book in darknessI wanted to share some thoughts about my unapologetically extensive inspiration list from my Valkyrie Introduction post. White Wolf has lists of inspiration material for their World of Darkness books, so I’ve decided to do the same. It’s not just about TV and movies, because anyone can talk about what they like to watch. In this post, I’ll detail how I turn an inspiration into an rpg.

I think every artist has this hidden fear that their work won’t be creative enough. But hey, I’m no expert! It could just my own inexperience. Point is, completely out-of-the-box thinking is getting more and more difficult to achieve. 

The Fear of Stealing – Don’t be Afraid to be Inspired

I’d like to think I can be imaginative sometimes… But many of my most “inventive” ideas end up resembling another work that has beaten me to the punch. I suspect the same applies to anyone who designs games, settings, characters, or systems. This happens even to the professionals.

Examples from Television and Movies

There are the common comparisons made between Hunger Games and Battle Royale. In both stories, the government kidnaps children and forces them to fight to the death in an arena. They both do this as punishment for a revolution, but also entertainment. My other favorite comparison is between Firefly/Serenity and Outlaw Star. They are both cult classic science-fiction westerns that fuse Chinese elements. They share many other similaritiesThe interesting fact is that none of these authors knew about the other work when making their own. Sometimes people just come up with similar ideas independently.

To be clear, I enjoy all of these works for their respective differences as well as their similarities. If you realize what you’ve brewed up is comparable to something else, good! There’s nothing wrong in using the best parts of both ideas. (And in fact, this can work to your advantage.)  Everything has already been done before anyway. What’s important is to also find a way to create clear distinctions in your work. The author for Outlaw Star and Firefly are trying to say very different things. If it is an obvious rip-off or cash grab with nothing unique to say for itself, people will see it. But if you stay true to the work’s unique message, people will appreciate it. This allows you to retain creative authenticity!

Example from Valkyrie Campaign Setting

One personal example is when I was first explaining the Vruex – an antagonist in the setting that spreads itself through a disease – to some friends. As I was in the middle of a detailed explanation of my alien race, one friend told me that it was starting to resemble Tokyo Ghoul, an anime I had heard about, but up to that point had never seen. That night I did some research. After reading the premise and some plot summaries, I definitely saw the similarities. However, the differences were also starkly apparent to me. I explained these differences the next time I saw her, and was able to get her more interested in the setting by connecting it to a work that she was familiar with. (For the record, once I saw the character she made, I saw the inspiration. And I liked it!)

To review, when you accidentally copy another person’s work, it can make it easier for us to explain it to others. After you get that out of the way, focus your pitch down to the fundamental differences, whether it’s the perspective, tone, theme, or mood. Embrace it, and use it as a jumping off point; make your setting wilder and crazier, or maybe more realistic, down-to-earth, or even gritty – it’s up to you. Then explain your setting’s unique message so anyone can understand what it is that makes yours one-of-a-kind.

Star Wars Feudal Japan by Joel-Cevallos

So it’s like Star Wars, but with samurai? Okay, I’m on board. – art by Joel-Cevallos

Watch, Learn and Listen

Another thing you’ll notice from my current and future Inspiration Lists is where the materials come from. They span a long range of years, from things I’ve watched or read as a child, to media I consumed just last week. It’s all tossed together in the cauldron when it’s time to create something new. So, if there’s a concept you want to use, I suggest using everything you’ve encountered within that type of genre or culture. Are you considering a fantasy story? Think back to every traditional fairy tale, Tolkienesque fantasy epic, and Game-of-Thrones-like fantasy perversion you’ve watched or read. While you’re at it, why not recall all those power metal songs and ballads you’ve heard?

If you’re basing your setting off of a single work, it should either be extremely obvious in its inspiration (like my Heroes or Avatar settings, or my friend’s homebrew Gundam RPG system, or more officially the Dresden RPG) or its parody. Otherwise, it seems from my experience, that you will run the risk of being too obviously derivative; you will hone in on a few concepts too much. So, even if your work is based on a single license, mix in a little of everything that you see from that genre or medium.

