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Gaming for Grown-Ups

The Gentle Theft

by Tim Kirk
Oct 24,2003


The Gentle Theft

Television, books, comics, movies, all these popular media have many things in common, but the important one for us, is that they inspire. They inspire imagination, they inspire in some cases entire empires of derivative material, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Common themes, and Common memes

These fictions inspire often because of their structure, their vibrance, their sheer "coolness" to it, part of it is identification with the characters, the stories, and a pseudo desire to put yourself into that cool idea that leads to gaming "theft."

Now this kind of theft is gentle, used in private it can add some similar factors to your gaming whether it's black-clad energy sword wielding mystics, or giant transforming robots with personality. The idea is that this little bit of cool, can be used within your game. With many fictions, you are simply borrowing certain trappings, concepts, which were found to be interesting, they may be themes, the kind of "story" the game is trying to cover, or they may be more specific elements from a character type, an organization, or other similar "playing pieces." Like any use of ideas, not every one is worth using.

Good and Bad

Some uses of "stolen" ideas are good, and others are bad. This is, of course, left to each individual to make their own decisions but some indicators of which way a particular theft of material is going is to examine the following.

Is the stolen bit recognizable? If yes, you may have a problem making the idea play seriously. If your after humor that may be a good thing, but if not, you need to get out the files and make sure it's at best only a slight nod at the original source. One of the best ways to do this is to add or subtract details absorbed into the material that may not fit your campaign.

I'm running games set in a dark almost feudal future of Earth, and want a cadre of elite mystic-warriors. I could, for example, add in the fact they are devout Catholics whose goals are to aid humanity both spiritually and in physical defense through the rough times ahead - adding a moral tone that is suggested in the source, but is not spelled out. So, we now have a meddling, somewhat morally (at least on the surface) driven force of human mystics. Considering where these ebon clad elite derives their abilities leads to a difference from the original source. Tied to purely mundane, but highly advanced martial training, combined with standard religious practice, and add in high technology. Their effectiveness is not "mystic" but it may at times, with all good religious figures, to seem so. Now I've decided to arm them with weapons based on of all things the halberd, but suitably with energy emitters that fashions its biting head from magnetically shaped plasma. Now we've an elite force of powerful mystic figures, which are only marginally similar to their source material, add in the fact that these elite are sent out with typical Terrines (Planetary Marines) to serve as in the field religious advocates, and lend their knowledge and skills to everything from ambassadorial first contacts, to simply in the trenches religious observance of corps members.

Now if you go too far to make them different you may lose the feel of this stolen bit, and may need to rewrite it. If the bit is completely dissimilar and not at all even by the most devout fan traceable to its source fiction, then likely, the issue is just as bad as if you didn't file enough of its origin away.

Somewhere in the middle, there is an ideal ground of just memorable and notable enough to be cool, without being entirely caught "red handed."

There is also the issue of how much theft is ok; after all, do you really want a mix of cool bits stolen from other people's ideas? One or two bits can make a setting entertaining for your players, more than one or two may be forcing them to suffer through a sort of hacked together montage of fictions they enjoy, without giving them anything new.

If you find that more than three good ideas from the same source, you should run a game set wholly in the universe from which the three good ideas come from rather than lifting them and inserting them into another separate setting.

Stealing names is out and out, in my humble opinion, one of the largest no-nos, no matter how obscure gamers have a way of knowing and names, that is a sure way to slamming the window of belief hard on the fingers of your players. Names are simply for the most part too distinctive, and should be the first thing you file off in order to add to the obscurity of source.

What bits are good to steal?

Concepts, ideas, memes, general similarities are fine, specifics such as names mentioned above, specific people, objects, the like are bad bits.

If you want a ebony colored soul sucking weapon, by all that is holy do not name it Stormbringer, heck, make it a spear or a mace, call it something entirely new. If it's only cool in its original form, it isn't worth stealing. You can simply direct your gamers to read, watch, or otherwise engage in entertaining themselves with the source material, rather than using it in gaming.

In general, the best "lifting" of these ideas are much better when they can't be recognized either because of the aforementioned obscurity or because you have done a fine job of filing. Players should think, "This is a cool idea" not "this is from X".

Stealing is essentially only worthwhile with game ideas, if you aren't caught. And stealing only works in general if you are willing to do some hard work with the idea after running off with it. It's often harder to re-shape some other persons ideas to fit your players, or the game setting. Don't let that stop you though.

Now if you are going to steal, do the homework. Make sure whatever is being taken is worth taking! The best way to do this is ask the players if something is interesting or cool to them. Their responses may very well shape the things being lifted.

After talking to them, use the awesome power of the Internet, the library, or other resources to seek out references to the idea, find as many good bits to support it as possible, and begin taking notes. Part of the reason this kind of theft is it on the outset looks to take less time, and that can be misleading. To steal it and make it good takes every bit as much time as fleshing out a new one. Being that is the case, why would anyone do it?

Why Steal?

It may look that stealing an idea for use in a campaign isn't worthwhile, but that isn't exactly true. These ideas have major assets that lend strength to their use-that is familiarity. Much like archetypes, a stolen idea can be used quite simply to give your players something cool, which is also familiar. This is why you don't want to file the idea into oblivion. You give them a footing to work from, that they can understand, and make use of, without often having to learn a completely new set of ideas.

Stealing is a shortcut to the hardwiring in your players' brains, essentially giving you credence for coolness, even if it was someone else's idea first. Is that so wrong? Not as long as you do it right. You want them to think you've done this cool work (which you most likely have.) but at the same time expand just how cool something is to be a synergistic expression of your work-that is greater than the effort you put into it.

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What do you think?

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