Despite stereotypes that say otherwise, gaming groups are not monolithic in their cultural consumption. Most groups have a few shared interests (anime, sci-fi movies, etc.) and a few niche interests (history, literature, comics, etc.) This can readily be used to your advantage. This is where I’m most likely to borrow (rip off) ideas directly from books, film, and television. My Running Man-inspired adventures ended up being such a hit that they are demanded in literally every game I run. Players can’t get enough of facing off against Buzzsaw, Dynamo, and Sub Zero re-imagined over and over again.
However, much of gamer culture is shared and it’s not very interesting to rip something off that everyone instantly recognizes and inevitably metagames for. That’s where literature comes in.
I recently read For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Quite frankly, I appreciated for its place in fiction, loved certain aspects, but found it too slow for my own personal tastes. This isn’t a book review though, it’s an example of how to mine good idea from practically anything. So, here goes!
Step 1: Identify the central “outside” conflicts of a work.
The easiest thing to lift from stories is the overarching plot. Consider the main conflict the characters have to deal with and sum it up for yourself. Then, apply it to your game. For Whom the Bell Tolls revolves around an American resistance fighter and demolitions expert linking up with local Spanish partisans during the Spanish Civil War for a dangerous bridge blowing operation. He has to deal with the difficult mission logistics, conflicts within the partisans, and an unexpected romance. Quite simply, if you change the nationalities, this adventure writes itself.
Imagine the heroes taking on a mission into the lands of a dark overlord, but they know nothing of the area. Their only help is a group of bandits that know the area. For a standard “good” party this involves a lot of questions of morality, trust, and danger. Even worse, what if the Paladin of the group finds a female admirer with a tragic past? From this basic outline it’s very easy to whip up some encounters and skill challengers to reflect the conflicts mentioned.
Step 2: Identify central “character” conflicts of a work.
Character conflicts are not as easy to use, but they can be more rewarding. Maybe your arch-villain is well developed, but other lesser villains and non-evil rivals need some rounding out. Throwing something together can work, but this is where some hard work and strategic thinking can really pay off. Stealing a characters personality and motivations from one of the greats is an easy way to suddenly create a rich NPC and enhance your DMing. First, identify the well-developed characters in the novel that could be used. Next, consider the main characters and what makes them tick. Consider not only their strengths, but their flaws and their personality.
In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Pablo is a once-fierce guerilla leader noted not only for his bravery but his cleverness. Because of his intelligence, he loses hope of victory and becomes a despondent, surly, and traitorous alcoholic content to hide rather than fight. Even if you don’t see the aforementioned adventure plan fitting into your game, you can import Pablo into your game in another way. Imagine a Thieves’ Guild that once was the terror of the town, but now has let a few rivals gain ground. This could easily be a background issue percolating through the home city your PCs operate out of. Perhaps the whole reason for this is that its leader is just like Pablo. He has wealth and comfort and is now afraid to rock the boat and ruin his little empire by gaining attention of more powerful adversaries. Eventually, the PCs may need the Guilds help and will have to deal with the treacherous and clever Pablo. Can they trust him and rely on his immense intellect and instincts? Or should they just kill him before they betray him?
Step 3: Be shameless!
Do not feel bad about “stealing” from an author. If someone recognizes it, don’t worry. Just wink, confirm it, and tell them not to spoil it for the rest. In the Star Wars game I currently play in half of the NPCs are ripped off from Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels other players haven’t read. When Dalamar the slender dark force user shows up I groan and the DM winks, but having done it myself and having seen the results I always tip my hat.
Lastly, just because I chose to write about well-regarded older literary fiction, don’t forget this strategy works for anything. If you love comic books and everyone else doesn’t, take your favorite story arc and use it just as I explained!