Blending Inspiration and Homage in TTRPGs
Tips For Filing Off The Serial Numbers
When it comes to TTRPGs, all of us take our inspiration from somewhere. Whether it's comic books or action movies, Shakespeare or mythology, the catalyst for characters and plots can come from a wide variety of sources. And sometimes we want to make it obvious what that source is, because that's part of the game for us; paying deliberate homage to the thing that sparked our initial idea.
Sometimes, though, we at least want to put a fresh coat of paint onto our creations so they aren't immediately recognizable.
There's a lot of reasons for this. Maybe you don't want the rest of the table guessing the upcoming story beats because they start to recognize similar plot points. Maybe you want to take aspects of a character you like, but you want to use that as a vehicle to explore ideas that were never part of the source material. Or maybe you just want to see how long you can get away with keeping things under wraps without everyone else figuring out just what it is you're doing.
Whatever the reason, if you want shroud your inspiration, I'd recommend doing the following things.
Before we get started, readers might also want to check out my Tips For Writing Character Conversions, as it's definitely related to this week's topic, but it deals with the mechanics rather that story side of things.
3 Tips To Camouflage Your Homage
So, you want to cover up the source of your inspiration. And you've already resisted the urge to put a big clue in the name of the character, or ensuring there's some big telltale in the schtick of the gang featured in the plot of this campaign arc. I can speak from experience that this isn't as easy as it seems.
But what else can you do to blend your inspiration so that the rest of the table doesn't immediately figure out what it is you did?
#1: Change The Setting/Genre
A saying I often like to paraphrase is, "Noir mysteries are just Westerns in the city, with the horses replaced by Chryslers." When it comes to covering up your inspiration sources, a change of genre is often one of the best ways to go.
As an example, consider the fringer Aiden Thorne. A ragged-looking wanderer, he rarely comes back from the rim of civilized space, and his dark eyes are haunted by the things he's seen out beyond the brim. He looks like any of a hundred other rough customers, but those who spend enough time in his presence start to notice the signs that he's more than meets the eye. His close relationship with the long-lived Nobari, for instance, marks him out as unusual, as does his deep well of skills you wouldn't expect someone out here to know. The stories about him go back decades, and while it's hard to tell his age at a glance, there's no way one man survived everything his reputation claims.
Someone might figure out that you're playing a deep space Aragorn in time, but if you play your hand well, nobody will figure it out until you reveal his play for the forgotten throne beneath the double moons of the White Citadel.
#2: Change The Aesthetic
While this is similar to the first step, the aesthetic of a character or plot is more specific than the broader idea of setting or genre. Not only that, but the aesthetic details of a character can often be even more effective camouflage, despite often being smaller or more personal in scale.
For example, take the classic farm boy hero joining the resistance against the Empire. Now shift things around. Change their age, and make them an old man coming out of retirement, willing to put himself on the line to do what's right by his friends and neighbors. Make the character a farm girl, changing the perspective and expectations we have of their gender. Perhaps this character is disabled, or black, or of a different faith than one is expecting. Perhaps they're some combination of all of these things.
Whether we're talking about Luke Skywalker or the Dread Pirate Roberts, altering the expected aesthetic of those characters (even if you don't change their genre or world setting in a meaningful way) will definitely throw off the scent of people trying to figure out where your inspiration came from.
#3: Change The Story/Personality/Motivations
While this feels like the most obvious way to camouflage where one's inspiration is coming from, it's also the one that seems to happen the least often, despite being the most effective of the three suggestions here.
For those who have gone through my Character Conversion Master List, you'll notice that every conversion I put together mentions character story in the final section. The purpose of this section is to get readers to think about whether they want their characters to have the same basic beats and background as the character they're converting, or if they want to take the chassis of powers and abilities, and go off in a different direction with it.
You could, for example, take the build for Sandor "The Hound" Clegane, but make him a wandering mercenary with a personality that's far less abrasive, leaving him completely disconnected from the noble house and social position he has in A Song of Ice and Fire. You could use the mechanics for an Imperial Commissar, but make them driven by religious fervor, turning them into a church knight commander. Or you could take the conversion for Harley Quinn, but give her a story where she's a murderous vigilante taking revenge on the corrupt and the abusive, purposefully using the iconography of clowns to juxtapose the comedic with the deadly.
You don't have to do a complete 180 on a character's established story and history from the source material, either. Just tweak their history, their personality, or their motivations and see what that changes. Because whether it's a version of the Kingpin who's a minor noble instead of a street tough who came up from nothing, or a bargain-basement Batman who has no resources or family money to fund their crusade against crime, sometimes all it takes is a minor change to cause big ripples in the story.
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About the Creator
Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.
Blog: Improved Initiative and The Literary Mercenary
Thank you for this inspiration :)