A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer

21Mar/11Off

Bioware Read My Mind

I've been designing my campaign for quite some time now. Officially, the campaign's been built in the D&D 4e mechanic for about nine months, and before that some of the underlying concepts have existed as part of an alternate reality game that I've been designing for almost two years. A lot of the ideas came to me in the same manner most of my good ideas come: in the middle of the night, while driving, in the shower, etc...

A week ago I purchased Dragon Age: Origins "Ultimate" Edition ($40 on Steam, I think). Everyone I know who's played it loved it, and it's a game that I've been looking forward to playing myself for quite some time, but didn't have the necessary hardware to run it adequately until recently. I've been playing it since, logging close to 40 hours of play time, and it's kind of awkward for me to see several of my ideas - ideas that I had thought were original creations of mine - in the game.

Some of the things are slightly different but the similarity exists at the core. And some things are almost direct copies... For example, DA:O has a village called Haven. My campaign has a village named Haven as well (to be honest, I was inspired by the Haven in Everquest 2), and it's eerily similar in terms of what it contains (I don't want to elaborate for spoiler reasons, as it relates to DA:O as well as my own campaign).

And it doesn't end there. Even the first two encounters are remarkably similar to the assault on Ostagar. They have "darkspawn", I have "shadowtouched" and "darktouched". Two companions are remarkably similar to NPCs I created for my campaign, and one of them even shares a similar name. I also found at least three world NPCs that are similar to NPCs in my world as well. Even my main antagonist makes an appearance (he is an older person in DA:O, but still). And there are several quests and even some items that are similar to what I had created on my own.

Similarities in any design process are inevitable. Someone once said that there's no such thing as an "original" idea any more (which is why Hollywood insists on remaking anything they can think of). And I admit that I probably share some background to those that created this content for Bioware: game designers/D&D player. "Great minds think alike," if you will.

But in the back of my mind I have a problem. During my campaign design I knew nothing about DA:O, and little did I know I was creating something that many might think is a mirror image of it. People might look at my creation and think "he took this from Dragon Age", even if I know for a fact that wasn't the case.

So here I am, seriously considering if I should rename my version of the village of Haven. Part of me doesn't want to change it because its design came out of my mind and, although inspired by loads of reference materials, is not "ripped" from a popular game. But another part of me can't help but think how many people out there would read my campaign and think just that.

Maybe I'll call it "Kirkwall"... That's original, right?

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  1. Interesting article!

    I’m not sure how exactly to respond, but I have a few thoughts. First, we’re all inspired by the things we consume – whether that be books, films, shows, games or other published adventures. Second, we’re all – DM and PC alike – aware of those influences.

    I recently led my party to an island with two slightly warring factions, but the party later learned there was a third party controlling both. If this sounds like the show LOST, it wasn’t intentional. It just sort of played out that way. However, the more interesting thing to me (my players are still on the island and figuring things out) is that the players kept trying to figure out where I *stole* the story from. Actual quotes from the table included:

    “I’m trying to figure out what story this is from.”

    “I know I’ve seen this somewhere before, but I just can’t remember.”

    It’s like we’re predisposed to think nothing is original anymore. I wasn’t offended by any means, but it’s odd to have the group trying to piece apart plots in terms of our shared influences. It makes me feel that I have to work extra hard to come up with dynamic and interesting stories that are not repeats of things they have seen, read or heard.

    All that said, I do borrow from just about anywhere. I tweak things where possible, but when my party does something unexpected and I need to conjure up a NPC out of thing air – the name is likely something I’m familiar with.

    In recent months, I’ve dropped Allistar and Sten into my world. It just happens.

    I don’t think you need to change the name of your town. If you want to mess with your players’ expectations, lead them down the path of a familiar story and then change it up at a crucial moment. Surprise them . . . and yourself.

    • If I were taking an idea that exists elsewhere (and I have done that before), I will be the first to admit it. I admit the name Haven came from EQ2, for example (which existed five years before DA:O).

      The reason I posted this was because that I seem to have paralleled some things in DA:O without even knowing anything about DA:O. I didn’t “borrow” from them any more than they borrowed from me.

      By using your term, what I designed hoping to be a “surprise” no longer is. So should I change what I already designed, diverge it from the similar content that exists in DA:O, to once again make it a surprise?

  2. My question would be, “How many of your players are familiar with Dragon Age: Origins?” If everyone it up to speed with the game, then perhaps you want to change it a bit so the plot doesn’t feel predictable. Even though I played through DA:O once, it seems like there are many branching paths that can change the experience for each playthrough, so that is something else to consider.

    I guess you have to weigh how important *your* design is to you compared to how the group may or may not enjoy it based on their possible experience with similiar content in DA:O. My initial reaction is to stick with your design and see how it plays out. Like my group, the players are likely trying to figure out “where you got this from.” Perhaps throw in a twist . . . but if you want something that is always 100% original to your players, then I think you’re setting yourself up to be quite stressed!

    Does that make sense? Good luck!

  3. Haven is a common fantasy/general fiction place name. I didn’t think anything of seeing it on the map, and honestly I’m not sure which place in Dragon Age you’re referring to (is it the snowy one?).

    Thing is, much of Dragon Age was filled with common fantasy tropes. The world is interesting (and so is the majority of the story), but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, so to speak. That isn’t to say you can’t use (or even rely on) these tropes to create your own creative, (relatively) unique story that is interesting and offers surprises to your players, but in my opinion Dragon Age fell a little short of that.


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