There is something my mama always used to tell me, “There is nothing new under the sun.” It has been said before, but I will say it again. Steal EVERYTHING. I don’t mean that you should take somebody’s ideas and try to sell them as your own, but chances are, your campaign setting will never get published, I hate to say (unless you publish it yourself) so fill free to pillage and plunder everything you can as you make your way through the construction of your sandbox. I want to go through today some of the things you might want to steal, and some of the places where you can steal the most. Remember, I am not advising you to knock off a liquor store, or plagiarize, or commit copyright violation. Those are all bad things. Don’t do them…
OK, so, if you are reading this, you have undoubtedly heard this advice before. You probably read in one of the D&D DMG’s that you should feel free to loot monsters, adventures, etc. for ideas and use them in your own way. Great. Lots of people give that advice. It is good advice. But what a lot of people don’t do is tell you how and where to steal effectively. Let’s talk about being an effective idea thief.
RPG books are a great place to start with. Don’t limit yourself to a single system or setting when you try and do this. There is great stuff out there, you just have to find it. It might not be the game system you are running. It might not even be a game system you have ever heard of, but if something about that item, in an review, or even just a skim through piques your interest, it might be something worth picking up as inspiration text.
I recently picked up some 40K novels and the Rogue Trader Core rule book. I will probably end up reviewing the book, but I don’t honestly know if I will ever get a chance to run that as a game. I bought it because I like the idea of the 40K universe and I would love to incorporate some of those ideas in my game. Chances are, if you have been a gamer for a long time, you have a whole collection of roleplaying books sitting on your shelf, just waiting to be pillaged. Go back. Read them again.
Once you get done doing that, go through all the other sorts of media. Books, movies, video games. Chances are, something there might be useful to you in some way. I sometimes even steal stuff from CD album covers. Those masked dudes from Slipknot might make for some very interesting villains…
Now, you might not have many of these anymore, but a great place to steal stuff from is your old textbooks. I have, on more than one occasion, stole stuff from my various high school and university texts and used those elements in my game. What is really great is that this information is almost already sorted out for you. Want to know something about government? Done. Want to know something about economics? Done. Want to know something about world cultures? Check out your Geography text book. Done. History texts are the easiest. Sociology texts also are. Math textbooks give great advice on how to make puzzles. Change some of the names for things in a basic math text and you have yourself a puzzle for the night. Computer Science might be harder to use… but there are always Cyberpunk games for that as well.
Once you get finished looting all the accessible stuff that you can come by, the next easiest source of information is through blogs and forums. I use a feed reader, to import all recent news form the RPG Bloggers Network into my iGoogle account. I check that every morning. I think a lot of people don’t read campaign specific or fluff related stuff. I do. I love those posts and tend to bookmark them, and throw that bookmark into a folder called “Setting Inspiration;” that way, I can come back to those posts whenever I want. Forums are also great. I usually bookmark good threads about fluff, backgrounds, places, gods, or whatever, and keep those in the same bookmark folder. Also, forums can be really nice because you can actually message posters to find out what they were thinking about when they came up with a certain idea – there is a great amount of flexibility and connectivity there which is hard to come by elsewhere.
Another great place, where you might want to steal stuff from is from other people’s campaigns. I know, dirty right. I use Obsidian Portal to manage my campaign settings online. I regularly travel around those forums checking out people’s campaign and look for things that they have done, which I think I might want to do similarly. I don’t usually look for mechanical stuff, but fluff and descriptions are always nice.
Another great thing to steal is advice. If you are reading this post, you are already doing that. Take people’s advice. They are giving it to you. You can get great advice on world building all over the web, especially through podcasts and blogs. I listen to a whole bunch of gaming podcasts now and I will usually take stuff from those podcasts for my game. Check out RPG Circus, or the Tome show, or the Power Source. Even going back to old podcasts which don’t run anymore is a good idea. I think I have found a couple of those and they turned out to be a great place to get game inspiration.
Also, the last thing that you definitely want to steal is the input and knowledge of your players and friends. They will point you to interesting directions that you never thought you would go. It might not even be related to gaming; someone might mention a book or a movie to you that you had never heard of. Go watch it. They are recommending it to you because they think you might like it. If they think that, chances are you might actually like it. There might be something there that you never thought you would ever think about in the context of a campaign setting or game world. I was watching House the other day and I think a few ideas from that show developed into nuggets that will make it into my game world at some point.
The thing with piracy though is you want to be careful. Don’t actually steal anything physical. Don’t break laws. But also don’t get caught stealing ideas blatantly that your players are going to think is clichéd and dumb. It is true, there is nothing new under the sun. What you need to do is take what is out there and twist it just enough that people don’t recognize where you got it from. Remember that skill. You learned it in 10th grade when you had to write a report you knew nothing about. That was a bad thing to do. This is a good one. Good luck. Happy Hunting.