I recently wrapped up a 5e campaign that I synthesized with tropes stolen from horror movies, television, and literature. Despite my wanton theft, the game felt fresh and original because the tropey components added up to a whole that transcended its individual parts. With the help of my players, I made the RPG equivalent of a collage, a patchwork quilt, or more thematically appropriate, Frankenstein’s monster.
By the end, my swampy city of Wexfordshire had become a theocratic police-state beset by otherworldly cannibal cultists who eat the poor and seek to release a being of terrible power known as Oblex. Heavily modified from the Monster Manual’s oblex, mine is a gargantuan, blobby hunger god imprisoned outside our reality who waits to consume the city and everything beyond. It’s big and apocalyptic – you know, like 1958's The Blob.
My world is filled with un-subtle nods to other sources. My cultists came from season 3 of the excellent horror anthology Channel Zero, and I styled my evil government after the authorities in The Devils. One time, I ran an entire adventure made from scenes and images I stole from The Wicker Man and Midsommar.
The point is, I steal, borrow, lift, nod, and parody with reckless abandon in my games. Sometimes my players notice and we have a good laugh. Other times, they don't, and the game is all the better for it. If you don't already lift content from other media for your games, you should. If you don't tell your players, they'll probably assume it's all original and you're a genius. If they catch your thievery, it’s likely because they're a fan of the source material, so they’ll commend your excellent taste. It's a win-win!
That’s what this article’s about: stealing from other media to guide your worldbuilding, deepen your storytelling, and expand your GMing toolset both at the table and in prep.
“Good artists copy; great artists steal”
Versions of this quote have been attributed to Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Lionel Trilling, and William Faulkner. If any of them did say or write it, they might have stolen it from T.S. Elliot.... who probably stole it from W.H. Davenport Adams' article about Albert Tennyson. (Here’s more of the story from an old post over at Quote Investigator, if you’re interested.)
I love this quote – er, this mess of misquotes. It’s the end product of misattributions and plagiarisms committed willy-nilly throughout the twentieth century. It’s like the writers of the English-speaking world all conspired to muddy the waters, all to make the point that creative work is rarely, if ever, original. Every story, poem, painting, movie, sculpture, and videogame is a mashup of the stuff that came before it.
Back when I taught creative writing and English composition to college students, they always hated this at first. To them, it meant artists were a bunch of copycat hacks. Really, though, “Good artists copy; great artists steal” means that art – like science, philosophy, mathematics, and every major human endeavor – is a collective project. It’s not a bunch of little works done by individuals, but a whole body of work done by everyone who writes, paints, takes pictures, or builds 3D models.
We’re all “standing on the shoulders of giants,” in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, which he stole from the 12th-century French philosopher Bernard of Chartres.
A Guide to Trope Thievery
Trope theft is woven into the fabric of TTRPGs. As a GM, you shouldn’t need me to convince you. The PCs almost always come in “classes," all of which are based on archetypes from popular literature. Major NPC personalities are usually plucked directly from well-known stories. Plots are mostly cut-and-paste jobs from popular books and movies, and the settings themselves are just larger iterations of all that tropey patchwork.
Attentive worldbuilders can learn from this by creating settings, characters, scenes, and other game elements out of existing tropes. If your game is set in an open world, knowing those tropes can help you whip up content on the fly when your players move into uncharted territory. On the other hand, if you prep everything ahead of time, knowingly making your world out of tropes will help you manage how your players feel and think about the stories you set in it.
To make the threats and conflicts in my games feel real and dangerous, I worry little about sanity scores, conditions, ability checks, and the like. That’s not to say I don’t use them – I’m still running games, and games need rules – but I focus more on narration and player engagement than mechanics.
If a scene is supposed to be tense and frightening, my first thought isn’t about which mechanical lever to pull; it’s about how to make my players anxious and frightened for their characters. The surest way to do that is to draw on the tropes that have evolved since the invention of horror stories to bring out exactly those feelings. (Hey, that kinda sounds like Impactful Worldbuilding with Archetypal Symbols!)
