Make It Your Own
Stealing & Adapting non-RPG Elements Into Your Game
By MARK WILSON
This article will focus on stealing and adapting materials that are not explicitly made for RPGs, to incorporate into your tabletop RPG. This includes, but is not limited to, TV, movies, books, comics, and other forms of media.
This is a topic that every GM will be familiar with to some extent, and I don’t presume to be comprehensive in all the ways works can be adapted. But they’re strategies that have worked for me. I hope the various ideas and examples will spark ideas for you.
As a writer, I likely have more experience adapting ideas and characters in non-RPG works than I do in RPGs, so I hope this article benefits from that perspective as well.
Part I. Start With Why
This may seem elementary, but I’ve seen writers/GMs who skip this step, and usually suffer for it. Whenever you want to adapt any aspect of another media source, first ask yourself why you want to do this? There are several valid answers, but the answer will help shape the adaptation. Among other possible motives, these are common:
- Passion: It’s something (a character, story twist, entire campaign setting, etc.) that excites you personally, that you want to see brought to life.
- Plot: A character acts as a useful foil to a PC in your story, or a plotline is a natural extension or variation of what you’ve done so far in a campaign.
Writer’s Block: It fills a gap in your campaign that you’ve struggled to fill previously.
There may be others. But if it isn’t fulfilling one of those roles, make sure you can still answer “Why?” Otherwise, a pre-gen NPC, one-shot or established campaign setting may be easier to run, with less work adapting and more time simply playing.
Play to Your Passions…to a Point
Think of your favorite TV show. Or your five favorite shows. Your favorite book. Or historical period. Movie. Iconic villain. Roguish anti-hero. And on and on. That’s your canvas. You’re more likely to crawl intimately into the skin of a dastardly character that you love to hate compared to one generated randomly on a chart. Or more likely to flesh out the minute details of an alien planet where your favorite character died in that 1980s sci-fi epic, which will bring the setting alive for the players.
The caveat here is that you can’t let your passion for the source material make you rigid in planning. If you’re stoked beyond belief about the 8-10 session story arc you have planned, and your players scuttle it with their decisions, the more emotionally tied to the arc you are, the less likely you’ll be to give it up.
Part II. NPCs and Villains
I think adapted NPCs and villains have a lot more potential out of the gate, because there’s so much more to draw from initially than with any character you might develop on your own.
As such, my usual tactic – whenever possible – is to change only what you need to in order to adapt a character into your game. This could include not changing their name. The reasoning behind this is that the appeal of adapting a pre-existing character is that you already know the mannerisms and tendencies of that person. Every detail you alter – from name to profession to hair color – takes a little bit of that away (some more than others, obviously). Think of a character from a book that feels like an old friend to you. You probably couldn’t mess up their characterization if you tried. So identify only those things that need changed to transition him/her from one format to another, and keep the rest.
And if you find yourself having to change personality traits and such to mold them into your setting or story, again go back to “Why?” because you might be doing yourself a disservice.
My other tactic is to look beyond recurring NPCs and major villains for this. Those long-running characters will develop their own personalities over time. Which means an adapted character might have to bend/change more as a campaign goes along. But if they’re only around for 1-2 sessions, or even just one scene of a session, it can allow you make a better quick impression, thus fleshing out your world in ways that usually take a lot of prep. So if you’ve never done this, take a complex character from another media, and make them a throw-away shop keeper or something. Maybe they come and go quickly. But who knows, maybe your players will love them and go back a dozen times.
Case Study: Letterkenny
As case in point for these, I needed NPCs in a campaign to fill out a caravan that my PCs would be traveling with. The challenge of making 3-4 NPCs seem memorable, when the party would only have maybe half a session with them, was a daunting task. To solve it, I adapted four main characters of the obscure Canadian TV show Letterkenny. And I changed absolutely nothing about them. They wore the same clothes, had the same expressions, used the same dialect and goofy phrases, had the same names, etc. And it allowed me to connect with the players much more easily, because they loved these interesting NPCs, and I didn’t have to prep much to believably inhabit the characters. The dialogue and interactions between the characters ended up being wild, and a pleasant diversion from the main plot. And I couldn’t have replicated any of it with something I prepped alone. The “more important” parts of the campaign would have been the priority. But by inserting characters that were “old friends,” it reaped benefits at the table.
