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GMs Should be Raging Kleptomaniacs

When it comes to your campaign, if you come across something you like — an idea, a character from a novel you’re reading, a cool scene from a movie — steal it and use it in your game. Period.

There is absolutely no reason to be bashful about shamelessly borrowing and stealing elements from any source under the sun. If you like it and you think your players will like it, make it your own. This process is fun, saves you prep time and can lead your game in unexpected directions.

There are no legal pitfalls here (you’re stealing ideas for your personal game, not plagiarizing for a published product), but there are a few things to watch out for:

Han Solo is already taken: Modeling an NPC on a fictional character is great. Using that famous character’s name is lame. (Putting Han in your Star Wars game is a whole different ball of wax, of course.) Ditto with Gandalf: Name an NPC Gandalf, and your campaign takes a turn for the humorous or boring.

It has to fit your game: Sometimes you’ll stumble across something so awesome that you want to jam it into your campaign even though it doesn’t really fit. I’d err on the side of being incautious with this one — if it’s cool, try to find a way to make it fit — but there are times when no matter what you do, the thing you yoinked just feels wrong.

Change at least one thing: Sometimes all you need to change is the setting, and suddenly the plot of Blade Runner looks nothing like the movie to your players. Other times, as with Walt’s Star Wars campaign that used the plots of the movies [1], you don’t even have to change that. But you have to change something.

Trust your instincts: Whatever first excited you about the idea you’re stealing is the one thing you absolutely shouldn’t change about it.

Are you a shameless kleptomaniac when it comes to your campaigns? Has it ever backfired on you?

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "GMs Should be Raging Kleptomaniacs"

#1 Comment By PaPeRoTTo On June 10, 2008 @ 3:10 am

First post dance! 😀

I always try to figure out something new, instead of starting with stealing hooks and ideas.. but obviously some time not intentionally, sometimes shamelessly pick some ideas from other sources 😀

the problem is that even if I don’t call him Ian Solo, it happens that the players start “hey, George.. I think I’ve already seen this.. yes yes.. already seen..” and start mumbleing for ten minutes to figure out what I’ve copied.. it makes me feel really really bad.. as it was an attack to myself.. so i try as i can to be as innovative as i can.. 😛

nice tips anyway!! 😀

#2 Comment By Ishmayl On June 10, 2008 @ 6:13 am

“Plagiarism is the most sincere form of flattery” (or something like that). I’m usually relatively shameless about taking ideas I like and using them, especially from my favorite fantasy series (and the best one ever written), “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,” by Tad Williams. I give this gnomespeak a thumbs up on true advice.

#3 Comment By JuanNavarro On June 10, 2008 @ 6:35 am

I agree. It’s about having fun and having some sort of suspension of disbelief happening.
I ran a campaign with the same 3 players for about 8 months. In that time I stole a lot form Warhammer, as far as the world and religions go, but also from Elric, bought in stuff from Dragonmech, bought in stuff from Vampire the Dark Ages, and then the plot was something out of “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex”. (even though the campaign at one time was “Weekend at Bernies”) Lots of times it’s just names and such (The Famous “Black Hand” from Vampire are a major group in my game) while others times it’s whole conceptual properties: The Emperor and Marine Chapters from Warhammer 40k became names and groups for the enemy battalion.
My players didn’t know half this stuff so I just poured it in, and little by little it all came together.
A little later we added another player to the group and he DID know about all these names I gave and in that, he at first laughed, but then didn’t say anything, only telling me that it was awesome in private. We eneded up using it for his character actually, and he ended up being a secret agent of a the Order of Hermes sent by Moonglum who was Bishop of the SIlver Fangs Chapter of Marines.
Hey at the time, that sounded like gold….

#4 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On June 10, 2008 @ 8:40 am

I’m always antsy about borrowing because I feel like my players will recognise what I’ve borrowed and cry foul. In fact, it’s happened at least once. (I stole the plotline from the video game Dragon Warrior 7: as you do stuff, you unlock new parts of the world that weren’t there before.) On the other hand, I’m usually pretty O.K. with recycling bits of my old games that I thought were good.

Any tips for “If you file off this serial number no one will EVER trace it.”?

#5 Comment By Hella Tellah On June 10, 2008 @ 8:53 am

My cure for obvious stealing is simple: more stealing. Take that great idea from Star Wars, mix it with a cool NPC from Amber, and plunk it all down in an action scene from Lord of the Rings. Draft ideas from enough disparate areas, and it won’t seem forced or hackneyed. Take one idea, and someone at your table is bound to notice, if they’re into the same stuff you are.

#6 Comment By Tehnai On June 10, 2008 @ 9:39 am

A great campain I ran a while back stole it’s premise from some bad DS RPG. The players were all from some small village and needed to complete a pilgrimage as a rite of passage to adulthood. It was all very touching, they accidently destroyed the world.

That being said (darn, I miss that campain), something I also often do is copy from myself. Quite often, I’ll reuse neat NPCs that my players (and myself) loved in completely unrelated campain. Of course, they will be twisted to fit the new world a bit better, but the character’s concept is always the same. Some people might think it’s boring, but I believe a good character should never go to waste.

And my player always love seeing where Shiro, or Kerstan, or Vale ended up in this universe.

In some way, my campains could all be related in a “Tsubasa : Reservoir chronicles”-ish way… mmmh…

#7 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 10, 2008 @ 10:58 am

Ah, outright theft, the GM’s best friend. Picasso tells us that “good artists copy; great artists steal.”

