Friday, July 25, 2014

Assembly Required: Development Step Four - Inspirational Sources

Now that you are armed with your campaign's foundation, parameters, and power level, it's time to go to the next step: Inspirational Sources. The quickest way to get a player to understand what your campaign is about is to give them a comparison to a reference that they'll understand. The more references you can give, the better. Sometimes you'll end up having to add a qualifier "It's like X, but without Y or Z." Other times you can just use it wholesale "It's like X." This sounds simple at first, right? Every gamer I know does this "Hey, I'm running this game that's like X, but it's more all about Y in X, want to play?" Sometimes, that's enough to get the juices flowing for a player, sometimes they need more. I personally like to saturate my players in fiction, movies, TV shows, or whatever pop culture references I think are valid so that they know the exact feel I'm going for. This usually involves a list of some kind, annotated, separated, and with valid links if sent via email or shared digitally. Of course, if you did your foundation session right, you've probably already got a small list given to your by your players. That's just a byproduct of your players and yourself describing the kind of campaign you want to run/play. Though it's probably best to start small and work your way out from there, I tend to just pile it on (which may not work for you). What's more, start with the mediums that you know your players will view/read first. If no one reads comic books, don't both putting down any comic books - at least not to start. Once you have a good list, sort it out in the following way:
  • Highly Influential/Must Watch or View
  • Moderately Influential/Suggested Watching or Viewing
  • Slightly Influential/Watch or View with Time Permitting
From there, break it down further, like a bibliography:

Comic/RPG/Nonfiction/Fiction Sources
  • Author Last Name, Author First Name. Title* (Publisher, Year). Pertinent snippet
Cartoon/TV Show/Movie/Mini-Series Sources
  • Movie Title* (Director Name, Year). Pertinent snippet
  • TV Show Title* (Years Running). Pertinent snippet
Video Games
  • Game Title* (Creator, Year). Pertinent snippet
Now I know this sounds like a lot of work - and it is - but only one or two hours worth, and trust me, in the long run you're going to be grateful you did it. Every time you feel like your inspiration for the campaign is waning go back to the list. When you want to work up a new story arc, but you don't know what to do, go back to the list. When a player is creating a new character - direct them to the list. The Inspiration Sources list becomes more than just "Look at this for what I'm trying to do." It allows you to convey concepts in game time: "It's like X, from that movie Y where they are trying to do Z." It allows you and your players to build a shared sense of disbelief before the campaign even begins. It gives you some whole cloth to pattern your own on. In effect, it becomes a indispensable resource when you're trying to research, explain, or otherwise improvise something for your campaign.
* Use a hyperlink if sending via email so your players don't have to look it up - Wikipedia is probably best for this purpose.

The Worked Example: Inspirational Sources List for Something, Something Kill Monsters Urban Fantasy Secret Magic
The following is the book list that both I and my players came up with for our new campaign, there are entries for movies, films, and such, but this should get you going on what we decided we wanted:

Inspirational Sources, Books

Highly Influential
  • Briggs, Patricia. The Mercedes Thompson series. (Ace, 2006). Features a secret world with werewolves, vampires, witches, and other things. Draws heavily on Native American folklore.
  • Butcher, Jim. The Dresden Files (Roc Books, 2000-present). One man can't really make a difference right? Wrong. Dresden pushes himself to the brink to protect innocents. Considered the epitome of a "paranormal detective."
  • Gaimen, Neil. Neverwhere (BBC Books, 1996). Has multiple "secret world" elements, including a hidden world underneath the streets of London and a meddling angel.
  • Harrison, Kim. The Hollows Series (HarperCollins, 2004-present). Though it's not a world with hidden supernatural elements, the cosmology (how the demon world and the real world interact) is absolutely fascinating. Not to mention the depth of the background that makes the characters live.
  • Lackey, Mercedes. Elves on the Road universe (Multiple publishers, 1992-present). Written with many other authors. Depicts a "secret magic" universe with all manner of creatures including dragons, fae, and witches.
  • McGuire, Seanan. October Daye series. (DAW, 2009). Another amazingly in-depth world with all manner of faerie and centered on a part-fae "troubleshooter" (the eponymous heroine) who works for the local  nobility.

Moderately Influential
  • Correia, Larry. Monster Hunter International Series. (Infinity Publishing, Baen Books, 2007-present). This series is all about hunting monsters and getting paid for it. Though it does feature one of the biggest Mary Sues in history - it's also kind of the point. This is a "secret world" universe, even though the government does know about the existence of the supernatural.
  • Correia, Larry. The Grimnoir Chronicles. (Baen Books, 2011-2013). Set in the 1920's this pulpy series features magic, samurai, and all manner of "powers-based" magic-users.
  • King, Stephen. The Shining. (Doubleday, 1997). Featuring a haunted house, a psychic kid, and ghosts that can drive people mad. Also spawned two films (I prefer the 1997 miniseries) and a sequel (Doctor Sleep, Scribner, 2013).

Slightly Influential
  • Hearne,Kevin. Iron Druid Chronicles. (Del Rey, 2011). Has a 2,000 year old druid mucking about with fae and Celtic gods. Though it has some of the same problems as the MHI series, it still proves to be a fun read.
  • Hoffman, Nina Kiriki. Chapel Hollow/Families series. (Avon Books, 1993). Features a unique magic system and uses the idea of magical "bloodlines."
  • Goodman, Susan. Dark is Rising Sequence. (Random House, 1984). Though it's a "children's series" the depictions of cosmic forces and "old ones" (keepers of mystical lore) are very cool.
  • Steakley, John. Vampire$. (Roc Books, 1990). Another series about monster hunters working in secret and getting paid for it. Though it spawned a movie starring James Woods (1998's John Carpenter's Vampires), the book is much better.
  • Stross, Charles. The Laundry Files. (Penguin Group, 2004). A secret magic universe that proves math is evil and programmers really do save the world.


  1. I've tried to do this, but it has presented some problems. First, at least half of the people I regularly game with don't or can't read fiction. Secondly I find that when somebody says, "It's like this character in this thing" they often are fixating on some aspect of the character that I think is very minor compared to the nature of the character that I have in mind. For example a player once told me he wanted to play a character like "Philip Fry". Now I understood that as "I want to play a 20th century charming idiot slacker who is somehow transported to the future". He meant he wanted to play a rich dilettante, or something. The aspect of the character he sees as most important is "slacker with no useful skills". The aspect that I saw as important is "20th century lovable idiot". It still perplexes me why he chose Fry and not some other character to whom slackerdom is more central. I'm sure that my assumption that he wanted an accidental time traveler is equally confusing.

    1. Interesting. This brings up another very important feature when designing a campaign: communication. I rarely consider this because honestly, my group and I know how to talk to each other and what we mean. I tend to ask direct follow-up questions "Okay, you want to play a character like Batman - but what do you mean? Do you mean a super-normal in a group of supers? Do you mean a tragic figure like Bruce Wayne? What exact aspects are you gunning for?" I find a healthy discourse solves that problem. It also tends to help work out the character's background a little.

    2. I based my favourite campaign on Planetary (the comic)meets Brothers Grimm (the film).

      In the end though the sources are quite different (low powered horror comedy investigation versus extremely high powered super investigation) despite both being 'meta' works about the powers of stories.

      In the end the game ended up being about survival and being outclassed probably more than I would have liked. The actual setting 1790s and 150cp PCs were more influential than the tones of Planetary.

    3. That's a cool premise! Planetary is one of my favorite non-Marvel comics. That and the Authority and Powers.