Admittedly, I’ve been away from the boundless realms of graphic novel and comic books. Whether it’s because I’m hesitant to try new series or because money is always tight, I haven’t really gone too deep into comic books, especially nowadays. Now, I’ve caught up on a few series and read many of them after the fact, but I’ve never really gotten active within any fandoms… unless a handful of defunct and finished web-comics count for anything, that is. That said, I’ve been slowly been brought back into the fold thanks to Disney and Marvel teaming up for the relatively recent series of films that have been mostly pretty damn good. Save for a few sub-par installations, the films that have been released (sometimes more than) once a year have been fantastic. At the best, an excellent journey of action and heroism… and at worst? A good way to spend an evening, none the less.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has allowed theater goers to observe all parts of the expansive realms of Marvel; past, present and future. We’ve had stories jam packed with all sorts of adventure… and all sorts of adventure inspiration. These are mostly big stories full of drama and conflict, the righteous and the malicious, worlds thrown out of balance due to someone’s corrupt plans; worlds in need of great heroes, where said heroes rise up to the occasion. On top of that, they have a variety of moods and styles to them. The stories can range from world threatening menaces to stories about a struggling family to a conspiracy that seeks to intertwine itself with the very companies and governments we associate with. All around, there’s more than enough to work with. With that, let’s take a brief look at taking from MCU to enhance and inspire your games.
Editorial Note: Wait, what is this? Well, I wanted to shake things up a little. Considering it’s game related, I posted it here rather than on the original review blog. But, don’t be alarmed, I’m still going to produce as much gaming content as I can. But, I’m hoping this article will still be useful for you, at least to spark some ideas.
I was originally planning another theme, but Doctor Strange (and the rumors regarding Wizards of the Coast’s next release) revitalized my planar/multiverse theme! So, a bit off the cuff, but whatever! In fact, this article is very off the cuff and not really planned at all. Also, Marvel did not pay me to write this. I wanted to write this. I might just like the Marvel movies… a lot. Also, the following focuses more on the recent movies, for the most part. None the less, enjoy.
Build a Hero
For starters, many players might take literal inspiration and want to build character concepts inspired by the awesome heroes from Marvel’s series. Who wouldn’t want to take from the brute rage of The Hulk, the deadly stealth of Black Widow, the ranged prowess of Hawkeye or divine wrath of Thor… to name a few. While directly taking from a resource might clash with a campaign, we all sample form all sorts of fonts of inspiration when we create a character. I don’t just recommend it, I encourage it. Anything to help flesh out a character. Our own experiences and interactions with the world around us only help to flesh out our fictional creations, after all. This includes interactions with other work. Art creates art, as some say. Now, in a more relaxed game that allows players to test certain builds and play out something akin to their favorite hero, it’s all good to go all out and try what they love. For example, the many contributors at the Tribality website have supplied a handful of examples of doing exactly that.
Eclectic Crazies Causing Trouble
When it comes to D&D parties, they’re often a rag-tag motley crew that’s held together by plot and all sorts of contrivances in the name of a fun game. Going back to the first part of the post, the Avengers has a team set up that fits a balanced party. You have the holy channeler, the rogue, the ranger, the barbarian, the righteous knight. While lacking a mage type (until the sequel), we have a pretty solid party to work with. Plus, they fight against a plot straight out of many of 5E’s adventure paths. Of course, you get a more oddball set up. Guardians of the Galaxy embodies this to the core. Let’s see, we have a half-celestial with a knack for one-liners and smooth moves, a beastman with compensation-guns galore, a tree man who speaks a language most don’t understand, a hulking warrior who understands everything literally and a beautiful but deadly assassin. And, much like a mismatched party, the team here has a lot of problems of seeing eye to eye. At multiple points of the movie, things fall apart and they try to split. And even when things work out, they’re not exactly good guys. They fit the classic D&D murder-hobo vibe… and it just so happens that they end up doing good along the way and learn a valuable lesson. And even then, the galaxy is a big place to visit… chock full of things far stranger than them.
