Ever look at the games we play, the movies we watch and the books we read and see that they’re all pretty much the same. I mean, TV Tropes did a great job of storing a lot of the commonalities into categories and allowing you to search it by show, by topic or various other means. What this shows is that no matter what school of thought you follow, whether there is three, seven, twenty, thirty-six or whatever number of plots, in the end, as the Barenaked Ladies sang, ‘It’s all been done before’, and in some ways it has. Though it isn’t as bad as what was said by Max in the movie Strange Days:
“You know how I know it’s the end of the world? Everything already been done. Every kind of music’s been tried. Every kind of government’s been tried, every fucking hairstyle, bubble gum flavors, you know, breakfast cereal. What are we going to do? How are we going to make another thousand years? I’m telling you, man, it’s over. We used it all up.”
However, there are a lot of things that have been tried. Super Mario Bros for the NES has the story of ‘Princess is kidnapped, previously unknown hero appears to rescue her’. This is also the story of other NES games like Dragon Warrior, Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom, Prince of Persia, Legend of Zelda, and the list goes on, including such games like Ninja Gaiden and Double Dragon (if you stretch princess into meaning female lead). You can see a varied selection of genres in there, so that the story is a common one as it was one from basic fiction and one we understand, but when we get to the tabletop for gaming we want something a little more than the same rehashed plots they could be running in video games.
This is where I bring up the old saying, “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research”. I have talked with a lot of people stepping into being gamemasters because they want to tell a story, or in the case of Multiple-User Shared Hallucinations (MUSH) online multiplayer text based gaming, they want to do something for their character or another character. I’ve noticed a lot of them tend to worry about how their storytelling will go over, because they don’t feel they have anything exciting to offer. Whether it is tabletop or online, people worry about the stories they are going to tell and find themselves doubting if it will be interesting enough. They don’t feel like they can tell a story like the ones they have had told to them or that they’ve seen in TV and movies. My answer to them is to use the stories they’ve had told to them.
I watch a lot of ‘old’ and ‘odd’ TV shows and movies, usually as background to other stuff like playing video games or taking the bus to work. Part of it has to do with being Canadian and having our own shows that don’t always make it to the US as well as getting the US shows, but another part of it is I will take ideas and farm them. For example, in a Shadowrun game, I’ve run plots that were entire lifts from F/X the Series. Some I would reskin as to have the characters play the role of the bad guys with the NPCs playing the role of the cops chasing them, or others would be the PCs would be hired to take over the role of the protagonists. This is one way to do it, but if you pick something that someone is familiar with, then you run the risk of them knowing your moves before you make them (thus why I like doing it with the uncommon shows).
More commonly, I will look at the shows like they were LEGO pieces. Take this character and make them an NPC, then this scene goes here and this setpiece goes over here. This may require you to juggle a few more pieces as you have to find ways to make things mesh, but let me give you some examples of what I mean:
You need to run a negotiation scene between the PCs and their weapon supplier; well, this looks like a perfect place to bring out Nicolas Cage’s character from Lord of War, but where can you set this to make it feel original? Not in the middle of some restaurant, club or bar as that smacks too Mafioso for me, So, I think make it a little interesting and show off some colorful characters and have it take place in the Taxi garage of a company using the old TV show Taxi as inspiration, maybe with DeVito’s dispatcher character as the arms dealer. (As a side note, now that I think about Taxi, I realize in the show Dark Angel, the bike courier company Jam Pony was a lot like this place)
Another example, you need something to spur your heroes into adventure, to get them started on this adventure. So, we pull the traditional have a princess get kidnapped by the dragon and the king demands you go rescue them from the hands of the foul beast. However, who says the dragon is the foul beast. Maybe, the dragon has a pure heart, like Draco in Dragonheart and took the princess to save her from an abusive king, who took power by killing the previous king and marrying the queen (Hamlet, anyone?). Now, with this brought to light, do the players bring the princess back and try to free the kingdom? Do they leave the princess be? There are so many ways to go from here and it is a complex story from a single plot point shift.