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...