Great DM's Steal Relentlessly

“Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.“

I use to think that stealing was wrong. In many cases it is, but when we are talking in the context of literary forms or writer’s ideas, stealing is great! I have been trying to write completely original Dungeon and Dragons campaigns for years and for a long time the word “original” meant that stealing was bad. So a lot of times my campaigns would flop and end early within just a few months. I believe this was mainly because I just could not create quality content fast enough, and for D&D that is not good. Over the past few years, I have developed more relaxed feelings around stealing other people's story ideas. This has really come to the forefront of my brain-mass as of late, as I am trying to write chapter outlines for Roll with Advantage Season Two.

Before we really start to get into it here, I would like to be absolutely clear and note that this topic is about the stealing writer’s ideas, not about stealing how the writer conveys those ideas. There is a distinct difference between those two concepts and I will lay that out as we continue through this post.

Stealing from the greats

Let’s first talk about what I think “stealing an idea” means. When I steal ideas from writers, I really try to boil their concept down to a core concept. This is like reverse engineering the story to find it’s elevator pitch. So, if we study Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, we notice that the core concept is that there are two factions in a bloody feud and there are people from each faction that can overcome this feud to love each other. That is the basics. But wait! Have we not seen that core concept in other places? The answer is “Absolutely”! This core concept is stolen so heavily that it has become a very common conflict in many forms of storytelling, whether it be books, articles, video games or D&D campaigns. This isn’t stealing to me, using the core concept in another story and writing it out in your own words. Flesh the concept out, build new and interesting scenery and characters. When you are done, your idea will be something very different from what you stole from, but they will be rooted in similar concepts, sort of like stories that are cousins.

The best places to steal these ideas for your own brain’s digesting is in media that you enjoy or inspires you, places like books, poetry, movies, music, comics. Really this stuff can pop up at any time, so it is important to try and consume media in order to help keep your creative well full.

Three sources to get you started

  • The easiest and already mentioned one is Romeo and Juliet. Really, most of Shakespeare's work is a great place to steal core ideas from. You can find great core ideas for Tragedy, Irony, and Romance from his stories. The trick is dissecting them and finding that little story kernel.
  • Marvel Comics are by far some of the best sources that I mine ideas from. How they build story arcs are not just inspirational but also easy to analyze. These are great for campaigns as you are usually spanning more than one session. I highly suggest the Infinity War or Civil War story arcs as they have been very kind to me in the past.
  • Anything R.A. Salvatore. It is easy to transition his work to D&D concepts because most of it is based in Faerûn but he sets up fantastic conflicts, characters, and story arcs in his books. He has inspired me many of times on some of the simplest things in his books, that have become large portions of campaigns.

I utilize sources like these and many others as a way to help get me thinking about what I want to do and accomplish with my campaigns. These ideas can be themes, character types, plots, plot hooks or anything of that sort of nature. Once you have these then I build upon them, tie them in, or if I love it enough I try for fit it in somewhere. The key here, and I can’t stress this enough, is you need to boil these concepts down as far as possible. Otherwise, you run the risk of your campaign feeling derivative. Boil it down and then build upon it with your own ideas.

The proof is in the pudding

Writers copying other writer's ideas, themes, characters, and settings is an extremely common occurrence. For instance, Disney’s The Lion King is a strong adaptation of Hamlet or 10 Things I Hate About You is pretty much The Taming of the Shrew. These are blatant adaptations, but you can see subtle nods here and there in all sorts of stories. The point is that this is something that you should utilize as a tool in your writer’s toolbox. Use these elements to build up your story and campaign settings and provide an environment that players want to play in.

The Past and Present

Something that I have loved since I was a kid is history, and have always been in love with lore, storytelling, and how history changes over time. Something to remember is that a lot of the best stories told are much like lies, there is always a seed of truth somewhere in them. What I mean by this is that the best story is one that is relatable on some level. Relatable levels will vary with your audience, so cater to your players, some examples could be on an emotional, political, or religious level. This can all be pulled from current events as well as historic events. Maybe in your campaign, there is a tyrannical ruler the leads a massive war campaign across a continent, sort of like Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great. We live in a story rich environment that is always changing, and if you are so inclined to look hard enough you will find something that will give you campaign an awe-factor that your players will really enjoy.

That is where I am going to leave it for this week. As always, thank you so much for stopping in and reading. Feel free to comment, I love to read constructive feedback and love discussing topics like these. Check back in next week to see what else I have on my mind or decide to analyze. Remember to follow The DM’s Table on Facebook or on Twitter @dmstable for updates and to let me know what is on your mind, or what you might want to read about. Also, go check out Roll with Advantage! It is a Dungeons and Dragons podcast that releases every Monday by 5 pm Eastern Time. We play, laugh, and have a good time playing a game we all love. Thank you for reading and if you enjoy these articles feel free to donate, using the button below, to the website to help keep it up and running!

― The DM