If someone asked me for a single bit of advice to improve their roleplaying games, whether as a DM or a player, I would tell them to spend as much time as they can reading the great fantasy and sci-fi books that are out there. For the first several years that I was playing RPGs I was not an avid reader and had not even heard of many of the classics, including ones that everyone should have heard of like The Lord of the Rings. At the time I thought many of my friends were insanely creative or stricken by some miraculous form of otherworldly inspiration, but as I’ve read more and more of the books out there I began to realize that most good ideas in our RPGs have been inspired by or even directly ripped from other sources. For example, in one of the first D&D games that I ever DM’d a player showed up with a character named “Muadib” and I remember thinking that it was a very unique and interesting sounding name. A year or two later I started reading Dune and groaned when I realized he’d simply lifted the name straight out of that book.
Let me start by saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with naming a D&D character after your favorite character in a book or being inspired in any other way by what you’ve read. The reason I groan or roll my eyes when I realize something is from a book is often because I thought it was an original idea and as a result I feel like a chump. I’ll state it again just to be clear, the problem in these situations is with ME, and not with the people who are using books for inspiration. The reaction I have is an expression of feeling less educated and less informed than other people.
Read, Read, Read then Borrow, Borrow, Borrow
From the introduction to this post you might think I’m against borrowing from books in RPGs, but I’m simply telling you how I slowly came to the realization that borrowing can greatly improve your games. Aside from a handful of actual groan worthy concepts, such as showing up to a D&D game with a dual scimitar wielding drow ranger, the people that you game with will most likely appreciate any ideas inspired by other sources. If they’re familiar with the source material then they should be able to enjoy the experience in the same way as you, and if they’re not familiar with the source then they might think it is a very unique and interesting idea. One end result of this process that I never predicted at my own table is that some players, upon finding out certain ideas were inspired by a series of books, have sought out the books and begun reading the series to enjoy the same inspiration that many of the other players and I have had.
If you’re a DM, then reading various fantasy series can be the easiest way to learn different techniques for world building and for long term campaign planning. One concern I’ve heard expressed by DMs is if some of their players have read the source of inspiration and the fear that those players might call the DM out on their lack of creativity. In my experience the players that recognize an idea from a favorite series of books are even more likely to get involved in the plot and the entire game as they have an immediate comprehension and connection with what the DM is presenting. As long as the idea seems like a cohesive part of the world you’re presenting, and it doesn’t feel like an idea that you’ve tacked on just because you like it, then you may even notice that some of the players who have read the same books as you don’t even notice that you’re using those books as inspiration.
Play Tropes from a New Angle
What I’m noticing lately is that some of the best campaign ideas and characters are heavily inspired by popular fantasy and sci-fi tropes but with a slightly different spin. For example, and I’m going to be vague to avoid spoilers, but this post was inspired by a secondary character in the Wheel of Time series of books that takes the “hero of legend returned” trope and completely turns it on its head. For starters, the character in question is never more than a secondary character in the series, and this is a series that plays that exact same trope STRAIGHT several times over. The part that really inspired this post is that this character uses a different name and never openly admits to being the legendary figure, but the narrative elements around the character provide several hints at a fall from grace or a darker side that may be the reasons for the subterfuge. I was really inspired by the idea of playing an adventurer who is fully aware of being a legendary figure but is too ashamed or scared to admit who they are.
Perhaps I’m open to ideas like this because my current ongoing game started out filled to the brim with classic trope characters. I had an outcast refugee githyanki with a revenge complex, a timelord wizard drained of his power and cast into the future, an amnesiac exarch/godling of bahamut fallen to earth, and a Van Helsing style vampire hunter. In the end I think my game was over critical mass for certain styles of trope, but with a few player-initiated character changes I think a balance was achieved and things seemed to work a bit more smoothly.
I think there is a degree of complexity that comes with using tropes in your game, and the more cliche the trope seems the more effort you should put into playing it from a new angle. For example, in Dave’s last 3.5 D&D campaign I played a bad ass bard character that was inspired by the bad ass bard in the Wheel of Time series. Several people at the table knew what inspired me, but we’d so rarely seen a bard character being bad ass that it quickly took on a life of its own and grew apart from the source material. This may also have been a result of throwing knives being a bad option in 3.5 D&D, which were a signature of the character in the books, but it ended up working out for the better either way!
Make the Ideas Your Own
Perhaps the best end result of borrowing ideas from other sources and using them in your games is when you and the other players around the table really make those ideas their own. When you take inspiration for a plot and adjust it to fit into your campaign, you’re beginning this process and by the time the concept is played out in the game it could be an entirely different thing from what appeared in your favorite book or movie. That’s some of the real magic of RPGs, and I think it is incredibly satisfying seeing a borrowed idea take on a new shape when it is run through the mill that is you and your friends.
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