D&D inspiration

Being a DM is hard. Players interact with the game world, and you create that world. Without you, there is no game. That’s a lot of pressure!

Prepping for a session can take a lot of out of you creatively, especially if you are already tired from work and life stuff. Sometimes you need a bit of DM inspiration. This article is a series of signposts for where to go when you’re running out of steam.

There is nothing new under the sun, and every story ever written owes something to the ones that came before it. If a story were truly original, it would probably seem wacky and incoherent to us: we would have no frames of reference to make sense of it. So: steal!

Films

Fantasy or not, here are some of my go-to films for inspiration. (Note: the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons film is not included.)

  • J J Abrams (2009) Star Trek
  • Tim Burton (1999) Sleepy Hollow
  • John Carpenter (1982) The Thing
  • Don Chaffey (1963) Jason and the Argonauts
  • Francis Ford Coppola (1992) Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • Desmond Davis (1981) Clash of the Titans
  • Jim Henson and Frank Oz (1982) The Dark Crystal
  • Gordon Hessler (1973) The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
  • Ron Howard (1988) Willow
  • Peter Jackson (2001–2003) The Lord of the Rings
  • Irvin Kershner (1980) The Empire Strikes Back
  • Akira Kurosawa (1954) Seven Samurai
  • Ang Lee (2000) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • George Miller (2015) Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Stephen Norrington (1998) Blade
  • Kevin Reynolds (1991) Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
  • Ridley Scott (1982) Blade Runner
  • Steven Sommers (1999) The Mummy
  • Steven Spielberg (1981) Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Gore Verbinski (2003) Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
  • Sam Wanamaker (1977) Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

TV series

A shorter list for some reason, but all highly recommended:

  • Steve Barron (1998) Merlin
  • Benioff and Weiss (2011–2019) Game of Thrones
  • The Duffer Brothers (2016–) Stranger Things
  • Warren Ellis (2017–) Castlevania
  • Gene Roddenberry (1987–1994) Star Trek: The Next Generation

Video games

For many D&D players, this may be our number one source of inspiration for D&D. So, what would I recommend? (Follow the links for articles by me about using these games in D&D.)

  • Baldur’s Gate (1998)
  • The Borderlands series (2009–)
  • Darkest Dungeon (2016)
  • Diablo II (2000)
  • The Elder Scrolls series, including Morrowind (2002), Oblivion (2006),and Skyrim (2011)
  • Far Cry 3 (2012)
  • Final Fantasy VII (1997)
  • Grim Fandango (1998)
  • Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven (1998)
  • Neverwinter Nights (2002)
  • Pillars of Eternity (2015)
  • Shadow of the Colossus (2006)
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018)
  • The Last of Us (2013)
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)

(I’m conscious there are probably lots of gaps here. Feel free to suggest others in the comments!)

Books

Did you know that there is a reading list at the back of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook, and another in the Dungeon Master’s Guide?

Anyway, shameful admission: I don’t read much fantasy. This may be controversial, but a lot of the ‘genre fiction’ I’ve read just wasn’t very good, and some of the fantasy novels I enjoyed in my early teens make me cringe when I reread them now (eg, Terry Brooks, David Eddings).

First, fiction. The list that follows is a fairly eclectic collection of literature which continues to inspire me in my games, even if some of it is not really ‘fantasy’ at all.

  • Beowulf (I love the 1999 Heaney translation)
  • Emily Brontë (1847) Wuthering Heights
  • Raymond Chandler (1939) The Big Sleep
  • Thomas Malory (1485) Le Morte d’Arthur
  • Edgar Allan Poe: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839), ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843)
  • Terry Pratchett (1983–2015) the Discworld series
  • J K Rowling (1997–2007) the Harry Potter series
  • William Shakespeare: Henry V (1599), Macbeth (1606), The Tempest (1610)
  • Mary Shelley (1818) Frankenstein
  • Bram Stoker (1897) Dracula
  • J R R Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937), The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), and Tales from the Perilous Realm (1997)
  • H G Wells (1895) The Time Machine
  • John Wyndham (1955) The Chrysalids and (1951) The Day of the Triffids

And a selection of non-fiction. While I’ve only picked out one or two books for each author, everything they write is worth reading.

  • James D’Amato (2019) The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide
  • Keith Ammann (2020) Live to Tell the Tale
  • Matt Colville (2018) Strongholds and Followers
  • David M Ewalt (2013) Of Dice and Men
  • Robin D Laws: Hamlet’s Hit Points (2010) and Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering (2002)
  • Sean K Reynolds (2017) Kobold Guide to Gamemastering
  • Sean K Reynolds and Shanna Germain (2019) Consent in Gaming
  • Michael Shea (2018) Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master
  • Blake Snyder (2005) Save the Cat!