Part III. Character Elements
Let’s say you have an egomaniac ruler who thinks he’s the best at everything. He’s already been introduced to your PCs. Solid start, but this – as well as a LOT of familiar archetypes – can seem, well, too familiar. So start asking yourself what characters from outside RPGs he resembles. Shakespeare’s Richard III? Doctor Doom? Supreme Leader Snoke? This is when my earlier advice about changing as little as possible won’t hold true, because you’re only adding nuance to an existing idea.
Case Study: The Joker
In a previous campaign, I created a strong chaos vs. order vibe to it and one of the villains was basically a disciple of chaos. That’s all well and good, but “chaotic evil lacky of a chaos god” is something of a trope in RPGs. The Joker isn’t exactly ground-breaking in this area, but by pulling elements of his portrayals in TV, films and comics, I had a lot of material to adapt into “generic chaos cultist.” I think my players even realized it was an homage, but it still gave me more to sink my teeth into without it being exactly the Joker.
“I couldn’t have replicated any of it with something I prepped alone. The “more important” parts of the campaign would have been the priority. But by inserting characters that were “old friends,” it reaped benefits at the table.”
Part IV. Finding the Essence (Settings, Sessions & Story Arcs)
When adapting something that’s larger – an entire world, a television series, a lengthy story arc, a series of novels, etc. – it’s important to distill it down to what makes it great. Because plenty of ancillary details will have to change. It’s the nature of the non-RPG to RPG transition. So you’re looking for the spirit of the material. Once you’ve found that, the rest falls into place much more easily.
So we determine our essence first: what separates this setting from any other? Once we know that, you can start to figure out how those unique qualities interact with your RPG system’s mechanics. Is the setting low on resources? Or is it alive with so many manufactured stimuli that visitors are overwhelmed (think Times Square)? Does it feel like you’re constantly being watched? Respectively with those three, what resources exist in your RPG system that you can make scarce? What would the Times Square of your system look like? Could it literally be Times Square, or would you have to adapt it to fantasy, sci-fi, or something else? If the players are being watched, do you create that through literal surveillance? Is it magical or technological? Or through a police force? Or do you simply create the feeling of being watched through exposition? If so, what environmental elements need to be in place to create that ambiance? Are there madness mechanics that could heighten the paranoia? If so, how do you introduce those mechanics in a natural way?
There may be other ways of thinking about this, but that’s the Socratic process by which you can believably convert a setting into an RPG system.
I feel like this is television’s moment to shine, because the episodic nature of TV makes it wonderful for adapting into one-shots, or standalone adventures in an ongoing campaign. Adapting entire arcs is trickier, but a single story can be easier, because a lot of the work is already done. You probably don’t even need to find the essence because what makes that story interesting should be obvious if you want to adapt it.
My favorite inspirations for this are Doctor Who and Star Trek, because they largely feature “monster of the week” challenges with interesting premises, twists and situations, and occasional moral conundrums, which is (almost) everything you want in a session. Many other great TV shows also follow this format.
So this becomes more about mutation. Think of it like a photo filter. If you took an episode of Doctor Who and put a “D&D filter” over it, what would it look like (this is exactly what we’ll do in the case study below)? Or American Horror Story with a “Call of Cthulu filter” over it. Chances are, your players won’t even recognize the translation unless you make it explicit. It doesn’t take much for something to become unrecognizable, so don’t make it harder on yourself than you need to in order to adapt a session.
The lone fear here is that you try to railroad the session into the clever ending that the show (or other media) has. So my only other advice is to script more heavily at the beginning, setting the characters and events in motion. Pull back on scripted materials as the session progresses to allow for more freedom of choice.
Case Study: Doctor Who: End of the World
This was a full episode lift I added into a campaign. In brief, this episode features the Doctor and his companion in the far future, watching the destruction of Earth from the safe confines of a (shielded) space station. The other occupants of the station are wealthy businesspeople from across the cosmos. The antagonist sabotages the station’s shielding while having a quick way for her to escape (teleportation). She had previously invested in each of the other guests’ competitors, so after their deaths, their companies’ stocks will plummet, their competitors’ stock will rise, and she’ll become rich.
In my campaign, I changed very little. The space station inhabitants became nobles of a large city attending a party at a mansion, and the villain, who was the mansion’s owner, trapped them all in the house, which she had rigged to collapse on itself, burying and killing them. She planned to teleport out after sharing her evil plan, and had similarly set herself up to become rich after the incident. The only addition was an encounter (battle) at the end. Right down to a few personalities at the party, I kept a lot of things intact, and my players had no idea they were in an episode of Doctor Who (including a couple DW mega-fans).
