Campaign INSPO Part 2 – Application

This is a continuation of my initial post about Campaign Inspiration – Part 1 – What it is.

Part of the reason I wanted to really push myself and write regularly on this blog was to get myself moving on a long-term goal I’ve had – make progress my science fiction game and get it past the initial draft stage of creation.

As most projects, the focus, mechanics, and flavor have all evolved over time, and at this point its mutated a bit beyond what I originally imagined and felt was right. As a result, one of my biggest issues is answering a simple and yet fundamental question about the game.

What do you do in the game?

Seven words, but frankly the answer can make or break a game. Or rather, not having a specific answer can break a game.

So I’m going to utilize my campaign/game inspo I’ve written up to help myself examine what protagonists do in my sources of inspiration and how I can apply it to my own game. It’s a long list yet certainly not exhaustive, and I imagine cutting it down a bit before the game would ever get published. Still, I think it’s a good example of a starting point for inspo, and I hope if you look over the list, you would get a feel for what I’m trying to communicate.

FILM AND TELEVISION

The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, specifically The Holy Mountain and El Topo.

Star Wars – all of it. Yes, even those bits.

The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky.

The HBOMax TV series Raised by Wolves.

The Alien film franchise and offshoots.

The Exo-Squad cartoon series.

Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi Reboot).

Neon Genesis Evangelion.

The collected works of David Lynch.

Event horizon.

GAMES

The Mass Effect series.

The various flavors of Warhammer.

Delta Green.

Dread from The Impossible Dream.

BOOKS AND GRAPHIC NOVELS

Lovecraftian and Cosmic Horror.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen novel series and companion novels.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.

Dune by Frank Herbert.

The BLAME! Manga series.

Phew! That’s quite a bit, but from this list, if I had to pull a couple of the most important influences to summarize the feel of a campaign, I would say it’s this:

Take Twin Peaks, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Star Wars and throw them in a blender.

So what do the protagonists (note: NOT the “good guys” but the actual protagonists) of these stories do?

Well in Twin Peaks you’ve got a murder mystery (and of course much, much more), but you’ve got various law enforcement coming together to try to solve an impossible mystery of who killed Laura Palmer. Is my game about law enforcement and murder mystery? I would say not. Twin Peaks is certainly more of a flavor/setting influence than a story influence. The protagonists of Twin Peaks are navigating a world where there is so much going on beneath the surface it can be tough to make sense of everything. They’re haunted by ghosts of ideas, and this certainly speaks to me, just not as an answer to the above question.

Okay, what about Neon Genesis Evangelion? The protagonists in this story on the surface level are trying to stop the end of the world (so to speak) by utilizing giant suits of armor to fight “angels” that are after something that can spark the end of the world. Beneath that, I would argue that the characters are trying to find meaning and belonging – something they can actually latch onto in their lives. Both of these aspects speak to me pretty strongly when I’m thinking about my own game, so we’re definitely getting closer.

In Star Wars, well, we all know what Star Wars is about, right? It’s about communists over-throwing a fascist imperial/colonizing dictatorship! I don’t hate this at all when I’m thinking about my own game either.

Part of my setting is that the equivalent to a fascist imperial/colonizing dictatorship just fell – think of the very ending of Return of the Jedi after, spoilers!, the Emperor dies on the second Death Star. What was left over? Dozens if not hundreds of massive warships, a huge leviathan but with its head – the Emperor – cut off.

I don’t want any ambiguity for my game – you’re not going to be playing as the destroyed empire, you’re playing as the other side. You’re not bounty hunters (or at least not just bounty hunters) – you’ve got some investment in this rebellious force that won this huge victory, effectively everything they’ve been working toward for years, but it’s only the start.

At the same time my setting is full of these large monolithic creatures – dead corpses of space gods floating in fixed points in space that are one of the major reasons FTL travel is even possible in this setting – they act as beacons for ships traveling great distances.

One of them finally wakes up at the exact moment of the death of the head of the evil empire, and what does that mean for the future of the galaxy?

