Sometimes you have to wing it, but the secret to improvising is that you have a set of plans and formulas that you can follow whenever you need to do so. This is a trick that I have used when a plot is not capturing my players’ attention, or if I am asked to run a game on short notice. It came from my wife’s following of the television show Glee, and her favorite musical numbers from the show which are the mashups where two unique songs are combined into a hybrid third.
If you can mashup two songs, why not two or more stories?
Simple Tales, Not Complex Sagas
The first rule to creating a last minute mashup of stories is not to work with complex materials. Childhood nursery rhymes, ancient myths, or stories based upon a simple premise all make good materials to work with. Something like Game of Thrones on the other hand has too many characters, subplots, and twists to make it a good candidate for a mashup.
If you cannot quickly identify the hero and the challenge in a story do not use it for your mashup. Do not worry about the tale being too simple, as the linking of the stories will solve that problem for you.
My last mashup pulled from three sources:
- The novel Moby Dick.
- The myth of Pandora’s Box.
- The myth of Prometheus.
Recognize the Key Components
Now that you have chosen some simple stories (simple in the number of dramatic elements that is) write down the key components of the stories. Here is what I came up with for the three stories in my example:
- A monstrous creature hunted by an obsessed lunatic.
- A naÃ¯ve person opens a container full of various forms of evil.
- A thief steals a valued possession and is punished for it.
Notice how I did not go into great detail with any of the descriptions. This is to prevent myself from limiting my imagination. If I wrote down “whale” in my description of Moby Dick I would immediately be thinking of a nautical type adventure. It is better to break the stories down into the most generic terms possible.
Link or Replace the Key Components
Look for common themes in the descriptions that you wrote down. If each story shares the same type of element link those elements together to create a new single element.
All three of the descriptions above contain a person – the lunatic, the naÃ¯ve person, and the thief. Why not link all three of those same components together into one person? The same can also be done with the monstrous creature and the various forms of evil.
Another trick is to replace a key component in one description with a key component from one of the others. In this case I replaced the valued possession with the container.
The final result is a story where a naÃ¯ve thief stole a container not knowing that it held a monstrous evil creature inside. The creature can take the form of anything considered to be evil and when the thief opened the container it escaped. As punishment for his crime the thief must hunt down the creature and destroy it, but this quest has destroyed his sanity.
Dress It Up
You have your basic plot, so now you just have to add the details relevant to your game system and setting. You have a backstory for your characters to learn about, and you can pull from the original material if you get stuck at some point.
If we wanted this new story to take place in a steampunk setting then the thief stole a sarcophagus from an Egyptian pyramid during ancient times. Upon opening it an evil pharaoh’s mummified corpse took the form of a vulture and flew off. Ra the sun god charged the thief with tracking down and destroying this despicable creature, and Ra will not let the thief rest until the quest is completed. That was thousands of years ago, and the thief is still alive in the setting’s Victorian timeline. Madness has claimed his very soul, and now all that matters is the quest.
Running a different game in a different setting? Just adjust accordingly.
Now Roll With It
Start the adventure in the middle of your new story. Maybe the PCs have an encounter with the mummy from the steampunk themed mashup story. They want answers, and when that obsessed lunatic thief comes around asking questions you have a potential hook to use in having him ask for the PCs’ help.
Get to the good stuff by having that mummy take all sorts of evil forms like savage crocodiles and bloodthirsty hyenas. All the while the PCs should be realizing that the mummy is not the only threat as the thief becomes more and more demanding and reckless. Milk that mashup story for all that it is worth.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The best way to be ready to pull this bit of GM improvising magic when you need it the most is to practice it when you do not need it at all. Start thinking of stories now that you can pull from. Take a moment to write down those key components. Look for how you can link or replace those key elements with each other, then dress the whole thing up to fit your favorite game.
If you follow these steps and practice these tricks when you have a few minutes to spare during an average day you will be ready when it counts. You might even create a few ideas from practicing that will be ready to go when you find yourself under pressure. Do not worry about “wasting” a good idea or concept. You can always use whatever your practice sessions create in your current game when you prepare under normal situations.
Why not test yourself now? Create a mashup from two or three simple stories below, and note how long it took you to do so. Leave a comment with the results and let me know what you thought of the process. As always, feel free to share your own experiences with improvising as a GM.
I asked my wife for three tales or myths. She gave me ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, and the myth of Icarus.
JatB: Through extraordinary means, an ordinary person confronts a monster.
MHaLL: Mutual love makes someone follow another everywhere.
Icarus: Not following directions causes something to fail catastrophically.
I’m used to a fantasy setting, so that’s what I’ll use.
Someone is taken by a creature from another realm, a realm of dreams. His/her lover receives messages via dreams and can follow, but needs help. The spell needed to get there will only last a short time; taking too long will trap everyone in the dream realm forever.
From stories to plot, less than 10 minutes.
I really like this. I expect to be using this a lot from now on. Even tables that list various plots could probably be combined like this to make a more interesting story than ‘escort caravan’ does.
Just a few weeks ago I have been thinking of the something. I was going to do it at the Sci-fi Expo in Puerto Rico, so I can show some people how to run a game at the last second. Although in my version each movie (I had movies in mind) was each part of an act.
Wizards of Oz: Ms West is in charge of a genetic research. One of the player characters genetic code was the key to unlocking new secrets in the area of her research. A few of her creation escape and terrorize the local population. (And yes, some would look close to winged monkeys.)
