Setting Shift: Same Adventure, Different World

Gamemasters and Storytellers of all types draw our inspiration from the universe of stories that surround us, combining and re-making old legends into new tales. We spin memories together like golden threads and speak sagas into the circle of those who will listen.

It is an art form with no equal.

But enough poetry!

Your gaming group needs a new adventure and you’ve got writer’s block. Or, you’re lazy. Maybe some of both (mostly lazy, though). So, let that fear pass over and through you, Muad’Dib, because there’s an easy way out.


The secret is The Old Switcharoo(tm), which authors have been doing since before the common era, when Romans looked at all those foreign gods and just kind of co-opted the cool ones. Simply put, you take an adventure from one genre, book, movie, show, or game setting, copy all the good parts, make some slight adjustments, and cram it into your own campaign.

For example: the classic film Seven Samurai is about a poor village that begs for help from seven out-of-work warriors. It has it all – sword duels, marauding bandits, clever traps, and impossible odds. You want to use it in your wild west game. (Good news! They made that movie, too!) Just swap the katanas for peacemakers, the tea house for the saloon, and start generating ability scores for the bad guys in the black hats.

Stealing sounds easy, right? It is! Candy. Babies. You get the idea. Just be sure to leave enough time to write up the crunchy numbers and rules for your poached plot-lines, because you’ll rarely get lucky enough to find matching stat blocks for embezzled enemies from other peoples’ work.


When shifting a story into your setting, you’re going to want to look at your source material and break it down into its nuclear state – the most basic idea of the plot or sequence. (Spoilers!) The movie Goonies is about a group of kids trying to find a pirate treasure while surviving a cave full of traps and a band of murderers in pursuit. Kids. Treasure. Traps. Murderers. Let’s say you want to stick that plot into a Cyberpunk game. Now, it’s an adventure about a group of streetwise runaways trying to find a hacker’s hidden heist money while surviving an A.I.-run factory programmed to kill them, all while being tracked down by a corporate security team.

Anything that isn’t useful or translatable should be abandoned. In the above example, you could skip the bookend plot about the town being bought up by country club developers if it isn’t necessary for your game. Free money is usually motivation enough for Cyberpunks. Don’t waste creation time on plot elements or characters that don’t integrate easily. There are plenty of other ways to flesh out a story.


A direct copy-and-paste is pretty simple, but you run the risk of being predictable to clever players who catch on fast. And if they know the plot and all the tricks beforehand, they probably won’t have as much fun. The answer is to grab bits and pieces from different sources to generate something unique and surprising.

The most important question to ask is: what part of the source material do you like the best? Is it the “puzzle-solving under pressure” from DaVinci Code? The epic battles from Braveheart? Whatever you enjoy the most out of your fountainhead should be preserved in your adaptations, whenever possible.

To demonstrate, let’s try to incorporate an idea from The Book of Swords series by Fred Saberhagen into our previous example. In the series, there are twelve swords of power, each with a god-like magical ability stored within. Translate it into Cyberpunk and maybe that becomes twelve, super-sophisticated computer programs that can do remarkable things. The hacker’s heist money that our Cyber-Goonies were looking for turns out to be one of these programs, instead. And now that they’ve got it, they have eleven more adventures waiting for them (if they can survive the corporate mercenaries). You can even name the programs after the swords from the books as an homage!


What follows is an adventure outline (feel free to steal it) where we take a basic premise and extrapolate what changes we would need to make to it for four different game genres: Space, Pirate, Cthulhu, and Viking. I used this one in my first Star Wars game and it worked pretty well. I stole the original idea from the real-life World War II missions to steal enigma code machines from German submarines.



The Intruder, a derelict ship at the center of a minefield, contains an item the protagonists need – a cypher device, code-named: “Puzzlebox.” The vessel is immobile and her weapons disabled, but the captain and a skeleton crew still live, and they have readied traps to defend themselves and their secret.

Space: The ship is a destroyer surrounded by proximity space mines and floating debris.

Pirate: The ship is a 5-masted, first rate Man of War surrounded by gunpowder-barrel mines and jagged rocks.

Cthulhu: The ship is a rusty cargo steamer surrounded by sea mines and pools of oil.

Viking: The ship is a main-lander treasure ship outfitted for war and surrounded by thunder runes and ravenous sharks.


The protagonists’ contact has calculated where the derelict ship ought to be, but she’s being tailed by spies and needs help to escape their notice. Her small vessel is waiting to take them to the wreck, but it too is being watched.

Space: The contact is an allied star-fighter pilot and her ship is disguised as a space-junk collector. The spies are small-time smugglers paid off by the foe.

Pirate: The contact is a former pirate captain and her ship is a caravel with a false name. The spies are her former crewmen who felt cheated after their last piracy voyage.

Cthulhu: The contact is the widow of a merchant marine who vanished mysteriously. Her ship is a small fishing steamer. The spies are dockworkers that never blink.

Viking: The contact is a shield-maiden who’s clan was slain by the enemy. Her ship is a Knorr longship and the spies are kinless cutthroats, maddened by drink.


Once they track it down, The Intruder can be seen immobilized at the center of a dangerous minefield. Destroying the mines might destroy their target, so the players must avoid or defeat them somehow with skills, spells, gear, or luck. Generally speaking, three failures during this challenge will damage their ship too much to continue and five successes (in whatever combination seems appropriate) will get them aboard.

Space: A course can be computed through to safety, but requires some mathematical manipulations and piloting proficiency. Decoys might trick the simple mine A.I.

