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Finding Story Inspiration as a Dungeon Master

Many Dungeon Masters choose to create their own adventures and campaigns out of nothing more than their imaginations. If you're one of those DMs, good for you! Devising exciting adventures and crafting a fantastic world for your D&D game are some of the most rewarding parts of being a Dungeon Master.

However, even the most creative DM can use a helping hand every now and then. For some people, it's a matter of time; depending on the amount of detail and contingency planning you deem necessary in preparing adventures for the players, designing a big dungeon might take up your hobby time for weeks and weeks. Other DMs have the time but find it hard to come up with original ideas on demand. When your creation well runs dry, try some of the options in the following sections.

The real world

The first place you can look for ideas is right in front of you. Between the Earth's astonishing variety of terrain and climate and the similarly broad canvas of human societies in different places and times, you can find zillions of ideas for interesting adventures. If you need a floor plan for a castle, why not base your map sketch on the plan of a real castle? You can find plenty of books about castles at your local library or bookstore, or you might do well to hop online and use your favorite search engine to see whether anybody's ever posted that sort of information to the Web.

Naturally, books on medieval life, history, or castles in general are useful to many D&D games. Encyclopedias often have interesting articles on a variety of these topics. In addition to references on medieval Europe, keep your eyes open for books or articles pertaining to other times — the Dark Ages or the Renaissance, for instance — and other cultures, such as the medieval Arabic, Byzantine, Malinese, or even Chinese or Japanese Empires. Even modern-day examples of exotic places and cultures might prove inspirational. National Geographic is a treasure trove of ideas for a D&D game. By checking out the interesting locales, maps, and portraits of societies and customs from all over the world, you'll find something in every issue.

Fantasy fiction

Over the years, thousands of authors have created tens of thousands of fantasy stories. There's no reason you can't quietly borrow elements of a couple from your own favorites for use in your D&D game. As long as you don't create an adventure that's all about taking the Sole Ring of Ultimate Might to Mount Woe in order to destroy it in the volcanic fires where it was forged, the players might not even notice that your adventure was inspired by a book you read.

If you want to use your favorite fantasy story as inspiration for your game, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Short stories are better than novels; a short story can easily inspire a single adventure.
  • Stories with lots of action make for better games than stories that are driven by the relationships of the characters.
  • The more obscure, the better; try to avoid stories the players are intimately familiar with.
  • Fantastic it up — most fantasy fiction is less fantastic than D&D, so consider changing human kingdoms or characters into creatures of a more fantastic nature.
  • File off the serial numbers. Make sure you change names of places and characters enough so that the players won't recognize them.

Robert E. Howard's Conan stories or Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales are good examples of the sort of fiction that lends itself to conversion into D&D adventures. You could do worse than to model an adventure after Howard's The Devil in Iron or Leiber's Swords of Lankhmar.

Movies and TV

Imagine this scenario: An honest lawman is hired to clean up a rough-and-tumble mining town, but when he does his job too well, the corrupt mayor calls in the hired guns to kill the lawman and stop him from setting things right. It's a plot from a Western, right? Not exactly — this is from the Sean Connery movie Outland, which was really just a Western story with a science fiction setting. If the formula works for Hollywood, it can work for you, too. There's no reason you can't borrow the basic plot structure of almost any action movie, replace some of the thugs and villains with monsters, and present it as a D&D adventure for the players.

TV shows also have some lessons for a DM in search of creativity. Unlike a movie, which usually ends with the biggest and most satisfying resolution possible for the hero, a TV show is a serial. A single episode can't resolve every problem the hero faces, because if it does, the viewers have no reason to tune in next week. Your D&D game is more like a TV show than a movie; at the end of the adventure, you need plenty of reasons for the players to come back and see what happens next.

A well-written TV show commonly introduces an immediate problem that can be resolved with reasonable satisfaction in the single episode you're watching, but also throws in elements of long-term plots and developments that might never be resolved. Think of The X-Files: In every episode, Mulder and Scully discover, investigate, and then deal with (or just survive) some immediate threat, but in the background several important storylines and recurring figures keep the series-spanning meta-plot moving forward with appearances by characters, such as Cigarette-Smoking Man and Deep Throat.

It's hard to imagine a better example of a serial adventure format for a D&D game. Replace Mulder and Scully with the player characters, the immediate problem of the episode with the dungeon they're currently exploring, and the meta-plot characters with long-term patrons or master villains appropriate to your campaign, and you've got the ingredients of a great campaign.

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