Websites

I’m always on the lookout for great new D&D blogs, so if there are any I have missed from here inadvertently, let me know! (Have I mentioned you can also subscribe to Scroll for Initiative here?)

Using these lists

I hope you enjoy going through these lists for your own D&D inspiration. In closing, here’s my guide to stealing:

  1. Steal characters. There’s nothing wrong with lifting a character and adding them to your game somehow! You can always change the gender or ancestry to make them less obvious. (And you would be in good company doing so. Indiana Jones was greatly inspired by James Bond, and Uncharted’s Nathan Drake is clearly modelled on Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft.)
  2. Steal plots. Strip the story back to its bare bones and use it as a skeleton for your own advetures. Again, no shame in this. Star Wars is clearly inspired by The Hidden Fortress, and The Magnificent Seven is a Western retelling of Seven Samurai.
  3. Steal settings. If you love Hogwarts or King’s Landing or Gondor, no one’s going to come running after you if you adapt it into your games.
  4. Mash ups. Star Wars is basically World War II in space with samurai. Borderlands is kind of like a mash-up of Diablo, Halo, and Mad Max. Pick three elements and smash them together to see what happens.

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Tomb Raider in D&D

Over the summer, I replayed through some of the latest Tomb Raider games. I’m a big fan. For me, they achieve a really nice balance between several different gameplay elements: exploration, puzzles, stealth, and, of course, combat. And these are all elements you can embrace in D&D!

In this article, I’m going to explore how you could recreate the ‘feel’ of Tomb Raider in your Dungeons & Dragons campaign. If you’re a fan of similar games – the Uncharted series or even some of the old LucasArts Indy games – much of this advice is transferable. However, this is not really a guide to recreating Lara Croft as a D&D character. But, hey: if you want to be a thief-archetype human rogue with dual hand crossbows and the noble background, I’m sure no one will mind.

A few limitations

There are a few stumbling blocks to cross with a Tomb Raider–style approach to D&D.

Firstly, Tomb Raider is a very visual video game, and many of its platformer elements – jumping, climbing, balancing, tumbling, etc – may need to be stripped back a bit for tabletop play, especially where there are multiple moving parts involved and the exploration takes place across all three dimensions at once (eg, here and here).

Secondly, D&D is a fantasy game with spells and magic, and some of the Tomb Raiderstyle puzzles are going to prove less of a challenge to groups with access fly, teleport, telekinesis, and so on. Even low-level spells like misty step and mage hand could be used imaginatively to negate many Tomb Raider puzzles.

Finally, for most of the games in the series, Lara is on her own and has to be self-sufficient, whereas D&D is fundamentally a party-based game. This last problem is arguably less significant than the others (not least because solo play is possible) but could still prove tricky for the dynamics of the game. If a puzzle requires athleticism and acrobatics, for example, and you’re playing a slow and clumsy dwarven cleric in full plate . . . you’re going to have a hard time.

Rise Of The Tomb Raider Guide: Finding The Ice Ship Optional Tomb | Attack  of the Fanboy

What are the solutions?

  • Work with the group to create characters who are better suited for the game style you have in mind. If players are happy to eschew magic and make their own versions of Lara (or Nate or Indy come to that), then it could be a very fun diversion from traditional D&D!
  • Tone down the physical aspect of the puzzles, and focus instead on puzzles that are more cerebral. Tomb Raider puzzles often involve pushing objects around, moving around a 3D map, timing a jump just right . . . as a DM, this can all be wearisome to describe without a decent visual aid to help you. Consider reducing the movement to simple skill checks and make the puzzle itself the interesting part.
  • Up the ante and give the characters multiple threats to deal with at once. Puzzles are harder to solve when enemies are trying to kill you, and the range of threats on offer will give all the players in the party something to focus on.
  • Very occasionally, use your DM powers to negate some of the party’s powers. In Tomb of Annihilation and Dungeon of the Mad Mage, for instance, many divination and teleportation spells don’t function normally. Be careful not to overuse this, though, as it can be frustrating for a player to have their character ‘nerfed’ like this.

The world of Tomb Raider

By default, D&D settings are quasi-medieval fantasy. Gun-toting Lara Croft, on the other hand, is fundamentally modern. So what makes a D&D world feel like Tomb Raider?