Perhaps that’s one of the answers to the big question? Maybe part of what the protagonists do in the game is explore the nature of these dead space gods, these cosmic horror creatures that are starting to wake up. At the same time they’re working to establish a new order of the galaxy – one not based on the tyranny of a centralized fascist governmental body but through mutual cooperation to the benefit of all?

At the risk of going too much further and making this post too long for anyone to read, I hope this illustrates how useful it can be to the GM to try to understand the focus on their side of things. It’s a bit like Principles of a Powered by the Apocalypse game. When trying to decide which way to go – fall back on your inspo and think what would make sense in that kind of a story.

Campaign INSPO Part 1 – What it is.

I took last week off, but now I’m back and ready for MORE! This week I’m going to write a short two-part series on campaign/game inspiration and why you should consider establishing this for your own games.

One of my favorite things, in fact one of the things I’m most likely do upon immediately opening a brand new RPG book is to hunt down their Inspirations section and see what media and other games influenced the making this new game in my hands.

Appendix N from AD&D is the Ur-version of this concept, but for me I really started loving this small section of RPG books because of the New World of Darkness series of books where they explained what exactly they meant by “you’re a VAMPIRE!” or “you’re a WEREWOLF!” or “you’re a SIN-EATER!” (that last one really benefited from an Inspirations section, let me tell you).

Like I would imagine most RPG bloggers and probably most DMs/GMs/MCs whatever out there, I’ve worked on many games of my own, and I’ve found that establishing my own Inspirations section is a healthy place to start from. It helps me keep in mind what flavor and type of story my rules should reflect.

For example, I’ve been simmering on an idea for an OSR adaptation called Street Punks & Crowbars for a while. Rather than try to explain what I want exactly out of the setting/rules, let me share my list of Inspo for the game:

2000 AD (Comics), Akira, The Warriors (1979), Escape from New York/LA, Dredd (2012), The Robocop Films, Roadhouse, The Running Man, Predator 2, Soylent Green, Streets of Rage (Sega Genesis), Streets of Fire (1984), Attack the Gas Station (1999), Rumble Fish (1983), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (The original comics and movie), Big Trouble in Little China, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and many more.

From looking at that list, I’m hoping you’d get a very strong vibe of what I’m going for with Street Punks & Crowbars.

Of course there’s other ways to establish the feel for everyone in the game, and that’s through directly sharing media that boils everything down to exactly what you want out of a game.

The video that inspired (har har) this post was the following excellent opening cinematic from the original Resident Evil video game (NSFW cause blood and stuff):

Oh God, I want to run that game right now. The music, the graphics, the makeup/costumes/HAIR! It’s just screaming to me to run it.

Another popular video on the OSR subreddit to show off what old school D&D could/maybe SHOULD be is this amazing short animated film (again, lots of violence and crazy shit, so probably NSFW):

Again, I NEED to run something someday that lives up to that video. The music doesn’t hurt anything here. The art style is almost uncomfortable to watch – its simplicity matching its brutality. There’s desperation and literally faceless, unbeatable enemies. Then the mushrooms. Oh the mushrooms. I mean magical flowers. Of course.

So now we’ve established what campaign INSPO can be, next time we’ll take a look at why it’s so important!

Finger Paint Your Setting.

I love miniature painting. No, I don’t like miniature painting, I love it. I’m not particularly great at it (and oh boy, when I see someone who’s serious about painting show me their stuff, I feel it in my gut that “great” is something I might not even be aspiring toward…), but it’s probably one of my top four or five hobbies that I find myself rotating between throughout the course of my life.

Because of this, I watch a lot of painting tutorials and even just discussions on youtube. I find them inspiring and fuel my own desire to just apply brush to plastic/resin/metal. My favorite casual painting discussion show is Trapped Under Plastic. Why am I talking about painting on an OSR/RPG resources blog? Well I think we can apply a lot of what these guys talk about to our own little gaming niche.

Primarily today I want to talk about Jon’s recent video about finger painting your miniatures, which is somehow almost more implausible than finger painting your setting. You see, in this video, and many of his videos, Jon talks about the freedom of painting and how we need to make our hobbies our own. We need to think outside of the box and consider techniques that may seem blasphemous or even foolish to try to innovate and find new, exciting way to forge our paths.

