28 September, 2016
For creative people, sometimes the most daunting thing is the blank page. Sometimes you simply have no clue where to begin when working on a new idea; the idea can be so large that working from any particular perspective threatens to block out something else. Focusing on expressing one perspective could drive others out of your head, diminishing the work as a whole. Creative people usually come up with some solution for this. For me, I like to write down concepts and then organize them into a structure, usually an outline, that guides me as I work on other parts.
Sometimes that blank page can appear unconquerable. For less experienced people, it’s sometimes easier to borrow some structure from another source. In writing, a novice might borrow a universe they like and create “fanfic”. Or an experienced creator might want to take something they’ve seen and give it their own spin. An artist might take familiar characters from other media and create something new; conventions usually have art halls full of familiar comic characters in humorous or sexy situations they wouldn’t normally be found in.
So, let’s look at the use of other works as structure for your own.
Of elves and cyberware
I started thinking about this recently when I read a blog post from someone who wanted to re-do the classic tabletop RPG Shadowrun. For those of you who aren’t nerds of the tabletop RPG variety, Shadowrun was originally published in the late 80s, combining cyberpunk (with its high tech and corporate dystopia) that was popular in 80s literature with fantasy that has almost always been popular in RPGs. The setting posited that the magic returned to the modern world and “goblinized” some people, turning them into Elves, Dwarves, etc. So you have a world of chromed-out troll warriors and fire-slinging elven mages running in the shadows, pawns of one corporation set against another. (And some of those corporations are run by dragons!)
I think the game does a great job of world building. Many of the source books have chunks of history in them, along with what we would now call “forum posts” from different people giving in-character color commentary about the rules or systems detailed on that page. In addition, the game also built up a coherent world, talking about events that shaped the world, such as events with modern technology that cause issues which determines legal precedent. The world is fairly coherent and full of life. The game also ties into a more traditional fantasy game Earthdawn, which exists in the same universe; the two games share a cosmology is that states magic ebbs and flows across time. But when too much magic is concentrated, well, let’s just say it’s not good on a Lovecraftian scale.
But Shadowrun‘s game mechanics? They have their own charm, but they are pretty clunky. Even though the game has gone through multiple editions, it still takes a bit to grasp the fundamentals. And the dice rolling probabilities are a headache to figure out, even to someone who likes dealing with probabilities like me! Given that the modern fashion in RPGs is simplification and streamlining, the old clunky system has plenty of detractors.
Cribbing from another’s notes
So, the initial idea might be to take Shadowrun and start tinkering. For example, a common complaint is that there’s too much chrome and not enough punk in Shadowrun‘s take on cyberpunk. Players often spend much of character creation in a shopping adventure, picking out guns by brand name and stats. This “shopping porn” goes against the current fashion of generating characters quickly, so one person suggested that players all start on the street with no resource and then guns can be essentially treasure.
And that could be a very interesting game. But, the suggestion ignores a lot of the setting design. Part of the game’s idiom is that technology for all the pretty toys and shiny magic, the players are still part of a larger system they never quite see all at once. At the end of the day, they’re just slaves to greater powers but put their lives on the line for the chance of a little more material comfort than the other wage slaves. There’s always bigger guns to be bought, better gear, more ways to push yourself to the edge just to tread water. But, just like the monstrous horror of Vampire: the Masquerade can be played as “superhumans with fangs”, Shadowrun can be played as “he who dies with the most toys wins.”
Pinned in by the sheer weight
Part of the problem here is when you hang your new ideas off of an established setting, you tend to be pinned in by the entirety of the setting. Removing stuff that doesn’t fit with your vision starts to leave gaping holes in the setting that aren’t always easy to fill. In some ways, it’s another side of cargo cult game design I talked about previously; in both cases, an incomplete understanding of the whole leads to problems.
So, let’s say you don’t like the metahuman races in Shadowrun; easy enough to remove, right? But, this tears a hole in the setting. “Goblinization” was one of the visible ways that people noticed magic was returning to the world. For example, elves that survived the magic “low tide” came out of hiding and brought magic back. Without metahumans and goblinzation, you lose the explanation for why the general population of Earth realized magic was coming back. Plus, the sudden goblinzation lead to a lot of people stopping caring about races and starting to care about species; people scared of what people with different skin color might do were even more scared when some “person” was a few feet taller, was built like a truck, and had horns and green skin!
The demihumans appearance in the world lead to a lot of the events that shaped the world and the history. Taking them out has a lot more consequences to the setting than what players will run into on an encounter.
If it works….
Not to say that borrowing from others doesn’t result in good things. Almost every fantasy author has been inspired by Tolkien, for example, whether as a model to emulate or an example of what to avoid to not be too cliché. Lots of tabletop games and computer RPGs were inspired by D&D, directly or indirectly. Some of these concepts let people use their knowledge across several games.
The OSR movement in tabletop RPGs is mostly a reaction to the complexity of many versions of (A)D&D, with a streamlining of rules but still heavily based on early version. The classic tabletop RPG Tunnels & Trolls exists because the creator wanted to put his own spin on D&D. On the MMO side, FFXIV received a new lease on life when the development team took the failed game and incorporated stuff that worked from other games such as WoW.
But, I argue the view of these successes is the “survivor bias” fallacy at work. While there have been a few noted successes from people working from established settings and worlds, there have also been a lot of stillborn efforts that we never hear about. In the MMO space, we can look at all the WoW clones that failed to get even the modest “few percent” of the subscriptions they aimed for. So for the one major success of FFXVI, there were dozens of failures dragging down MMO development. So, one should be cautious about looking only at the successes to try to say this method is effective for creative work.
Distilling the essence as a staring point
The better approach is to distill something down and build from that. Understand the fundamentals and build up your own consistent vision. This is likely a little easier to deal with than the completely blank page and still gives you something to work from.
So, what’s the core of Shadowrun? Cyberpunk mixed with fantasy tropes. So, if you want something fresh, start from that foundation and build up from it. Make new decisions to influence the work. For example, whereas Shadowrun relied heavily on older cyberpunk literature, a new game might benefit from a wider variety of sources, including post-cyberpunk works like Ghost in the Shell or the recent Deus Ex games.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Someone took the basics of “cyberpunk + magic + elves, emphasis on the punk” and turned it into a lightweight RPG: http://rpg.brentnewhall.com/2015/05/slimpunk-a-simple-cyberpunk-tabletop-rpg/ Now, admittedly, it’s pretty sparse, but it’s a potentially interesting foundation to build off. And, as you play you can expand on the game easily enough, adding rules where it makes sense. To me, this is more elegant than trying to hack off bits and splice on other bits of Shadowrun because you don’t like some of the themes.
Now, tell me about the examples that come to mind in this area. What has worked as a derivative product, what didn’t work, and was was better for taking familiar elements but not relying heavily on a previously established setting?