How much you choose to be influenced by the real world, or by other stories is important to you, but all options are equally valid here.
With Alone we used resonance. We were using strong visual themes from the Alien and Aliens films. People knew how to react when hit by a facehugger because they knew what a facehugger was and how it had worked in the films. The stories were our own. The plots, characters and backgrounds were things we had created. The reason for things being where they were was all ours. By borrowing the way that the aliens worked, we didn’t need to brief the players on how to react to aliens. We could leave them to work that out purely because they knew what they did.
We may have robbed them of the true terror of being stalked through the dark by a completely unknown thing. I think this was the right decision though. They knew roughly what they were up against, but it was still pretty scary. We usually had the odd unknown in there as well, and it meant that we could stick to the low briefing style of play we love. There was a game in spending hours working out the life cycle of the monster attacking them but it wasn’t the game we were running.
We sometimes use this the opposite way. Young children are generally seen as being in need of protecting, and as being sweet and innocent. They can be used to hook people into a plot as they’re something that a nominally ‘good’ character will want to save. It’s something to fight for. If the thing that is causing the problems appears childlike, then it creates conflict because killing it is a lot harder than if it appears evil. We can also use the increased likelihood that they will trust that thing to harm the players. If they make that decision it can hurt them.
For Dark Hearts we used a lot of fairy tale themes. We were looking at the older, less friendly, version of fairy tales and bringing that into the setting we were presenting. Telling the story was a big part of Dark Hearts. A lot of the village was set up to get people to the place where they could find out what had happened and draw their own conclusions.
We also rigged the entire game to suggest that they were up against werewolves. Everything we produced had wolf references scattered through it. It was a way of establishing a subtle tension, without any actual background to it.
A lot of games are based on books, tv series and films that people have seen. People want to be there and do that and that’s part of what LRP is about. The stories are new, but the setting is something that’s easy to grasp if you’ve watched the material it’s based on. Coming up with something entirely new means that you need to give the players more to know what they should know when they get there - what everyone in that world would know. With the modern day games it’s how to balance those with limited real life knowledge playing experts, especially when they may encounter real life experts in that field in game.