WISH 91: Appropriating From Fiction

In Wish 91: Appropriating From Fiction (Internet Archive), Ginger asks:

How often do you appropriate bits from books, movies, comics, and other sources as a player or GM? Do you like to steal names or flavor or go more whole-hog? Is there a difference between stealing for background and stealing for in-game use?

I remember back in college when I was in a campaign that was populated with a mishmash of ideas stolen from various fantasy novels. The landscape was populated with magical blades taken from Fred Saberhagen’s Swords books, including Shieldbreaker, Woundhealer and Sightblinder, and I think there were a few references to the various Elric books thrown in there as well. I’d never read any of the books, and because of that, the discovery of these various blades didn’t excite me much. But for those in the game who had read the books, well, they were thrilled at the opportunity to wield such powerful magical items. The campaign soon devolved into a munchkinesque hackfest, and not long afterward I dropped out and started my own campaign.

Perhaps as a direct result of that short-lived campaign, I’ve actively avoided borrowing from various literary sources when developing storylines from my Greyhawk game. Part of this is because I’ve had no shortage of my own ideas, but another part is that I strive to keep my Greyhawk campaign “pure” — I don’t like importing modules from other worlds (the sole exceptions being part of Undermountain and a few Dungeon modules). There are some elements new elements that aren’t Greyhawkish, and while some of these may seem inspired by outside sources (i.e. my “High Orcs”, which my players immediately thought of as Uruk-hai, even though they’re really not much like Tolkien’s orcs) I’ve occasionally turned to books when desperate for an NPC name, but I’m as likely to turn to the phone book as I am to the Lord of the Rings.

Of course, when I was a kid, things were very different. I’ll freely admit to running a Star Frontiers game inspired heavily by Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and after seeing Aliens for the first time, an Alien queen and her brood ended up in my ancient pre-high school Greyhawk campaign.

Now science fiction — that’s a different story. While I haven’t run all that much scifi, in contemplating my Stargate campaign I’ve thought of lifting from all sorts of sources — dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, zombies from 28 Days Later, bugs from Starship Troopers, and assorted post-apocalyptic images and devices from Mad Max, Gamma World and The Stand. Why pull stuff from books and movies into Stargate, but not Greyhawk? Aside from the purity issue, Stargate (and science fiction in general, I think) is lends itself to absorbing divergent elements into a larger universe. Science fiction RPGs often revolve around visiting a different world each week, and as such, its easy to have a post-apocalyptic “beyond Thunderdome” encounter one week, and an Abyss-like, water-based aliens the next.

With fantasy, especially low-fantasy, I think it’s more difficult to do that sort of thing. With a low-fantasy game, I’m trying to maintain a consistent mindspace, and intrusions from Tolkien or Moorcock can shatter the game’s mood. Now that said, I think that working in ideas from novels and movies can be a good thing, but it needs to be done with a deft touch.

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