Pirate: The gunpowder-barrel mines are buoyed in place and triggered when the hull bumps long touch-poles affixed to each one. Jagged rocks present a maze for the helmsman.

Cthulhu: Sea mines from the last war float ominously in a patchwork of flammable oil slicks. An unnatural fog is rolling in. A team of eagle-eyed spotters, careful boiler throttling in the engine room, and a steady hand on the wheel are needed.

Viking: The god Loki has drawn thunder runes in the shallows just below the wave-tops. When the shadow of the ship passes over them, they erupt in lightning and threaten to tip the sailors into the shark-infested waters.


The derelict’s captain and his skeleton crew have rigged traps to stop intruders while they hide and wait for rescue. He taunts them from a distance but avoids direct confrontation.

Space: The captain is watching on remote sensors, baiting the invaders on the comm system. He can trigger blast doors to cut the party in half (literally and figuratively), turn off the lights and the air supply, pump toxic gas through the vents, kill the gravity in certain sections, and open airlocks unexpectedly.

Pirate: The captain is listening to the brass pipes that let his crew communicate through the decks and triggers his traps with a complex series of ropes. He can yank doors shut, drop heavy cargo from the booms, pump smoke into enclosed spaces, release trapdoors in the decking, and fire rows of pre-loaded muskets.

Cthulhu: The captain has hidden small radio receivers throughout the steamer and seems able to set off his traps using only his mind. While the group listens to the static-laden ravings of his insanity, they must face slamming doors with heavy bolts, rusted-out floor plating, exploding steam pipes, a cloud of mind-numbing opium from a weirdly shaped incense burner, and a throughway laced with blood-soaked piano wire.

Viking: The captain is watching from secret crawlspaces and smuggler’s holds, whispering ominous chants to the invading forces. His ship is rigged with tensioned masts that sweep the deck, trick floorboards, murder holes, tripwire crossbows, crates full of beehives, and a lower level that can be locked and flooded.


The captain has gone mad and will go down with his ship. His crew are secretly working on an escape raft and will flee with the cypher device if the party takes too long locating them. They avoid a fight unless they’re cornered or seem to have a major advantage.

Space: The Captain’s name is Pi Andoora and he is dying from radiation poisoning from the explosions that disabled The Intruder. He vows to end his enemy before his body fails him, but the self-destruct mechanisms are too damaged to function. His chamber is filled with deadly radiation and he lies, saying the Puzzlebox is inside. His military crew are injured but armed with blasters. Their escape craft is a small star-fighter, pieced together from other damaged ships, in an out-of-the-way maintenance hangar.

Pirate: The Captain’s name is Paul Andor, known on the sea as Pox Andor, for he has been dying of the consumption for several years. He vows death to his foe before he breathes his last and is willing to set his chart-room ablaze with a lantern if it means taking the party with him. He lies, saying the Puzzlebox is hidden under the stacks of maps and tries to draw them closer. His remaining crewmen are injured and low on shot, but are skilled with cutlass and dagger. Their escape craft is a raft made of empty barrels and lashings, hidden under canvas near a secret hatch near the stern.

Cthulhu: The Captain’s name is P. Aden Oran, and his veins are black with an indescribable infection. Before he is consumed, he seeks reward in the dark hereafter through a mutual sacrifice of his enemies. To this end, he has stacked his ancient books around himself, the source of his madness, and doused them all with kerosene. With flint striker in his long-nailed hand, he cordially invites the seekers inside his stifling, boiler room library so they can look for the Puzzlebox that is not there. Instead, it is with the crew of terrified cultists who wear slimy rain-slicks and who make a kind of squawking croak when they try to speak. They have pistols, but few rounds, and they are unnaturally strong. Their escape raft is a patched lifeboat tied to the side of the hull, just submerged under the water’s edge.

Viking: The Captain’s name is Pan Dorinson who betrayed his own clan to foreign foes and earned the name-brand “No-Oath” and a curse in his lungs. He has made a blood promise to his gods and seeks redemption through death, but was told in omens that he must take at least three warriors with him when he falls or he will never find honor again. To fulfill this promise, he has hidden all his treasures in a secret cache just above his head, ready to pull the rope, loose the trapdoor, and bury anyone near him in an avalanche of foreign coins so vast that the weight will crush their bones. The last of his crew are starving and weak, but skilled at armed combat with their southern blades. Their escape raft is a wherry with oars and sail, cleverly hidden beneath the manure piles near the animal pens.


The Puzzlebox is either taken, destroyed, or lost to the enemy and the survivors must make their way back through the minefield, which should eventually destroy The Invader as they sail away to other adventures.

Space: The Puzzlebox is a hexagonal, long-range comm unit that uses synthetically grown crystal circuits to link one device to another. It’s code is indecipherable without microscopic examination.

Pirate: The Puzzlebox is a hexagonal cryptex – a sealed brass case with moving letters. The simple code-word “Pearl” spelled out on the dials reveals the hidden letters within.

Cthulhu: The Puzzlebox is a triskaidecagonal device, a thirteen-sided shape, made of black gears and fine, elaborate scratches that might be some kind of letters. One’s head aches if one stares too long at them and the device sometimes shifts of its own accord. Close study, arcane knowledge, and a willingness to forgo some small measure of one’s sanity are needed to open it and reveal its secrets.

Viking: The Puzzlebox is a hexagonal runestone carved from white granite and inlaid by masters with gold and ivory. It tells a story of sacrifice. A small seam shows that it can be opened, but only those wise in the old legends would know that it must be drowned first in fire and then in water to crack the seal.

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