Saturday, September 5, 2015

Saturday Grab Bag - On Campaign Themes

Near the beginning of the fantastic Dungeon Master's Guide* put out by wizards of the coast there is a fantastic section of Flavors of Fantasy. I highly recommend you pick up the book somewhere and read it. This section, along with many others, will make you a better Master of Dungeons.

Too often DMs run multiple campaigns, often with overlapping players, without any thought put into making the campaigns feel different. Yes, for the most part Dungeons and Dragons is about roleplaying a hero, that gets stronger as time goes on, and defeating bad guys, but that doesn't mean that every game has to be flavoured in the same way.

But Master of Dungeons, you might say, I run all of my campaigns in the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Grey Hawk, INSERT HOMEBREW WORLD HERE, of course all of my games feel the same, they exist in the same world. Well that just isn't true, and I plan on showing you how.

I find it easiest to explain the flavours of fantasy by relating each one to a book or movie series. Where there are multiple good examples of each (as is usually the case) I have included what I think is the best example (and they would all be good media to consume for DM inspiration).

Heroic Fantasy

This is pretty much accepted as the default flavour of fantasy for Dungeons and Dragons. If you aren't putting much thought into the themes and flavours of your campaign, this is likely what it is. Not that there is anything wrong with that, heroic fantasy is a mainstay of D&D for a reason, it works. Most fantasy, especially Dungeons and Dragons, was greatly influenced by J.R.R Tolkien's work, especially the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. These are definitely examples of Heroic Fantasy.

Heroic fantasy campaigns are campaigns where strong, amazing heroes are somewhat common. Your players are the heroes, and they save the day by being much better than others in nearly every way. They are the saviors of the people, and the world would be lost without them. Giant schemes to end the world, or destroy a town, that need a hero to save the day, exemplify this type of fantasy.

Since you're likely going to be playing Heroic Fantasy at some point, and probably are right now. A good source of inspiration is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. Lord of the Rings is the obvious example as well.

Epic Fantasy

This one isn't a great example in my opinion. It isn't very exclusive, there are examples of each of the other flavours that could also be categorized as epic fantasy. Epic fantasy is more of a matter of scale than taste. If a heroic fantasy becomes large in scale than it is also an epic fantasy. Lord of the Rings definitely qualifies. Game of thrones can also be an epic fantasy. I've included it in here to show that you should keep in mind the scale of your adventure. Is the fate of the world at stake? Do your adventurers have to cross an immense distance? Or is it mostly contained to one city, one building, or one area? Both are good, but it is important to think about.

Sword and Sorcery

This is the classic fantasy theme. When people think of fantasy, they are often very influenced by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and Dungeons and Dragons is definitely no exception. However, before Tolkien there existed fantasy books that were much grittier. Dangerous worlds where the hedonistic rich trample over the suffering poor. Where Magic users are almost always the villains, and all magic tends to be very rare and dangerous. The D&D world of Athas is an example of this. Conan the Barbarian is what I think of when I think of Sword and Sorcery.

Just because most campaign worlds have plenty of magic doesn't mean you can't flavor a campaign in this way. You could create a nation that despises magic, or an area that magic has been almost completely wiped out. Even if magic is common, the players could be rogues, fighters, and barbarians, and focus on natural enemies. Sword and Sorcery often doesn't have many races, so having enemies and players all be human could be an interesting element. This doesn't have to be in a new setting, the world is a big place, and for the most part people rarely leave the place of their home. You could easily devise a distant, secluded land, containing almost only humans.

Mythic Fantasy

The Greek pantheon is a great place to start for campaign inspiration, but there is no reason to stop there. The entire mythology of greece/rome is a great place to find ideas. The trials of Hercules, the Minotaur, Helen of Troy, any of the classic stories can be used as fodder for a fantastic game of Dungeons and Dragons. Mythic Fantasy often has powerful gods and goddesses communing with mortals.

You don't have to limit yourself to the classical gods either. South America, Asia, and Native American myths and legends can be extremely useful in flavouring your campaign. 

Horror - (AKA Dark Fantasy)

Horror is a fantastic fantasy theme. Often referred to as Dark Fantasy, this flavour of fantasy often includes the creepy, spooky monsters from Halloween. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, skeletons are all great creatures to add to your campaign, or to build a campaign around.

This motif is more than just the monsters that are often included in it. Building a campaign as a Horror campaign often means trying to scare your players. Have surprising twists and menacing villains. Things are much darker and much more ominous in these campaigns. Having your players confined to a scary, possibly haunted building, or woods is a good way to go. The official Ravenloft campaign setting is a very fun place to run Horror campaigns.

Dark fantasy doesn't have to include your favourite Halloween tropes. The work of H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote about Cthulu, is a great example of this. I would highly recommend his books, they are great inspiration and just very good books. He does a great job of creating monsters and worlds, that you can emulate at your table.


Mystery is pretty self-explanatory. Your campaign is focused on finding clues and solving a mystery. It can be a murder mystery, finding a missing artifact, explaining some sort of disaster, or something else entirely. Mystery can be easily combined with any of the other flavours, as it is more of a goal than a flavour in my opinion.


While at first, it doesn't seem that different than Mystery, Intrigue feels quite different. While mystery is trying to find the truth behind a specific happening, Intrigue describes diplomacy and charisma heavy campaigns, usually occurring in large cities. In Intrigue campaigns skills can be even more important than combat, as the players try to gossip, lie, and charm their way around nobles, monarchs, peasants, and ruffians. Groups that love to roleplay will particularly enjoy this flavour of fantasy.

The obvious example, a fantastic source of inspiration, that everyone should read, is the Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin. (Also known as the Game of Thrones series on TV). It is a great model for large groups of people all scheming for their own personal motivations.

Swashbuckling - Wuxia

These are two completely separate flavours of fantasy. Swashbuckling, you likely know, is sailing the seven seas, pirates and sailors and boats. Wuxia, is what the Dungeon Master's Guide calls Asian themed campaigns. Seven Samurai, Manga, that sort of thing. I personally do not have much experience with this sort of thing, but if you were to implement your own it shouldn't be too hard. Try to build your own using some of your favourite source materials.

Science Fantasy

This comes in many different types. Science fantasy can mean that wizards are replaced by technomages who control machines, or mad scientists building a frankenstein monster of their own. Science fantasy can involve other planets or dimensions, like in the official Spelljammer series. Just mix and match your favourite elements from Fantasy and Science fiction and you'll have yourself a very creative hybrid.

One personal favourite style of mine is that of 80s style space/dimension fantasy. Purple moons and green skies, red orcs, sand worms. The World of Warcraft expansion Burning Crusade uses elements of this theme on their setting of Outland, as well as the cult classic 1980's movie Heavy Metal, which I recommend.

However you choose to flavour your campaigns, the important thing is that you have fun, and mix things up. If you are playing with people in multiple games, you don't need to have your games feel the exact same.

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