Pandorum: Some of the people in the area, which her company provides medical â€œhelpâ€ to, begin to feel the effects of Miss West genetic manipulation and begins to turn into monstrous beings. The players now need to rescue the normal humans from being eaten from Miss Westâ€™s patients.
Iron Man: Realizing that her research and company is being close to being destroyed by the evidence the players have, she uses the research on herself and mutates into something that can destroy the player characters.
@griffon8 – I am glad that you like this approach, and I see that you are off to a great start to mastering it. 🙂
@The Fat Hero – Nice work with your approach! I especially like how you tell the story from the perspective of the NPC.
(Oops, a little mistake on the first paragraph in my first post, so I am going to try again.)
I have been thinking about something like your technique for a few weeks now, and might do it at the Sci-fi Expoâ€¦ blah, blah, blah read rest of my first post.
I believe it was few of your earlier articles that made me think of the technique. Preparing to Improvise, Focus on Transitions, and The True Secret of Improvising are the names of the articles I think.
@The Fat Hero – If some of my previous articles have helped you I am glad to hear that! There will be more articles on improvising in the future from me, I’m sure. 🙂
Start time: 5:25
-Jack and Jill
-Journey (as I interpreted it)
-Clumsy people attempt a simple task and fail miserably
-No-hope-left situation where a very small percent of those involved survive
-Discovering a situation, then using past knowledge to your benefit in later runs through the situation
A scientist fails to watch what he’s doing, releasing dangerous airborne chemicals from his lab that immediately turns people into feral cannibals which also exude the chemicals and band together. The only hope of escape is a select few airlocks surrounding the research complex. Players run through the outbreak once, trying to escape, then two more times in attempts to save more and more people.
End time: 5:33
Total time: 8 minutes
@Inumo – Nice mashup! I like how you noted that you worked off of your interpretations of the stories. For instance, if you went by what Jack & Jill is actually about (check out http://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1186574-A-Few-of-Historys-Interesting-Truths and scroll to #2) you would probably have a completely different mashup. Yet would it be as good? 🙂
John Carter of Mars: Someone is thrown far from home and must cope with a new culture and way of life.
The myth of King Damocles: Someone asks for something, but upon reception it turns out to be more than they bargained for.
Skyrim: An ancient evil has returned and someone must step forward to stop it.
The players get violently transported to a kingdom deep in the jungle where a young king has asked the oracles to produce heroes to stop a curse from killing his people who dwell in an ancient city.
(Took me about five minutes. I took the inspirtation from whatever was lying around me. In this case, my book I have been reading, “John Carter of Mars,” my screen name I usually use, “Damocles,” and the game that was in the CD tray of my xbox, “Skyrim.” In a comic shop setting, where my game would take place, I could just glance to my left at all the comics on display and my brain would esplode with inspiration!)
Everyone should keep in mind that these inspirations don’t have to be from literature take for instance my idea.
The House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Hotel California – The Eagles
1. Vice leads to the Down fall of men
2. Something that feeds off the life force of man
3. The inability to escape what appears to be a paradise but ends up being hell.
The players are forced to find refugee from a storm or onslaught in an establishment. Turns out this is an establishment of ill repute that offers to satisfy grand appetites. unbeknownst to the players some of the houses residents are fey kind and feed off of foolish mortals. Also having the ability to either convince them to stay, or somehow tricking them into thinking they are leaving.
@Damocles – I used to be a GM but then i took an arrow to the BLURGHBAKANDRGAS ::coughs up blood and dies::
@Damocles – Great mashup! Once you get the hang of it you can combine anything that provides inspiration for you.
@lithiumfiend – Good point and an excellent mashup to illustrate it. The songs that you used still have simple concepts and work wonderfully for creating a mashup with. I wrote the article as an introduction to the practice, and I think starting with stories is the best approach for beginners. That does not mean that you are limited to only stories though as you have shown.
@Patrick Benson – But, what else is a song but a story? There are plenty of ballads in folk music which are by definition all about stories, and from folk music (which has a rich fantasy tradition) we move on to modern music through many varied steps – none of which managed to quite kill the ballad, which is the staple of such disparate genres as country (Taylor Swift, for example), heavy metal (A7X has several ballad-style songs), alternative rock (Nickelback has a few, Daughtry, Poets of the Fall makes a living on ballads…) and new wave/celtic rock (perhaps the closest to the folk roots, with bands like Nightwish and Within Temptation respectively).
“Should’ve Said No” – Taylor Swift
“The Ballad of Jeremiah Peacekeeper” – Poets of the Fall
“Lost” – Within Temptation
-A man betrays his lover, hoping she won’t find out – she does and leaves him despite his pleas for forgiveness
-An immortal man fights for peace without violence and requires the love of a person to continue
-Someone fights to save someone else, but is doomed to fail
For the mashup –
In his youth, a man (we’ll call him… Allen) betrayed his lover, seduced by another woman; but, instead of owning up to his mistake, he hid it. His lover found out and, a powerful sorceress of fey blood, cursed him that he would live until he atoned for his crime, bound to do service for any faithful couple who should ask it of him. He constantly seeks to win back his love with his good deeds, but she will always turn a blind eye to his suffering.
Time – 9 minutes
I had a lot of fun with this! Don’t know how well it’d do as an adventure plot, but he seems like an interesting NPC at least. Or possibly the seed for a story if not an adventure… I dunno!