How to adapt your favorite books, movies, video games, and more into your own D&D campaign
So you’re running a D&D game, and you’re not sure what you want to do. Maybe you’ve never run D&D before or maybe you have, but you’re kind of bored with your usual campaign setting of choice. Sometimes that happens — heck, I use my own campaign setting and I get bored with it sometimes. And when that happens, since it’s a small D&D campaign and not a published setting I’m making a profit off of, the first thing I do is look for cool things to steal.
This is perfectly acceptable for your home D&D game. In fact, it’s one of the things I think we should be hammering home at every opportunity — it’s okay to steal things for your game. It’s called inspiration and it’s not just okay, it’s encouraged. Hell, D&D itself steals pretty blatantly from all sorts of places — it’s got freaking hobbits in it. That, and a lot else, comes straight out of Tolkien. Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber are all over the place, to the point where there have been two adaptations of Leiber’s Lankhmar stories as a campaign setting.
So, really, there’s no reason not to borrow from your favorite books, movies, or video games for your next D&D campaign.
Good DMs borrow. Great DMs steal.
If you’re looking for game inspiration, it’s okay to look at your favorite movie, TV show, or video games and plunder them ruthlessly for ideas. Whether it’s an NPC for a game you’re in the middle of running, a PC in a game someone else is running, or an all-out city or even an entire world, you should look to the art and recreation you love as building blocks for your games. And know you’re not alone in this — there are entire YouTube channels just about how to make Batman or Darth Vader in the D&D ruleset, for example.
So, some advice.
First, figure out what you need. If you’re just looking to be a player and come up with a cool character concept, you don’t have to steal everything. One of my favorite characters — one that I played for literally years and with who I actually burned down an entire forest full of undead, thus styming a Lich’s plans (and the DM’s, for that matter) — was basically stolen from a movie poster. Specifically, the movie Fire and Ice by Ralph Bakshi. I had not seen the movie at that time — I have since — but I knew the dude on the cover with the big wolf head for a helmet looked badass and so I made up a character around that concept.
And that was fine. I didn’t need to know about him or the movie to be inspired to make of Endok Wolfen, a Ranger (this was 1st Edition AD&D) who I played and enjoyed forever. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sitting down and saying my character is an Aasimar who was found by a kindly farm couple and raised to adulthood, who uses her strange powers to help others as a Paladin — and yep, you just bit on Superman’s origin and that’s fine.
Heck, I straight up stole Deathwing in the Blizzard Watch D&D campaign. [Ed’s note: wait, what?]
These elves are suspiciously familiar and purple…
Similarly, let’s say you’ve been playing World of Warcraft for years and you’re about to start a D&D campaign. You have some ideas, but you’re dissatisfied with Elves, especially Drow. Why should all Drow be evil? Here’s a thing — that’s wholly up to you, because it’s your game. And you’ve always liked Night Elves, so you steal them. Giant trees, active mostly at night, the women running the society while the men serve as Druids — you can just use all of it to build your own game world.
Good. If you and your players like it, and it makes your game more fun to have your Drow act like Night Elves then that’s all that matters. And if you laugh every so often realizing that you’ve done what Warcraft did when it created Night Elves, but in reverse, that’s good too. [Ed’s note: the moon goddess in the standard D&D setting is Selûne, which is not at all familiar.]
I once ran a game where I stuck the castle scene from Willow in as an adventure. You know, the one with the big two headed monster that Willow accidentally turns one of those hairy monster dudes into? Yeah, that one. It was fun. None of them recognized it until a year later when one of them rented Willow and then I got some questions.
“But Dark Souls has this mechanic and…” When adapting material from other games, you shouldn’t worry too much about the mechanics of those games. Look for ways to recreate what they do in the existing D&D rules before you go nuts trying to make big changes to the game. Often, there’s already a class and spells that can approximate your inspiration pretty closely — someone seriously sat down and created Nightcrawler, Darth Vader, and Lilith from Borderlands in D&D, and I was in a one-shot game that used the 5e rules to recreate World of Warcraft pretty faithfully while still using the D&D classes.
D&D is a flexible base for all sorts of stories, and your adventure doesn’t have to be a point by point recreation to be fun.
It’s your game, so let Godzilla fight a Jaeger if you want
Finally, swipe from multiple sources at once. It’s absolutely okay to steal, as an example, an order of wizard knights who use special magic swords (Jedi), another order of wizards who use special magic rings (Green Lanterns), a magical artifact lost in the desert that contains the power of a deity (Raiders of the Lost Arc), and if your players don’t find the box in time, a host of gigantic monsters will awaken and destroy the world (Godzilla King of the Monsters).
There you go, that’s a freaking campaign right there, my friends.
Grab from everywhere. Take inspiration from everything. This is a game, and it’s meant to be fun. So have fun. And as long as you’re having fun, the idea of your Hobgoblin cleric who worships a bat god and who became a cleric to avenge his parents who were killed in an alley by an Elf when he was a child is perfectly acceptable. Just try and keep yelling my parents are dead down to once a session, and don’t actually name him Bruuz Wain. Unless you want to.
I totally did.
Originally posted 9/20/2019. Updated 11/8/2021.
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