  • Myths and legends are real. So far, the Tomb Raider series has given us, among other things: Atlantis; Area 51; the Egyptian god Set; Excalibur; Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir; the Dragon’s Triangle; Kitezh; Baba Yaga; Paititi. Whatever the lore of your world, these people, items, and places need to be central to the story.
  • Powerful enemy organizations. Whether it’s Natla Technologies, the Fiamma Nera, R.X.Tech, or Trinity, your world needs some kind of well-outfitted international hit mob. In Faerûn, this could be the Red Wizards or the Zhentarim; in Eberron, the Order of the Emerald Claw or the Aurum would be a good fit. Make sure the leader is misguided and power-hungry
  • Ancient wonders. In Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Mike Shea encourages us to make locations fantastic using age and size. Never has this been more relevant.

Puzzles and exploration

Tomb of the Nine Gods | Forgotten Realms Wiki | Fandom

Wizards of the Coast

Tomb Raider has never been just an action game, and if it were a D&D game, exploration would be the most important of the three pillars. How, then, can we capture the excitement of exploring a new tomb and solving ancient puzzles?

  • Exploration is all about pathfinding. Make the journey as exciting as the destination. Give players meaningful choices and intriguing obstacles to overcome.
  • Go big on your descriptions. As alluded to above, make your locations big, old, and wondrous. Make your players gasp with awe, and make sure it keeps getting cooler and cooler. A zigguarat in the desert is one thing, but having a lost city beneath it is even cooler.
  • Don’t overthink the realism of it. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara finds a lost Byzantine ship preserved in a glacial cavern. Who cares how it got there? D&D is a world of fantasy. If something seems a bit crazy and fantastical, you’re doing it right. Just say a wizard did it.
  • Make the environment interactive. Water, mud, lava, natural gas, pits, chasms, machinery, ropes: whatever it is, make your locations a playground. I have written about battlefield environments here. Don’t be afraid to change or even destroy your adventurers’ surroundings. at some point in the reboot series, Lara will always have to escape a tomb that is falling apart. It might be a cliché, but it’s fun: embrace it.
  • Steal puzzles from everywhere. Stories, films, video games, subreddits, old modules: don’t be afraid to take inspiration for your puzzles from a variety of sources. Tomb of Annihilation has some particularly good puzzles, both in Omu and within the eponymous tomb itself. Players won’t necessarily notice if you reflavour the details in some way. Heck, steal from the Tomb Raider games themselves!
  • The natural world can be Lara’s playground, too. How will your D&D characters survive in frozen mountains? Desert sands? The deepest jungles? This is more a feature of the rebooted series from 2013 onwards, but it’s a welcome addition to the game. Give your players scenarios where they lose everything and have to hunt for resources to survive.
  • Make rewards feel special and part of the game’s lore. Like Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake, Lara Croft is an archaeologist who prizes historical artefacts. Consider portioning off your treasure in small parcels, and go big on your descriptions to make them feel special. Let the players learn about the world and its stories through the items they find on their travels.

Combat

Lara Croft Fights a Bear in Rise of the Tomb Raider - YouTube

Gunfights seem to have become a bigger part of the Tomb Raider series over time, especially since the 2013 reboot, but it’s clearly an element that many fans of the series are OK with. Tomb Raider is still not a first-person shooter, though, and combat in the game comes with its own particular flavour.

  • Aim for waves of enemies over big solo boss fights. Actually, this is good advice for 5th edition D&D in general. More than ten can start to get a bit unwieldy, so start with, say, five or six enemies, and add more and more as the battle goes on.
  • Make boss fights a puzzle in their own right. In the Tomb Raider games, a boss is rarely just a bag of hit points. There needs to be some kind of vulnerability that the characters can exploit: a weakness or ‘trick’ that will bring the enemy down.
  • Give players the chance to see enemies get tougher as they level up. In the rebooted Tomb Raider series, Lara starts off against lightly armoured opponents, wolves, and the like, before progressing to better equiped soldiers and, ultimately, supernatural threats. D&D is good at simulating this anyway, but it bears mentioning. Guards (CR ⅛) are replace by veterans (CR 3) who are replaced by barbed devils, mezzoloths, or wraiths (CR 5).
  • Give players the chance to avoid combat. Sometimes Lara doesn’t have a choice, and the challenge is surviving wave after wave of enemies. But often, with a bit of planning and stealth, there’s an alternative route. Let players choose their own path.

A Tomb Raider–style game might be a fun one-shot or it could form the basis for a whole campaign. Give it a try!

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