Saturday, January 11, 2020

How to Run Games II: Seek Inspiration

On the assumption that you guys liked last week's article, here's a continuation of the series.  We talked last week about seeking experience, about learning to run games by running them, but now we're stuck.  If the best way to learn games is to run them, then we have to run them. You've got the book in your hands and the group has agreed to your time slot. Now what? What do you even run?

I find that once you've realized that you have to run even a bad game and you've cleared the hurdle of your own fear of failure, the next problem is knowing what to actually do.  You might accept that your first game will suck, but it doesn't help you because you don't even know what to do for your first game.  So how do we get past that?

We need to cultivate inspiration.  People will tell you that inspiration strikes "like a bolt from the blue," that it just happens and there's nothing you can do to make it happen. That might be true, but there are things you can do to facilitate it happening, and to take greater advantage of it when it does happen.  There are also things you can do to force your gears to turn when inspiration won't strike.

Seeking Inspiration

The best way to find inspiration is to invite inspiration.  We tend to find inspiration in music, art and interesting stories, so the best thing you can do is cultivate those things and surround yourself with them.  

Art is a great source of inspiration.  I used to save lovely works from deviant art to my computer, but Pinterest is probably your best tool for this job.  I recommend creating a board with images that inspire you, especially for a specific setting or concept.  For example, I have a Psi-Wars board, sub-divided by aliens and robots and spaceships and planetscapes, etc. Not only does this give you one place you can go and look at when you need inspiration, but it's a great way to help you formalize your thoughts on a particular visual element, especially since pinterest has this handy way of suggesting more art for a particular topic, or linking to images other people who saved this particular image also tend to save.

I personally find a lot of inspiration in music, and I imagine you do too.  Try to construct playlists of particular works that inspire you when thinking of a particular setting or campaign.  I tend to favor more ambient, low-key music, so it doesn't distract me as I work, but it allows me to immerse myself in the "auditory world" of a particular setting, which often brings my thoughts back to the work I seek inspiration on.  I also find film or video game soundtracks work great.  They tend to be especially cinematic and engrossing, but aren't meant to dominate your attention the way more lyrical music is meant to.

Finally, you will output what you consume.  If you want to get ideas on a particular topic, go consume media associated with that. Do you want to design a Star Wars campaign? Go play some Star Wars video games, or go watch Star Wars, or read some Star Wars comics or read some Star Wars books.  Branch out into space-opera-like books and video games and TV shows. Watch something completely unrelated but that's good and speaks to you.

If you surround yourself with neat things that make you think, it becomes much easier for something to leap out at you and suggest itself for your campaign or your NPC or whatever.

Catching Inspiration

Inspiration might strike at any moment, but if you're unprepared to "catch" that inspiration, it might flit away.  A lot of people recommend "Dream journals," but let me recommend "journals" in general.  Consider carrying around a notebook with you. Perhaps you'll see a pretty girl or a nice sunset, or a haunting bit of urban decay, or someone will mention something that fires your imagination: whip out your notebook and write it down.  Alternatively, if you have a smart phone, take a photo of it, or make a quick, auditory note.  You'll often see writers doing this, and that's why.

Consider also cultivating some friends that don't mind when you jabber on about something. If you've seen a good movie or read a good book or seen something interesting that's fired you up, talk about it.  Our minds strongly relate verbalizing with thinking, and so when we talk about something, we tend to subconsciously analyze it.  If you ask someone what they thought, say, of a movie, the first response I often get is that they're not sure, they have to stop and think about it, and after they've thought about it, they can articulate it, and once they start to articulate it, then they start to get very fired up about it.  Some people do all of this automatically and come out of a film pissed off or deliriously happy, but often, it's only after people stop and think about a film that they really reach these heady heights, and talking about that facilitates it.  Thinking about something is a good way of writing it down into your memory.

Forcing Inspiration

So, deadline time, you've done all of that, it's helped, but now you need to have something now, and your campaign isn't materializing out of the void, fully formed.  What do you do?

Use Creativity Tools

You're not the first person to have this problem, not by a longshot, so people have been compiling things to help you for literally ages.  RPGs come with pre-written adventures and loads of explicit story hooks.  Websites like Behind the Name will help you come up with names for your characters, as will Random Name Generators. Story cards (like those from Once Upon a Time, but there are loads of others), collections of "archetypal plots" or "archetypal characters" and sites like TV Tropes can all serve in providing ideas and connections that you can use to lay down the basic foundations for what you're trying to do.


