Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Being a Better GM part 1: Stealing and Skinning

One of the things I hear a great deal when I ask people to GM is "I don't have any good ideas for a campaign/session." My response to them always comes in two parts. First I tell them that plot ideas for gaming sessions don't have to be good, just fun. Secondly I give them some advice on how I come up with plot ideas. My advice might not work for everybody, but I figure I'd pass it along anyway (because really, this blog is about me, right?).

The things I do to come up with plot ideas generally fall into four broad categories. Steal it, Skin it, Feel It, Think it.

Steal It:
This is as basic as it sounds. Simply steal an idea from an existing story and use it in your own game. TV shows make excellent fodder for plots because of the serialized nature of them. Books can work great, though the larger overarching plots of most of them don't tend to work quite as well for new GMs. I find short-story collections work great for this kind of thing. Here are some examples of what I mean.

My first GM experience ever was with D&D 3.5. My gaming group had decided that it was time for me to spread my wings and run a game. I was slightly nervous. I had a week to prepare and spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to do, coming up with scenarios and then rejecting them. Finally inspiration struck and I turned to my bookshelves, looking for tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Fritz Leiber's duo are a classic sword & sorcery combo, so their adventures work well. I pulled out Swords Against Deviltry, the second of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books and used the short story "The Howling Tower". The climax of this story concludes in a wizard's tower where Fafhrd had been driven to escape the elements. He meets an odd character and even odder building, but there's a jewel that's heavy enough to make Fafhrd have trouble hanging on to it.

To quote from the story itself:

The tower. The tower! It was falling. It was falling toward him. It was dipping at him over the dome. But there were no fractures along its length. It was not breaking. It was not falling. It was bending. Fafhrd's hand jerked back, clutching the great, strangely faceted jewel, so heavy that he had difficulty in keeping his hold upon it.

If you haven't read the adventures of Fafhrd and the Mouser yet, you really need to. You'll find lots of inspiration for any fantasy themed campaign you're running, especially if your campaign is of the dungeon crawl or sword & sorcery type. (I actually think that the characters in the great 80s film Ladyhawke were modeled on Fafhrd and the Mouser, with Matthew Broderick's character even being called Mouse.)

I threw in a couple of encounters before the tower, but the tower was the main focus as the players had to figure out how to avoid getting crushed by the tower while still managing to get away with the loot.

Skin It:
Technically this should be "reskin", but I like the way Skin It rolls off the tongue better. What do I mean by this? Take a story from another genre and make it work in your campaign and genre. TV and movies do this all the time. The Magnificent Seven took the plot of The Seven Samurai and didn't even bothering changing it, simply transplanting it into the Old West. Let's say I wanted to take a Firefly episode and recast it for Shadowrun. One of my favorite episodes is The Train Job. Mal and the crew are hired to steal some Federation supplies for a ruthless crime lord, only the discover that the supplies are actually medicine for a dying town. In the show they given the towns people the medicine and then deal with the consequences. 

For a Shadowrun game you could keep some of the elements and discard some of the others. Here's how I'd do it. I'd keep the crime lord, since that is how characters in Shadowrun get jobs. I'd even keep the medicine, but I'd switch it up to high-tech nanobots. Instead of a mining town that's dying, let's make it an orphanage or a hospital. What happened is that the inhabitants of this orphanage/hospital (maybe it's both) were subjected to some illegal testing by one of the pharmaceutical giants. This company was testing for a few things, one of them being a pathogen that only targets magic users. They kind of succeeded, only the pathogen actually infects anyone who is not fully human. This includes all the demi-humans, magic users, and modified humans. In other words 90% of the world. If the anti-dote isn't delivered in time the virus will spread, wiping out vast amounts of the population. 

The crime lord wants the anti-dote so he can hold it for ransom. This is a great scenario because it sets up lots of follow-up episodes. Does the party deliver the anti-dote to the crime lord? Then perhaps they're now targeted by the pharmaceutical company. Do they deliver it and then realize what happened? Now they can perhaps go in and try to steal the anti-dote back. Do they not deliver it to the crime lord? Well now they have an enemy. 

This one plot is good for a whole bunch more plots, as well as developing connections that could be used even more down the road.

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