This is a modern D&D campaign inspired by Eero Tuovinen’s Prydain campaign, Nestori Lehtonen’s Lohikäärmeliitto and by Timothy Kleinert’s Mountain witch game, as well as all the fantasy books I read as a child. Traditional games and middle school D&D could also work, with adjustments. I am using D&D 5 as the rules framework here.
Also, this is incomplete and unpolished. I do want to get it out of my head, regardless, and maybe it gives someone an idea or two.
We are going to tell a story about the farmboy becoming the great hero and deciding the fate of the land. The wise sage will guide them and various companions will play their role, too. But we do not know how the story will end or where it will go. And, as always, the forces and spies of the enemy are everywhere, magic is dangerous because it attracts the attention of the enemy, and non-humans are exotic and weird.
One game master, two to maybe at most five players.
They live on a farm or some other completely ordinary circumstance. They are a human. They are young; maybe a teenager? One player plays the hero. If there are two players, maybe two heroes could work, too, but it would be highly experimental.
The hero characters begins as a tabula rasa. They make all rolls at +2 (their proficiency bonus) and have six hit points. They are technically speaking first level. They gain their first level identity and powers as determined by the hero player; see below.
The game starts by the hero player describing their character’s ordinary life circumstances. They have to be boring; a farmhand, scrubbing the decks on a ship (maybe a pirate ship, but that is stretching it a bit), a smith’s apprentice, something of the kind. The character does not get a background, but the player can choose two skills, and a couple of tool proficiencies; if their narration includes some, they can take them now, or they can take them later as flashbacks. They do have to be ordinary stuff.
As the game progresses, the hero player can choose a character class, assign their attributes, select the rest of their skills, and so on, typically accompanied by a flashback if the element is new to the character as we know it. Want them to be a wizard? Give a flashback about them secretly reading an unknown book and getting in trouble because they should have been feeding the pigs. Or they might get inspired by the in-game events, finding their inner rage when facing some tragedy and thereby becoming a barbarian. A training montage is an alternative, too; maybe a ranger companion teaches them as they travel.
The hero typically gains a level after each adventure, excluding the intro. They can expect to outpace their boon companions fairly quickly, and maybe even the sage, if the campaign is longer.
The hero has two further privileges; the first is that the hero players gets to choose which adventure the group tackles. The others can and will offer alternatives and guidance, but the hero player, via their character, is the one to make the call. This is their story. They will also get to choose whether they save the land or doom it, side with the villain or against them.
The second privilege is that the hero will not die, at least not before the climax of the campaign. They might be taken prisoner, lost, charmed, left for dead, but they will not die. They might face the decision of either saving, or leaving to die, their boon companions, who can not die without the hero abandoning them.
One player has to play the sage. They, too, are human, but they are old. They are an eighth level character and a full caster. Intelligence or wisdom has to be their highest attribute. They should have a whole bunch of knowledge skills; sage is the default background. Using their powerful magic is certain to get the attention of the forces of evil, too.
The sage knows what is going on. They want to save the land, whatever that means. The sage player gets to define what that means, in fact. They also know who and what the villain is and what their servants are.
In the introduction adventure, after the hero player has described how their character lives, the sage player introduces their character entering the situation and warning against whichever calamity is about to strike. The sage player determines what are the rank and file of the evil forces and what their lieutenant is like; a fey knight and their hunting wolves or a troll in obsidian armour with a skeletal horde, maybe. And they are coming soon! There is no time to waste! This is how the introductory adventure begins.
The sage player continues having the authority to define the villainous, as well as artefacts that might help to defeat them. They can suggest or create adventures and will know about many opportunities the game master creates, too, but it is up to them if they want to reveal these to the others or not.
The sage might gain a few levels during play, once per each of the following conditions:
- They save the day with powerful magic.
- The hero learns that the sage has withheld critical information from them, thereby manipulating them.
- They share all that they know with the hero.
The sage has the privilege of not dying permanently before the climax. They might be taken away, left for dead, die and turn into a ghost, but they will remain playable and in play throughout.
They do not need to be human, but they should each have a strong concept. The brave knight, the bodyguard robot, the exotic catgirl duelist, the evil witch, the shady criminal. A single strong concept is better than playing a dragonwoman bard who also rides a pegasus and is a former gladiator. The complexity of the characters come from their mysterious past and unclear loyalties.
The companion players can introduce facts concerning their domain; the player of the dwarven prince gets to tell about the domains of dwarves and what lies underground, while the noble outlaw’s player about the forests their group haunts and about the politics of the unjust despoilers that now rule. The player is also the only one who knows their mysterious past and can introduce whatever is appropriate to it, including creating or suggesting adventures. To invoke their mysterious past the player has to tell that is what they are doing, and should do it through the actions or dialogue of their character, if at all possible.
The companions start at fourth level and should expect to earn a few more during play. Each of the following increases the companion’s level by one, but each only once. Not every companion player should try to ping all of them.
- The companion character shows their competence and worth, being crucial in solving a crisis.
- There is a romance between the companion character and the hero character.
- The hero drives the companion away due to distrust, but they return and show their loyalty.
- The hero substantially aids the companion in solving the companion’s problems.
