Wednesday, February 6, 2019

My Fifth Edition Fantasies

I'd eventually like to try running a D&D 5e game, although in the mean time, I'm somewhat torn about what campaign I'd like to use 5e for. I have three main campaign ideas, so I'm going to write about each one to help me think about them.

Another time, I'll try to set out exactly what kind of game I think the 5e rules are really good for. For now, suffice it to say that I think 5e characters are most interesting when they're pursuing either personal quests or faction missions, and that the best combats in 5e are "boss fights" with powerful enemies whose defeat is directly related to the characters accomplishing their goals.

Option 1 - The Nutcracker Princess Campaign

In this campaign, the player characters are human children from our world, on the cusp of young-adulthood, who are swept away to a frozen wonderland, where they're the only ones who can broker the peace between once-allied, now-distant kingdoms that face the threat of an invading conqueror. (You know, now that I write that out, this sounds a lot like the plot of the new She-Ra show. That wasn't intentional, I'm okay with it. It might be better, actually, than the campaign would be without that second touchstone.) 

Like human children in Narnia or, well, "The Nutcracker," the player characters are basically considered foreign royalty. Their initial contact is probably with the Mouse-Elf Queen or the Nutcracker King, both of whom want to build a new alliance among the old kingdoms, raise an army of Toy Soldiers, and repel the advances of the Rat King and his terrible army.

The neighboring kingdoms should be familiar to Tchaikovsky fans, the Sugarplum Faeries, Swan Princesses, various lands of candy and pastry. The players missions would likely be to serve as emissaries to the old kingdoms, participating in courtly intrigue, solving problems to win allies, recovering lost regiments of Toy Soldiers, defeating incursions by the Rat King's armies, building a coalition to drive them back to their own distant shore.

Picture everyone in Regency Era and Napoleonic fashion, picture lots of anthropomorphic foodstuffs and objects like in Adventure Time or Beauty & the Beast, imagine navigating strict rules for manners and decorum to arrive at fleeting moments of emotional honesty, imagine lots of ballet dancing, and listen to music tracks on quiet repeat to set the ambiance for each area the players enter.

(If I ran this as something other than 5e, I2TO is tempting for its mass combat rules and its novice-friendly simplicity, while Numenera might make it relatively easy for every princess to have a unique superpower.)

Human children become royalty and recruit Toy Soldiers
image from The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Royal court in the Flower Kingdom
image from Ballet West and photographer Luke Isley

Lots of princesses
image from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

Lots and lots and lots of princesses
image from Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet

Option 2 - The Vaults of Azurth

If good artists borrow and great artists steal, then surely the greatest artists of all copy two different things and mash them up. In this campaign, the idea would be to remix Trey Causey's Land of Azurth and Jeff Reints' Vaults of Vyzor. (When you consider that Azurth is Trey's own fanciful take on Oz, and Vyzor is a tribute to the funhouse dungeon's of yore, it's clear that there are also several more layers of borrowing going on here. That also means that I could mix in new ideas based on the same original sources that inspired Trey and Jeff.)

Above ground, the Azurth's World's Fair 189Z is starting to be assembled. Each of the realms of Azurth is converting an abandoned building fairgrounds into an exhibition space, and the fairgrounds are starting to fill with vendors of all stripes. Below ground ... well, who know's what's down there? An adventurer who's brave and resourceful could find out, and potentially earn the favor of the World Emperor in the invitation-only Azure-Windowed Palace at the center of the fair, or catch the attention of one of the fair's other patrons, such as The Girl With Kaleidoscope Eyes or Princess In Another Castle.

Trey's Azurth has four lands with different themes - boy's-own-adventure in Sang, girl's-own-adventure in Virid, fairy tales in Nox, and tall tales in Yanth, plus Sapphire City, which I don't know much about. Jeff's Vyzor had color-coded underground vaults with exciting random cultural exhibitions happening on the surface. The vaults were tricky to navigate, but also full of set-piece attractions that made finding the way through worth it. The vaults were also interconnected by secret doors, and finding those interconnections was a goal in itself, and that connectivity is definitely something I'd want to imitate.

(If I ran this one as something other than 5e, the campaign might benefit from the gozo character concepts that are possible in DCC, or GLOG, or why not, even Pathfinder.)

Azurth adventuring party by Steve LeCuilliard

Azurth monsters by Jeff Call

Player's map of Vyzor by Jeff Reints

Judge's map of Vyzor by Jeff Reints

Option 3 - Alchemical Planetary Romance

I'll admit, I've had the seed of this idea ever since reading Dungeon of Sign's review of Twilight Calling. A ring of planets orbits a central castle. Each planet is mis-ruled by a dinosaur tyrant; if the tyrant can be defeated (or persuaded to abdicate, by providing them with their heart's desire) then the planet will be freed, and the revolutionaries will be awarded a prize. With the rewards from all 7 planets - Venus, Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Sun, and Mercury - the player characters can finally enter the last castle and confront (or join!) the court of the dinosaur overlords.

