Tabletop roleplaying is a realm of constant creation. Characters, conversations, strategies, situations, stories, NPCs, monsters, treasures, and much more, are created continuously. Some with much planning, some off the cuff as they occur. While human beings have a near infinite capacity for creativity and creation, it is often helpful to draw from things we’ve already seen/experienced. As both a player and a dungeon master, I am constantly drawing inspiration from all around me. In creating game content, I subscribe to the old adage, “work smarter, not harder”. So many ideas already exist in books, movies, video games, history, etc., and we can draw on these ideas when we are attempting to create things.
I love creating characters. It is probably my favourite part of D&D outside of actually playing. While it is not odd for me to simply invent characters, often I will pull inspiration from the wealth of existing characters I know. Whether it is a character for me to play in someone else’s campaign, an NPC, or the big bad of a campaign arc, my characters are frequently based on historical or pop-culture figures.
When I create a new character, I typically start with a concept first. Not a race, or a class, but an image of what kind of character I want. Sometimes I simply dream up a concept in my mind (such as Slight), however I very frequently start with character’s I already know and find a way to fit them into D&D.
A few years ago I was making a new character. We were rolling stats and, because I enjoy surprises, I decided to use the rolls in the order the stats appear on a character sheet. I ended up with a character whose primary stats were dexterity and charisma. While I was trying to decide what to do with that combination, I happened to watch The Princess Bride with my daughter and thought to myself, “I would love to play a character like Iñigo Montoya.” In that moment my inspiration was found. I created Tisgywn Briar, a wood-elf fighter.
Tisgwyn was a a charming duelist, who never backed down from a challenge. He was wandering and taking odd jobs while on the hunt for the man who murdered his love. Then I decide to twist some of the plot elements from The Fugitive in there. Tisgwyn was also on the run, thought guilty of his lover’s murder he hunted the true villain, a “one-legged dragonborn”.
Without a lot of original invention from me, I had a well rounded character concept, with a backstory and motivations. While the fingerprints of his creation are obvious, he is still unique and a lot of fun to play. Drawing on characters that we encounter in other media can provide excellent inspiration for our own creations.
Stories and Scenes
We can do the same thing with stories! Tisgwyn’s background already showed an example of this where I lifted a simple plot concept from The Fugitive and attached it to my character. A few years ago I read an excellent little book called The Lazy Dungeon Master written by Michael E. Shae over at slyflourish.com. This book does an fantastic job of stressing how much easier the job of a Dungeon Master is if they are willing to lean into the threads and themes of other works. Shae writes,
All we need is a good starting seed and an idea from which potential stories might grow. We can steal the ideas for these stories from just about anywhere including movies, TV shows, books, or even other games.The Lazy Dungeon Master, p. 33
Start with a single thread or seed, something to anchor your story around. If you take a basic idea for a story arc, a villain, or simply a scene, you give your imagination a place to begin. Starting from scratch can be very difficult, it’s often the hardest part of a creative task, but even with just a small piece of inspiration you can get your creative juices flowing and craft your own story.
In one of my current campaigns, following the exploits of “The Collected“, the players initially found themselves trapped in an extra-dimensional zoo of sorts called The Halls of Gathering. It contained a variety of biomes that I had filled with lots of fun and dangerous surprises. While designing the jungle biome I was scrolling through a list of monsters when I came to the Tyrannosaurus Rex. I was immediately reminded of the scene from the original Jurassic Park with the rhythmic thumping and the ripples in the water. What an iconic scene! So I decided to implement this kind of suspenseful encounter for my players.
The players initially fled as the ground trembled from a large, distant beast. This lead to a suspenseful chase and eventually an exciting battle. I took what was a simple concept, and applied it to create a dynamic scene with suspense and intensity. Best of all, I didn’t have to come up with this, it had been done and I just had to borrow it and adapt it to my setting.
WORK SMARTER, NOT HARDER
Whether you are designing characters, villains, stories, or monsters, drawing from ideas that have already been created can make your life a lot easier. Like I said, work smarter, not harder. A lot of work has already been done, use it has fuel for your creative fire. Get out there and steal ideas, bend them and make them your own. It’s fun, it’s easy, and it gives us an unending source of material.
What are some ways that you’ve used media or history to influence your creations?