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Plagiarism in D&D (or, why stealing is good)

Ok, so you want your campaign to be enthralling and dazzling and unique. You want the story to be ground-breaking and genre-defying and like nothing anybody's ever seen before. Of course you do. Why oh why then would you even considering stealing other people's ideas when yours are all so good? Well, newsflash: other people's ideas are often pretty good too. In fact, sometimes (read: most of the time) they're better than ours.

Think about it: anything that you do plan to steal from film or TV or literature has literally been written by a professional writer - so it should be more than good enough for your no-pressure, weekly, table-top game with a bunch of friends! Better yet, given that you're (in all likelihood) not turning your campaign into a book or film for public consumption, you are also at no risk whatsoever of getting sued for stealing wholesale the best ideas that these other creatives have charged huge sums of money for. Good times, right?

And let's be real here, everyone has limited amounts of prep time, and limited wells of creativity to draw upon - so stealing a few cool ideas here and there will make both of these problems a lot easier to manage. On top of that, they will almost certainly make your campaign more fun. Win-win-win.

Plagiarism is good

Now before you start having all these moral dilemmas about stealing other people's ideas, you should actually know that this happens all the time. There are certain tropes and ideas that are recycled time and again in storytelling, for the very simple reason: they work.

The most famous example of this is the Monomyth or Hero's Journey - which recounts the tale of a hero with humble beginnings, who sets out on an adventure, is tested, receives guidance or assistance from another character (often an old man or woman, but sometimes a supernatural deity, a wizard, or a fairy etc), our hero then grows as an individual, returns to face their challenge and ultimately triumphs. It's more complicated than this, in fact I think there's a 17-step process that this story arc usually follows - but the general principles are the same.

Remind you of anything? The Hunger Games, The Matrix, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Lion King? These are only modern examples - but actually these story beats go back all the way to the Odyssey, to Jason and the Argonauts, even as far as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving piece of literature we have.

Just because something has been done before, that doesn't mean there isn't value in doing it again. We retell stories that resonate with us (how many times have you seen your favourite film?) so don't feel bad for stealing a few popular ideas here and there. They're popular for good reason!

Ask yourself why?

Before you just start rehashing all your favourite bits of pop-culture though, it's good to understand why they work. At least a little. Seriously, there is a massive difference between knowing what is good and knowing why something is good.

Jurassic Park is one of my all-time favourite films, yet we can pretty much all agree that as the franchise went on, each instalment got progressively worse. Why? What is the difference between the original film and those that followed it? If you've got half an hour, I really cannot recommend this video enough. I've actually watched it several times over the years, and never fail to find the analysis incredibly incisive and insightful. If you can't be bothered though, here's a very short synopsis. Why do we like Jurassic Park? It's not because of the dinosaurs - all of the franchise instalments have dinosaurs. Instead, it's because of the people - because we resonate with the characters and the journey they're going on.

This by itself is a good tip to take away into your games. Want people to care about the campaign? Have them care about the characters in it. But more than that, this is about understanding why something works, on a deeper level, so that when you then begin to transpose these things into your game, your players will actually care about and enjoy them rather than see them as gimmicks.

Start small

Recently I ran a spin-off one-shot for one of my campaigns on a week where not all players could make it. It was a nice opportunity to visit one player's backstory (his wife had died in the sacking of a city while he wasn't there - so the one-shot was set in that city the day it fell) and also to give my players a bit more information about a macguffin which had been alluded to in the main campaign.

Beyond knowing the setting for the spin-off though, I was drawing a creative blank, and game night was fast approaching. I was mulling this over while out for a walk and decided that as the one-shot characters were expendable, and as the city was being invaded and burned down around them, that a cool end to the session would be in their characters achieving all their objectives, but in paying for it with their lives.

I had in mind the final scene from Rogue One (spoilers ahead!), where the resistance fighters have to get the Death Star plans onto the escape ship before Darth Vader reaches them. I love that whole film, but that final scene is its pinnacle for me - that sense of panic and desperation and knowing that you will have to pay with your life to achieve your goals. That was the kind of terror that I wanted to build, and the kind of aesthetics I wanted to draw upon.

This was such a small act of plagiarism (just trying to recreate the vibe of a single scene from one film) but that idea then gave me the whole framework to build the one-shot around. Once I effectively knew how I wanted the final scene to play out, mapping out everything leading to that point was so much easier. And the final result: the players managed to get the super important potion out of the city, before either being cut down by one of the antagonists from the main campaign, or by being trapped in a burning building, watching the messenger with the potion escaping into the night. Often after running a session, I find it difficult to gauge just how it's gone (unless I ask for feedback, that is). But this one I was super happy with! And it all started with a very small act of plagiarism.

A few questions

Before stealing your next NPC, plot twist of action set-piece then, here's a few questions to ask, to try and get as much out of them as possible. For characters, ask what it is that makes them compelling, or charming, or funny or likeable? Or for a villain, what is it that makes them so creepy or unsettling? For particular plot twists, why do we care about how it impacts the characters? And how was it successfully foreshadowed to increase the pay-off? For an action set-piece, how is tension built and sustained? And how does what's going on tie into the various story threads?

Thinking about these questions will help with answering why they work, which will then make it clearer to you exactly which aspects you want to steal and tie into your own campaigns. The next time you're watching or reading something great then, have a think about what you like about it, and how you might be able to steal aspects of it for your own game. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone that's where you got your idea from.


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