There are no original stories left in this world. If you try to come up with something original, someone will invariably point out to you that you’ve basically ripped off the plot from some movie or book you’ve forgotten existed. With enough analysis, any story can be broken down into elements borrowed from or inspired by other stories.
But while this might be discouraging for writers of film, TV or literature, this is a blessing for Game Masters, because you can unapologetically rip off anything you want.
First things first: We’re talking about borrowing ideas from movies and TV shows as inspiration, not to lift as the wholesale plot. There are two reasons you don’t want to adapt all the same beats of a movie into an RPG adventure:
Your players may have seen the movie, and will know what to expect.
Even if they haven’t, you can’t guarantee they’ll react the way the characters in the film did.
Last night, I rewatched The Mummy (1999), which is a surprisingly fun pulp adventure. In a lot of ways, it has aspects that feel right at home in a role-playing game, especially when it comes to character interactions. However, I would never use the story for a pulp / adventure game, because there are too many variables. For example, the second act of the film hinges on the Mummy tracking down and killing all the men marked by the curse, in order to make himself stronger. Now, when presented with that challenge in a role-playing game, what’s to stop the players from saying, “Well, we can just kill those people first! That way, the Mummy can’t absorb their energy, and he won’t ever become the powerful boss monster version of himself!”
This is, of course, a perfectly valid response. It also negates a good chunk of the film, and forces you as a storyteller to come up with other things. Besides, the last thing you want is for someone to say, “Oh, I remember this movie! We have to find the gold book in order to kill him again. I bet it’s somewhere in this tomb, let’s start looking! Check the statue of Horus first, that’s where it was in the film.”
See what I mean?
I once ran a campaign called “The Vault of Death,” and my major story beats were borrowed liberally from movies – specifically Disney movies. I was watching Once Upon A Time on Netflix, and thought it might be fun to do something similar, and start borrowing characters and scenarios from Disney movies. However, my versions would be subverted, in order to mess with the players’ expectations.
I started small – the first tomb our heroes raided was the tomb of “Lord Phillip Corso,” a warrior who had valiantly fought a black dragon. Astute students of Disney will realize the fairly obvious Sleeping Beauty reference, but if you’re not looking for it, it goes by unnoticed. (It also helped that I didn’t call him “Prince Phillip,” as that would have been tipping my hand.)
Then I ramped up the references, and after a brief encounter with an orc war band (no Disney connection), they found a castle that had been taken over by monsters, who had apparently killed the young lord who lived there, along with all his subjects. However, once they entered, they found that the monsters were wearing servants’ clothes, and very quickly realized this was a Beauty and the Beast situation. They met the monster who ruled the castle, and sure enough, he’s the young lord everyone thought had been killed! (His name was Adam, which was the Beast’s given name according to the Disney wiki.)
So, our players’ expectations have officially been set: he’s probably not such a bad guy, after all! In fact, true love’s kiss will likely break the curse! And this is where I started subverting the text. The lord also suspected true love’s kiss might break the curse (he didn’t know for sure), but he had a true love; he was set to marry her, but the curse had struck on the morning of the wedding, and she had run away. He didn’t know where she was, and had no way to leave and find her, since he was a hideous monster.
But he hadn’t given up hope – instead, he had taken to abducting young women from the nearby towns, in hopes to lure them into loving him. And whenever that failed, and the kiss left him unchanged, he would simply imprison them forever.
Now we have a character who isn’t a traditional villain, but definitely isn’t a good person. And my players were left with a choice of how to react to this man, who was doing something bad, but apparently felt very bad about it. He continued to feed the women he imprisoned and treated them as well as he could… though, unfortunately, the longer they stayed in the castle and ate his food, the more the curse began to affect them, too, and they also turned into monsters.
The next stop was a coastal town of Crystalshore, where they arrived on the eve of a wedding. However, while everyone in the castle could speak normally, all of the ordinary townsfolk were left mute, and they all blamed a sea witch named Cecilia (a reference to Ursula the “cecaelian sea witch” from The Little Mermaid. Obviously my players knew what I was referencing, but by this point they also knew I was prone to subverting expectations. And things got more interesting when they met Lord Eric (duh) and his bride, Katarina… who was the same woman who was meant to marry Lord Adam so many years ago.
At this point, the players don’t know who to trust. Is Katarina trustworthy? Is it coincidence that she is marrying two lords who are both being targeted by monsters? These lords are also the members of families tied together by a larger storyline (concerning the campaign’s titular “Vault of Death”), but what is her connection to all of that?
Of course, the adventure of Crystalshore ended with a wedding at sea being interrupted by a kraken. Because, damn it, when Disney gives you the perfect scene to use for your RPG, you’d better damn well use it.
As the campaign went on, I borrowed from several more Disney films, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Tangled, The Lion King, and The Jungle Book – the entire campaign revolved around an unseen villain named “Lord Khan,” and surprisingly, none of my players realized it was a rakshasa (an evil tiger man) named after “Shere Khan” from The Jungle Book. Even the player whose character had connections to rakshasas (she was playing a deva, who in 4th edition are the good counterpoints to rakshasas) didn’t realize the connection – everyone just thought I was making a Star Trek reference. Which, of course, was exactly what I had been hoping for.
Outside of that campaign, I continue to use TV shows and movies as reference for my adventures. I ran an adventure where the players spent some time in a lost city, and the thing I found myself referencing the most was the TV show Lost. The main difference was that my players were in the city for considerably less time, and these references were not nearly as explicit as they were in my “Vault of Death” campaign.
But using that show as reference helped me figure out things like “How do I keep these players in this weird setting? What happens if they try to leave? What other strange people have found themselves lost in this city?” As I said, none of them are directly inspired by characters from Lost… except maybe the drow pirates. Those might have been inspired by the Black Rock from season one.
Another adventure I ran was directly inspired by The Magnificent Seven and Mad Max: The Road Warrior. Because, honestly, building orc designs around the maniacs from the Mad Max universe does a really good job of communicating your worldbuilding quickly and efficiently. But of course, the Magnificent Seven influence was basically lost on my players... because they didn't decide to train the town to fight. They had the option, but instead they took the fight directly to the villains, so they missed the reference. Which, honestly, was totally fine with me.
Because, at the end of the day, it’s just a source of inspiration. You aren’t tied to any specific elements of the story, or any characters. You can start with the premise of King Kong, but then change the ape to a white dragon. And then you can change the setting to match the dragon, so instead of taking place on a tropical island, it takes place in a frozen wasteland. And instead of a tribe of natives who make human sacrifices, your players might encounter a cult of dragon worshippers. And they might not even be human – they could be kobolds, since kobolds famously worship and revere dragons. And the other weird monsters on the island don’t have to be dinosaurs; they can be anything; you could use yetis, a remoraz, mer-people, and maybe other giant monsters, like a naga (giant snake) or a roc (giant bird). With just a few changes, it’s been removed far enough from the original source material that someone would have to have pretty keen eyes to spot the similarities.
Or, I guess, they’d have to read this blog. That might also tip them off.