The Marvel Universe is built largely on foundations set by Stan Lee in the sixties. He and his collaborators (Jack Kirby foremost among them) thrashed out some great ideas for a shared world, and I wonder what a D&D setting would look like if some of those story lines existed. I should note, this isn’t about superheroes per se (certainly it’s not about spandex), but adventurers and heroes do share plenty of similarities.
For instance, take any D&D party and compare and contrast with the Avengers, or the X-Men. Complimentary combat roles, a shared purpose but with individual origins, relationships that power stories and all the rest. They may not have uniforms made of unstable molecules, but they do have powers, and with that comes great responsibilities.
For starters, what would SHIELD look like in D&D campaigns? It’s a government organisation, that deals with counter espionage and threats to the free world. Adventurers could fall within that easily. Eberron seems made for such a thing, with the King’s Dark Lanterns of Breland as exemplars. Nick Fury would make a great template for an NPC, as would Black Widow and Ms Marvel. These would act as patrons for missions (quests), and stand in to fill out an understaffed party. This gives parties a great base to operate from. Instead of the Triskelion, imagine a floating castle, or a pocket dimension for the party.
How about the mutant question? Imagine if we thought of the mutant gene as a power source, and then took all the mistrust and persecution into the realms of D&D. Let’s say that the psionic power source is the analogue. Imagine a school for the psionically gifted, with a strike team of adventurers that must convince a suspicious public of their good intentions.
What if that persecuted power source was divine instead?
Where would the planes fit with this model? I think the negative zone makes for a compelling version of the astral sea.
On a more mundane level, I really like the idea of some of the Marvel geography seeping into a D&D game. There’s Latveria, with a fantasy Dr Doom. Wakanda, with its vibranium (residuum?) resources. Then there’s the Savage Land. Or the blue zone of the moon. These are all great replacements for the fantasy nations that normally fill a campaign map.
One of the areas that I think could really be developed is in that of villains. Marvel tends to use big characters, or organisations, rather than a list of level appropriate monsters. To do something similar it’s simply a matter of reskinning an iconic monsters background and motivations. Take the idea behind, say, Galactus and use the stat block of the Tarrasque. They’re both world devouring big bads after all. What if the Tarrasque had heralds, like the Silver Surfer? While we’re at it, let’s take a beholder, and give it the goals of Ultron. Or a rakshasa designed around the Mandarin. Neat huh?
Villainous organisations are a straight swap. HYDRA equates to yuan-ti. AIM to hobgoblins. The Hellfire Club can stand in for any evil consortium you choose.
The secret is to take the inspirations, not the surface details. Use the sweeping, somewhat soapy storylines, and apply them to your world. Where supers fight crime, adventurers fight evil. Where supers balance secret identities, adventurers go for public glory. The goals and story objectives mesh brilliantly, you only have to reimagine a four colour world of swords and sorcery.