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Make Like A Gaming Pirate Part 1: Introduction & The Legend of Zelda

Every day, we’re surrounded with a huge amount of media. TV, books, music, movies, comics, video games, and everything that the internet can throw at you in a barrage of stories, characters, plots, events, and situations. Subconsciously, I think many of us take these things that we encounter in our regular lives and incorporate them into our gaming lives. An NPC might end up with a personality based on one of your co-workers. A character background might be rather similar to one from a book you once read. A storyline might be inspired by a side-quest in a video game you once played. The driving beat from a good song might turn your subtle and morally grey villian into a bombastic monster.

Pirate flagWhat I’m going to write about with this series of articles is moving that from a subconscious activity into a deliberate one. I want to tell you and give you examples of how to look at the things around you, consider their gaming potential, and then steal them without a bit of guilt if you think that they will make your game better. Steal from the TV shows you watch. Rip-off the comics you read. Lift things wholesale from your favorite video games. Adapt them all for your game, disguise the origins from your players, and reap the benefits.

The Basics
Although there are no really hard and fast rules on how to go around and swipe ideas for your game, here are some of the basic ideas and suggestions behind it.

  • Everything around you is fair game. Looking at TV shows, books, or movies to find things to take for your game is easy enough, but if you look closely there are plenty of ideas to steal from less likely sources as well. Commercials, music, art, the news, your workplace, and more. Base that dungeon off your office building, use that gorgeous photograph as the next location your players go to visit, or use the election news as inspiration for shadowy cyberpunk dealings.
  • Be familiar with the sorts of things your players see and enjoy and, if necessary, obscure the source of what you’re taking. If players figure out where you’ve taken an idea from, they might be able to anticipate your actions and plans. For this reason, obscure or long forgotten works sometimes are best to go stealing ideas from.
  • On the other hand, taking something that’s well known or popular and putting your own unique twist on it can be very satisfying, funny, or memorable and is worth considering as well. Your group, campaign, and game will determine how much of this you can or should be doing. You may create an Elf Bard that is completely based on Steven Tyler just as a gag or you could set up a situation identical to the beginning of Lord of The Rings to see how it plays out with an entirely different group of characters.
  • Take as much or as little as you need. Don’t be afraid to swipe just a single NPC or minor plotline if that’s all you need. Don’t feel you need to take a lot of the source material if it’s not really necessary. Or if you think you can do it and you want to do it, grab whole groups of characters, plots, or locations. If you need a large group of unique people on short notice, taking the cast of a TV show and filing off all the numbers can certainly be faster and easier than coming up with a group from scratch.
  • Dress things up in new genres and locations to both disguise your source and explore the original idea in a different way. Take a plot from your favorite sci-fi TV show and see how you can make it fit in a fantasy setting. Move that horror novel that creeped you out from a mansion to an office building and see how it changes the dynamic. Take the bad-ass martial arts master from a period wushu flick and see what he’s like in a modern setting.

Stealing From The Legend of Zelda
Legend of Zelda LogoThe starting point for my examples is one of the most classic and beloved video game series of all time: The Legend of Zelda. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, generally speaking it’s a high fantasy action-adventure series with an emphasis on exploring dungeon-like locales, collecting items, and defeating bad guys who are trying to possess/control a powerful relic (or relics in some games) called the Triforce. The plot and characterization are generally pretty thin, but it doesn’t detract very much from the popularity of the series.

Weakness Is Just Another Word For Opportunity
So where to even start? Let’s not start with the obvious, actually. I said that the plot and characterization in Zelda games are kind of weak, but I think that actually makes them more attractive to the potential GM or even player because it means that there’s more room for your interpretation and to fill in the details that the games themselves lack.

My favorite Zelda game is A Link To The Past. The backstory for that game is that there was a magical world called the Golden Land, where a powerful relic called the Triforce could be found. The Triforce was said to be able to grant any wish to the person who possessed it and many people searched it out. A thief named Gannondorf was the person who found it and in so doing turned the Golden Land into a twisted reflection of the real world called the Dark World. Seven Wise Men, with the sacrifice of many Hylian Knights, eventually sealed the Dark World and Ganon away. A prophecy was discovered that Ganon would eventually return, but a descendant of the Knights would defeat him and return the Golden Land to its former glory. Doesn’t sound like a bad plot line to steal for your D&D game, now does it? Link To The Past doesn’t really venture much into this rich backstory, but that just means that you and your group ~can~. File off the specific names and I think you’ve got a good framework for a game sitting right there. You’ve got a villain, a basic plot outline, you’ve got a goal, you’ve got allies and NPCs, you’ve got set-piece encounter ideas, the works. Hell, you can even make it two games in one. First the players seal away the villain with one set of characters, then they play their descendants later in the ultimate conclusion of the story.

