If you've followed this blog at all, you'll have seen that I've posted some entries featuring Top Ten Movies to Inspire Your TTRPG Game Night, or Top Ten Video Games, or Top Five Book Series or even Top Ten Television Series and that was no coincidence. As a "Forever GM/DM" I'm constantly pushed to create great content for my players. Sure, there are modules out there to use and modify such as The Lost Mines of Phandelver (D&D), which is in my mind a near-perfect beginning adventure for players, but what happens when you've done all the modules and you're having a brain cramp trying to figure out how to make your next homebrew world or adventure stand out? My advice is to look to popular culture to find stuff you can use.
Listen - you don't have to take any shame in mining pop culture for things you can use in your games. Most creators of shows or movies or other art forms are inspired by other works of art, and it should be no different for you and your homebrew campaign or even if you're adding a little spice to an existing published world or setting. You're not using it for monetary benefit, and you'll be creating a collaborative story with the material for friends. Embrace borrowing, because it can be your friend if you're a busy GM/DM who has already run a lot of games. Here's my advice for how you can make it work.
DON'T MAKE IT TOO OBVIOUS
Chances are, your players are just about as nerdy as you are so if you introduce a lightsaber into your game, even with a different name - they're going to know what it is. What you want to do is reskin anything you put into your world. For example, if you're styling your BBEG after Thulsa Doom from Conan the Barbarian, certainly don't use the same name and try to come up with a different physical appearance. With just those few changes, even if you use the shapechanging into a serpent, they shouldn't be immediately drawing comparisons to Thulsa Doom. If they are, it means you probably haven't spent enough time reskinning your BBEG. The key idea is that your players have fun, not that you're a creative genius.
GIVE IT YOUR OWN FLAVOR
Just like using someone else's recipe to create a meal, you're going to want to add your own slant to it, your own original flavor that improves upon it in some way. For example, let's say using the previous example that we've reskinned Thulsa Doom. Using our Thulsa Doom template, we'll just say I've changed him to a her, and her name is now Bronwen Farlight. She is a powerful warlock, so you can give her spells like Power Word Stun (similar to a spell Thulsa Doom used on Conan in the movies) and you don't have to stick with the snake theme, either. You can do something else to give it your own touch. Maybe instead of being the head of a cult of snakes, she worships her patron who is a fiery demon. In that case, you can give her and all of her acolytes fire-based spells. Maybe she has a cadre of wizards under her command who all use fire spells. The choice is yours, and this is just an example. The idea is that you're basically using Thulsa Doom (or whatever else it is that you're borrowing from) as inspiration or a template and not that you're trying to copy it exactly.
HAVE FUN WITH IT
The key thing is to have fun with all of this stuff. Your players most likely aren't critiquing your worldbuilding skills so long as they're having fun and creating memories at the table. If you want to eventually let your players know that you lifted things, you can but it's not really necessary. Don't be too self-conscious. You're not writing a book, you're running a game. Don't try to force yourself into making an NPC like Thulsa Doom if that character or a similar character wouldn't fit in your game world. Only you know the flavor of your homebrew.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on mining pop culture for TTRPG content. Hopefully it leads to some breakthroughs at the game table. What movie character do you think would fit really well into a TTRPG? Let us know in the comments! - Joe