So what does that mean for us? What is the equivalent of finger painting for writing a setting, creating a hex map, or even just designing a single room in a dungeon? One idea is to look to unlikely inspiration for your creations.

Let’s work on an example below from unlikely inspiration through execution.

LET’S START AT THE END

For Christmas, my fiance and I got one of our close friend’s daughter a set of the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie… books as a gift, and we sat there Christmas morning with her wanting to be read them right away! As we were reading them to her, my mind wandered. I’m only human. I began thinking about applying this principal of getting in too deep too quickly to dungeon design.

There’s a lot of great ideas and advice out there for building a dungeon with lots of hooks, possible resolutions, and increasing your verisimilitude all at the same time, so why not add to that pile of great advice?

When you’re building anything from your game, one way to approach it is from the center of the maze and build outward around it. The point of this maze from the player’s side of the GM screen is to get to the center, but when you’re prepping a game, you might start from the center and build up the mazes – the twists and turns around it – and get to your starting point in reverse.

Word of caution – this is not the “end” of an adventure or dungeon in that you’re predicting exactly what will happen – that’s rail roading, and many players frown upon that. Instead, think of this as what is happening without player intervention, and let the player characters change the world with their actions – now we got a game!

IF YOU GIVE A BEHOLDER A BISCUIT

So let’s put a Beholder at the center of the imaginary maze. The Beholder is the Mouse from the book example above (too many metaphors? nah!), and let’s make this maze a floating sky castle because I like how that looks. Something like one of these from Avatar.

So what does a Beholder want? What’s the cookie for this mouse Beholder? Let’s say he’s hoarding rare sky crystals that can only be farmed from these floating mountains. He set up shop here because he considers the sky crystals a delicacy, and why not set up shop right next to the finest source of his favorite food? What else is a Beholder to do?

Okay, so now we’ve got a sky fortress built around a Beholder who wants sky crystals because he likes to eat them. If you give a Beholder a sky fortress, he’s probably going to need mind slaves to harvest those sky crystals. If you give him mind slaves, he’s probably going to want to have some mind slave guards to keep his slave population in check.

If you give a Beholder a sky fortress to harvest sky crystals harvested by his mind slaves which are in turn guarded by mind slave guards, he’s probably going to be facing a constant threat of revolt from the mind slaves, so he’s likely going to bring in some minor, lesser mind-controlling lieutenants to further dominate his slaves (and guards!), but how is he going to make sure his lieutenants are kept in check?

Hold up. I’m going to stop myself right there, because holy smokes, we’ve got ourselves quite the adventure in front of us! Will the players plunder the sky fortresses for their own supply of sky crystals? Will the players seek to help free the mind slaves? Will they aid a lieutenant in over throwing the Beholder, or maybe they’ll work to free the guards to in turn free the slaves?

There’s so much here to sink your teeth into, and you can see how each little aspect I added to it could be split into further paths – it’s a fractal approach to game design – ever expanding. And it all started with asking the question of what a Beholder wants. The Beholder is at the top of the pyramid, and everything else flowed out down and outward from it.

Thanks Laura Numeroff!

IN CONCLUSIVO

So that was fun. It was a good little time for me, and I hope it helps spark something in you. I’m going to probably be taking that approach in the next couple of weeks thanks to a recent purchase of this amazing Frost Giant model from Steamforged games and their Epic Encounters line. I don’t normally just buy miniatures to paint, but I love giants, I don’t know why exactly, and now I want to build an adventure up around that guy. (He has living wolves tied to his legs as ankle warmers!).

But that’s not really what this post is about. It’s about finding inspiration in unlikely places. I took the lead of something considered largely childish and imprecise – finger painting applied to a miniature – and decided to look to a similarly childish thing like children’s books. But there’s so much out there in the world to look to. My parting advice here is to keep your eyes open and don’t forget to jot down inspiration, wherever you find it for your next game!