I love movies, comics, and books, and it never fails that as I am consuming them, my mind grabs on to parts and tries to drag them into the campaign I am running. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and that is true, but what is also true is that putting something anachronistic into your game breaks immersion. So how do you take that awesome think you just saw and get into your game, without jarring your players?

Today’s Topic…

This article is inspired by Christopher R. on G+, who asked me about…

Retooling popular media into your game. A recent TV show, movie, favorite book–heck, even a news report! Take the things you love and incorporate it into your game.

So lets dive in with a quick story about the…

The Intergalactic Kumite

The year is 1988 and I am in high school. I am running Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (my personal favorite flavor of Palladium). I have just gone to the movies where I saw a young Jean-Claude Van Damme as Frank Dux fight off Chong Li to win the Kumite and save the honor of his friend Ray Jackson. My brain is afire with images of martial arts fights, and I go home to write my next TMNT Adventure.

Later that week my players’ characters, all mutant animals living in NYC, are suddenly transported into space by the Triceratons to compete in the Intergalactic Kumite aboard an orbital arena filled with the galaxy’s best fighters. Because we are 16 and we are drinking more Mountain Dew and Jolt than should be allowed, the session is awesome! I take this as a sign and begin to rip off everything I can get my hands on for the next few years.

At first it seems ok, but soon the players are wise to my tricks and they start betting if they are going to see a Predator in an upcoming game, or will they be participants on the Running Man. It starts to sound like I was not original… and they are not wrong.

How then can I incorporate the things that catch my eye in popular media, and not look like I am just ripping everything off?

Filing Off The Serial Numbers

Taking things from other media and using them in your game is not bad; its perfectly fine. My mistake with the Intergalactic Kumite was that it was anachronistic; out of place to the campaign I was running. It became jarring to the players, causing them to break immersion, as they (and not their characters) recognized the source and had feelings for the elements I was incorporating into my story.

To better use some of those elements, we need to strip off the trappings of the media they come from and layer them with the trappings of the campaign which we are running. In essence, cloak the good stuff we liked with our setting, so that the players will accept the element, and not be knocked out of immersion.

In order to do that, here is an easy process:

Step 1: Determine WHAT is appealing

Sometimes you are going to find a single item or setting that appeals to you; like the Noisy Cricket from MiB. Other times, your attraction is going to be more broad like enjoying everything about Mad Max: Fury Road. In those cases where your focus is more broad, you need to focus in on individual elements. So pick one, you can always come back and do more later.

Example: Lets take that Van Damme classic Bloodsport. Sure we could just want to make a bad guy as awesome as Chong Li, but let’s stick with the Kumite itself. What is it? It’s an underground fighting competition where the best fighters around the world are invited to compete.

Step 2: Determine WHY it is appealing

Now that we have something to strip down, we need to deconstruct this awesome thing you have selected. You need to figure out why this element appeals to you. What tropes is it playing upon? What feelings do you associate with it? You need to get to the story elements that this thing contains.

Example: The Kumite. What was it that I liked so much about it? First, I liked that it was underground. I like to have a hidden world in my games, often a criminal world, that is hidden from the normals. Second, it has a wide variety of fighters and styles. Third, it’s a competition to see who is best.

Step 3: Translate it to your setting

Now that we know what we like about the element, we need to re-skin it with trappings from the setting of your game. Look at the things you identified and translate them into your world. If there are things that are not direct translations, then build them from other parts of your world so that they fit. The goal is to make that thing seem like a natural part of your campaign world.

Example: We have: an underground fight, with varied fighters, and a competition to see who is best. Our world is that of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles So, we make the fight in an abandoned subway tunnel under the city (Underground). In this fight, which we will call the Best of the Beasts, mutant animals from around the world travel secretly to compete in hand-to-hand combat (Varied Fighters), and the winner gains the title The Beast (Who is Best).

Selling It

After you have constructed your newly dressed element, you need to get it into play. Don’t do anything special when you bring the element into play, just describe it like any other element. If all goes well, no one will say anything about it, and you can continue play.

When you unveil your new creation, don’t be upset if some of your players catch on to what you did. Some people are excellent at pattern matching and will match up the tropes back to the original in an instant. Don’t dwell on it, and if you want to create some doubt, just say something like, “Oh. I guess it is kind of like that.”

If you are concerned about getting caught incorporating elements by your players, avoid using current movies and other media, sick to older things, and even better stick to more obscure things. The more obscure something is the less dressing you have to do to make it original. I once used the main plot from Babel-17 with nearly no dressing, because I was sure that none of my friends were familiar with the book.

Steal and Conceal

Using elements from popular media is a common activity in RPG’s, and it can add flavor to your game, although care is needed. If the element is too obvious, it can be jarring and disrupt the game, but if you take a little care and strip down those elements and re-dress them with trappings of your campaign, you can introduce your favorite elements smoothly.

What elements from your favorite media have you incorporated into your games? What ones worked well? What ones were disrupting? What element have you recently seen in movies or TV that you are dying to get into a game?