A couple of years ago, then Pixar storyboard artist Emily Coats tweeted pieces of advice on making stories that she had picked up from working with Pixar, which were later compiled in several places on the internet, such as this io9 post. Later, Dino Ignacio created image macros of the individual rules which I am using in these posts.
Rule #10: “Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.”
This is my favorite strategy for coming up with plots for games. I’m a bit of a lazy GM, and coming up with original plots is a lot of work on top of everything else you need to do to run a game. Taking elements you like of different stories and mashing them up together can give you an engaging plot, and if you change enough of the fine details, it’ll feel like its own thing and no one will be the wiser. Often times, just transposing something to a different setting and massaging it in will create enough of a disconnect that people won’t recognize it. For one game, I outright stole the idea of transforming from magic stones from Legend of Dragoon, even cribbing a scene more or less directly from the game. But it was a nautical game focused around pirates, and I made no reference to dragons, and so even the player that I knew had played Legend of Dragoon didn’t seem to catch on.
Here’s the thing to watch out for, though: Your inputs will determine how well your plot jives with the setting at hand. When I was learning how to GM, I was playing a lot of JRPG’s like Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, Legend of Dragoon, etc. Great games with ensemble casts, railroaded plots handled with varying degrees of deftness, and the philosophy that you should have to go through a certain number of meaningless fights before you get the next bit of plot. This mapped very well to the games of D&D I was running. It worked less well when I tried to run 7th Sea. I still have trouble running games outside of the fantasy milieu, partly because it’s what I’m used to, but also because that genre is still so much of the media I consume.
Along similar lines, remember that tabletop RPG’s are a different beast than most of the other media you’ll be drawing inspiration from. For one, you have to keep the collaborative aspect in mind, and create space for your players to steer the plot. You also need to consider how the dynamic changes when you pull from a story that’s driven by a single protagonist and make it about a group instead. The game needs to be fun to experience, not just fun to spectate.
This is also applicable to the backstories of player characters. Players can and should pull on bits of characters to assemble one they like, but with an eye towards playing in a group game. If a character’s backstory is the prologue of their tale, you should double-check to make sure that there’s room for other important characters to be introduced. Otherwise you end up with a table full of Harry Potters all jockeying to be the Chosen One.
The main difficulty for GM’s and players when it comes to applying this rule is that while a budding novelist can read novels to get ideas, and an aspiring director can watch great films, many GM’s do not have the option of watching a game unfold before they make their first one. I suppose roleplaying podcasts are becoming more and more common if you want to seek them out, but it’s not the same as actually participating. As a result, you have to be a little more careful in transposing the elements you steal in order to make your own story.