Top Ten Fantasy Television Shows to Inspire Your Game Nights
Sometimes, when you get into a rut creatively as a GM or DM, or even as a player, it can be useful to revisit some movies or books or games in order to get those wheels in your brain spinning. However, there's another avenue you may not have thought to go down in order to get some high fantasy inspiration, and that's with television shows and miniseries. Here are some new and old television shows you can still find out there to watch that may give you ideas to jazz up your own homebrew worlds or even just to come at your games in a different way.
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SHADOW AND BONE Netflix 2021-Present
This show is almost more of an honorable mention in my eyes but has just enough fantasy elements to be included on this list. Most of the other entries here are considered "high fantasy" but this show has almost more of a steampunk sort of vibe, just with a lot of magic in addition to gunpowder and airships. Based on the book series by author Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone is set around a Russian-inspired land called The Kingdom of Ravka. The story follows a young soldier named Alina Starkov who uncovers a power that might save her best friend and unite her country. GMs/DMs and even players will find a lot here, but especially those people who are running their own homebrew campaigns. Airships, certain characters classes, and even spells could be mined from this show. However, if you're a player you'll find all sorts of interesting character traits to use for your own characters.
THE WHEEL OF TIME Amazon Prime Video 2021-Present
The Wheel of Time is based on a very popular book series by author Robert Jordan, so naturally when things started to not line up exactly with the books, some fans got a little upset. However, even though it doesn't follow the books explicitly - that makes it even easier to mine content for your homebrew campaigns, especially if your players may have already read the Wheel of Time books on their own. The production quality is kind of on the low side, sometimes being compared to shows like The Legend of the Seeker instead of more modern shows like The Witcher or Game of Thrones, but I think it's mostly because everyone knows how much money Amazon makes and how amazing they could make the show look if they really wanted to. Still, the show is fairly enjoyable if you look at it like its own thing and not as an extension of the books, and the show features lots of characters who all seem to be fairly intelligent - so lots of fodder for NPCs or even Player Characters.
MERLIN Amazon Prime Video/Netflix/Crackle/Tubi TV/The Roku Channel/Google Play 2008-2012
Merlin feels like the television show equivalent of eating a nice warm bowl of oatmeal on a cold day. It's a very lighthearted show, and it sometimes tends to veer into bad CGI territory (as most shows from this era do), but it has a certain quaint beauty to it that renders it lovingly a product of its time rather than being too cringe. Merlin is episodic and focuses on the character relationships between the titular character and his companions, and as such it's a good reference for DMs/GMs to set the tone for their own campaigns if they want to run one slightly lighthearted themselves. It's based very loosely on Arthurian Legend. The character dynamics in the show are truly enjoyable, so pay attention to how those unfold over time. Worst case scenario that you don't find anything to mine? It's still worth watching a few episodes to get yourself into TTRPG mode.
LEGEND OF THE SEEKER Amazon Prime Video/Vudu/Google Play/ABC 2008-2010
Based on The Sword of Truth novels by Terry Goodkind and directed by Sam Raimi - this show is almost exactly what you'd expect if you have ever seen anything by Raimi at all. The story in the show is almost entirely different than the books (no surprise) and focuses on a "Seeker of Truth" (a wielder of the Sword of Truth), a Confessor (an order of women with great magical powers), a Wizard, and a Mord-Sith (elite group of women warriors). Seekers, Confessors, and Mord-Siths make great options for mining for character classes or sub-classes or possibly even races or sub-races. If you like Raimi's projects, this is certainly one you should check out although it stopped after just two seasons. Still, you'd likely only need an episode or two to get yourself amped up for your TTRPG game night. PS - the Sword of Truth would make a really neat magic item template in your games.
ROBIN HOOD Hulu/Amazon Prime Video 2006-2009
Though this show from 2006 is one of the more low-key entries on this list, based on the traditional stories of English folk hero Robin Hood, it's still one of my personal favorites here. It lasted just three seasons, but the show itself was pretty entertaining. Robin Hood was shot in HD, so the images usually appear pretty crisp and seem to hold up over time. The characters are likable in most cases, and since it's Robin Hood the focus is less on magic and more on personal martial ability and bravery, which is nice. The only thing bad I could say about it is sort of the flip-flopping of the tone from episode to episode. It works well for shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer but not so much for this show - which most of the time strikes the right tone, at least in my opinion. It's just the times it doesn't that you really notice. Still, the real draw here is the way in which you can still have adventures in a medieval setting but not be bogged down by magic or mythical creatures or things like that. Any player of martial characters like rangers or fighters would do well to pay attention to the characters in this show to borrow archetypes from - and DMs/GMs should have no problem finding inspiration for their own homebrew adventures or game worlds.
THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES Amazon Prime Video/Vudu/Google Play 2016-2017
The Sword of Shannara trilogy by Terry Brooks is an amazing series and goes on to become even better (because The Sword of Shannara itself is very derivative of Lord of the Rings) as it moves away from the core trilogy. This show takes elements from The Elfstones of Shannara, but it doesn't follow the book too closely, as is the case with most adaptations. The Elfstones of Shannara is my favorite book in the core trilogy, but even I had issue with some of the direction the show took although it was cool to see the interpretation of the characters on screen. If you're unfamiliar with Shannara, demons that have been locked in "The Forbidding" by an ancient tree called the Ellcrys begin to return to the Four Lands. Wil, Amberle, Eretria, and Allanon journey to save the tree from destruction and send the demons back to banishment. Years ago, Dragon Magazine created a sort of mini-setting featuring Shannara and its characters, so there is definitely a lot of material to mine for your campaigns. Character class alterations like the Druids in Shannara (they are more like Jedi than the druids found in D&D) and traditional fantasy race alterations like the gnomes being tribal and most fantasy races being an offshoot of nuclear war from our modern world can give everything a refreshing new take for your homebrew setting. Plus, magic items like the Elfstones, and the actual Sword of Shannara can make great magic item templates. NPC ideas for your players to encounter can be found all over the place and creatures like the Shadowen, Mwellrets, and Skull Bearers will strike fear into the hearts of your players. Plus, even though the show is sort of aimed more at teens, it's still just kind of worth plopping down with a little popcorn and watching the swords fly before game night.
HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS Amazon Prime Video/Vudu 1995-1999
Despite the unfortunate reputation Kevin Sorbo has accumulated over the past few years, Hercules endures as one of the funnest fantasy romps you can have on the small screen. Following the adventure of the titular character, Hercules, and his sidekick Iolaus, the episodic series introduces many characters familiar through Greek and Roman mythologies but also introduced other mythologies from ancient Egypt, Asia, and even medieval legends. Xena was one of the most memorable characters who debuted in Hercules, as she went on to receive her own spinoff show; Xena: The Warrior Princess. As previously stated, this show is a gold mine for NPC templates, creatures, magic items and weapons, and even deities if you craft a homebrew Greek/Roman mythology-based campaign setting. Most of this stuff is already available through the Mythic Odysseys of Theros campaign setting for D&D, but homebrew is an option for ambitious GMs/DMs to really flex that creative muscle and bring Greek/Roman mythology to life for their players.
XENA: THE WARRIOR PRINCESS Amazon Prime Video/Vudu/Google Play 1995-2001
Xena was just supposed to be a throwaway character from Hercules the Legendary Journeys who was set to die after three episodes, but she was so popular she got her own spinoff and eventually soared past Hercules in popularity. If you liked Hercules, then Xena is pretty much more of the same with lots of episodic adventures featuring Greek mythology and historical places, but with a fictional twist. Just like with Hercules, there is lots to mine in the show from NPCs, to magic items, to deities, and even to Xena's signature weapon, the chakram. Plus, at the very least if you stream this before your game night, worst case scenario is you're going to be watching a few awesome episodes of Xena: The Warrior Princess - and that's not a bad thing at all.
The Witcher is based on the series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski. The plot revolves around Geralt of Rivia, who is a Witcher (basically a monster hunter for hire who has great abilities), and Ciri of Cintra who are linked by destiny. Geralt becomes Princess Ciri's protector and must fight to prevent her Elder Blood and powerful magic from being used for nefarious purposes. The Witcher series certainly has a lot to mine from it for determined GMs. The Witchers would make a great class or subclass for a homebrew TTRPG world. Likewise, a lot of the spells and monsters would make great templates for GM's campaign worlds. Unfortunately, Henry Cavill is stepping away after the third season and Liam Hemsworth is taking over as Geralt, but even with just the seasons we have - they're worth watching.
GAME OF THRONES
Hulu/Amazon Prime Video/Vudu/Google Play/Roku+HBO/HBO Now 2011-2019
Based on a series of novels by George R. R. Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones follows multiple characters and their families as the threat of annihilation looms in the north. At first, Game of Thrones is very fantasy-light, but as it goes on there are more and more fantasy elements added. The production is very high quality, and the acting is all really decent, but the show doesn't really faithfully follow the books as it goes on. To me, the final season was kind of a disappointment (which is why I haven't yet watched House of Dragons, the prequel series to Game of Thrones that was released this year) but honestly the earlier seasons were very well done and remain some of the best medieval fantasy television ever produced. For a magic-light campaign setting, there is lots to mine from Game of Thrones including character templates, and of course the highly sought after Valyrian Steel. Definitely a must watch for GMs who want to run a political intrigue campaign.
Anyway, that's my personal top ten list of fantasy/sword + sorcery shows although they are in no particular order. Hope you get a chance to check them out, and if you feel that I've missed any that should be showcased, don't be shy about sharing your picks in the comments below! - Joe