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Often I have campaigns that are inspired by things that are outside of genre and easily recognizable.

Lets take Vikings in Space for example. I could have a race of blond haired people with helmets on longboat shaped ships and laser axes raiding nearby settlements and praising Thor, but that would be campy, and would break immersion in most science fiction games.

How do you blend your inspiration or idea seamlessly into the destination environment, in a way that's not campy and doesn't break immersion? How do you know when you've gone far enough?

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10 Answers 10

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The seamless integration of inspiration requires an inspiration's deconstruction into tropes, each trope being fitted into the narrative framework of your setting, given a surface gloss to match the elements that are not being innovated, and then the consideration of the combination of characterizations, motifs, narrative devices, plots, settings, and spectacle to insure that it makes sense.

In more detail, a discussion of literary elements:

Looking at the elements of the narrative from Tv Tropes, the GM is control of the following:

"Inspiration" can inform any and all of the above narrative elements. Genres are formal groupings of the above.

Noir, for example, has requirements of Characterization (gritty detectives, femme fatale dames, angry captains) Motifs (stranger in a strange land (for the back-from-the-war feel), desperation, etc..) And so on and so forth.

The term "viking" (those people from camps across the bay) informs (or inspired) each of the narrative elements differently.

For example, in a hard sci-fi genre, we can apply the idea of vikings:

  • Vikings as characterization:
    • A race of travelling pirates
      • Looters
      • From a resource poor land, taking our stuff
    • Our brave warriors
      • They go out in ships, and fight for what's ours
      • We live in small space-stations (villages) and those people on the planets won't support us
    • Norse
      • Pale-skinned race
      • Use axes instead of swords because axes are way cheaper and last way longer. (The wood breaks, you replace the wood. Very hard to break an axe-head compared with a sword.)
        • Mapping the idea of axes v. swords onto space could be a "they use slow orbits instead of torching the whole way" (conserving fuel and reMass)
        • It could be a "force fields instead of metal" idea
        • It could be a ceramics v. metal (as seen in the Reaches books by Drake)
      • Quick to anger

Here, all of these are tropes that can be applied to characterization. They are things that inform how certain NPCs behave, look, etc... The chosen tropes then echo into motifs (oh no, not energy ships again!) spectacle "The raiders flew across the sky, their shining green force-ships igniting the atmosphere behind them..." setting, etc..

You seamlessly apply inspiration into your setting (of which the actual setting is only a component) by breaking down the inspiration into useful tropes, then applying the gloss of your setting to those tropes.

Vikings is a header for a huge host of tropes. If you try to apply all of them, your setting will either have to give, or you get the cognitive dissonance (which camp celebrates) of having tropes that don't fit the setting inside the setting.

If, instead, you look at the interesting tropes of the viking, then apply them one at a time to your "setting as a whole" you can seamlessly blend inspiration.

For an excellent example of Space Vikings, I suggest Space Viking by H. Beam Piper. The central theme is barbarism v. civilization (destruction v. creation) and the rest of the book explores that idea. By deciding on a motif first, "barbarism v. civilization" and then using the theme of vikings to elaborate on that motif, Piper combines the ideas.

There are many instances of low-tech and resource poor raiding foreigners in sci-fi, and all of those are inspired by various forms of the viking idea. By considering the different tropes involved, they can be mapped back to real-world tropes. If the raiders sell to merchants, then they're pirates. If they keep what they take, they are vikings (very broad generalization, there.) Applying a "gloss" means fitting setting-appropriate elements to the innovative trope introduced, such that the presence of the trope reinforces the setting, rather than distracts.

The Soetti from Retief! are an excellent example of the viking tropes being heavily glossed. The desperate need for resources is there as is the danegeld trope, but they exist within the setting quite neatly. It is only after thorough reflection that the Soetti can be given the "Viking" label, rather then casting them as blond-haired berserkers in a proud warrior tradition.

In both books, we have vikings. In Space Viking, they inform the whole setting. In Retief! they inform some of the antagonists, quite seamlessly. By comparing and constrasting the two books (and getting awfully decent reads out of both of them) I suspect the differences and similarities will offer inspirations to you that don't need to be re-glossed to fit into your sci-fi setting.

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It's a tradeoff between two factors:

  1. Distill the item you want to copy down to its most basic elements. Figure out what it is about your subject that interests you, and capture that. For example, instead of very literal "laser axes," you might choose to equip your space vikings with heavy weapons and/or a lot of weapons that have melee/bludgeoning alternate modes (bayonets, axe bayonets, chainsaw bayonets, etc.). This conveys the powerful, over-the-top, heavy-metal warrior vibe often associated with vikings without being, well, laser axes.

  2. Decide how campy you want to be. The more campy you can be, the more literal your interpretation can be. For lighthearted campaigns, or elements that don't occur too frequently in more serious campaigns (particularly one-shot scenarios), camp can be a blast. For major plot points or frequently recurring elements in serious campaigns, you'll probably want to pull things back a bit.