- The companion betrays the hero.
- The hero takes on the companion character’s adventure or an adventure to rescue the companion.
- The companion turns out to be the villain. This grants five levels, not only one. The sage player should keep their eye out for this possibility, too, as this can not come to pass without their cooperation. But do not agree to this beforehand as players! It should be spontaneous if it comes to be.
Mysterious pasts and dark fates
Randomized blindly, so that only the player getting the particular past knows what it is.
- Kind of heart. You do really want the best for the hero character, and to the extent it goes, to everyone else, too.
- Evil. You work for the evil faction as a spy, lieutenant or even the big bad itself.
- Hostages. People dear to you are held hostage by some faction sympathetic with the evil side, if not by the big bad themselves.
- Redeemed. You used to work for the bad guys, but no more. You have had enough. Still, you know people there and they know you, and might make you a new offer.
- An orthogonal quest. There is something you have committed to doing, no matter the price. It is not directly opposed or beneficial to the hero character’s purpose.
Kind of heart and an orthogonal quest are double as frequent as the others.
The adventures and the campaign
The game master is responsible for creating adventures, which are typically a series of encounters and should take one or two sessions of dedicated play; no more than three. The other players do have the possibility of suggesting adventures, but the responsibility for providing a sufficient variety and tying it all together lies solidly on the game master.
Each adventure has to have a failure out, or often several different ones related to particular encounters; what happens if the characters do not succeed at whatever they are trying to do? Death is not really an alternative, but the game master should prepare a few adventures with premises such as escaping from imprisonment or being rescued by new allies, usually tied to a companion character.
After an adventure the hero character gains a level and you have a scene or a few where the characters decide what to do next. The hero player, via their character, makes the call, but the other players get to introduce the alternatives and persuade the hero character to pick a particular one.
The intro adventure
The hero player describes where they are living their life, and a bit about them, maybe. The sage player introduces the character warning of the imminent threat of evil. Some companion characters might be present already, but their players can introduce them at will.
The first choice the hero player gets to make is: stand and fight, save everyone, or run away? Standing and fighting involves meeting a lieutenant and a dozen footsoldier of evil, as defined by the mage player, followed by another wave of dozen footsoldiers. The failure condition is an imprisonment situation or something similar, while on a success the evil is defeated, which does mean +1 threat rating (affects the next adventure). Also remind the mage player and other players of spellcasting characters of the effect blatant use of magic has on the threat rating, especially in case they decide to fight. The rescue scenario depends very much on the particulars of the situation, but any attempt should be judged fairly and on its own merits.
The second scene is dangerous weather threatening the group, but they do see a safe haven; usually a tavern, a harbour, a fortress or a a farm. Unfortunately, their host is a spy of the evil forces, which a usual knowledge or social skill check might reveal, as well as some dark histories. The game master should blatantly ask the players if their characters would know or recognize the host’s evil nature, allowing their host a social skill against any passive insight scores, as usual. Knowledge-type skill checks are against flat difficulty levels. The details certainly vary based on the circumstances, but the host should not have the strenght to take the characters by force. This begins as a social encounter and the main stake is what happens to the threat rating. Should the spy recognize what is going on, +3 threat rating for the next adventure. Only +1 if the spy is defeated and removed in some way, while +0 for the spy being none the wiser and -1 or even halved for a skilled misdirection. Of course, the characters can instead opt to face the awful weather, with likely failure consequences being loss of equipment, bouts of disease, and a getting lost adventure as the next mandatory adventure.
This finishes the introductory adventure. If the characters failed, they are likely in a mandatory adventure already, but otherwise they have or have had the opportunity to discuss their future course of action. The game master should prepare at least two adventures and prompt the players for any others that occur to them. Note that the different characters should have opportunities to discuss in private in various combinations, with others maybe trying to listen in, with the consequences for being caught played out and ultimately up to the hero character and player.
The threat rating and magic
The spies of the evil one are everywhere. This is reflected by a threat rating. The rating starts at zero, but increases as a result of what happens in play. It decreases if it does not increase during an adventure, or if the characters manage to misdirect the forces of evil to look for them in the wrong direction, or look for the wrong people.
The threat increases by one if the characters leave signs of their whereabouts or actively act against the evil forces. Blatant use of magic increases the threat rating by one plus the level of the spell used. Having non-humans or other remarkable characters makes threat rating increase more easily, since the evil ones will quickly learn to recognize such individuals and connect them with their foe.
The game master has to add an encounter with the minions of evil to any adventure if the threat rating starts at one or more. The challenge rating of the extra encounter equals the threat rating. The extra encounter manifests as the forces of evil looking for the group and particularly the main character; it might interfere with an existing encounter or be a new one.
The right to play
Some companion characters might turn unfit to play: captured, even killed, or driven away as untrustworthy. This is not a problem, as the player can simply make a new companion character, getting a new dark fate, too. This is also how to treat new or visiting players.
In case a player has two or more feasible characters to play during an adventure, they should excuse extra ones and play the most dramatically involved one. It is okay to change from one adventure to another. Character integrity is worth more than party integrity, as new characters are trivial to create and bring to play.