Okay, A Link To The Past had hidden story depths ready to be used. But what about one of the most contentious Zelda games ever made: The Adventure of Link? A Link To The Past had an interesting backstory that didn’t really make it into the game, but The Adventure of Link is even more sparse. If you don’t read the manual or look online, you might not even be sure that there is a plot at all. There are two parts to the story, first is that you as Link have to collect the Triforce of Courage to go with the Triforce of Power and Triforce of Wisdom in order to wake Princess Zelda, who has been put under a spell of unending sleep. At the same time, the minions of the defeated Ganon are trying to kill Link in the belief that by pouring his blood onto Ganon’s ashes, Ganon can be revived. The rescue the princess aspect and even the “collect MacGuffins for plot reasons” aren’t really unique and you can ignore them if you’d like. However, the idea that evil beings are trying to kill the hero in order to revive a villain that the hero defeated is something that can add to a game. Enemies long thought defeated by the PCs (maybe even in their first adventure) come back with a vengeance to complicate the PCs lives. It might be a small plot to introduce to your game or it might be a big one, but it might be worth taking.

 Location, Location, Location
Although the plots of the Zelda games are hidden gems waiting to be used by the creative GM, the dungeons, temples, shrines, and other dangerous areas are the real goldmine from the series. The Zelda dungeons are some great designs, forcing players to think, explore, and investigate all around them even as they have to fend off dangerous monsters and traps. Sounds not unlike a good D&D dungeon, doesn’t it? So why not just grab Zelda dungeons for your D&D game? Some elements might not always translate over directly, such as needing keys for doors or collecting dungeon-specific items/equipment, but a canny GM can either make those work within the context of their game, alter them to be more suitable, or just remove them entirely and introduce something new to replace them. In any case, it should not be difficult to take out the layout of the rooms, the obstacles, the traps, and the puzzles and apply them to a setting where dungeon delving can be featured. D&D is the obvious choice, but throwing a Zelda dungeon into a Dragon Age RPG or Exalted campaign could play out well when adjusted for those particular settings. With some creativity and modifications, some of the dungeons could even be used in futuristic or modern settings.

It’s Not What You Do, It’s Who You Know (To Kill)
The Legend of Zelda series has a lot of iconic and unique monsters which are just dying to be given stats in your game of choice. Some of the monsters already probably have an analog in your game, like the moblin as a kind of orc or goblin and iron knuckles being like any heavily armored knight or animated armor. Others are just impractical (such as the only-vulnerable-to-bombs dodongos) or silly (octoroks), but many others can be adapted and used liberally. Zoras and their spitting fireballs from the water can spice up a riverside or ocean encounter, for example. A wallmaster could be a giant undead hand that stays invisible until it drops down on unsuspecting PCs to teleport them into dangerous traps. Wizzrobes can be enemies who teleport constantly, but predictably, and blast players with magic.

Some of the boss monsters could make great tabletop monsters as well, especially since many of them have puzzle elements like turning their own attacks against them or needing to uncover a weak point that can make an encounter unique.

What’s Left On The Plate?
If you look around, you could probably find still more ideas from the Zelda games to use as your own. Maybe Epona inspires you to create a culture in your game based around horses and horse riding. The Sages/Wise Men could lead to the creation of a council of mentors for the PCs. Maybe Link himself gives you as a player the idea to incorporate prophecy and lineage more strongly into their background. The point is that by approaching the game differently, with an eye for things that might translate over to the tabletop, you can turn it into a treasure trove of ideas waiting to be incorporated in some manner into your own game. Take the legend from Zelda and make it your own.


WolfSamurai (a.k.a. Aaron) has been a long time roleplaying geek, starting back with 2e Shadowrun almost 18 years ago. Through the years he’s played everything from D&D to Call of Cthulhu to Werewolf to Kult to Big Eyes, Small Mouth, and many other games. Recently he's branched into more indie fare with Technoir, Bulldogs!, Wu Xing, Dungeon World, and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Aaron hopes to eventually be writing his own game products as well as fiction.