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+1 for mixed-mode weapons as a work-around for archaic mismatches: Consider the gunblade (sword/pistol mix) from Final Fantasy 8... –  F. Randall Farmer Dec 23 '10 at 0:41

My suggestion: Just Do It. I personally think that you just do it, and not worry about whether it's "campy" or not. You put those concerns aside. If that's what your inspiration is, just do it. If you decide "ok, well, I'm going to have them look more serious in "viking-inspired" but completely plausible-looking uniforms and have the ship named the "Jotunheim" or something..but no laser axes.. then do that. But if your idea was dudes in longboats? That's awesome.

Tone is a hard thing to master, and the worst censor is always yourself. I used to really worry about this kind of thing (how serious is my fantasy world?) until I read those Voyage of the Princess Ark articles in Dragon magazine that seemed to be completely cool with mixing really light fantasy fun with the occasional serious-toned plot twist. I realized then that I was censoring myself. You don't have to worry about what other people think, really. They either get it or they don't. But don't stop yourself from following your inspiration. It's really one of the best ways (maybe the best way) to be completely original.

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Agreed. Gene Roddenberry had this idea about a "wagon train to the stars" and made Star Trek. Josh Wheden cast a bunch of old west gunslingers as the heros of a space opera called "Firefly". Okay, it didn't play in Peoria and both series got canceled, but we're all already out there on the fringe, right? –  Ron Dec 22 '10 at 20:10
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@Ron, Not to quibble over minutiae (ok, to quibble over minutiae), but Firefly was created by a guy named JOSS, not JOSH –  Pulsehead Dec 23 '10 at 13:53
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And "Whedon." =D –  Adam Dray Dec 23 '10 at 20:00

First of all, the guys you play with are probably far less critical of camp elements than you are, so getting totally metal with it is likely a viable option if you can commit. Rather than break immersion, I bet you painting a picture of these space-going terrors with their crazy archaic obsessions is going to be taken at face value.

If that's not your style, take the source material and refine it down to the thing that excites you about vikings in space. Is it the aesthetic? Make them "vikings" in the same way that Japanese car culture dudes up minivans to look like muscle cars. Is it the ethos? Violent and efficient raiders, co-religionists, bound by honor, outsiders greatly feared. The history? Traders and warriors traveling huge distances in tiny but brilliantly-designed craft. Explorers and slavers. Hired guardians of foreign emperors. Pick the coolest thing and build it back up from there into something fresh.

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+1 Two words: Star Blazers/Battleship Yamamoto! Using a WWII battleship for space battles? You betcha! –  F. Randall Farmer Dec 23 '10 at 0:42

I really don't like it when something borrows "too much" from source material. It destroys immersion. I've sat through many adventures where some clever author thought "Oh, I'll just do X in D&D!" and it usually ends up sucking. I remember an early third party 3e adventure which was an Aliens rip-off, and some modern adventure that was Dean Koontz' Phantoms. The German word for this is "abklatsch," which means "a low quality copy/ripoff." Oh, or the Alternity Living Verge adventure where you fought a thinly disguised Pac-man, Donkey Kong, and Dig-Dug. That bordered on the retarded.

Sure, if you are running a high camp campaign, Marvel Super Heroes style, it's fine. But for any kind of serious game, especially a simulation or immersion oriented game, you do need to file off the serial numbers.

When I use inspiration, I use little bits and a light hand. And try to stick to source material my players may not be expecting or super familiar with. "Oh, I'll borrow that from the hit movie we all went and saw last month" is bad; "Oh, I'll borrow that from an obscure nonfiction book I just read" is good.

An example. In our super serious Pathfinder campaign, I loosely based some NPCs on characters from the Disney movie "The Princess and the Frog."

First, I didn't take the whole plot and frog-transformation schtick - just two characters, the bad shadow voodoo man and the helpful voodoo mambo lady who lived up in a boat in a tree. And when the voodoo man's shadow demon talisman took his soul, I was somewhat inspired by the villain's death scene. That's the most I'd ever take from one source at once.

Second, I knew that most of the other players are single-no-kids and likely had not seen the movie, even though it was recent.

Third, I didn't use the same names and mixed in other inspirations - for the mambo, I used a heavy dose of Mami Wata and didn't base descriptions or dialogue exactly off the movie.

The best use of source material is when no one knows that you borrowed or what you borrowed it from. Unless you want an analogue - fantasy human societies are a good example where you can get away with a "Viking-like" group and it's more of a conceptual convenience for people to use, but make sure and spice them up - like the Ulfen in the Land of the Linnorm Kings in Paizo's Golarion, which are Vikings but have trouble with Baba Yaga and kill dragons to become kings...

In the "Space Vikings" adventure the question is what are you trying to convey, what role do they play? Is it that you want raider types for the PCs to fight? In that case, they don't need to be blond or have spiky helmets or anything, you just want them to be distinctive. Take the part of the metaphor that is important to you and change the aspects that are not important to you. Even if you change one thing they alter - like if they're from a high-G world and therefore short and then people don't think "Viking" as much (though in the Viking example, that unfortunately makes them into dwarves, but you get the idea).