Here's how you can do this intentionally:
- Consume horror media that feels how you want your game to feel.
- Analyze tropes from those stories.
- Deploy those tropes in your game.
Step 1: Consume
The more horror media you watch, read, and play, the better you’ll get at spotting the types of hooks, twists, structures, scenes, and themes they’re made of. You can’t take this stuff in passively, though. You have to consume a steady diet of the right content.
The “right content” is any media that makes you think, “I want the game I’m running right now to feel like that.” You have to watch, read, and play the hell out of stories that make you feel and think the way you'd like your players to feel and think at your table.
Do you want your players feeling jumpy and tense, afraid the killer could get them at any moment? Watch some slashers.
Are you building a slow-burn adventure in which your players eventually learn that everyone’s out to get them? Sounds like a social thriller.
Trying to get players to feel isolated, fearful of the very Earth on which they walk? You want folk horror.
Here are a few classic horror subgenres and movies to help get you started. This is obviously the best, most fun, and most important part of the process, so feel free to overindulge and watch every one of these. The worst that can happen is you forget to prep because you spent all your time watching excellent horror movies:
- Slashers: Scream (1996), Evil Dead 2 (1987), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1985)
- Horror Comedy: Cabin in the Woods (2011), Ready or Not (2019), Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010), Shaun of the Dead (2004)
- Social Thrillers: Get Out (2017), The Stepford Wives (1975), Coherence (2013), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978)
- Folk Horror: The Witch (2015), Without Name (2014), Midsommar (2019), The Wicker Man (1974)
- Sci-Fi Horror: Ex-Machina (2014), Alien (1979), Cube (1997), Predator (1987)
- Body Horror: The Fly (1986 and 1958), Videodrome (1983), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Ginger Snaps (2000), Society (1989)
- Zombies: Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), 28 Days Later (2002), The Cured (2017)
- Cosmic Horror: The Endless (2014), The Thing (1982), In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Color out of Space (2019)
If this were an intro to literature course, I’d tell you to watch with pen and paper in hand. If you're into that sort of thing, by all means turn this into an academic affair! I do it, but that’s because I’m a massive nerd who blogs about horror movies. I’m assuming you're less obsessed with this stuff than me, so I’ll just encourage you to talk about the movies you watch with friends, family, and coworkers.
Find at least two other people you can talk to about all the horrific media you’re consuming. Horror is not for everyone, but people who are into it are really into it. Simply having conversations will help you spot and process all the tropes you’ve encountered, starting you on the path to integrating them into your own games.
Step 2: Analyze
After you’ve consumed enough of one type of horror – let’s say vampire horror – you’ll start connecting dots. Not only does D&D’s Strahd von Zarovich share similarities with Bram Stoker’s villain in the novel Dracula, he’s also a bit like Interview with the Vampire’s Lestat, and the way his broodiness and arrogance come across feels akin to Angel and Spike of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
These characters have so much in common because they’re all based on an archetype—a character who represents concepts in the popular imagination. If you’re looking to introduce a major character who happens to be a vampire, you could do a lot worse than a character based on Count Dracula. Broody, predatory, lustful, and arrogant, he’s generally thought to represent anxieties related to gender, sexuality, and deviance. Some modern media have turned the blood suckers more toward symbols of addiction and substance abuse (like Mitchell in the BBC series Being Human). Even in those cases, though, vampires still represent deviance, desire, and danger—just of a different variety.
After you find some characters (or settings, scenes, items, etc.) to steal from, your job as Trope Thief is to figure out what’s worth stealing, and that means some (light) analysis. You need to know whether your vampire should be a charismatic stalker of city streets, a decaying overlord, or a shunned and hunted beast. You need to know what lore is written in stone and what lore can be fudged to suit your vision.