The Rise to Heroism
Heroes have to start somewhere and superhero cinema REAAAALLLLY loves their origin stories. In fact, whenever a new company gets rights to a superhero, we have a new one. Well, good thing Spidey seems to be done with them, eh? But seriously, there’s nothing wrong with seeing a hero get to the awesome point where they are now. Early level D&D adventures tend to be just that. It’s the hero getting their bearings in the world and on their abilities; starting to make a name for themselves. Considering this is an ultra trope, listing examples within superhero cinema in detail, let alone Marvel, would just be a tad tedious. Spiderman and his radioactive bite, Antman’s compassion for a splintered family and desire to stabilize his life, Captain America going from all-american war hero to displaced survivor, etc. These set the foundations for the character and help set us up for awesome stories in the future. Much like in D&D, where returning characters have a chance to develop further and face all sorts of new adventures and adversaries.
World (and Universe) Building.
The Realms of Marvel are vast and ever reaching. The world is not just filled with heroes, but complex societies exactly like our own. Granted, most realities are pretty much like the ones we live in. But, things go far deeper than that. There are other realities and other forces at work. There are myths for creation and the apocalypse. There are societies outside of the naked eye that operate things from their own safe havens. The countless worlds and content of Marvel in the cinematic universe is enough to fill lists upon lists alone. Conflicts of the past haunting the present, shady companies and government organizations or even normal day to day life of people interacting with the world of the super-heroic. This sort of every day world can help to bring the space between adventures to life, even if it’s just to spot the cameo of that one older fellow with the mustache.
And of course, looking at a greater scale and bigger picture; we have vast ultra powers that can snuff out life or create it in a snap. Powers of the Celestials and Galactus are far greater than most can imagine. Even in death, these cosmic powers still hold sway and influence. While this concept is touched upon in different levels in the MCU, this is most prevalent in the Infinity Stones. These artifacts hold great power that is often beyond the full understanding of mortals. In fact, the slow introduction of all of them is leading up to a massive cinematic event in the near future! Now, D&D is no stranger to all powerful beings; literal Gods, high planar creatures, even supremely powerful creatures native to the material realm. Such beings could conspire to arrange a plot that would shake the entirety of reality. And like the Infinity Stones, artifacts and legendary items could be macguffins in an overarching epic story. By all means, many of the Wizards of the Coast modules for D&D 5E already have this formula nailed down.
Many Realms, Many Possibilities.
Expanding upon the above, let’s not just look at universe… but countless realities and possibilities. In terms of an all encompassing multiverse where anything is possible, D&D totes one setting above all to fit that for just about any game. I’m talking about the Planescape campaign setting. Sure, I’ve prattled on about it before, but it’s easy to take from Marvel’s model for the multiverse and translate it to games like Planescape itself. Marvel’s most recent movie release, Doctor Strange provides tons of inspiration for the realms of D&D; extra dimensional planes, demiplanes, conflicting orders and philosophies of sorcery and magic, understanding energies, taboo rituals, forces of life/death/time manifesting in realms of their own, the powers of belief shaping reality… all of that is well at home in Planescape. Something could be said about strange planar forces and otherworlds as well. The Mirror Zone versions of reality are exactly what I’d imagine shaping the plane of Limbo to be like, or perhaps a literal version of shaping reality. The functionality of belief plays into Strange tapping into supernatural forces in his body to help restore his body and alter the cosmos around him in the name of justice. In the end, his convictions reshape the entire order as a whole, creating new divides while restoring some order.
One can’t bring up multiverse without bringing up Thor. Thor is a great hero from the Realm of Asgard, home of Norse Gods. In the first film, the stranded alien myth is changed up as the overlapping cosmologies of our realm and Yggdrasil clash. The forces of Thor and Loki clash over our realm, with him striking back even harder in The Avengers… where he strikes a planar bargain that would give warlocks a run for their money. In The Dark World, the forces of multiple realities clash even harder. Planar divides and portals are thrown into flux as the realms of the World Tree are sent into chaos. Old battle wounds with the Frost Giants are reopened as conflict goes from just one realm to the encompassing multiverse. It’s the makings of a fun plane-hopping adventure!
