Dungeons & Dragons Online

Homebrew Setting: Need Advice on Unusual Campaign Premise

Lately I've been wanting to run a homebrew campaign with an unusual premise, since I like crafting mysteries for players to solve. I usually play with online groups, and I limit myself to around 8 weekly sessions with most people unless the entire group really wants to play more. My most recent idea definitely meets my requirement of being a different kind of mystery, but it's a weirder idea with a darker theme and I don't want to execute it poorly. So with that, here's a previously-labeled quick, but after proofreading, not actually quick rundown of the premise:

The campaign starts with the party members waking up in an inn with no memory of how they got there. The inn is unknown to them, and exists in a land uncannily similar the one they're from, but warped, as if in a dream. Things like the name and shape of the continent will resemble their old reality, but be different enough for the main characters to know that they're not in the real world as they understand it. Think of waking up one day and finding out you're in the city of Nor York, on the continent of Newthamerica, which is in the correct place on a world map but shaped like Italy.

Then an NPC is introduced. The NPC will have a strange guiding influence over the world, but seem unaware. Quests the party receives will always, at least distantly, relate to the NPC. Things the party does without DM influence will always somehow result in the NPC joining in somehow. And for some reason, the party will never be able to travel far from the NPC, because after a certain distance, the world away from them does not exist, and the players can clearly observe this fact. The NPC will not be a particularly strong adventurer, but will also somehow have a kind of plot immunity from particularly bad happenings.

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At various level-up points, the party will end a long rest only to find that years have passed in this strange world. These time jumps, however, always coincide with major events in the NPC's life. The death of a parent, a romantic encounter, gaining an apprenticeship, saving the town from a goblin attack, a plague, a marriage, the birth of a child, etc. Eventually it will become clear that, even though the game is about the players' actions, from a metanarrative standpoint, the story is not.

Over time, the players will pick up more and more clues about this contrived reality which will gradually lead them to the climactic point of discovering exactly how and why it exists: at some point in the future, the NPC suffers a major tragedy which completely destroys them. They make a wish that they could go back and do something differently that would prevent that tragedy, and in a strange interpretation of the wish, a magical creature grants it. An illusory reality is created but the NPC's memory of events is wiped, and the party's job all along was to influence the NPC to live their life differently so as to avoid the tragedy that befalls them. At the time that the party discovers this, the tragedy is imminent, but the form it takes is still unknown. What they also discover at this time is that the wish-giver is evil, has no influence on actual past events, and is simply allowing the NPC to live with the memory of having avoided tragedy before killing them at the end of the illusion. What's more, the wish-giver actually wants the NPC to fail, so as to suffer twice, and will attempt to ensure that this happens.

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Now at this point, I feel it is unwise to commit to a hardlined conclusion because the players will have a great deal of influence over how the story ends, and I'd like to leave possibilities open to particularly creative solutions. However, I am stuck on one issue: the backstory's really dark, and the story doesn't have a traditional happy ending without the players going out of their way to do something creative. I don't want to make the story less interesting, but I also don't want to give anyone a bad experience. My best idea is to simply content-warn players in advance, but I want to make sure the game doesn't end up being so dark that it stops being fun. I'm curious how others would run a campaign with this premise, and I'm also curious if anyone sees other glaring problems I might need to keep in mind. If anyone has commentary or advice for me, I'd much appreciate it. Thank you very much for reading!

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