Campaigns & Arcs
A useful exercise here – with larger materials – is to first describe the campaign or arc in a setting-neutral way. If you had to do a writeup of your favorite novel in a way that could be inserted into nearly any RPG system, could you do it? The second part of the exercise is to imagine the players’ role in this story. How will you insert a group into the campaign in a way that feels natural? Everything else will flow from that, and if you try to get too granular in the early stages, you’ll inevitably have to alter your planning later on. Let’s give it a try…
Description: A series of powerful houses vie for control of a precious substance that is in short supply.
Players’ Role: The protagonist(s) are charged with guarding this substance in the midst of complex political and religious intrigue.
War of the Roses:
Description: The mental and physical instability of the nation’s ruler sparks a series of civil wars between two rival claimants to the throne.
Players’ Role: The players start as a band of troubleshooters loyal to a minor lord who backs the would-be usurper’s claim to the throne. They soon become embroiled in a conflict with few heroes on either side, involving backstabbing, bribes for loyalty and murder. They must choose how their influence will eventually affect the leadership of the nation.
Description: A mysterious but seemingly benevolent figure recruits a group of specialized investigators and crime-fighters to right wrongs in a “villain of the week” style action drama. This mysterious figure gives them assignments remotely.
Players’ Role: As the special forces team selected by the mysterious figure, the group is given disparate assignments that are for the greater good, but may be connected to larger machinations.
Once you have that, maybe the other details of those settings still work. You could put the Dune summary above on a desert planet. Hell, you could literally set it in the Dune universe and not even hide it. And maybe that’s exactly what you want. But by starting with the above, you can also have a campaign that feels like Dune, but without literally being Dune, giving you a lot of flexibility in the other details.
To continue to run with the above examples, I could see Charlie’s Angels making a great horror game, since the mystery behind Charlie could add to the paranoia, and the missions could have to do with supernatural or eldritch events (like a Ghost Hunters setup). And something like the War of the Roses could be mined for its actual political and military history, giving you elements to adapt later on as the campaign evolves.
But none of these get us to a particular, specific campaign. Let’s do that with our final case study:
Case Study: Mouse Guard Star Trek
Let’s stretch a bit here, because I haven’t actually done this combo. But what if we wanted to? What would it look like? First, what’s the essence of Star Trek? For me, it’s about adventuring into the unknown with a clear set of rules and directives, and with a clear command structure, but in an inherently messy universe that subverts and challenges those beliefs. So what would this look like in Mouse Guard? Well, they aren’t space-faring, but the unknown is anything beyond the current mouse territories. So maybe the mice are outgrowing their current cities, and the party is an expeditionary force searching for new settlements to colonize. Their ship could be a sea-faring ship, and Star Trek’s planets could be the areas the mice land in search of land to colonize. The ruler of the mice has given them clear guidelines about not interfering in a negative way with existing creature habitats (which adapts Star Trek’s Prime Directive). And one of the mice is made the de facto leader, and a command structure is put in place. Perhaps if you include the players in this prep, they could establish a captain, first officer, navigator, “away team” leader, medical officer, etc. Mouse Guard’s mentor structure also lends itself to a Wesley Crusher-style newbie who is trying to work their way up the ranks and prove him/herself as capable.
Now look at what we have: an inherently episodic adventure format with countless permutations for adventure, one in which you can easily create moral conundrums for the players, and which rewards creative specialization of skills. Which could perfectly describe Star Trek, even though all of the details will be different. And you’ll have the spirit of the show without being tied to a particular system or canon of lore. Any experienced GM will already have thought of a dozen plot hooks from that start, with countless more possibilities.
Part V. Summary
- Change only what you need to, which could be very little.
- Don’t overlook minor NPCs for opportunities to bring in a favorite character.
- Steal individual elements from existing characters to spice up existing NPCs that fit the same archetype.
Find the Essence
- What makes a setting, individual story or story arc great? Distill the adapted work down to its most crucial elements, and be willing to change things around that core.
- Identify what makes the setting unique and how that will interact with your system’s mechanics to assess viability and the need to alter details.
- Put an “RPG filter” over the work, since it’s likely in near-complete form for most single-session adaptations.
- TV works great for adapting into individual sessions.
- Script the early stuff, which includes all the characters, locations and events that are set in motion, then script progressively less as the session goes on to allow for alterations to the source material.
Campaigns & Story Arcs
- Write out a system-neutral and setting-neutral summary of the work you’re adapting to focus on the most important elements of the story.
- Imagine the players’ role in this setting in a way that seems natural.
I hope a few ideas I offered help you. Cheers!
This article was originally written for RPGGeek’s “Behind the Screen” series. You can read the original here.