Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Films for Adventure Inspiration

[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 campaign.

Innovative gamemasters can find inspiration in films. They often borrow and modify various composite elements from movies that seem attractive to their games: a cool vehicle or weapon; an exotic location; well-crafted plot points; even heroes, sidekicks, and villains who, with a name change and some stats, can enhance a game. In a pinch the basic premise of a film, its locations, and plot and character elements can form the basis for a spur-of-the-moment scenario. Gamemasters with a crowd of eager players and no adventure at hand can take a minute to recall a good movie and adapt its core plot and other elements to the current game.

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 everyone.
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 aid.

Premise: Clear out the monsters before they attack.
Ingredients: Mapped location or area serving as creatures’ territory/lair.
Twists: Monsters guard the only means of their mass destruction; creatures hold civilians hostage; heroes have no immediate access to outside aid.

Die Hard
Premise: Evade capture and, from behind-the-scenes, sabotage hostage-takers/invaders.
Ingredients: Map of captured facility, enemy motivation and strategy.
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 Ring
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.

The Hunt for Red October
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 acceptable option.

Jurassic Park
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.

King Solomon’s Mines
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.

The Mummy
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 vengeance.
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.

Pearl Harbor
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 back.
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 person.
Ingredients: Resources for powerful adversaries, encounters and hazards along the way, map of region showing allied and enemy positions.
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.

The Seven Samurai
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.

Handy Materials

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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