Turning Stories into Adventures
As a fan of several 70s and 80s movies, it’s long been a goal of mine to make homages to such films as Halloween, Alien, The Thing, and Predator into TTRPG adventures. I haven’t put any of those into actual play yet, but what I do have to share today are some thoughts on how to go from getting inspired by stories in traditional media to putting together a fun adventure.
Since modern traditional media is largely made for consumption as a finished product by a passive audience, it can be tricky to adapt it into a form suitable for play in a TTRPG. The plots are linear (or at the very least can almost always be laid out in a linear fashion). The characters are all under the complete control of the creator(s). Tricks of perspective or presentation can be used to hide details or mislead the audience in ways that wouldn’t be possible from the point of view of the characters. There are opportunities for the creator(s) to go back and add in foreshadowing, allusions, etc. to help set up later scenes.
That all having been said, TTRPGs have the advantage that an active audience who has at least some degree of authorial control can direct the focus and the story in the ways that will keep their interest maximized and can surprise everyone involved. There’s no space in Halloween for Laurie to decapitate Michael Myers, in Alien for anyone other than Ripley and Jones to survive, in The Thing to have a more rigorous plan to keep the alien’s spread contained, or in Predator for Dutch to save Hopper’s team, but all that and infinite other divergences are possible in a TTRPG.
The first key to unlocking that potential is Justin Alexander’s advice to prepare scenarios instead of plots. Use the original inspiration as a source for developing the adventure’s background, the antagonists’ plan, and the tools/resources in their arsenal, maybe use it to help set up an inciting incident, but don’t go any further than that.
Second, take the time to try understanding what made the story good. For this, I’d suggest setting aside any scholarly analyses and focusing instead on what made it good to you personally. If it was the characters and their relationships, that’s generally easy to incorporate and allow to develop organically once the PCs get involved. If it was a particular fantastical being or bit of technology/magic, you need to think about how to translate that into your game system of choice (and/or which game system would work the best to represent it, if you have the freedom to pick). You should also think about how the players can get any information they might need to interact with the being/item/etc. in a meaningful way. If it was a particular plot twist, think about what you can do to make it flexible enough that the antagonist(s) might still make it happen when the PCs don’t follow the original plot to set it up. If it was the original plot as a whole, that gets trickier, but something that usually works here is to use it up to some major point as adventure background that has happened already and then let the involvement of the PCs impact how things go from there (which is basically the same as the previous paragraph with the caveat of having the PCs insert themselves at a key point in the scenario’s overall story rather than at the beginning). If it was something else, use your own creative ingenuity because I’m out of general examples (or leave a comment to see what advice you can get).
Of course, it’s likely that there will be multiple reasons why you want to put that story into your game. This is fine, for the most part, but always bear in mind that a big part of playing a TTRPG is to give space for everyone to contribute. Take care that you’re limiting yourself to the essential elements, lest you end up trying to include so much that you end up railroading inadvertently.
Third, unless the players are meant to know that they’re playing an adventure based on an existing story, put in some effort to disguise where it came from. For one thing, it can really spoil the mood if the players get distracted in talking about that source story instead of being focused on the adventure they’re playing. For another, the adventure needs to fit into the game system (and possibly into a greater campaign), so some degree of adjustment will almost always be necessary to accommodate that. Anything that wasn’t in your list of essential elements should be fair game for modification.
For instance, suppose I’m running an old school D&D campaign and I want to put an adventure inspired by Predator into it. For me, the most engaging part of that movie was the concept of a powerful (but not infallible), invisible, intelligent monster stalking elite warriors in a hostile environment. I can maintain that whether it’s in a jungle, desert, tundra, or any other harsh setting. I can maintain that with a monster that bears no resemblance to the one in the movie aside from being able to stay invisible and having sufficient magic/technology to have a clear edge on the PCs. I could abandon the monster’s honor code entirely, although I’d want to have some hints that the monster’s hunting is a ritual act rather than simple predation or territorial aggression. I’d probably abandon the monster’s self-destruction. Instead of having an outsider to the party who earns their trust over time, I might have a guide who leads them to a treasure site (replacing the guerilla encampment) and then tries to slip away with a chunk of their treasure before getting killed by the monster. While I wouldn’t be opposed to killing PCs that leave themselves vulnerable, most players will be mindful to limit splitting up, so I’d adjust the monster’s tactics to be more of a hit-and-run approach aimed at wearing them down collectively and interfering with attempts to rest. Since a key part of the movie (for me) is that Dutch’s team were elite warriors, I’d probably want the adventure to be aimed at level 5 PCs, at a minimum.
From there, it’s a matter of figuring out the monster’s details and a treasure site that could lure the PCs into the adventure. Those, and pretty much everything else about the adventure, would be dependent on how it fits into the rest of the campaign. Maybe some rival adventuring team can act as potential replacements for Hopper’s team, or maybe I’d drop that angle entirely. If one of the PCs was an Expy of Dr. Van Helsing, maybe the monster can be an undead creature instead of an alien. If one of the PCs has a habit of cutting deals with their enemies, maybe the monster can be some fae or sinister creature who would ask for some dramatic sacrifice before agreeing to any bargains. If the party came from a war-torn state, maybe the monster can be a member of the opposition aspiring to attain some forbidden power. There are countless possibilities even before getting to the infinite number of ways that it could all play out once the players start influencing the adventure, and I’d be excited to do any of them.
Ultimately, there isn’t much difference between making an adventure based on a certain story compared to making an adventure based on any other inspiration. In either case, you should be identifying what would be special about that particular adventure and then developing the rest of your preparation to feed into that. The only major extra hurdles are leaving room for the players to influence how it plays out and making sure that it doesn’t clash with the game’s mechanics (and the greater campaign, if applicable). At heart, neither of those is too different from adapting poor-running adventure modules with good ideas to be more playable in reality (like L2: The Assassin’s Knot). As long as you put in the work, there’s no reason why your favorite stories can’t be integrated into a TTRPG, and maybe playing them out will lead to even better stories than the originals were.