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View From The Big Chair

VI: "Grand Theft Gamemaster"

by Matthew Webber
Dec 24,2004


View from the Big Chair

VI: "Grand Theft Gamemaster"

Some Gamemasters are wizards, magically conjuring worlds, people and stories week after week. Other are Warriors, constructing vast conflicts and challenges to throw against the players. Screw that ... the best way to get comfortable in the Big Chair is to pure Thievery.

It is tough coming up with new material every week. Planning a campaign isn't just plotting out where the characters will go, it is designing a dynamic storyline that has something in it for everyone in a live and interactive audience. There is a world to create (even a packaged world relies on you to bring it alive), filled with NPCs, battles to plan, booty to plunder, places to visit, traps to spring, sunsets to paint, rainbows to build, flowers to plant and a smile to staple on all the wee and common folk. It is a lot of bleeding work and there is no point in prying it all out of a mind already enfeebled by work, school and that hottie who just moved across the street. Especially not when, lets face it, it has probably already been done by someone with a lot more talent than me.

You can't walk into a megaCD/DVD/Home Decor/Book store nowadays without bumping into a wall of fantasy and SciFi books (Note: properly pronounced "Skiffy", especially in relation to the US cable network. D'Argo LIVES!). But that wasn't always the case. In the days before Star Wars and Shannara there were only a few dusty paperbacks lurking behind the bulwarks of Tolkein, Clarke and Asimov. But all that started to change in the late seventies and early eighties as fantasy epics surged back into popularity. And lot of those epics were, and occasionally still are, "retellings" of the Tolkien tales. I'm not talking about the occasional homage or winking reference. Many were wholesale cribs of Tolkien right down to thinly disguised halflings, Striders, Gandalfs and magic Rings. And before you jump all over me, I don't mean any of this as a criticism, these authors saw a good thing when they read it and some of them squeezed a pretty good living out of it. People have been retelling myths for millennia, Shakespear gets beautifully retold by the Zulus and the Japanese, and slaughtered by the occasional Hollywood teen flick. All the good stuff gets reused, and I'm telling you as one Gamemaster to another ... use every good idea you can find.

This isn't a term paper or your personal attempt to write the next great epic novel. Plagiarism is not an issue. So if you come across something you like, be it in books, movies, tv, throw it into your game. Not just lamely stealing a plot twist or a neat weapon idea. I'm talking wholesale, unabashed, big-business style takeover theft. Glory in your larceny! If you have read a really good book that would make decent campaign, map out the plot and fill in details with stuff from your own campaign ... or don't. Use the ideas from the book where applicable or you can't think up something better. You can even go so far as to take descriptions of characters, cities, and places right out of the novel and read them aloud to the players (copy them down first, if you show them the book you're stealing from they will all rush out and read it for hints.) This is harder if you have a well versed group of players, but chances are there are books you have read and films you've seen that they haven't, or if cloaked in enough of your own details, they might not even notice. Mix things up a bit, using a plot idea stolen from a film, but populated with characters and monsters you stole from watching Xena reruns.

An idea I use for NPCs is to use characters from fiction and the real world. Instead of scribbling out a paragraph description of a clumsy smith, I just note -Tim the Toolman' Taylor- beside the name. For a smarmy clerk I could write James from Accounting' and instantly in my head there is a picture and a personality that I can inflict upon my players.

Always keep an eye out for things you can use. You might get a good idea for a spy plot from the news, or a fantasy idea from an episode of CSI:Albuquerque. The web is a virtual trove of ideas, filled with campaign logs, character stats and artwork. If you are surfing around and catch yourself thinking this would be so cool' then grab it and use it! There is no financial gain here and people put things up to share them. The net is even better for stealing ideas because at least you can drop the person an email thank them for the help.

No one expects you to come up with the Odyssey week after week. All you really want is something to keep the game fresh, fun and moving along. If this means borrowing' from the plotline to The Muppets Take Manhattan' to help finish your adventure, then so be it.

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