For instance, vampires drink blood. Not up for debate. But did you know that Dracula has hairy palms? No? That’s because no one ever steals that detail! It's grotesque in a way that, I suspect, creators generally feel gets in the way of their vampire’s seductiveness. Either way, hairy palms are a modern-media miss, but that whole charm-and-entrance thing he does is very common, and vampires are almost always creatures of the night – except in that one franchise where they sparkle, but let’s not talk about that.
The light analysis of the Vampire archetype above isn’t hard to do on your own for other archetypes. First, describe the character in a few simple adjectives – five is a good number. Then, thinking about those adjectives, consider what that character might represent and what features of the character tell you that. Scientists and teachers are often intellectual leaders representing "Everything We Know", or they represent the dark side of knowledge and ambition, "Hubris". Cops and other authority figures often symbolize "The Rule of Law", or they reflect its extreme, "Authoritarianism".
You can go deeper than occupation, though. Look at what the characters seem to care most about. What seems to be their first thought in every situation? How do they dress? Do they remind you of any other real or fictional people? All of that factors into the kinds of themes and ideas they stand for.
Take Homelander in Amazon Prime’s The Boys, one of our favorite examples of superhero horror right now. Homelander is deceitful, unjust, xenophobic, selfish, arrogant, and spiteful, but also, his superpowers are basically those of Superman. It’s a small leap over a building in a single bound to realize that Homelander is the satirical anti-symbol to everything that comes with Superman: Patriotism, The Rule of Law, American Exceptionalism. In short, Homelander is the horrific extreme version of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
It’s not just character types and archetypes. Tropes come in a variety of forms: times, places, series of events, story arcs, character relationships… the list goes on.
Consider the trope "Today's Lesson". There's a scene common in teen slashers when a main character, often in a high school literature class, gets a lesson on the film’s themes. It’s disguised as a lesson on Shakespeare or quantum physics or the concept of zero or something. 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, shows our protagonist, Nancy, in her high school English class, fighting to stay awake so Freddie won’t kill her in her dreams. The teacher talks about Hamlet’s refusal to give up on what he knows to be true, emphasizing one of Nightmare’s core themes about believing in yourself. A fellow student then stands up to read from Julius Caesar, his voice getting deeper and croakier as he goes:
O God, I could be bounded in a
nutshell and count myself a king
of infinite space, were it not
that I have bad dreams.
While the student is reading, Nancy falls asleep and has a vision of a dead classmate talking to her from inside a transparent body bag. Nightmare is all about a villain who is himself a “king of infinite space,” who terrorizes his victims in their dreams. Today’s Lesson gives director Wes Craven a place to put those words and ideas in the heads of viewers.
If you’re running a horror game, Today’s Lesson gives you a way to deliver information as a lesson that sounds like it’s about one thing, like a folktale told by the inhabitants of the game’s world, but it’s also secretly about the themes of their next adventure. It helps set the mood and gets your players thinking about what the adventure is about. It’s a tool you can use to spread out your foreshadowing and worldbuilding so you don’t have to info-dump on your players. If you do it memorably, they’ll look back and realize how brilliantly you planned the whole adventure and surrounding world. Even if you’re mostly improvising, it will seem like you planned way ahead.
Step 3: Deploy
Let’s say you want to run a game that feels like a social thriller. You’ve gobbled up the movies on my list from “Step 1: Consume,” talked about them incessantly with friends, and in those conversations, you’ve identified some tropes that help ramp up the gaslighting and simmering discomfort of social thrillers.
It’s tempting to start making a-thousand-and-one locations, items, and NPCs inspired by all those movies. You can’t do that though! If you do, you’re wasting time on stuff your players will probably never encounter. (I talked about this in Confessions of a Micro-managing Game Master a little while back too.) Instead, you should focus on the most important bits.
Social thrillers almost always involve a Secret Society working to deceive, manipulate, and gaslight the main characters into a Horrific, World-ending Plan. There’s usually a scene in which the Secret Society comes to Inspect the Merchandise, when the would-be victims are put on display somehow – as in the Stepford Wives, when one of the Men’s Club draws Joanna’s portrait, and the rest of them fawn over her eyes in the image.
