and she said she might have to poll the other players to make sure none of them had either.

Now, granted, it is a mystery novel, and if you know who did it before you begin it's not always that great a read, but this got me thinking. Is it really necessary for players to not know where something's coming from in order for you to rip it off successfully? If your modern horror RPG takes a cue from an episode of the X-Files and one of the players figures out, is it a bad thing or a good thing? Sometimes I've ripped off movies, TV, or books, and when the players figured it out, they thought it was awesome. Other times, I've had players think "Ohhhh, you ripped off that movie? It was so LAME!", to which I might reply, "Yeah, the movie was, the idea wasn't."

If I'm in a campaign and I suddenly realize we're playing out Predator, or an episode of Star Trek, or a story from Lovecraft, my first reaction is probably going to be "Sweet!". I really don't care if my GM rips off from other material, mostly because I've been there and I know how hard it is to come up with stuff on the spot. Heck, my current, very infrequent, C&C campaign is more or less ripping off Stargate SG-1, and my players find it hilarious.

I think the key to making a successful ripoff work is twofold. First, don't make it too obvious too early. If an NPC shows up in your Sci-Fi game by the name of "Ripley", you've failed. There needs to be an "easing in" period where your players get the sense that it's maybe kinda sorta familiar and cool but they aren't sure why...and then it hits them and they say "Ahah! That's awesome!".

Second, if you're going to rip stuff off, steal the good stuff. Even a crappy Sci-Fi channel movie can have some cool ideas buried in it, but make sure you're taking what made you go "Oooh!", not what made you go "Blech!". for every story you steal from, break it down in your mind (and probably on paper) and figure out what elements should stay and which should be tossed out, and often times you'll find that you can even get away with using something bad in a good way and no one will be the wiser (hint - only admit to stealing from the classics. If you can get away with stealing from the trash and not get caught, it's always "your idea").

So what do people think? Should a rip-off always remain invisible? Do you like knowing (after a while) when your GM slipped in something from the last horror or action movie he saw? Or do you find that any hint of unoriginal material ruins it for you?

10 comments:

trollsmyth said...

I tend to keep my rip-offs invisible, because verisimilitude is my highest good, and so if people are suddenly thinking, "Hey, we're in the Predator movie!", as cool as that might be, it's yanked them out of my world and dropped them back into the real one. It makes my world seem a little less realistic.

However, if instead I steal from Real World History (tm), and they realize, "Hey, this is just like what happened to Marc Antony when he made his alliance with Cleopatra!" that can actually reinforce the sense that my world is a real, living and breathing place. So it's something of a fine line to walk.

- Brian

Sham aka Dave said...

I will normally try to conceal my inspiration, or change it enough that it's difficult to piece the clues together. I rarely lift a 'plot' as is, instead I'll run with the basic idea, and make enough changes to mask it. Oftimes the players miss the trees for the forest anyway.

The only times I'd be concerned with the source material is if I'm deliberately making an homage (which will become clear early, and should be taken as such), or if I were considering a 'mystery' type adventure. I think that's when you have the most pressing issue - especially if you are lifting a plot straight from Christie or Hitchcock or something...someone's bound to remember the plot at a critical moment, spoiling the mystery altogether in my opinion.

Lior said...

Adapting elements into your campaign is great, as long as you separate the setting from the plot. The players realizing that the political powder-keg the kingdom is sitting on is similar to the situation in France in the spring of 1791 is great. The players being able to predict that the king will try feeling his palace tomorrow night disguised as the servant of a foreign baron is not so good.

That is, you should not take both the "fluff" (general setting) and the "meat (plot) from the same place. If the "hook" and main sequence of events come from an X-files episode and the players [our of character] will be able to figure it out then you'll need your own solution to the mystery. Otherwise, the players will just say "we buy lots of wolfbane and go to the cabin of the little girl we saw yesterday" killing all the fun.

RonSaikowski said...

Don't we all steal to some extent? I mean just the influences from real life that sneak into our games.

I think the key is being subtle. If the players catch on, the effect is lost like Trollsmyth said, the suspension of reality is gone. But if you can blend lots of little things together from wherever and come up with something believable, that's an accomplishment.