I don’t have the time or patience to write up “set piece” encounters lately, so I’ve been borrowing them from published sources, which has worked out really well so far. One of my veteran players was thrown last session when, in the Abyss, a drow cleric cast dispel good on their cleric and sent him back to the Prime. I never would have thought to play that card if the NPC (swiped from Expedition to the Demonweb Pits) hadn’t been statted up with that spell already…

I’ve also been pinching characterization from TV and movies. I had a couple of NPCs patterned on characters from Lost, and I got away with it, since my players don’t watch the show, and the online chat medium keeps me from doing the voices. (Also, nearly half of the NPCs are cribbed from sourcebooks.)

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On June 10, 2008 @ 11:27 am

I’m not good about consciously stealing, but I’ve marinated in SF&F for so long that I’m sure that everyone is a bit of this existing character and a bit of that. I did borrow a character concept for a PC [Rune from Bardic Voices] that did well– especially since game life diverged very quickly quickly from book events, so she was quickly very different but had the advantage of a good backstory.

#9 Comment By Shlabam On June 10, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

In the D&D game I’m currently GMing, one of my players wanted to switch to being a Warforged. His character was pivotal to the story, so I decided to teleport him hundreds of feet in the sky above the enemy army’s camp, have him get kidnapped, and be forced to fix weapons with an aging dwarf. They instead used the resources to make the player into a Warforged. Yep. I used Iron Man’s origin. Of course, he recognized it, but the party thought it was great.

#10 Comment By Ethalias On June 10, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

If one lifts a plot or character wholesale and places it in a campaign you run the risk of getting rumbled, but if you keep it a bit looser and bend it all out of shape based on what’s there already you can get away with it, and it’s easier the more distant the source material is from the genre of the game you’re running.

#11 Comment By Dragonstar On June 10, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

Once, in a dungeon I crafted, the players opened up a door in a hallway, only to see a door on the other side. The rogue stepped through the 2nd door, and could see the party about 30′ down the hall. With 15 doors opened in this hall, they diverted themselves for quite a while running randomly in one door and out another…

To this day, they still speak fondly of the ‘Scooby-Doo doors’. 😉

That’s the only thing I’ve blatantly ripped off as a DM. As a player, I just finished running a drow factotum through Undermountain, who had a certain fear of snakes, exotic weapon proficiency with a whip, and a really cool hat. The party’s cleric had long, blond hair, drank beer, and had a legacy weapon called ‘Molnjir’… but the best PC homage I’ve seen has to be the fighter/purple dragon knight with an adamantine throwing/returning shield. The called him ‘Captain Cormyr’…

#12 Comment By Elora On June 10, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

Oh yes, thieving is good. I enjoy doing it so much that I can hardly read ANYTHING without thinking about how to turn it into a campaign element. Right now I’m reading Wild Swans: The Daughters of China, and I can’t hardly turn a page without stopping to write down an idea for a plot or NPC to use later. And the great thing is, DMing for a group of guys, I’m SURE that none of them have ever read or will ever read this book. Yoink!

#13 Comment By Omnus On June 10, 2008 @ 10:05 pm

I fondly remember when I was a GM for a wonderful chat-room based RPG called Syree I used to run a regular adventure night called “Omnus’ Cinema Saturday”. I’d brutally plagiarize the entirety of plots and twist characters until they almost became parodies. The players had a heck of a blast, and it was sometimes hard to keep up with them.

What I mostly enjoy using from other sources are scenes. For instance, in The Fellowship of the Ring, the battle in the tomb in the Mines of Moria where they fought the Cave Troll was an excellent battleground, with places to hide (the columns along the wall), room for ranged fire, and a narrow entrance where the group could hold the flow at the door for a time. When I saw that, I used similar locations in dungeons I’ve designed since then, and the players enjoy having the variety in rooms and chambers.

#14 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On June 10, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

And there’s no need to limit yourself to genre fiction, movies, comics, or whatever – you can steal ideas from -anywhere.- My group is on the trail of a fey queen, which will involve a trip to a forest. Now, I’ve already had a primeval jungle (with dinosaurs) and a tranquil elven wood, and I was thinking about what I’d do to make this one different. And it’s a Planescape campaign, so anything goes.

Then I find my wife watching a National Geographic show about snow leopards and their habitat, a forest in the middle of a snowy mountain valley. Now I have a setting -and- some NPCs, assuming the ranger tries to talk to the snow leopards.

And in the early days of the game, when I had time to draw all the NPCs, I had an elf I couldn’t come up with a look for, and there was a show on Discovery Channel where they were talking to an engineer about a dam – he had one of the goofiest haircuts I ever saw, so I put it on the elf.

Always be on the lookout for your next idea! Constant vigilance!

#15 Comment By ChattyDM On June 11, 2008 @ 6:21 am

My whole [2] is exactly about stealing the essence of what we liked from other media and incorporating them into RPGs.

If you can distill what makes a movie awesome you can find a few tropes that you can borrow and apply to your game world and you will re-create the atmosphere, feeling and expectations of the original material.

My 2 cents and shameless plug. 🙂

#16 Comment By grieve On June 15, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

I pretty much lifted the entire plot for Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness and threw it into a D&D campaign. These were experienced players, and I often suffered from the players knowing exactly what monster I threw at them.

It was great to see the players trying to figure out what a blob of goo (Shoggoth) that yelled tikili-li was vulnerable to. All of them scratching there heads as to what it was. They seemed to enjoy it all the more as well.