If there’s one common trope between both comic books and the realms of D&D, it’s the crossover. Granted, who doesn’t love a good crossover story. Heroes from two worlds unite against an overarching evil! Even Pathfinder is getting in on the idea, by uniting classic heroes from fiction with iconic heroes from Golarion! A fascinating idea, if I do say so myself! In terms of crossover and the expanded universe, Marvel already has fun with this. Each movie has some level of cameo; whether it’s a hero making a brief stop or joining the fight or the possibility that Stan Lee is actually The Watcher all along. Group hero stories like The Avengers unite all of these stories together, pitting them against all sorts of forces affecting all of them, as well as the realms they’re from. And by all means, crossover is not uncommon in D&D. The plot of the first Avengers could easily be an adventure, a deific wizard uses pact with a cosmic evil to unleash a flood of strange monsters on the world and a group of different heroes must unite to oppose them. While some crossovers focus on specific characters; like the first Avengers and politics of Asgard and the second Avengers and the follies of Stark Industries; it still forces a diverse team to approach a large issue from different perspectives and outlooks.
Multiple settings and concepts unite D&D settings; Spelljammer, Planescape, The World Serpent Inn, Blackmoor and the Demiplane of Dread (Ravenloft). Indeed, D&D has had its fair share of crossover in fiction. The settings have done this a lot too. In older editions, the City of Sigil has a habit of holding both inhabitants and relics from across many realms. In fact, at least one of the faction leaders originates from a popular setting or two. In the case of Ravenloft, you have domains originating from Abeir-Toril, Athas, Oerth and then some! The creators of Dragonlance were far from amused when Lord Soth was ported into the setting as well, proving that crossovers don’t always work out for the best. Among the most famous is Ed Greenwood’s contributions to Dragon Magazine with the articles called “The Wizards Three.” More or less, Greenwood chronicles discussions made by Elminster from the Forgotten Realms, Mordenkainen from Greyhawk and Dalamar from Dragonlance as they meet in Greenwood’s house.
Crossing Genre, Mashing Ideas.
On top of that, Marvel is known for crossing elements and motifs from different genres. We have magic and science clashing and even forming together. Thor’s magic is a kind of science, at least in his mind. In Doctor Strange, the powers of belief can augment the science of our world. D&D is by all means no stranger to science-fantasy, as I’ve rambled about in the past. Downed space ships, crossover with Gamma World (whether a module or just a brief reference), alien cults unleashing mutant frog legions, extraplanar robotic enemies called The Sheens invading multiple realities, the list goes on!
In fact, Marvel has dabbled with Heroic Horror numerous times too; The Midnight Sons, Morbius, Werewolf by Night, etc… Dark horror-tinged heroes are by all means no stranger to the genre; just look at the New 52 era of DC and their All-Star Western and Animal Man reboots. Even Batman got a new horror-fueled antagonist through The Court of Owls. Marvel has made their own assortment of nasties as well, including the joke-turned-galactic-threat known as The Marvel Zombies. Now, these horrific heroes and villains can be sampled for much within D&D as well. In fact, both TSR and Wizards have long since covered those bases. Whether it’s the Ravenloft Campaign Setting for AD&D, Heroes of Horror for 3rd Edition or scattered rules and concepts for 5th edition; it’s more than possible to fight back against the darkness… or sample its power to turn the tides against your foes.
Now, love the prospect of having a friend named Bob in Hydra? Well, you might have to wait a while for that to pay off in the cinematic universe. However, the universe is no stranger to intrigue and mystery. Leading up to Captain America: Winter Soldier, various multi-media had all sorts of connections with the dastardly organization known as Hydra, a New World Order faction bent on global control. By all means, one can take from Hydra for a sinister shadow organization seeking to take over not just the world, but perhaps all of reality as we know it. There’s far too much shadowy evil to sample from when it comes to Hydra.
While all of those points were pretty brief, I hope I’ve at least instilled some interest in the realms of Marvel, even though I focused on the movie universe for the most part. It’s still proof that one can find inspiration from almost anywhere, even sources that might be a tad less conventional. In addition for this to be an excuse to write about Marvel movies without being a full blown review, I wanted to inspire some others seek out potential resources for fresh and inspired new games. While it’s possible that there are no more truly “new” ideas, it’s all about how you build on what has come before and what sort of spin you give on something. All of these sights and sounds we come across can be made into something truly unique and engaging. Thanks for reading my ramblings and hopefully you’re inspired to grab some inspiration next time you check out something cool, whether or not it’s MCU.
IMAGE CREDITS: All images belong to Marvel Studios, Disney Studios and other production companies.