It commonly comes up: I need something here. A name, a plot hook, a background event that ties my character in to the campaign. Many of us like the idea of taking the time to write a deep story, with complex characters, and compelling plot twists. Some of us don't have that kind of time.
Take me, for example. As one who had been both a player and a dungeon master at times, I love an intriguing story. I, however, don't have that kind of time. So, what does one do?
In a word: Steal. This may rock the sensibilities of your average storytelling type, but hear me out. Some of the greatest stories we hold near and dear to our geeky little hearts are stolen wholesale. Don't believe me? Watch "The 7 Samurai" sometime, and take note of all the angles used in "Star Wars". After that, the list goes on (and I’ll leave the research up to you, the reader): “Star Trek”, “Lord of the Rings”, “Conan”, “Firefly”, etc.
This has applications for both players and DMs.
This is open season. Many DMs like their players to have a good story for their characters, and some players like to have a character that they can call their own. So, why not steal a story (or parts of a story) to make your character’s history more interesting?
You have lived on a farm your whole life. You never knew your parents, and were raised by another family member. Your life was turned upside-down when you receive an item from an absent family member. Since receiving it, you have begun to quest far and wide.
So, what well-known hero’s history is this? Luke Skywalker? Frodo Baggins? Superman? Before you answer, it was all three. Subtle changes here and there, and the great-hero-from-humble-beginnings hook is tailor made.
One of my most successful 3.5 characters was a half-orc barbarian with the name Bossk, clearly stolen from the bounty hunter in “Star Wars”. Another in my group played a sorcerer lifted entirely from the Green Lantern. As long as your characters are not boring because everybody knows what they’ll do before they do it, you’ve got a good concept. Use it.
DMs have to be a little more careful. The occasional stolen plot device is ok, but forcing your players to relive “The Wrath of Khan” is no fun for anyone. If your players catch on, you can expect that they will pick apart your story (not that they won’t anyway), and find their way to your endgame before the end of the first encounter. Everyone loses.
Keep in mind, though, that many great things have happened in stories. I read one published adventure that started in a royal throne room. After a dialog with the king and his advisor, the PCs are supposed to break the king free from mind control imposed by the advisor. Once that happens, a hole opens in the floor, and the PCs are confronted by a crazed monster. Deftly stolen from both “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars”, and made into a very memorable encounter.
Just remember, it’s a game of great adventure and fun. Why work hard on a character back-story when someone else already did all the hard work? I say, steal. Steal, and be proud of yourself. Your characters, plotlines, and story arcs will thank you.