Originality in a Campaign is a Lie
You Meet in a Tavern
For any who are in the same spot as me, writing and planning for a new campaign with all new characters, it can be hard trying to make sure everything you come up with is hiding the fact you are blatantly stealing it from pop culture and all your other influences. We are all aware of the tropes that we can follow into: Collect 4 Elemental Gems, Find the long lost McGuffin, an Obviously Evil Advisor, The Chosen One, the Butler did it, etc, etc.
With so many cliches out there, it can be hard to create a genuinely original campaign. Except, making an original campaign is impossible. Every original idea someone has is based on the ideas of what came before, and I think it’s time we embrace the fact that no idea is original.
When it comes time to build a campaign, its stressful figuring out your plot and your story arcs. You work hard coming up with ideas only to throw them out in the trash because you realize you are just rehashing the same ideas as that fantastic movie from 2000 called: Dungeons & Dragons. It sucks to spend hours on something only to give up when you realize all your ideas have been done before, but I say fuck it. Just go with it.
Original Ideas are Lies
Coming up with something original is impossible, and we, as GMs, shouldn’t be chasing the impossible. We have stories to tell, mechanics to learn and homebrew to create. We have enough on our plate than chasing something impossible. Embrace the ideas and cliches of the past, they are awesome and have stood the test of time for a reason!
Now, when I say embrace the ideas, I mean for you to take those ideas and shape them to fit your campaign, to be authentic. If someone’s idea that influenced you is: a boy whose parents are dead and then his extended family is killed by an evil empire and he enlists the help of a mentor to help him take down the empire using his hidden power, than that’s great! Use that, and it will help you create the likes of Star Wars, Eragon, Lion King and so many other awesome stories!
Taking those ideas for your campaign is an awesome thing to do! You are using established tropes to help your campaign be awesome and engaging, everything GMs crave from their campaigns and worlds.
Now, this isn’t to say that you can just watch Labyrinth, take notes and rename the Goblin King to David Bowie and call your campaign done. You need to truly make that idea your own by adding your own spin on it.
We will continue with our Labyrinth analogy, but instead of goblins we will do Kobolds, and instead of your little baby brother getting stolen, it’s a famous artifact taken for the Kobold King, a red dragon with a mean streak a mile long. The characters are given 13 weeks to stop this menace before he uses the artifact(a McGuffin) to conquer the world. They are forced to go into an underground crypt that turns out to be a maze looking for the kobold leitunants that conducted the original raid, to journeying through a bog to get to the mountain stronghold of the Kobold King. As they finally reach the final encounter, they realize that not only had they been deceived, but the kobolds had been deceived, for the red dragon is actually a super powerful illusionist/bard who is using his spells to trick the kobolds into thinking he is their dragon god, with the artifact in hand he is a powerful foe for the party to overcome.
Hmm… that’s actually pretty good for spitballing an idea, with a great twist! And really, that’s the point!
We work off the ideas of what came before us and create interesting and exciting stories that are sure to engage and bring our players back to our tables week after week. It’s high time that we stop worrying about how much we steal of other’s ideas, so long as we take those ideas and change them to make them our own.
Authenticity is Key
One of my favorite quotes is by Mark Twain:
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
It’s not about having original ideas, it’s about authenticity. If we can create something interesting and exciting for our players by taking what’s been done in the past and making it our own, we are doing great! There’s no need to hit your head against a brick wall in the hopes of original ideas coming from the brick wall. All you have to do is take the ideas of what’s been done and spin them around your kaleidoscope to see what new combinations you can create.