Obscure Source Material for Roleplaying Adventures

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Image Credit: Natalie Dee (www.nataliedee.com)
Image Credit: Natalie Dee (www.nataliedee.com)

Where do You Get Your Ideas?

When asked where he gets his ideas, author Neil Gaiman often replies: “I make them up. Out of my head.” He generally follows up with a much more interesting and useful answer, but when you boil it all down, he makes them up, and that’s really the end of it. But not every gamemaster is a Neil Gaiman, or a Terry Pratchett, or a JRR Tolkein. We don’t all have the talent, time, or inclination to come up with 100% original material for all of our campaigns, and most of us have day jobs. So, many of us use ideas from movies, books, and so on. This works fine, unless one of your players has seen or read the same story. If you’re lucky, said player will keep his knowledge to himself and not embarrass you by saying, “I know where the bad guy’s hiding: I saw this plot on Fringe last Friday!” But then again…

The problem with borrowing from currently popular movies, shows, or books is that those sources are, well, popular, and your players are just as likely to have seen or read them as you are. Everyone has either read or seen Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. When you’re playing in a scenario that’s been obviously lifted from your favorite episode of Dr. Who, it’s less fun, and when your players rumble your source, it’s less satisfying for you as a GM. Here’s a list of some good source material that’s not universally well-known, or else is old enough to have fallen out of currency.

Robin Of Sherwood


The entire run of the show from first to final episode.


Soundtrack from the series by the amazing Irish trad group Clannad.


Robin of Sherwood

This BBC series ran in the UK from 1984 to 1986 and on cable in the US shortly afterward. In Robin of Sherwood, writer Richard Carpenter uses both Robin of Loxley and Robert of Huntingdon (two different Robin Hoods from the Robin Hood tradition, played by Michael Praed and Jason Connery, respectively) as Robin Hood. He also introduces a strong supernatural element to the story, making the series very suitable as source material for a D&D-style fantasy campaign. Interestingly, this is the first time we’ve seen Robin with a Saracen companion (no, Morgan Freeman wasn’t the first one). Each episode has the makings of an excellent roleplaying scenario, incorporating political intrigue, Norman-Saxon racial tension, black (and white) magic, and even Arthurian legend.

If you live in the UK, this series probably won’t count as obscure for you, but we Americans (especially those of us younger than about 25) have mostly not heard of it. To further obscure your source, instead of Sherwood Forest (or your own fantasy equivalent), set the story in the Star Wars universe. It’s a perfect fit: The PCs fill in for Robin’s merry men, mid-ranked Imperial lackeys can serve as the Sherriff and Sir Guy, and the Force is the magic. If a PC is a Jedi, have the ghost of his old master fill the role of Herne the Hunter. And in the background, the rebels (Saxons) are continually battling the Empire (the Normans).

A Twofer!

Grindhouse Double Shock Show: Star Odyssey (1979) / Prisoners of the Lost Universe (1983)
Grindhouse Double Shock Show: Star Odyssey (1979) / Prisoners of the Lost Universe (1983)

This DVD includes the 1979 film Star Odyssey, which I haven't seen.


Prisoners of the Lost Empire

This 1983 fantasy film was released in cinemas in Europe but went straight to cable in the US. It’s not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. The special effects, sets, and costumes make it obvious that PotLE was shot on a shoesting budget. Even the plot seems recycled at first glance: an unlikely couple from modern Los Angeles get zapped into an alternate dimension strongly resembling medieval Europe. But they’re not the only ones! They soon discover that a mad scientist from their own dimension has also come across, and is plotting to use science to help a local warlord take over the world! (Insert evil laugh here). Yeah, it’s pretty trite. But it’s not the plot but the details that make this film so useful to RPG gamemasters.

The alternate world is populated by an unusual group of characters with engaging personalities. The people use an interesting mix of magic and low-tech tech. One of their gadgets, the amber light, features in another one of my hubs. If you’re going to use this movie for source material, rather than borrow the plot entirely, focus on the unique characters, props, and creatures. Also pay attention to the interesting ways the “primitive” characters react to “modern” technology. Some of the characters and gadgets would fit in nicely in a steampunk adventure.