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When I get a vague idea like Space Vikings, I then go to the players who will be playing that game with me and bounce it off of them. From the players I want:

What they like about the concept. What character concepts they are considering. Any ideas on how those two concepts would mesh, further fleshing out the setting. Questions for me, forcing me to further flesh out the setting.

Ideally, I have a little more than that, a situation, or something going on in the campaign world that will give their characters something to deal with. So, with Space Vikings, maybe:

  • The alignment of the system is setting just right for a viking season, where the fat imperial satellites will be ripe for the picking.

  • The viking holds are full of ancient technologies stolen from the technocrat cathedrals; now it is time to sell them before heading home.

  • Feuding and kinslaying are afoot as the space vikings gathers to see who will lead the clans into the next viking season.

Maybe we use just one of those ideas, maybe all three. But I want them to be coming to a situation that their characters must deal with and move on from there.

So, essentially, when I get a vague idea I go to the players with a campaign idea and flesh it out through my interactions with them and the campaign concept.

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+1 for talking to your players, Judd. –  Jmstar Dec 29 '10 at 21:33
    
Some day I'll live that down. –  Judd Jan 6 '11 at 5:49

To me, inspiration is the very core of any successful campaign - be true to your vision, and damn the critics. Have fun with it - remember that you'll be doing the bulk of the work holding the universe together for your players - so if you love it, it will be interesting.

Flash Gordon had a universe where people could fly through the Ether from world to world in a few hours. H.G. Wells did it too and it was the inspiration for it's own FRP: Space 1889.

Anything goes, as long as you can keep it consistent and entertaining...

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Yup! Rule #1 of creating anything truly great, telling that inner "that sucks" voice to shut the !@#$%@#%$ up. Some of my best RP moments came when I was just "in character" and riffing in a way that I didn't care what anyone else (players or PCs) thought of what my character was saying. Same goes for DMing. –  Pulsehead Dec 23 '10 at 16:10

Know your Audience

It's the most important thing. If your players hate genre mash-up, you've a lot more work than it they are wanting to play in Callahan's Cross-Time Saloon or GURPS IOU. Likewise, if they hate campiness, even if they don't mind genre-mash-up, some revision needs be made.

Tough Crowd

If you have a group that is very much opposed to genre mash-up and camp, figure out the fundamental elements, boil them down to tropes, and see which tropes won't generate campiness when applied to some element of the setting, preferably one that they haven't been interacting with, but which can be worked into it, and can get away from it. If doing it at the start of a game, put it where they can get away from it.

In other words, put it where they will encounter it, but are not forced to deal with it all the time.

In Trek, they encounter a polytheistic group, with a love of melee, trial by combat, slaves, and an honor code, who love to trade, and if you won't trade, they'll raid instead. Make them yellow & pink, armored, and hexapods, and don't reveal the traits all at once, and they might never catch on.

In classic fantasy, they are simply a group of northmen.

In modern day or post-holocaust, they're a biker gang, that happens to be mostly of Scandinavian descent.

Serious Crowd

If your group is anti-camp, but pro-genre-mash-up, there are two approaches. One is to take the tropes as for a tough crowd. The other is to come up with a reason that this group exists, and why they are present.

For example, Vikings in a serious Trek type game might be encountered due to a time discontinuity, or on the holodeck. In a Mythic Japanese game, they might have crossed Siberia. In a Mythic China or Byzantine Empire setting, they have simply sailed the rivers, and are becoming the Rus (which, historically, is exactly what happened).

Don't Mess with my Humor

A few groups will tolerate campiness but not genre-mixing. In this case, you simply have to figure out the closest equivalents in genre.

In shadowrun, your Vikings are a gang, using vibroaxes, and doing historical reenactment or LARP.

In Trek, they are space vikings... they dress like vikings, but use ceremonial axes and big disruptors... or, they are Klingons with blond and red hair. Or they are a pseudo-viking low-tech race that captured a starship and have gone raiding.

Full Monte

If your group tolerates both genre-mashup and camp, you have the ability to do any of the above.

Or just even have a group of vikings show up, stranded by a spell gone awry.

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When borrowing from my inspirational sources, I'll use one element of a source at a time. I might steal a TV character's penchant for giving out nicknames or a scene from a movie. Small touches like that can't be recognized without the rest of the context. Combining blond haired + helmets + longboat + axes + raiding + Thor and there's nothing ambiguous about it.

I see two options. Either taking Vikings and advance their culture. Make a culture of people who had been Swedes 5,000 years ago.

Or go with your original plan but be a little more subtle. Make them blond. Name their ship Thor. And stop at that. If the players pick up on it, play it off as coincidence.

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Yeah, You want to break it down. First, do you want them to be mnis-guided allies or enemies? Second, What part of the idea (in this case, space vikings) do you dig? for instance, if it is the religion, then just port that. If it is the savagery, then use that. If it is the cunning (trading with strong foreigners, raiding the weak), the go with that. Or is it just the aesthetic? In this case, you can fabricate a whole new culture, and then just make them look like vikings. Finally, use that concept to make a culture, NPC, faction, etc. that you dig. It may seem like diluting the idea, but, it may give the idea better immersion/traction. Does that help? does that make sense?

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