Mar 082011

This is my first attempt at doing a semi-regular Q-and-delayed-A session, modeled very loosely like an advice column. Y’all send me questions, I’ll do my best to answer them in an upcoming DD. You can ask your question in the comments or by email at evilhat at the gmail thing. I’ll probably do this as a weekly thing, but go ahead and ask your questions — I’m banking a list of them for future posts.

Single Source

Dear Deadly —

In Don’t Rest Your Head, you say it was hard not to make it Dark City: the RPG. How do you keep from relying on one inspiration source too much?

— @kobutsu (Kit)

Hey, Kit. Love this question.

The answer for me is, always, to be synthetic rather than derivative. What I mean by that is, simply, don’t rely on one inspiration source. Make sure you have at least two informing your work. Often, the more dissimilar those two sources, the better, but stuff all aswirl in the same space can work, too: blend your Dark City with Neverwhere and Midnight Nation and you’re at least getting a thick soup of multiple semi-similar flavors.

Our culture values the mash-up, and there’s often a fertile alchemy to be found in slamming two different sources of inspiration together. Consider the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher: the genesis of that series was born of a dare, more or less, where Jim said he’d take any two supposedly “bad” ideas and show that execution could overcome that (I’m paraphrasing, poorly). His challenger gave him two “bad” ideas: lost Roman legions, and Pokemon. Six books later, I’d say Jim won that bet.

When it comes down to it, it’s okay if something is familiar, so long as it’s not essentially a direct quotation of your source. That familiarity is going to help the reader find their feet in what you’ve created. It’s okay for a player to be derivative, actually, while the designer shouldn’t be. The player can recognize the Dark City bones in DRYH and decide to play a guy based on Keifer Sutherland’s character from that film, for example, but you should maybe avoid putting Keifer in your own work.

At the root of your question, maybe, is a deeper one, of “how do I keep to my inspiration but still generate enough original material to make it viably new?” Synthesis is still my answer, there, because the new thing, the original thing, can be found in that blend. Exciting stuff happens at intersections and crossroads. If you take a look at the Shock: roleplaying game, a big hunk of its power comes in the setting generation stage where social issues intersect with science fiction technologies. That’s essentially the same power you’re harnessing when you grab at two inspirations instead of one, and it’s power that can take you far.

(There was a second topic here, but I’m moving it to Thursday, in the interests of supporting a one-topic-per-post format. If you’re reading this on Wednesday… wait.)


  6 Responses to “Dear Deadly: Single Source”

  1. Interesting juxtaposition of questions there. It makes me want to ask a follow-up: when you’re working with a licensed property, how do you follow the advice of the first question?

  2. Citing Dark City, Midnight Nation, and Neverwhere as sources for Don’t Rest Your Head?

    No wonder why I loved it.

    I need to post about my threat for that, eventually.

    • Those influences and more are listed towards the back of the book, Greg. I think I listed: Midnight Nation, Doom Patrol (Grant Morrison era), Neverwhere, Dark City, Keys to the Kingdom, Sorcerer, Lacuna, and Dead Inside. Perhaps others.

  3. Huh. I was never terribly interested in Don’t Rest Your Head until I saw what the influences are. Stupid of me not to have checked it out earlier.

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