JoaT, with some extra Bruce

Jack of All Trades - The Complete Series
Jack of All Trades - The Complete Series

The Complete Series, all the fun, with extra foolishness.

Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.: The Complete Series
Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.: The Complete Series

Another Bruce Campbell vehicle, less obscure than JoaT, but full of steampunky goodness.


And Speaking of Steampunk…

Jack of All Trades stars Bruce Campbell as Jack and Angela Marie Dotchin as his beautiful (and much more intelligent) partner, Emilia Smythe-Rothschild (Mrs.). The couple are spies sent by President Jefferson and King George to thwart Napoleon’s Imperial ambitions in the South Pacific. The series is full of anachronisms, deliberate silliness, bathroom humor, innuendo, and Bruce Campbell’s irrepressible personality. It’s nowhere nearly as well known as Sam Raimi’s other productions, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess (both excellent source material, but very famous: use at your own risk), as it only ran for two seasons in 2000/2001 on, I believe, the Fox network. Fox seems to have a habit of prematurely cancelling good shows (*cough*Firefly!*cough*), but in this case, it works out to give roleplayers a nice set of relatively obscure source material.

This is a work that you’ll want to mine for props and atmosphere as well as plot. Some--no, strike that--all of the episodes are full of deliberate silliness, so the ideas will work especially well if your gaming group enjoys a large dose of camp in their adventures. In addition to being the uptight foil to Jack’s brash devil-may-care persona, Emilia is also a brilliant natural philosopher. She creates (or manages to disarm) a slew of interesting steamy gadgets over the course of the series.

Black Hole-Related Material

The Black Hole
The Black Hole

Possibly Disney's best live-action SciFi. (Disney/Pixar's WALL-E is best overall.)

The Black Hole
The Black Hole

Surprisingly, there's another, equally obscure film of the same name. I'd never heard about it before researching this hub. If you watch it, please let me know how it is.

Monster Black Holes
Monster Black Holes

Hey, sometimes real science can inspire some awesome science fiction.


The Black Hole

In the late 70s, Disney Studios jumped on the SciFi bandwagon. Star Wars had opened the floodgates for a horde of imitators, including such forgettable efforts as The Cat from Outer Space and Galactica: 1980. The James Bond franchise, heaven help us, even gave us Moonraker. Disney’s The Black Hole, though, is a pretty good movie. It suffers from an apparent obligation to include cute R2-D2-looking robots with an unnecessary subplot all their own, but it also includes obsession, madness, murder, intrigue, suspense, theoretical physics, and the threat of forced lobotomy. There’s an amazing action sequence with meteors crashing through the ship. Realistic? Not really, but it’s believable, which is more important. In spite of being nominated for two Oscars (for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects) and a Hugo (Best Dramatic Presentation), it doesn’t get a lot of screen time these days. Unlike some other late 70s/early 80s SciFi and Fantasy films (Beastmaster comes to mind), it hasn’t got much of a cult following. Unless you saw it in the theater or on cable, you’re probably completely unaware of it, and most likely, so are your players.

This over-arching plot could easily be transplanted to other genres. The monomaniacal Dr. Reinhardt could be a Nineteenth Century scientist/explorer, an Age of Exploration sea captain, or a long-missing commander from the days of the Old Republic. The android crew can be adapted as well. They could be zombies, brass-and-wood-encrusted automata, cyborgs, you name it.

Don’t be Afraid to Take Liberties

Of course you can take material from these sources and use them in the same genre of roleplaying game, and you’ll probably be safe. Most of your players will never even have heard of these shows, let alone have seen them. But any source material will be less recognizable if you drop it into a different genre. An idea taken from The X Files will obviously work in modern times, but what if it were set in 1890s London? Or on Ord Mantell?  Tabletop RPGs aren’t constrained by budget, only by your imagination. Your adventures don’t have to be realistic. They only need to be believable.