The villagers on each planet have a problem caused by the tyrant, and removing the tyrant solves the problem and transforms the landscape, as in Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. Each planet probably has only a couple villages, a handful of adventure sites, plus a lieutenant's fortress and the tyrant's castle, just as in Mario 3. Each tyrant also has some influence on the other worlds, so the next world in the sequence becomes safer after the previous tyrant is overthrown, like in Mega Man X. The shops in each village start out fairly bare, but trade flows between freed cities, making more cool stuff available to purchase. Each planet is also defined by alchemical correspondences between metal, color, and astrology.

So Venus, for example, is the Green Planet, the Copper Star; it is an over-tended garden, stifled and choked, but if its Brontosaurus Empress is removed, the jungle will will run riot over the land. Mars is the Red Planet, the Iron Star. It's a barren desert with only a few dry canals running through it. If the Icthyosaurus Lich is defeated, the ice caps melt and the desert becomes the seafloor once again and all the tower-cities are revealed to be islands.

In Mystic Quest, the first boss is a Tyrannosaurus skeleton,
and when you beat him, the dying forest you started the game in suddenly turns green. 
I like the juxtaposition of pixel art and concept art.
My all-time favorite concept art is artist Yoshitaka Amano's designs for Final Fantasy VI.
My vision of each planet's surface is a pointcrawl that resembles Mario 3.
Defeating the tyrants transforms each planet and removes hazards from neighboring worlds,
like in Mega Man X where defeating one boss makes another stage safer to navigate.

The problem with all these ideas is that they probably take too much preparatory work to set up. The Nutcracker Princess Campaign probably needs the least, just enough of an idea about what each kingdom and court is like, and a better concept on my part of what actually happens during a game session in this campaign. The Vaults of Azurth would be next; it would take quite a bit of map drawing to get started, and at least the start of the random tables that would populate the exhibition spaces and vendor stalls.

The Alchemical Planetary Romance would be a real labor of love. Doing it right would mean having adventuring sites and dungeons at least one of the planets, a notion of what the tyrant wants that would persuade them to abdicate rather being forced to fight to overthrow them, and plans for the interconnections between planets. Really, that's one that if I could ever do it right, I'd want to be sure to put it into a book, or perhaps a boxed set with cardboard playing mats to represent the planets and the villages and the castles. It would need art, and lots of it, images of each planet before and after it transformed, 16-bit pixel art and hand-drawn "concept art" to depict each world and monster and boss. It's such an oversized idea that it's absurd even to consider it, and yet I hope it's something I could have the time and resources to put together someday.

In the meantime, the Nutcracker Princess Campaign would probably benefit from a consistent player base, while the Vaults of Azurth would likely be the most fun in an open-table setting where different groups of players could compete to find the coolest stuff. It'd be fun to do something set in space, even if my current inspiration is a non-starter. Writing this was helpful, because it lets me see some commonalities across my current ideas. However, if these three are my only ideas for 5e gaming, then I might need to go back to the drawing board...


  1. All good. Oddly, I think I like the Nutcracker one the best because I've never played in anything remotely like that.

  2. Azurth did a World's Fair (or maybe that apostrophe is off)? Jesus.

    You actually seem a little farther along on 3 even though it's the biggest target. But would fund all. Incoming soon.

    1. In the Mortzengerstrum adventure, there's a potential portal to the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. I feel certain that after being exposed to the idea, the citizens of Azurth would want to throw one of their own.

      Also guilty as charged on #3. I've given it more thought than the others, but it also needs the most to do it right. Let's call that a long-term goal.

  3. All great ideas! I'd play any of those.

  4. Wow, if you do end up running any one of these online, I'd definitely like to play (despite my general nonchalance towards 5E).

    1. I really appreciate the outpouring of support I've gotten about these. If I plan to run this online, I'll make sure to solicit players where you have a chance to see the invitation.

  5. I actually really like 5th edition, but the default setting is such vanilla high-fantasy, you have to do your own work to make it quirky and weird. I think all these ideas sound great and would work really well with the 5th edition ruleset. The planetary romance with dinosaur tyrants really appeals to me.

    1. It really appeals to me too, Josh. I'll keep you informed when I get a chance to run one of these online.

  6. I always felt like The Unique Campaign - which you introduced me to - would play to 5e's strengths more so than other systems. Makes the crunch a bit more thematic.