I've heard this called various things, like "mind mapping" or "rubber ducking" etc, but the idea is always the same: just start writing ideas down. Nothing is too stupid or too wrong to write.  The point is to trigger that verbalizing part of your brain and to initiate a conversation with yourself so you start to articulate what you already know.  Your mind is like a network, and you just need to illuminate the connections that you already know are there. Just write the obvious thing and then the next obvious thing and so on, until you've got everything churning and you have a much better idea of what to do.  You'll usually get to a point where small little phrases aren't enough and you start writing an outline or start trying to explain your thoughts more fully, and this point you know your creativity is fully charged and you can get to work.

You can do this with people too.  Other people often have different ideas, different perspectives and different things that are obvious to them.  If you do this as an exchange, it can often get very heated, because both sides get very inspired. If you're working as a team, you'll need to bring the two visions together, but if not, you're under no obligation to take on the ideas your sparring partner has.  His purpose, for you, is to help fire you up, so if you realize you want to run A and he likes B better, that's fine, he can run B, but you're running A.  This, by the way, is one reason that if you're going to spar with someone like this, you shouldn't do it with one of your players; they may well be left thinking "Yeah, but B would have been better."  You want to introduce A to them whole-cloth.

Steal like an Artist

You'll often see me reference this, but it's true.  Most people don't conjure a song wholecloth, or have a novel spring fully formed from their brow.  They borrow from existing works, and start tweaking it, or use it as a basic framework for their broader idea.  

Say you've done the above, and you've been struck by this image of urban decay, and you have this jazz soundtrack and you have this neat idea for an urban fantasy wainscott idea about jazz and monsters; you can even see what one of the major characters looks like.  Okay, now what? Is there a story fairly close to your idea? Like the Get Down or Stranger Things or, heck, Supernatural or Constantine or the works of Tim Powers? Borrow one of those and use it as your template.  Where you don't know a detail, fill it in with a detail from one of those works.

The point here isn't necessarily to completely imitate a story, though that's fine if it's the best you can come up with; that's at least a starting point. If you can, see if you can borrow and blend from multiple sources to create something that feels wholly original with you.  Or, see if you can build everything on your own, but what you can't do, fall back on your borrowed inspiration to fill in the gaps.

"Stealing like an artist" is also a reason to cultivate a broad library of resources. If you've watched a lot of movies, played a lot of games, read a lot of books, and gone through a lot of adventures, and you can remember them, then you have an entire library of material from which to casually steal from.  This goes back to the experience post, and my suggestion of "read more stuff."

A Worked Psi-Wars Example

Back in last week's post, I relayed a story about how I was able to conjure up a story in 15 minutes for a girl who couldn't think of a story at all. I chalked it up to experience, but this is a more concrete example of how I'm able to come up with inspiration so quickly: I've learned to cultivate inspiration, and steal from existing ideas when I've run out of ideas.

So, let's say I need a campaign idea for Psi-wars toot sweet. What can I do?  Well, I can look at the setting itself, and I can look at things I've seen recently that I like.  One thing I just finished watching was Netflix's Witcher

Psi-Wars isn't fantasy, but... it's space opera, so I could borrow these ideas.  We could have some sort of "Bounty Hunter" that hunts "monsters."  That would fit in Psi-Wars pretty nicely.  If we want it to have a nice fantasy feel, we could set it in the Umbral Rim. It tends to have mixture of fantasy-esque civilization, the strange races and a reasonable excuse for space monsters: remnants of the biological warmachines from the Monolith War.  Most of those would probably be in the Shroud, especially on worlds like Moros, which is filled with sick people, a cult of Sin Eaters, and ruled by House Adivasta.  We could say there was some sort of group of genetically engineered monster hunters (the secret of their genetic engineering is, of course, unique to them, and they're dying).  They'd probably be a group of Ranathim "Bounty Hunters;" as for a name, I could steal "witcher," but that would sound something like "Chiva" which is too close to "Priest" in how I've used it, so how about literally monster hunter with the Sariel Matra. Not too bad. Not quite as catchy, but it will work.

