Old Stuff – Poaching from the best

Back in 2011/12, I wrote a few posts for the website Troll in the Corner.
The below was first posted there on February 24th 2012. Apologies if it feels a bit academic in places – I was a lot closer to working on a Masters degree at the time than I am now!
I’ve done my best to fix all the links and formatting.

There comes a time where all storytellers realise that their stories are less original than they’d hoped. But that’s fine.
Georges Polti claimed there were only thirty-six possible plots in our narratives, and having looked over the list both on Wikipedia and in the fourth edition of Legend of the Five Rings, I’m inclined to agree. I certainly couldn’t think of any more that weren’t simply combinations. Polti’s claims were based on Greek and French literature, but I still think this holds true.

So how does this affect the humble RPG storyteller? How do you pull one over on the players, without them realising? My latest ploy is to cheat, wholesale.

As the title of this article suggests, it’s a lot easier to steal plots in part or in full, and then piece them together.
In a recent game using Greg Christopher’s Synapse system (original link is gone – I think Greg’s site is gone too – here’s a link to a scribd copy of the rules), I managed to pull the players through the fist part of a novel I read years ago. None of them have any clue as to the novel itself, and I think that’s because I chose something suitably obscure, and hoped that none of them had heard of it.
Obviously some adaptation was needed. There was no journalist character in the novel, for instance, or a soldier with PTSD. I resorted to pulling in other stories – there’s a theme in the second novel in the series regarding integrity and truth, and some journalism. I’ll be borrowing heavily from that for his character plot hooks.
(Since this game is no longer ongoing – the novel in question was Cosmonaut Keep by Ken Macleod).

The point that I’m trying to make is that we shouldn’t be afraid to poach or outright steal narratives for our hobby, since it seems unlikely we’ll manage to be truly original. There’s plenty of advice for creating characters based on poached ideas – have you even played a Star Wars game without a cocky kid or clever droid?
The problem is that there’s less advice out there for plotting of story itself, at least regarding most core rulebooks. And I think that, especially when the players don’t know the poached narrative path themselves, there’s plenty of opportunity open for them to play what makes sense to them.

In the case of my example above, what felt right was apparently the narrative of the novel. They barely strayed at all somehow, despite the introduction of three almost completely divergent characters. I wonder whether that will still hold true next time we play, or whether I will unintentionally railroad them in the direction of the novel. Time will tell.

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