Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Borrowing from others: Stories that translate

I am a notorious thief. I spent most of my teenage years embedded in various fantasy novels and game books and my head is filled with useless knowledge about worlds that do not exist. I know that many people who run LARP games have also read a great deal. What then is the correct way to borrow a story line? How do you make it so that people who have read it do not recognize it and how do you determine which stories, monsters or characters are good to borrow?

The correct way to borrow a story line depends upon your player group and the obscurity of the story. It is almost never correct however to use characters names from any work, changing one letter does not make this ok. No one wants to play the story of Marth Bader. Best practices say that, using the framework of the story and filling the gaps with characters of your own creation is almost never wrong. Take a story and remove the dialogue, remove character names and places, take what is left and distill it still further into a series of actions and encounters, this is your starting point. For instance let us use the Star Wars reference above. No one wants to play Marth Vader, few would be opposed to being the centerpoint of a story based on the life of a young farmboy who through a series of misdaventures becomes a powerful magic user, and eventually defeats an emporer. Of course your own webbing would need to be significantly more detailed to run a succesful plot but the idea is sound, most will not even recognize that story out of context. That is the goal in its essence, removed from context will anyone recognize this?

Digging deeper into recognition, the mind is wonderful at recognizing patterns. Intelligence increases pattern recognition and since we play with a bunch of nerds you are going to have to take that into account. It is advisable to change the order of some of the encounters in a borrowed story to prevent subconcious recognition. Look at the Star Wars example above again, if you follow the exact sequence of events from the movies, someone may catch on when the pirate with the fastest vessel ever starts wooing the princess. You may want to leave that part out or change the character archetypes signifcantly enough to remove them from the pattern.

Determining what to borrow is fairly simple, you already have to run your plots through the filter of what works in a larp. Remove the special effects from the monsters and the expensive props from the characters if they are still interesting then this is a good candidate. The giant slug like humanoid that will require 500 meters of foam to build may not be a great fit but the witch with robes and blue glowing eyes has a much easier row to hoe. Even with monsters we must be careful of the recognition factor, if we place a monster in the same environment in which it appears in a story, we run the risk of someone putting the two together. In other words, Grendel's mother should not be in a cave underwater, put her in a forest and sudddenly you have an interesting and unique encounter.

I am sure that many of you already practice the art of plot borrowing, I just thought it might be helpful to codify some of the ideas behind it. Let me know if this was helpful or fun!


  1. The interesting thing is, once you distill the stories down as you suggest, you'll likely find that many of these stories are themselves borrowed. The Star Wars story is borrowed from the Hero's Journey, a distillation of hero stories from many different cultures to show the similarities in the human experience. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth

    Great thoughts!

  2. Tim, I know that you're familiar with Campbell. You should do a post adapting his work for LARP plots. Obviously, not all of the elements would really work in a collaborative game with many players, but I think it'd be a solid piece of LARP-craft advice. I've got an extra copy of "Hero with 1,000 Faces" if you want to borrow it.