[Note: This week I offer a revision of an old Griffon’s Aerie “Dispatch” column from years ago. I’d like to say I’ve been too busy attending GenCon to draft a new entry for this week, but, alas, I’m just recovering from a weekend entertaining out-of-town guests. Nonetheless, I’ve had this “reserve” feature waiting in the wings, one of my favorite and possibly useful resources for roleplaying games. Share and enjoy.]
In our society movies remain one of the more complete means of
realizing fantasy through storytelling. Their larger-than-life scale,
amazing special- or computer-generated-effects, evocative costumes,
and seemingly realistic settings help viewers escape their mundane
world and immerse themselves in an entertaining tale. No other media
yet comes close to pure sensory escapism (though books can, at times,
hypnotize us in the same way, without the powerful visual and aural
impressions). Films also fit a complete and sometimes well-told story
into a compact period, often about two hours. Viewing them is not
quite as involved as reading an entire novel, nor are they short
tidbits digested in small doses like most television shows and short
stories. This makes them ideal to adaptation as roleplaying game
adventures, either as stand-alone scenarios or part of a larger
I’ve taken some of my favorite films and distilled them into
short scenario hooks. Obviously you need to have actually seen the
movies to use them as good adventures. These hooks include the basic,
one-line premise, essential ingredients, and some twists to add to
the mix as the characters work through the plot. Make sure you
include a few surprises of your own along the way to keep the action
fresh for players who recognize the movie plot and try using their
foreknowledge to their advantage.
Imaginative gamemaster can apply these film ideas to nearly any
genre. Using the premise for Alien in a medieval setting? Trap
the heroes in a sealed dungeon with a powerful monster stalking them.
Like The Mummy but want to run it in your science fiction
campaign? Have the characters awaken an ancient curse while exploring
alien ruins. Want to use The Seven Samurai in a cyberpunk
setting? Entice the characters to defend a lone desert settlement
producing food, petrol, or medicine (though this actually sounds a
lot like Mad Max).
As you can see, some premises apply to more than one movie – one
can devise only so many original plots, but the presentation and
details differ. For instance, the basics idea for The Seven
Samurai mirrors that of The Thirteenth Warrior, Zulu,
Mad Max, and Battle Beyond the Stars, but the
trappings, era, costumes, and locations all differ. Many of these
adventure concepts fall into categories defined in S. John Ross’s venerable Big List of RPG Plots, which I highly recommend for
gamemasters constantly seeking scenario ideas at the last minute. The
list regrettably reflects my personal taste in films as well as the
period when my younger self more frequently indulged in the cinema:
Premise: Hunt down the menacing critter before it kills
Ingredients: Unique creature with special abilities for
survival and combat; map of the enclosed hunting area; list of
limited, ordinary resources available to heroes (and the foe).
Twists: One character seeks to befriend or better
understand the monster; heroes have no immediate access to outside
Premise: Clear out the monsters before they attack.
Ingredients: Mapped location or area serving as creatures’
Twists: Monsters guard the only means of their mass
destruction; creatures hold civilians hostage; heroes have no
immediate access to outside aid.
Premise: Evade capture and, from behind-the-scenes,
Ingredients: Map of captured facility, enemy motivation and
Twists: Heroes possess limited resources; other authorities
acting independently against adversaries and possibly the heroes;
enemy motivation isn’t what it appears.
Fellowship of the
Premise: Transport item(s) across difficult terrain with an
enemy in hot pursuit.
Ingredients: Map of the region to traverse, cargo or
special treasure to transport, numerous travel hazards and
encounters, powerful enemy and minions to harass heroes.
Twists: Adversary has secret means of tracking characters;
heroes misled along dangerous path; unexpected allies and foes appear
along the way.
Premise: Lead a team of defectors with a secret from one
powerful faction to another.
Ingredients: Secret (information, technology) that gives
heroes leverage; resources and details about opposing factions.
Twists: A traitor lurks among the characters or their crew;
either side views destroying the heroes and their secret as an
Premise: Escape from a supposedly safe yet isolated
location where everything has gone lethally wrong.
Ingredients: Map and details of location; premise for dire
breakdown, threats and encounters barring escape.