David said...

Everything is influenced by what came before, and certainly that's fine. It's even basically unavoidable. However, like others before me have said, I think it's important to, at the very least, conceal your sources beyond recognition. Though yes, the plot for Lord of the Rings was fun times, and so was the trek across the multiple lands and adventures, having a game where you are are tasked to drag some McGuffin across a thousand miles of terrain to toss it off the edge of the world, while being followed by dark knights of unknown power would be a bit transparent.

Personally, I don't enjoy RPGs that have pop culture (on a pretty broad definition of pop culture) references in them. I don't want to fight Conan, I want the DM to have a cohesive world that doesn't need to lean on exterior beings to exist.

Badelaire said...

"I tend to keep my rip-offs invisible, because verisimilitude is my highest good, and so if people are suddenly thinking, "Hey, we're in the Predator movie!", as cool as that might be, it's yanked them out of my world and dropped them back into the real one. It makes my world seem a little less realistic."

A very good point. The twist is, for my own gaming tastes and those of many of my players, campaign verisimilitude just isn't that important. My last session, out of the blue, I decided the antagonists for the big brawl at the end of the evening would be rip-offs from Planet of the Apes - intelligent warlike gorilla-men ruled by smaller chimp-like sorcerers, with a laborer/slave caste below both of them. The players ate it up, and while there was one movie-related comment, it was more like "Ohhh, kinda like..." with a lightbulb over the head, not "Dude you just ripped off a cheesy-ass sci-fi movie - you suck.".

As for the whole mystery/plot problem, the real key is to mine for ideas/scenes, not the whole story. In fact, sometimes it is a sly tactic to make it allllmost too obvious, but with a few critical details changed around to throw off anyone who tries to rely on fore-knowledge a little too much.

In the end, such rip-offs should be a spice to flavor things up, not a crutch needed to prop up your game.

Thanks for the great comments - always good to hear other opinions!

trollsmyth said...

Yep, exactly.

I had a friend who in college who ran funhouse dungeons. The clues to his puzzles would frequently involve references to pop culture, including and especially cheesy '80s movies and the songs of They Might be Giants.

In my games, that sort of thing would have fallen flat, and even when I try to run a game on those lines, it's kinda lame. I just don't have the talent for his kind of comedy. In his game, they were perfect, just like the Barney dinosaur lich and the "Ahhhhnold" Schwarzenegger clan of dwarves.

- Brian

Badelaire said...

Nice. That's right up there with the sentient orange sherbet that controlled the mind flayers who were our nemesis in one campaign run by a college buddy of mine. He really enjoyed putting gag-style humor in his games, and you're right - some GMs are just plain better and doing that stuff than others. I like the occasional wink-and-nod in my campaign (the major plot device right now is a Stargate-like portal the PCs have access to), but I can't do the blatant stuff real well. This guy could do it and for some reason, it just plain worked.

Darkwing said...

the plot for Lord of the Rings was fun times, and so was the trek across the multiple lands and adventures, having a game where you are are tasked to drag some McGuffin across a thousand miles of terrain to toss it off the edge of the world, while being followed by dark knights of unknown power

What High Fantasy "Quest" RPG (or novel) doesn't involve adventurers traveling across the land with (or looking for) a McGuffin on a mission to defeat a great evil bad guy while being pursued by his dark agents? That kind of plot is the very definition of the genre. It can have plenty of variation on it and remain engaging, and not be a ripoff either.

I think movie references are fine, so long as they are in line with the theme of the game. If your game is "serious" then don't insert a comedic plot element. For example, if your mission is to quest for the holy artifact, and your game is generally serious in tone, use references to "Excalibur", not "Monty Python and the quest for the Holy Grail".

Mystery plot is more difficult, because as stated above, when people get the reference, they'll know the ending. In such cases, it's almost imperative that you put your own twist on the ending. Skillfully done, you can really throw your players for a loop, because just when they think they've figured it all out, you put in your twist and keep them guessing.

Anonymous said...

I've seen this work well, and I've seen it work badly. The long and the short of it is that it basically comes down to the experience and talent of the DM/GM.
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