Have Fun!

In the end, you should be creating something that YOU would want to read or play. There’s this stereotype of the passionate artist who hates all of their work. This has been true at points. Franz Kafka famously told his friend to burn all of his work before he died. Makoto Shinkai, the director of the 2016 smash-hit anime movie Your Name told people to stop seeing his movie because it was getting too popular. If you modify and poke around in your world enough, you may find you’ve lost your way. On the other hand, I absolutely adore Your Name, so while you should focus on making something you like, maybe be aware that it doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect. When it’s complete, it’s complete. And if you’re anything like Makoto Shinkai, you’ll know when people start calling you the new Hayao Miyazaki.

 

Blind Guardian Nightfall in Middle-Earth album art

Speaking of awesome things inspired by awesome things, Blind Guardian based this album (Nightfall in Middle-Earth, Virgin/Century Media) on the Lord of the Rings backstory in The Silmarillion.

 

Take Notes

Ideas evolve, so I try to review my setting as much as possible. Is it due to my short attention span? Yeah, probably. But I think it also has some other advantages. This requires recording all of the facets of your setting that you can think of.

Once your setting is finally down on paper, it’s time to look at your thoughts from a new perspective and appreciation. Like a General observing their toy soldiers on a map, you can evaluate the characters and plot points from up above. As a result, you’ll also find what you don’t like so you can adjust or remove it.

So now that you’re keeping tabs, adding, and subtracting, ideally you’ll write a sizable amount. After all, you can only keep so much of your world in your head at a time. If you take notes, you can review your whole setting more actively while new media inspires you on a daily basis. We’re all limited by our free time and dedication, but take the time to read through your work and jog your memory. Taking notes doesn’t just help you remember what you’ve thought of…it also absolutely helps inspire you to create more.

Visit Your Notes

Expose yourself to new stories and media now and then, too. While I advise taking ideas from similar genres, sometimes creativity is born by using completely different styles as well. You may find that it’s just what you needed to make some plot point understandable, or to make some character more believable.

For example, I’ve taken geography and anthropology ideas I’ve read in class and put them in fantasy stories, or put humanity’s own ancient history in sci-fi stories. I mean, let’s be honest – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is essentially a murder mystery in a fantasy young adult novel

If you’re having trouble with fixing plot-holes, just read things, watch things, talk to people. Let the “eureka” moment come to you rather than forcing it, because inspiration can come from anywhere! It’s like your subconscious is trying to fit in puzzle pieces without you even trying. Thanks, subconscious!

 

a world being painted into existence by a hand in space by Veronica Sicoe

Imagine that hand is your brain filling in the details while you watch a movie. Can you see it? (artist: Veronica Sicoe)

Varying Your World

If your setting involves magic or advanced space technology, it’s easy to dismiss inconsistencies you encounter under the umbrella of “magic”, without having to put further effort in your story. That’s not a plot hole! A wizard did it! Admittedly, this has actually lead to some good stories, but it depends on how heavy handed you are with the magic or magic-like technology.

Brandon Sanderson’s First Law of Magic

Author Brandon Sanderson famously has a couple of laws that he uses when writing magic systems. Personally, I think any fantasy author who uses them will avoid a lot of the worst problems with using magic in stories. His First Law states that –

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

It essentially means that if you solve a problem with magic, the readers better understand how and why. For example, you never see Gandalf use any of his magic to defeat a huge enemy, like Sauron, or to deliver the Ring into Mt. Doom. That’s because his magic isn’t well-explained. It solves minor problems, mostly delaying enemies until the heroes can escape or actually do the thing that would solve the issue.

To use Harry Potter once more as well, aside from the first and second books (where the magic is explained after he uses it), Harry never uses spells that aren’t explained either in the same book or the book before it. I think this is one of the reasons his signature spell is the Disarm Charm. It’s simple to understand, the effects are established early on, and it has clearly demonstrable limitations. The spell doesn’t stop any opponent permanently because it only causes their wand to fly out of their hands. But it is enough to win a wizard duel with proper timing.