(Other ideas could work here too. The Arkhaian Spiral has Eldothic monstrosities in it, remnants of the Scourge and, of course, the Cybernetic Union, all of which could require specialists to hunt down, and these specialists might use unique "Wyrmwerks" technology.  Most of these threats arose relatively recently, though, so they wouldn't have the same "ancient" feel.  The Sylvan Spiral is also famous for its space monsters and genetic engineering, both of which fit the idea of a Witcher well.  It tends to be more sparsely settled, though, and people tend to be more interested in visiting it than staying, so such characters might be more like guides than monster hunters, but if they were a native tradition by a group of aliens that lived in the Morass, they might act more like classic Witchers.  Finally, the you might have Imperial monster hunters, some sort of corps dedicated to fighting the strange monstrosities that crop up throughout space. The Imperial Knights already verge on this.  Such a unit would feel more like Black Ops than the Witcher, but that doesn't mean that Psi-Wars Black Ops is a bad campaign idea).

Okay, so we've got this group of Ranathim monster hunters who tend to modify themselves, probably using secrets similar to the monstrous lost arts that created the very monsters they hunt.  As a center of power on their dying world, their nobility probably doesn't like them, and perhaps the Ranathim Death Cult, who tends to oppose all things created by those forbidden arts, tend to take a dim view on them as well, so the rest of the people in the Umbral Rim aren't super into them either.  

Alright, that's neat, but the purpose of this was an adventure? Well, we can borrow from the Witcher itself, but there are other sources of inspiration.  What about the Mandalorian? 

Giving these guys unique armor might be really cool; I already had ideas for a sort of bio-mecha armor, they might wear that stuff.  Make them very imposing and impressive.  Come to think of it, there's a lot of similarities between the Mandalorians ("This is the way") and the Witchers as organizations: on the edges of the world, badass, doing what needs to be done for money, keeping secrets that make them badass.  We could treat the Sariel Matra as sort of bio-tech, necromantic mandalorians.

Oh, but weren't we looking for a story?  Well, both the Witcher and the Mandalorian turn on a theme of the responsibilities of fatherhood.  So we could do some thing with kids.  The Witcher's stories follow a sort of formula, one we find in GURPS Monster Hunters: first, something bad happens.  Then, the hero gets involved.  Then the hero needs to solve the mystery of what the monster actually is.  Then the hero needs to resolve the monster, often by killing it, but not necessarily.  There may well be violence the whole way through.  But the "twist" in the Mandalorian is that the target is a child.  The Witcher also has a similar twist in its third episode.

We could do something similar.  We need some sort of monster, some grave peril and threat.  Perhaps  we have, I dunno, a cult on this planet that allies itself with some dark God of Death. They're terrorizing the world, and something of theirs has gotten out and is harming children.  We might draw on some of the imagery of Stranger Things or IT, this cult and the monsters tend to focus on children, there's something of a bedtime story quality to it.  Someone hires the Sariel Matra to rescue a child and bring it to them.  The child is held deep in this complex.  On the way, they find themselves fighting other scum and bounty hunters to be the first to get to the child, who turns out to be Keleni and being fiercely protected by the last remnants of their clan.  The child's last protector is gasping their last breath when the main characters get there, and they beg the PCs to rescue their child.  The heroes then learn that the people who hired them in the first place is, of course, the cult itself, and the child is meant to be a vessel for their dark god or whatever, so the players can turn the child over and enable the possession, or they can take on the whole cult.

This story has some problems. The Witcher and the Mandalorian work with a single character, while we're looking a group of players.  The Witcher and the Mandalorian are TV shows, so the writer can force the protagonist to make the most interesting decision, while a GM doesn't have that luxury.  What interesting choices could the GM lay before the players, and how can the GM prevent his players from derailing the plot? There's also more details to work out, like what do Sauriel Matra genetic engineering and armor look like? Who's the dark god of the cult? That's not really the point of this post: the point is to have an idea.  You could run the above for a group and it would work, more or less, you'd have to fill in some gaps, name some characters, stat some enemies, the point is to get an idea, to get a starting point, where we're filling in blanks rather than trying to figure out what to run in the first place.  Hopefully, this showed you what such a process might look like.

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