Twists: Route to safety passes through most dangerous area;
patron seeks to save what they can at group’s expense; saboteur
imperils group; threatening or questionable technology unleashed.
Premise: Follow the treasure map through dangerous lands.
Ingredients: Intriguing rumors of riches, numerous travel
hazards and encounters, map.
Twists: Treasure isn’t what it’s supposed to be;
unexpected guardian protects the fortune; one companion has royal
claim to riches.
Premise: Seek incredible treasure while avoiding and
eventually confronting an ancient curse.
Ingredients: Rumors of riches with coveted map, several
groups seeking treasure, curse or powerful, cursed adversary seeking
Twists: Curse focuses on one hero; removing curse or
defeating cursed enemy requires quest of its own; characters must
choose between treasure and successfully lifting curse.
Premise: Survive and repel
a surprise attack while defending your friends.
Ingredients: Seemingly safe setting for heroes, enemy
resources and strategy, means for characters to defend and fight
Twists: Adversaries destroy materiel before heroes can use
it against them; characters must choose between rendering aid to
allies or going after enemies.
Premise: Grab the package, keep it from everyone else.
Ingredients: Competitive factions, resources for both the
heroes and adversaries (safe locations, transportation, contacts).
Twists: Several identical decoy packages exist; powerful
patrons back factions; supposed contents of package meant to flush
out true enemies.
Saving Private Ryan
Premise: Go behind enemy lines to rescue an important
Ingredients: Resources for powerful adversaries, encounters
and hazards along the way, map of region showing allied and enemy
Twists: Characters led off course (and into danger) by
false or inaccurate intelligence; confusion of battle diverts or
weakens group; person needing rescue won’t leave until he
accomplishes another goal; enemy advancing on heroes’ position.
Premise: Defend the village against powerful foes.
Ingredients: Detailed map of location to defend, ideas for
common resources, numerous foes.
Twists: Villagers initially distrust the heroes; enemy
possesses a seemingly invulnerable weapon; townsfolk prove reluctant
or ineffective soldiers.
Where Eagles Dare
Premise: Rescue an ally from an impregnable fortress.
Ingredients: Detailed map of the castle and its
armaments/guards, plan for general alert once heroes discovered.
Twists: Prisoner is an imposter; some team members are
traitors; characters have a secret ally inside the fortress; heroes
must accomplish mission in specific time.
Most of these film-inspired scenario ideas require two common
elements: a map of the adventure location and stats for gamemaster
characters with which the heroes interact.
Maps: You don’t necessarily need a professional-looking
map, especially if it’s primarily for the gamemaster’s use and
not really revealed much to the players. While considering how to
incorporate other elements, enemies, and encounters in the adventure,
sketch out a map that indicates everything needed to smoothly run the
scenario: locations for defense or resources, strong points for
villains, sites for encounters. Jot down adventure notes right on the
map. You can always borrow other resources too – you’re taking
the plot from a movie, why not use a pre-existing map? Most
roleplaying game rulebooks, sourcebooks, and scenarios have
ready-made maps. Don’t hesitate converting material from one game
and genre to another. If you base the scenario in the real world,
check out an atlas, roadmap, or even a tourist map to orient yourself
to general sites and neighborhoods.
Stats: Prepared gamemasters might keep cards or notebooks
with stats for various non-player characters the heroes encounter in
their campaign or setting. These prove invaluable when quickly
adapting a film plot to a gaming scenario at the spur of the moment.
Bring back recurring adversaries from the campaign to serve as the
primary antagonists. Summon faceless goons to oppose them en
masse. Allow characters to seek information from past contacts,
and request aid from old allies who might owe them favors (or seek
future favors from the heroes).
Soundtracks: If you’ve never tried adding music to your
roleplaying game experience, now’s the time. Movie soundtracks
provide music that mirrors a film’s action and atmosphere, offering
a well-tuned enhancement to the game. Play the soundtrack in the
background as you game, or select particular tracks to reflect
specific encounters during the scenario. Need some additional tips?
Check out Music in Roleplaying Games, a free PDF from
the Griffon Publishing Studio free downloads page.
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