Applying the First Law to RPGs

So, if you decide to add magic or technology into your setting, put in the extra effort to make it fit. For every piece you add in, keep in mind how it affects every other part of your creation. Moreover, make sure you can fully explain the magic, especially its limitations, so when a player or character uses it to solve problems, we can see them as being clever.  Otherwise, we run the risk of seeing them use some overpowered Deus Ex Machina coming in to save the day.

For RPGs, the magic system is only for the players. It’s easy to just hand off a list of spells or futuristic technologies (perhaps inspired by your favorite magic show or system) and then be on your merry way. However, Sanderson’s First Law of Magic will still apply to every other part of your world.

RPG Examples

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 feels like it has a billion classes and spells and weapons. But each one has a specific purpose that fits into its world. This gives the players plenty of options, but also lets you see how everyone would interact. The rogues are sneaky, the fighters battle head-on, the wizards fight with preparation and distance, the Rangers use tactics from a range. It’s easy to imagine a fight between them all, or how they’d support each other in a party.

The more elements there are, the more danger of having something included that throws off everything else. The DM will have to do some work to make sure things make sense. But if you’re the writer, you may as well make things as easy as you can for them. I have one friend (and soon to be a guest author) who showed me one example. These homebrewers, named Frank and K, made the Wish economy.

My friend will explain better, I’m sure. Essentially, the fact that magic exists in the world would cause some economic ripples. In D&D, there exists beings who can generate magic items. This makes those items almost free for anyone who puts in the effort. So in Frank and K’s take on D&D, any player can gather these items. Anything above that takes extra effort and is worthy of notice. The interaction between all these facets – the efreets, the Wish spell, and the average magic item – isn’t at first clear. Once examined in detail, though, it all makes quite a bit of sense.

Valkyrie Campaign Setting Examples

I’m not going to lie, my campaign is a little cheesy with how many elements I’ve thrown in. But I’m okay with that. I believe that it’s more fun to create game worlds that have lots of variety so that players have more to work with when they build different characters.

Clearly, this soupy mixture of Inspiration Brew is not easy to manage. For the Valkyrie adventure setting, I had to consider how every race and technology would interact with each part of my universe.

Country Bumpkin to Career Man

Here’s an example: Imagine how a simple farmer would feel about an Inner System business person if he was on the outskirts of a backwater Outer System swamp planet.

Would he be angry or jealous of the other man’s good fortune? Or say the farmer was only exposed to advanced technology when other’s delivery ships passed him overhead…what then? He might hold a grudge about the Inner System abandoning his people. Or perhaps he’d feel neutral about it all, having long since forgotten about the past anger of his ancestors.

Corporate Shark to Swamp Hillbilly

Now let’s look at the other side – how would a career man working in the hustle-and-bustle of a megacity feel if he met this simple farmer from out of nowhere? Would he be jealous of the farmer’s down-to-Earth lifestyle? With no worries about deadlines or corporate takeovers, he might instead think the man ignorant.

Lot’s of questions, I know. You don’t have to go crazy with introspection. That being said, it’s these kinds of unexpected interactions between the oddest parts of the universe that makes the game compelling in the first place.

FFXIII - 2

Final Fantasy (SquareEnix) just doesn’t care. Sure, every game has detailed world-building, but look at this guy! He’s wielding an awesome sword in this probably not-sword-appropriate world

It’s Okay To Have Voodoo magic and Japanese Androids

Personally, I like to begin world-building by examining a local place and its culture. I pay attention to not the exception, but rather the mundane. What’s considered the norm in this world? That’s a personal preference, and I’m sure far more experienced people have better, more nuanced ways of constructing these fantastic places. Then again, it’s worked well enough so far.