Finally, no social thriller is complete without a Betrayer, someone we were led to trust who plays a key role in the Horrific Plan.
Let’s use those four tropes as a basis for our social thriller RPG:
- Secret Society
- Horrific Plan
- Inspect the Merchandise
Personally, I’m a fan of Body Snatcher plots and horror about sentient artificial intelligence, so let’s say our Secret Society is a bunch of robot people led by an AI that really, really loves humanity. It has worked out a Horrific Plan to make us immortal: by transplanting our brains into android bodies. The horror of being robots drives us mad, so the bodies come with software that forces us to behave according to the AI’s understanding of proper human behavior.
That Horrific Plan suggests you’ll need a few robot people to start. Personally, I’d just run the game and decide who, out of my existing NPCs, is a robot as I went. Some of them should be people the PCs know, people they might come to trust. You can be specific about who’s a robot if you want though. 1-2 robot people per PC should do it.
It’s not a bad idea to wait to decide who the Betrayer is until you run the Inspect the Merchandise scene. That way, you don’t tip your hand too early. Before Inspect the Merchandise, your players should know something’s wrong, but they might not quite be able to put their finger on it. After Inspect the Merchandise, their suspicions should really rise.
Now that we’re planning a scene, we need a setting. I’ve always had a weird thing about hospitals, so I’m setting this hypothetical adventure in a hospital, and the PCs are all patients or employees there. I’m thinking the AI has snatched many of the administrators, doctors, and nurses already. Now teams of them are going around to patients’ rooms, reviewing their charts, and making suspicious comments. "Inspecting the Merchandise," as it were. Thus, a scene is born.
The Betrayer should turn out to be someone the PCs have come to trust, but also someone who’s had every opportunity to gaslight them. That means, even though you shouldn’t pick who they are too early, you should be thinking about it. Ultimately, the goal is to get the players not to trust anyone – ideally, not even each other – so the person you pick should be a part of their inner circle of NPCs. In this case, I’d probably go with a fellow patient, someone the players really relate to so it hurts all the worse when the NPC twists that knife. (This is why GMing horror games is great. Success is measured in large part by how much you mess with the players.)
Tropes Beget Worlds
By the end of this process, you’ll have watched a bunch of great (and probably a few not-so-great) horror movies, identified and analyzed important tropes from those movies, and deployed them in whatever RPG you’re running. Those three steps have a way of suggesting larger world stuff. Focusing on social thriller tropes, I ended up with robot body snatchers in a hospital, but I only wrote down a fraction of the world that this suggests because that’s all you need to run a good game with a good story.
All kinds of new questions come up when you build this way though. In this case, who made the AI? What happened to them? What’s it like to be body-snatched and trapped inside an android body largely beyond your control? How far has this spread?
They’re all great questions that will keep you worldbuilding in the way every RPG rulebook ever written says you should: start small and expand outward.
Focusing on tropes keeps your attention on the scenes and encounters that make up your adventure, and it helps you keep up thematic consistency, which in turn lets you guide how your players think and feel during the game.
I wish you all the best in making them!
Written by Eric Botts
Edited by Carson Jones
Horror movies have warped Eric Botts' fragile mind beyond repair or salvation. He can no longer distinguish comedy from horror and finds himself making everyone around him uncomfortable with strange outbursts of maniacal laughter. Once promising and respectable academics in English literature and creative writing, he and Meg Sipos, his wife and partner in the dark arts, now squander their free time as deviants, spreading fear and madness among their equally disturbed followers. The demonic duo publish their thoughts on horror media, and they publish other people's horrific short stories, essays, and prose poems on their blog, The Other Folk. You can support their dark arts on Patreon. His writing has also appeared in Welter, Barren Magazine, and Ricochet Magazine, among other publications.