Steal Smart: The Series

Posted on October 2, 2009 by

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The other day on Twitter I put a call out looking for reader written articles for the blog.  I figured I’d let other gamers who may not have a blog of their own have a place to present their ideas and writings, and hopefully help all of us new DM’s in the process, by giving different perspectives on  the game.  So here now I present Tim.  Tim suggested a series called “Steal Smart”, based on how best to use existing resources like books, movies, and video games to craft plots for our own tabletop adventures.  I will now turn things over to Tim, and the first article in the “Steal Smart” series.  Enjoy.

So you’ve DM’ed the Kobold Manor delve from the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, perhaps tried a published adventure or a few generic dungeon sessions, but you’re ready to strike off on your group’s own story – but how will you get started?  Maybe you’ve been running an original campaign but have run out of inspiration for events to come, or your players don’t show interest in the hooks you have set – what will happen next?  Your players are convinced that the unnamed crewman of the trading vessel is the key to solving the mystery of the town elders – how does he act and what will make him memorable?  If you’re coming up blank, don’t despair!  A thousand other creative minds have already put the ideas you need down on paper – you just need to steal smart!

Stealing from books for your game (or from TV, movies, video games, ancient oral sagas, etc.) is easy – in fact, the desire to be Frodo, Conan, Elric, or Drizzt may have led you and your players to role-playing games in the first place.  Great plots, characters, and locations are all over literature, fantasy or otherwise, and are ripe for the picking.  To steal smart, however, you must realize that your players can’t be the Fellowship – their story has already been written.  Let’s look at plots, characters, and locations to see what we can steal (and how we can Steal Smart).

Locations

These might be the easiest things to steal.  Your adventurers are headed into an elven city – is it an elegant wooden lace spread between impossible huge trees?  Perhaps they need to talk to the dwarven thane – does he live in a fortress built after their ancestors destroyed a dragon and took over its horde?

Steal descriptions, concepts, and histories for towns, forests, great grassy plains, bustling cities, and everywhere else – writers, like DM’s, depend on these to put a picture in the readers’ (players’) minds, and you can use these ideas for your own, either whole-cloth or by taking bits and pieces to transform “a medium-sized trading center inhabited by men and dwarves” to “a collection of wooden-shingled buildings on banks of the river at the great waterfall; some above, some below, with a rickety staircase between and a pair of gleaming bronze elevator platforms transferring cargo up and down the cliffs, in which sit the massive stone doors leading to the ancient dwarven citadel”.

The only real tripping point with stealing locations is that your players might recognize them and know you stole, or have player-knowledge of the location beyond what you have told them.  If either of these is a problem, tweak the location slightly, or throw several locations or your own ideas into the mix.

Characters

Literary characters can lead to great NPC’s – as with locations, authors have already thought up many interesting and deep (or shallow as needed) characters.  Good points to steal (again whole-cloth or piecemeal) are physical descriptions, personalities, traits, tics, flaws, and names.  Tripping points with characters include sticking too close to the written character, even when it doesn’t serve your story, and again the risk that your players may realize that you are stealing.  The biggest issue, though, is when stealing heroes and villains – you have to avoid having a friendly NPC that is far more powerful than your PC’s (“Why can’t Sir Beefcake just kill all the orcs?  What does he need us for?”), or villains with enormous power that end up being a level 3 elite monster (“So The Helmed Baroness leveled two cities and commands legions of the undead but when she does her Mega-Death-Touch Attack I take 12 damage?”).

Plots

Ah, here’s the hardest thing to steal smart.  Taking a plot directly from a book is a ticket onto the DM Railroad.  The series of events has already been written – there’s no option for failure (“The bandit who is our only lead is getting away!” “Uhhhh, he stops to tie his shoe and you capture him.”), no option for success (“So you’re telling me that the hobgoblins snare us in the net, and we didn’t see it, and we don’t get to fight them, and if we do they’ll magically win?”) and no way to take a different path than the original story (“The party decides to head to Riverville.” “What?  No we don’t!”).

The trick is to steal hooks, twists, and backgrounds from the plots and not the plots themselves.  Your party can’t be the Fellowship of the Ring, on a quest to Mount Doom with scheduled stops at Moria and Isengard – we know how that story goes.  Instead, they could find a dangerous item of great power that they must keep from evil.  Maybe they’ll choose to descend into the abandoned dwarven mine, and maybe not.  Maybe they’ll destroy the evil artifact in the end, or maybe they’ll choose to use it for their own ends.  Most likely, the story that you and your players build together will take a turn that none of you expected!

Stealing Smart from Jack L. Chalker’s The Dancing Gods

Probably the most series-like of Mr. Chalker’s writings (most are just several-thousand-page works broken up into individual books for publishing convenience and so as not to crush your lap when reading), the five-book The Dancing Gods is an excellent source to thieve.

    The Hook: a lonely trucker and a homeless former English teacher are snatched from a Texas highway by a powerful wizard to become a barbarian warrior and a faerie changeling in a parallel world, where magic rules and monsters roam.

    The Goods: more character, plot, and location ideas than I can list, but here are the highlights.

  • A magic lamp, complete with genie, with an unexpected twist.
  • An army bent on conquest, lead by a masked, armored noble who is almost certainly a well-known member of the Wizard’s Council – but who?
  • A stoic gold-skinned warrior-elf…butler.
  • Differing nations and city-states based around a grand river and its tributaries.
  • A town on the river at a waterfall where goods are portaged down a long wooden staircase descending the cliff.
  • A former enemy, polymorphed into a horse and telepathically communicating with its rider – trustworthy intelligence from a captured spy or trickery from a deceitful turncoat?
  • A powerful necromancer with the ability to remove souls from living bodies and store them in bottles, leaving mindless living zombies – and the chaos that ensues when the heroes can’t be sure that the souls, when freed, will go back into the correct bodies.
  • An ancient battle unstably frozen beneath a mile of arctic ice for a thousand years.
  • A cursed bite from a pure were that causes the victim to turn into whatever animal they are closest to for the duration of the full moon.
  • About 5 million other ideas, from snotty border officials to cryptic prophecies from oracles to dragon-terrorized Swiss-like cities high in the mountains.

    Last Thoughts: I didn’t even mention the premise of the setting or one of the primary features of the universe: this parallel universe was created as a by-product of the creation of our own universe; the vaguely Judeo-Christian Creator, being concerned only with ‘our’ universe, leaves the management of the parallel to the lesser ‘angels’, who take shortcuts by using magic and faeries in place of physics and natural law.  The laws of the parallel world are even further defined by the ever-updated Book of Rules, which contain even the most niggling of bureaucratic legalese to define everything from the dress of barbarians to the actions of villains – all of which are as binding an inescapable as gravity.  These make a great book, but are of far less use to your role-playing game than the myriad of great characters, well-described and logical locations, and thought-provoking plot hooks in this series.

    Availability: The books seem to be out of print at the moment but are available at Amazon though third-parties and may be found used or new at bookstores.  The five books are: The River of Dancing Gods, Demons of the Dancing Gods, Vengeance of the Dancing Gods, Songs of the Dancing Gods, and Horrors of the Dancing Gods.  The first four books were reprinted in two double-length paperbacks, Dancing Gods Part 1 (the 1st and 2nd books) and Part 2 (the 3rd and 4th books).