In the year or so that I’ve returned to tabletop gaming, I’ve been lurking through countless groups across the web that discuss all aspects of RPG’s. Many of them are new players looking for advice. Since I run games far more often than I play, I naturally gravitate towards discussions and questions stemming from people who are themselves running games. I’m often surprised by the nature of some questions. Often they ask for ideas or inspiration for something to include in their game. A hook, an NPC trait, a magic item etc. I’m not sure if its age, experience or both when I chuckle to myself reading a question that, to me, has an easy or obvious answer. Of course, only a fool never asks questions. I’m not judging these folks. Truth be told, they’re reminding me of myself when I started writing and gaming. Having run more games than I care to remember and spending just as many years writing fiction, gathering ideas (some of which may never be used) has become second nature. Not unlike an episode of ‘Hoarders’ but instead of stuff, its ideas, I’m always on the lookout for things I could use in a story.
Since I’m always eager to help people tell their stories, I’m going to share one of my methods for coming up with ideas.
One of the primary sources I’ve found myself searching through for my games when I’m forming ideas is that of the boundless depths of human history and ingenuity.
That may sound boring and lame, but history is filled with astounding feats of craftsmanship as well as things so strange it makes one think there must be paranormal or alien hands guiding the works of our ancestors. Let’s say you need to come up with an item for your game. It could have or grant powers like something from D&D, it could be a source of information for the party that serves as a hook. Perhaps your story is in need of just the right Chekhov’s Gun or MacGuffin.
Any GM worth their weight in dice, will doubtlessly have a go-to stable of resources for inspiration that (at least I hope) extends beyond the system’s rule books or franchise canon. It is all fine and good to have a Pintrest board or two but when you may come across an interesting image but don’t immediately have an explanation or backstory for this bit of visual reference it is equally important to keep a file, use an app or a notebook to quickly write down or otherwise record ideas as they pop up. And to make sure you avoid an idea “Hoarders” situation, it is equally important to go back and review your notes, saved files – whatever. Otherwise, you didn’t really do anything helpful – did you? I cannot stress that enough. REVIEW YOUR NOTES!
Now, just because your starting point is something straight out of 16th century Europe, doesn’t limit it to fantasy. Remember, this is just a means of fleshing out an idea. You never know when or how something will prove useful but the more you look around for ideas, the more you will notice when something resonates with you and your stories. Don’t ignore that! That’s your brain telling you to somehow record this because it fits your ideas and your style of storytelling. I don’t believe in being drawn to things because it is said to be interesting. I believe that it has to speak to you personally. That’s the heart of inspiration. Take that and draw from it the things that are useful to you and put your unique touch to it. And don’t hesitate to share the things that influence you. Something that one GM uses in ‘Call of Cthulhu’ could, with some minor adjustments, be perfectly useable in ‘Star Wars’. I’m sure this is hardly a novel idea to some of you but maybe, to those of you new to RPG’s or aspiring fiction authors, you’ll find this method useful. When you’re looking for inspiration for your story, it’s all about spotting and making connections. The only limits are understanding there are no limits. There is no spoon!
To illustrate what I’m talking about, I’m going to present you with two ideas, suggest some of their elements to combine and from there give you the seed for an item you can
use in your own game and more importantly show you the limitless font of inspiration that is human history and the connections you make between them. You’ll see.
Do you know what this is?
This manuscript from 1566 is held in the National Library of Sweden. This book can be opened in six different ways to reveal six different texts. Read that again if you need to. Now, just in case this object alone didn’t fill your head with ideas for spellbooks, traps, forbidden lore and eldritch horrors I’ll give it a little tweak for a ‘Star Wars’ game – a holocron that opens in several different ways to reveal as many sources of information. Here’s one actual object sitting in a museum, one that you probably didn’t know even existed (I didn’t until a day ago), and just the simplest of explanation of what it is offers up all sorts of avenues for inclusion in your game. Not enough? Ok, Let’s double down.
Ever heard of the ‘De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres’? Unless you happen to work in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department at Texas A&M or are in the rare occult book trade yourself, I’m sure you haven’t. What’s so special about it? Well, aside from it being a 1533 text that discusses so called occult religions and philosophies, the university’s copy contains the following message written in the margin of one of it’s pages – in blood (debateable). “When you have done all that is contained here, I will be at your command — Beelzebub.” Ok, the likelihood that a demon wrote inside what was essentially a science textbook of the time is slim but what if a demon did? What if this book of occult studies was filled with notes of a former owner who was driven mad by their research?
If we consider this little love note, in combination with the Rubik’s Cube book in Sweden, we have something that’s not only going to get your player’s attention, you have something that could be the focal point of an entire campaign. A book that opens six ways to reveal six different texts that may or may not have the writings, ramblings and ravings of a long dead scholar which may also have notes written by an actual demon. This was a written at a time when the study of science was a part of religion so who’s to say that a bored monk came up with a pretty clever way of hiding their infernal interests and potential status as a heretic? Combining these two elements could now take the lore behind this object into any number of directions. All this from connecting just two sources. Inspiration is all around you.
As Bruce Lee once said “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
Be water, my friends.