When running a game, I am a great thief of other people’s material. I love stealing and adapting bits of modules, plot ideas, etc. from printed works and stitching them together into a great quilt of a campaign. Some of the stuff in there is my own invention from whole cloth. Sometimes I steal only a map or an idea and flesh it out. Sometimes I steal entire chunks or even an entire module and stuff it into my campaign. I would say though that the majority of things in my game are not my own work.
My current campaign started with the classic module L1: Secret of Bone Hill. I mixed in a little Idol of the Orcs and have let some rumors and legends drop about Stonehell. The best thing about using stuff like this is I never feel bad if the players aren’t interested in one of the threads. Stonehell is a huge undertaking, a campaign unto itself, but I’d hate to run it that way. I’m much more tickled by the idea of there being this huge dungeon out there in the world that occasionally the players may find reason to make surgical strikes into, but would be very unlikely to explore completely.
I think this is part of what I enjoyed so much in our first Round Robin game. In that game everyone was GM and player. Each person in turn would GM for a couple sessions, then pass the reigns to the next guy. I loved trying to tie up the various threads the other GMs left me. There was something very satisfying when the players discovered that events from two different GMs were in some way related, and that it wasn’t all just random.
But I digress. The danger with using other people’s material is that some of my players may already know the material. There’s always the chance that they’ve already played, run, or simply read what I’m about to integrate into the story. This came up just recently when I dropped the name Stonehell into my game. One of my players immediately recognised it. “That’s a prison, isn’t it?” he asked. I froze up. Oh geez, I’m going to have to seriously revamp this stuff, I thought.
Actually, it turned out he only knew of the material through reading blogs and reviews and the like. In fact, it was kind of nice that the player knew about as much about the material as his character should — vague rumors, legends, and a general sense of dread. Unfortunately, I think I immediately ruined it by quickly asking if he had already read the material, tearing us out of the moment and into a metagame discussion.
I think in future I’ll just have to have an understanding with my players that if I introduce something they recognise, that they will let me know they’ve encountered it in the past and to what degree. Sometimes I’ll be able to say not to worry, that I’ve only stolen the base concept or just the map, or similar. There’s a chance I’ll have to dump something completely though, and I guess in the long run that’s not so terrible. In fact, a small part of me kind of relishes having to take the hooks from some other module already introduced in my game, and warp them to something completely different. Actually, that’s kind of exactly what I like about using material from a lot of different sources. Go figure.