I’ve seen far too many homebrew worlds contain just a single type of person, usually some proto-medieval European culture. Unless your setting is focused on one tiny location (like a city), don’t be afraid to add some variety.  Just be aware of cultural appropriation (which is a huge topic I will probably humbly attempt to tackle in future posts). Our world is filled with numerous crazy, unique cultures, and many interesting stories come from their clashing or uniting.

Thought Experiment Setting – Two Incongruous Cultures

So who says you can’t have knights and machine guns in your setting if that’s the kind of thing you want? The Knights come from the Knight Culture, the machine guns from…the Machine-Gun culture?! Just give a thought to how they would interact – who would win, and in what situation? Would they clash forever, or could they find a common cause to work together? Why don’t the Knights have machine guns, and why doesn’t this Machine-Gun place have knights? Once you give a bit of thought to the major interlocking parts, it’s easy to improvise the rest. Again, I would consider the average citizens before you focus on the heroes or PCs.

Peering into a Setting’s Backstory or Leaving the Curtain Closed

I find the easiest way to discover the “hows” and “whys” is to look at the history, but that’s not always necessary. I’m a bit of a history buff and love to think about out how my characters and peoples became the way they were. I’m sure it’s a lot more work than would often be required, but it’s a hobby. In fact, a lot of my “histories” were based on what-ifs from actual history. For example, what if the colonial empires didn’t succeed in getting all of their colonies? What if China, or Japan, spread across the world instead of this England and the European powers? It can be fun to think about for people like me, and also a useful font of ideas.

1491 by Charles C. Mann - New Revelations of the Americas Before Colombus

I based some of my Steampunk Tri-Faction setting on this book. Hint: there’s no Vikings or magic or steam in it. (1491, by Charles C. Mann)

Conversely, we can take a page from how White Wolf wrote some of their Chronicles of Darkness.  Sometimes it’s best to leave the past a mystery.  You can always fill it in later. If you’re making a setting to play in, this leaves in opportunities for creative GM’s to generate interesting plot premises or NPC backstories. Players will appreciate the easy chance to hook into their character’s backstories, as well.

Mysterious Examples

In the Valkyrie Campaign Setting, I did this for one of the 10 Major Guilds. To be honest, I only thought of 9. With some effort, I’m sure I could’ve thought of a 10th one. Instead, I decided it may be more potential fun to leave it open in case a player thinks of a genius idea for a group that doesn’t fit in elsewhere, or as a GM if I want to create some super hidden organization to add into a story later.

For anyone who’s read some Spirit of the Century, they would know that FATE is especially great at handling ambiguities like this. One of the things players can do when spending a Fate point is to make a declaration about their current scene or situation. The GM can allow it or not. The system encourages players to make the story more interesting this way. My favorite example from the SotC core book is a professor character who says that the tribe the players encounter respects displays of dominance. Her suggestion is to punch the chief in the face to get on their good side. Now clearly, the situation that is about to unfold has an enormous potential for either hilarity or disaster, and so the GM gladly takes the Fate point from the character’s player and the world building snippet for this campaign’s setting, as well.

Tap Dancing GM

Mystery gives great scene-to-scene potential to connect loose ends. But, it works best with players or GM’s who can improvise. If you can wing logical connections between the loose ends of your setting on the fly, you’re at an advantage. It can be an excellent way to build your world while you’re running it. You can do this without all the effort I implied above, even if you have wildly divergent elements.

If you want just as much structure and internal logic but without the pressure to improvise, you have options. Leave the mysteries to use as character background hooks only. Now you have the time to consider how to incorporate them later. As the campaign goes on, give a few hints of what may come later using what little information you have now. The players will take these breadcrumbs as if you actually knew where the story was going. It’s almost like faking foreshadowing. Once the story ends, it can turn out to be full on completely foreshadowing. Way to go, storyteller!

Captured white guy painted by native tribe

I’m sure your characters will be more concerned with why this is happening then the tribe’s history. (Artist: Mort Künstler)