Ronin Round Table: Movies, Plots, and the Art of the Steal

Heya folks, Jack here. So with the winter movie season is winding down, with trailers for next summer’s big films burning up the interwebs, and the various summer movies from this year coming out on Blu-ray, DVD, and on various streaming services, I thought it would be a good time to talk about how movies make great inspiration for game plots.

Now of course movies and games aren’t the same thing. They have different structure, goals, and so on. However, what they both have is a need for at least some sort of plot. This can be tightly woven and intricate, or fast and loose. In RPGs the plot can, and often is, seriously informed by the actions of the players. But even in the sandboxiest of sandbox player-driven play, plots still pop up for PCs to deal with. Of course, coming up with plots for a game session can at times be daunting. Whether you’re pressed for time or just drawing a blank, sometimes you think, “So what could the PCs get involved with this week?” and come up empty. At times like this, try this: Go to the movies!

Okay, you don’t necessarily need to physically go to a movie theater. You don’t even necessarily need to watch a movie. However, try thinking about the films that stuck with you over the years and how to adapt them to your own games. Sometimes this is easy—it doesn’t take much to port Star Wars over to other types of sci-fi or even most fantasy. Other time this is harder or less direct, but it can still work wonders when you’re stuck for a plot for your next session.

So let’s look at some of my favorite films and show how they can be liberally ripped off, adapted, and tweaked to provide the basis for an RPG plot. Here goes:

Seven Samurai

I might be biased because I’m a Kurosawa fan but this film and its Western remake the Magnificent Seven, is one of the easiest and best films to borrow from for an “I need it by tonight” game session. There’s a village. There are farmers or other peasant types who can’t do much to defend themselves. Then there are marauders, bandits, or some other threatening horde. The only way the little guy is going to survive is if some stalwart heroes (or desperate mercenaries) step up to defend them. Throw in a few twists like a romance with a villager or a hidden cache of weapons and valuables the village seeks to keep from both the bandits and their PC saviors and you’re all set! Moving on…

Predator

The PCs are hired to take out an encampment or outpost of raiders, terrorists, rebels, cultists, or whatever passes for disposable mook villains in your campaign. In the wilderness around the encampment, they discover they aren’t alone. A terrifying and cunning monster is stalking the PCs, hoping to add them to their collection of defeated heroes and adventurers. The monster is stronger than they are and very hard to locate and defeat. Unless you want to risk killing several PCs in a single session, this plot probably works best with some NPC guides, henchmen, or other allies to whack along the way to keep things interesting. However, the basic plot will work for everything from horror to science fiction to fantasy.

Big Trouble in Little China

While in town to visit an old friend, the heroes are informed that their buddy is going to pick up their longtime sweetheart from the next plane, boat, spaceship, flying dragon, etc… However, an evil wizard or other superpowered tyrant shows up and snags the bride or groom to be (along with a few others) as part of some terrible wedding ritual that will increase the bad guy’s already impressive power. Together with an old wizard and some idealistic young warriors, the PCs need to save the innocents and defeat the villain and his army of powerful and strange henchmen. This works best if you can play up some sort of “fish out of water” element with the PCs. As this film was at one point being developed as a Western, it’s a safe bet you could adapt this basic idea to many settings and genres. Speaking of fish…

Jaws

A gigantic sea creature or other fierce man-eating beastie is attacking an idyllic town. The town at first denies the danger but once things get bad they need experienced warriors to hunt down and defeat the beast. Of course this involves seeking out the creature on its home turf and making sure the threat is ended for good. Move some of the action inland and this is also roughly the plot of Beowulf, though there was only one killer shark…until all those sequels. Not weird enough? Well how about…

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

I know, wait…what? Sure, this romantic comedy about a black doctor seeking to marry a young white woman in a period of racial intolerance, thus requiring the approval of her well-meaning but not quite as enlightened as they’d like to think parents, seems like it might not make the best RPG session. However, make it a brilliant but unlanded wizard who wants to marry a princess, or an elf warrior who wants to marry the half-orc chieftain’s daughter, throw in the PCs as friends of the suitor or the family, and maybe add a few relatives willing to stoop to murder or kidnapping to keep the would-be couple apart, and you’re ready to play.

Nightbreed

You really want to flip things from a standard heroic “let’s go kill the monsters!” story? What if the monsters were the good guys? They just want to be left alone and live their lives, but a crazed psychopath masquerading as a doctor or some other respected figure has manipulated the local authorities into wiping out the “freaks.” For their part, the monsters are wrestling with whether to go to war or run and hide, hoping their prophecy of a chosen one from the outside that will deliver them to a new homeland comes to pass—which is a great role for a concerned PC to play if one fits the bill.  If you’re planning on using this film for inspiration check out the recently released Director’s Cut that develops the monster characters and mythology in more depth.

Those are just a few of literally thousands of films you can adapt for rpg sessions in a pinch. And you don’t need to just use good movies either. In some cases, you can likely improve on the movie’s plot and execution. For example, I wouldn’t recommend watching Your Highness unless you’re feeling particularly masochistic, but the basic idea would work fine for a campaign arc.

Jack Norris

A writer and game designer since the mid 1990s, Jack Norris has worked on numerous award winning and critically acclaimed publications over the last two decades, including products for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, DC Adventures, Scion, Mutants and Masterminds, and Feng Shui.He is currently working at Green Ronin developing Dragon Age, as well as co-developing other projects such as Blue Rose. Outside of his work for Green Ronin and others, Jack also designs and writes Tianxia, his own line of wu xia/kung fu action rpg products published through Vigilance Press. When not writing and designing, Jack is an attorney and consultant at the Vidar Law Group, a small Chicago-based litigation firm.

Jack also hates writing bios...