Out of Curiosity...

Where do you get most of your ideas for roleplaying scenarios?

  • I make them up. Out of my head. Always.
  • TV
  • Movies
  • Current Events
  • Novels, comic books, short stories, and other print media
  • Ancient myths and old legends
  • Other (please answer in comments)
See results without voting

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Comments 14 comments

Ken 6 years ago

Man I miss playing STar Wars with you. That was the most fun I'd ever had playing a roleplaying game before or since.

deltamonk profile image

deltamonk 6 years ago from UK

Nice work, thanks!

As for the poll, I'd have to say 1, 5 and 6 - so I had to say "other!" Steampunk really gets around HubPages, doesn't it?

Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 6 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

It's not just HubPages; Steampunk is the new cyberpunk. Heck, there's even steampunk bands starting up. I think maybe there's a hub in that...

And Ken, that campaign back in the day was my best experience as a GM, before or since. I miss the ability to game so regularly, and more importantly, I miss that particular combination of players. You guys were a brilliant group!

Evan G Rogers profile image

Evan G Rogers 6 years ago from Dublin, Ohio

holy moly, are you a Nerd like I am? (Me and my friends have "Nerd Party" each week and play D&D... I'm so ashamed!)

Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 6 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

"holy moly, are you a Nerd like I am?"

Card-carrying. :-)

Sufidreamer profile image

Sufidreamer 6 years ago from Sparti, Greece

Ahhhhh...Star Wars. Many great memories of exploring the dark, seedy underbelly of Lucas' universe :)

Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 6 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

WEG's Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game is responsible for a lot of wonderful memories for me.

Sufidreamer profile image

Sufidreamer 6 years ago from Sparti, Greece

Likewise - That was the version we played, and we went LARP, too. Sadly, that was many years ago - not much opportunity in this part of Greece :(

starvagrant profile image

starvagrant 6 years ago from Missouri

Some great source material here, I think. How you could rip off an entire plot for a game seems a stretch, as characters always take things in unexpected directions. One great way to lift source material my college friends used was the "Matt style one shot" where the players play themselves transported to whatever universe the game master had picked (in my instance, Jurassic Park). If you've had a long history of playing characters it can be interesting to play yourself. My characters tend to be cautious combat- avoiding types, but playing myself I savagely attacked a velociraptor with a tire iron. Good times

Jeff Berndt profile image

Jeff Berndt 6 years ago from Southeast Michigan Author

Yeah, early in my career as a GM I tried a couple times to 'borrow' entire plots, but the players always came up with ideas that took the game to all manner of strange new worlds. Some of the best games I've ever run were done from a half-page of notes in the long-running Star Wars campaign that Ken mentioned above. We had established characters, established recurring NPCs, and all the players had a great rapport going. My job as GM was amazingly challenging, but also at times amazingly easy. I'd give a lot to be able to reunite all those players for another go-round. (Except one of the PCs got killed in the Battle of Endor. Oh, well.)

Horizonblue 5 years ago from Underground Lair

Another fun source for obscure plots are the innumerable fantasy and mystery novels in second hand book shops. Many are out of print, and can be bought on the cheap.

For a mean twist, throw the party into a cheap romance novel or an old political commentary book, and watch them squirm.

kcmorris profile image

kcmorris 5 years ago from South Bend, Indiana

It's kind of a mix for me. I tend to take a lot of inspiration from popular media, but it all gets filtered through my imagination, and the setting I've built. As a result, it tends to be fairly difficult to pinpoint the exact source for any one scenario or another in my games.

Dave 3 years ago

A good set of sources for D&D adventure ideas. I don't think anyone I know has ever seen that Robin Hood show. If I order it from Amazon, will it play on an American dvd player?

GamerGeek 3 years ago

Thanks for the trip down memory lane! I actually used both Robin of Sherwood and Prisoners of the Lost universe as background material/idea fodder back when I was running AD&D games. Not great movies/TV, but fun places to crib from.

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