    1. There are certainly enough options in 5e to make almost everything unique. I feel like on the player side, you could almost do it by accident.

  7. These are all cool ideas! Very unique! I especially liked the Azurth world fair idea. Meeting interesting NPCs above between dungeon delves sounds awesome

    1. Thanks, Michael! My hope is that spending downtime at the fairgrounds would make that feel a little like an adventure in itself. The last time I used a random campaign-event generator, I really liked the way it shaped the feel of the campaign, so this would just be an attempt to amplify that.

  8. All wonderful ideas!

    My Into the Odd campaign did spend an awful lot of time in a camp of Wooden Soldiers fighting a war against giant rats. They rescued a princess, which was good, but they set the Nutcracker Golem on fire, which was sad.

    As far as prep goes, I'd say hang it! All you need to start is the overall notion (which you have) and the starting region. One alchemical planet is plenty, at first, and, as you see how that play out, it will be all the easier to figure out what the second one wants to be.

    1. Oh, very cool, Joel! And I'm glad to hear that it (mostly) worked out well for everyone.

      You're right that I shouldn't let the fear of prep stop me. I need a starting point, not to already be finished.

  9. I vote for 1 or 3. I think 1 sounds awesome, but full of political intrigue that players in a 5e game might not like. 3 might fit 5e better.

    1. Thanks, Aaron! I need to keep thinking about how to keep #1 focused on adventuring in order to accomplish political goals rather than "political intrigue" per say.

  10. Extracted from G+ and copied here to preservie it past the Gpocalypse. Originally in response to a prompt by +Sándor Gebei

    My thoughts haven’t gotten that much more organised, sorry, but here it is so far. All of this occurred to me while reading Anne’s original post. It reminded me of a whole lot of kids movies, family movies, young adult fiction and so on that I read/watched growing up. Where bad and evil things happen, but you don’t get bombarded with gratuitous violence and torture. Its more Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and the Three Musketeers - and Narnia and Flash Gordon: not Game of Thrones meets Reservoir Dogs via Vikings. So, I’m not sure if ‘aesthetic’ is the right term, but I’ll use it: these fictions/stories and their presentations all have a certain style, or aesthetic. They show romance and love and friendship rather than sex, loyalty, bravery, cowardice, redemption, treachery. They’re often good ‘rollicking adventure stories’ as well.

    So that is the first point: its a move away from the grimdark, more toward an oldfashioned adventure story.

    The second point, for me: none of these things mentioned make me think of the standard D&D races. Or tropes. Now, maybe people would run these things with them included: but I wouldn’t. So, for me, its a step away from the D&D flavoured generica back toward older fashioned stories and fairytales. Particularly fairy tales that are a bit ambiguous perhaps, and sad/bittersweet along with happy endings. Not all old fairy tales are happy at all, but the sense I got from the OP was that we weren’t aiming at going that far at all.

    Third: mention of all these pre 20th century uniforms and such made me think of Flash Gordon, as I mentioned, and also Space 1889. That is more my comfort zone, so I thought I could work with that. But perhaps push out the timeline so that if it is the earth, it is the FAR future, and an excuse for things to be very strange. But not yet the Dying Earth type of thing.

    The almost last point (so far) - I already had some thoughts around a multi-level or multi-setting game, based on a map I had, involving thoughts of travel being based on portals or gates. So the explanation of the Mario levels, and the idea of each ‘level’ corresponding to a world, sorta clicked. I would restore Pluto (perhaps named Hades), though. Thus each world would have a setting that reflected older style ‘planetary romances’ I think they were called: anyway, Edgar Rice Burroughs / Space 1889 type stuff. Probably with a mix of clock punk and steam punk and diesel punk, but rather than mixed all in together, they’d apply to particular worlds.

    Yeah, so its a bit of a mess, and not as organised as +Anne Hunter’s post. I must check out the referenced Baroque Space of +trey causey - hopefully that is on his blog?

    The last point gets back to the idea of stories like Narnia (or the Wizard of Oz), where people from our world visit another, strange place. That is where I thought of having artefacts in this world: a map being a key item, perhaps two as I mentioned to sketch out things. And an item that might start to bring them dreams: from which one day / night they awaken to find themselves elsewhere. At the end of course, there is the option for it all seem to be a dream as they awaken, perhaps as victims of an epidemic (something to foreshadow lightly in the early sessions) - except that there is something to give it away that it was not all a dream. A ring, or pendant, or sextant, or pen, or other memorabilia that is associated with their adventure. Or realising they can talk to each other, and read & write a language of the dreamworld they’ve been in.