Friday, August 23, 2013

Campaign Retrospective: Synthesis

Today, I want to talk about where inspiration comes from, and the little voice that tries to stifle it by pointing out how unoriginal your ideas are. I embarked on my first D&D campaign, in part, to prove to myself that I could sustain an interesting story over an extended arc. I like to think that the end result was a pretty unique tale and a unique experience for my players. However, my story was largely crafted by shamelessly ripping elements from existing stories, which I found inspiring.

Now that my first campaign is complete, I feel like I can discuss my inspiration in a bit more detail without spoiling things for my players. This post reveals, in very broad terms, the sources behind my campaign plot, and how I mixed them to suit my own ends.

The idea for the Westerlands began with a combination of two simple things. 1.) My infatuation with Muse's song, Knights of Cydonia, and 2.) My dissatisfaction with D&D's alignment system. I really wanted to create a campaign arc triggered by a Paladin's dilemma, which pit two essentially lawful good forces against each other.

As I began to flesh out the primary arc, I latched onto the rules for blight in the Heroes of Horror book. I decided to use these rules as a backdrop to a plot constructed by forcibly mashing elements from Hamlet into Macbeth. I added a wicked queen who kills a king and then uses her influence with her husband to hold onto control (Macbeth) In my story, she was actually plotting against the king while pushing him towards an evermore tyrannical rule, citing the need for order in a time of crisis. Meanwhile, the estranged brother of the king sets out to find what is causing the mysterious blight while simultaneously looking for the true murderer of the king (latter bit from Hamlet). The conflict builds through twists and turns until the brothers finally confront each other and the estranged prince summons his father's ghost to call out the true murderer (Hamlet). The queen is accused, forcing her to kill her husband to create confusion before making her escape.

With the country reunited, the players were left to deal with the blight. I turned to Conrad's Heart of Darkness to inspire the feel of the long journey into the blighted lands to the East. The players had to move past outposts where strange behavior was becoming more common as human needs ran up against scarcity, fueled by the influence of creeping evil.

Once the party reached the source of the blight in the mountains near an ancient, ruined capital, I turned to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for inspiration. I even had hobgoblin thugees, a corrupted ally and a minecart chase encounter planned. The cart chase never became necessary.

For the final battle, I didn't really draw from specific sources of inspiration, except to mine as many fantasy battle tropes as possible. The speech from Independence Day, an allied army of good vs. an army of evil nastiness, last minute reinforcements showing up to propel the protagonists through to the final confrontation. Flinging magic, squadrons of marauding skeletons, flying beasts… I basically just poured it all in before having the party confront the evil masterminds just as they were attempting to bring their grand plan to fruition.

That is the overall plot arc, but within that story, I drew inspiration from… to name a few:
  • Blazing Saddles
  • The Elenium
  • Ghostbusters
  • Harry Potter
  • Henry IV
  • Invader Zim
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • LOL Cats
  • Mass Effect
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • Naruto
  • Night at the Museum
  • Star Trek

As I progressed through the campaign, and in my personal life went from an unempolyed, single 20-something to a full-time employed, married 30-something, I felt any anxiety about co-opting existing stories begin to fall away. Now, I never copied an existing property in its entirety, but felt no qualms about mining them for good ideas. Not only did this spirit of borrowing lead to a richer story, but it also served as an excellent time-saver while prepping around a busy life.

If you are getting ready to create a fictional story, whether it is a book, a play or film script, or a game, I encourage you to push the harping little voice that accuses you of unoriginality aside, because just as each new child is born of generations of previously existant people, so too can a unique story arise from existing good ideas.


  1. I always like getting a peek into the head of another creative type to see what inspires them and makes them tick. It's really interesting to know where you mined your arc nuggets from.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. I really enjoy opening up the hood to my creation process. Unfortunately, it's tricky to do while in the midst of an active campaign, because a lot of my players read this blog and I don't want to spoil things/give them too many meta-game ideas.

      Then again, maybe I could use that sort of information as a way to drive traffic to the blog... from seven people.


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