Learning from the MCU to make your game epic

I’m probably the wrong person to write this because – whisper it – I don’t really like Marvel films. But you don’t have to love Marvel to appreciate how wildly popular they are. Since 2007, Marvel Studios have produced more than 30 films, and the MCU is now the highest-grossing film franchise of all time – grossing more than the Star Wars, Harry Potter, and James Bond films combined, not adjusting for inflation. But what does this have to do with D&D?

A few months ago, Matt Colville posted a YouTube video titled ‘What are dungeons for?’ He begins with a really interesting provocation: what, if anything, is Dungeons & Dragons about?

It’s a great video, well worth watching in its entirety. Colville compares 5e with old school D&D – the game from the 70s and 80s – and concludes that 5th edition isn’t really ‘about’ anything. Not in its mechanics and game design at least. It used to be a dungeon crawler (hence the inclusion of things like 10-ft poles and mirrors in the equipment list), but it isn’t any more.

I see his point. For me, if D&D is ‘about’ anything, it is about being in a group of heroes, fighting monsters, and taking your character from 1st level (apprentice adventurer) to 20th level (more or less a demigod). That’s not to say that’s only what D&D is, can be, or should be, or that D&D is the best game system for it – but it’s probably the default for most people. And suddenly, the MCU looks very relevant to what we are trying to achieve.

In this article, then, I want to consider what people love about the MCU and how we can unleash a bit of its magic into our D&D games.

A vast world

The MCU is huge, drawing as it does from decades of material in comics and elsewhere. Its world is so many different locations – not just real-life places like New York and London, but fantastical places like Wakanda, Asgard, and the Quantum World. And it goes beyond Earth, of course!

How to do it in D&D:

Epic storylines

Marvel releases its films in ‘Phases’: their stories are interconnected and build on each other, creating a pleasing sense of continuity and long-term planning. This is hard to do in a tabletop game because the story is really in the players’ hands, not yours, but there are a few tricks up your sleeve to pull off a similar impression.

How to do it in D&D:

  • Reuse details as call backs and crossovers to create the illusion of foreshadowing – keep notes
  • Plan loosely; be ready to improvise
  • Draw on player backstories
  • Think through the eyes of your villains
  • If in doubt, shake up the action like Raymond Chandler: in comes a guy with a gun.
  • Don’t railroad – that’s not the answer

Diversity and inclusion

While there have perhaps been occasional lapses along the way (Black Widow being hypersexualized, Asian characters being portrayed by white actors) the MCU has generally taken great strides towards becoming a diverse and inclusive franchise, with characters such as Black Panther and Captain Marvel. This has implications for D&D and other fantasy roleplaying games as, historically, they have been dominated by straight white men. By making an effort to diversify our characters, we can create a richer and more welcoming game world.

How to do it in D&D:

  • Try to include characters who are LGBT+, non-white, and who have disabilities
  • Make an effort to avoid stereotypes and harmful tropes
  • Use ‘pause for a minute’ and similar tools to ensure everyone feels safe at the table


Despite its high stakes and grand storylines, the MCU is also very self-aware and genre conscious, and fully embraces one-liners, running gags, callbacks, and situational comedy. Consider Star-Lord’s dance routine at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy, or ‘I am Groot’. I have written elsewhere about how to include humour in D&D, and frankly, you often don’t need to force it – comedy will happen on its own! But embrace it. It’s often in the moments of great silliness that we find the greatest profundity.

How to do it in D&D:   

  • Embrace absurd situations!
  • Use funny voices!
  • Poke fun at the conventions of the game

Themes that resonate

Speaking of profundity, consider some of the big issues that the MCU has grappled with: power (Avengers: Age of Ultron), responsibility (Spiderman), family (Thor and Loki), redemption (Tony Stark). These are big, heavy, fundamental topics – fundamental aspects of what it means to be human – and they can be tackled in a thought-provoking and meaningful way. It’s not just action, action, action.

How to do it in D&D:

  • Consider the themes that matter to your players (maybe even ask them)
  • Use quests and NPCs to explore these themes
  • Set up moral dilemmas
  • Create complex and nuanced characters – particularly villains (see below)

Epic action

Having said that it’s not all about action, it must be said: action is the lifeblood of the series. Why does it do it so well? Sometimes, it’s just the sheer visual spectacle of larger-than-life battles. Sometimes, the fight scenes are hilarious (see humour, above). And sometimes, the fight scenes are important emotional moments and a form of storytelling in their own right. Don’t overlook them.

How to do it in D&D:


Importance of music

My brother suggested this one to me, and he’s dead right. One of the reasons the MCU is so popular is because of the way it uses music. The soundtrack can set the tone, establish a character, build suspense, or create emotional impact. Consider the use of classic rock in Guardians of the Galaxy or the epic power of the Avengers theme.

How to do it in D&D:

  • Play music at your sessions!
  • Borrow from your favourite sources
  • Plan your music: think about the mood your want to create
  • Maybe ask your players for character themes!

Character development

The MCU is huge, and there is plenty of space for characters to grow, which in turn gives us a real sense of investment in the world and attachment to its protagonists. Every hero has an origin story, and as they go from film to film, we see how they build up relationships with others and make difficult decisions. We can do all of these things in our D&D games! Think about how Tony Stark starts as narcissistic billionaire but is driven to become more selfless and empathetic. Or Thor: a brash, arrogant prince who is forced to confront his own vulnerabilities, which makes him humbler and more thoughtful over time.

How to do it in D&D:

  • Players: give some thought to your backstory!
  • Alignment is a blunt implement – your character’s flaws, motivations, and bonds are much more interesting
  • Use a session zero to weave connections to other characters
  • DMs: give players meaningful choices and don’t railroad!
  • Listen to your players and use their ideas in your story
  • Use NPCs to challenge their perspectives (see below)

Memorable villains

Finally, and in a similar vein, consider some of the best villains of the MCU like Loki and Thanos. They are complex, charismatic, and personally connected to the heroes, and their actions have far-reaching consequences that matter. A movie is only as good as its baddy! We can steal from this for our own games.

How to do it in D&D:

  • Give your villains backstories, too
  • Connect them to the player characters
  • Get into your villains’ heads: why do they do what they do?
  • A tip from Mike Shea: build your villains like pro-wrestlers! Don’t go too subtle . . .
  • Create a genuine threat: how much harm can they do?

What have I missed? Let me know in the comments below.

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