Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Setting Concepts the d20 Never (should have) Intended

 Here's a quick (likely not too original) process for getting inspiration for your next one-shot adventure, mini-campaign, or even full campaign setting. 

As time passes, I realize that I really like running mini-campaigns. Right now, I'm running an extended campaign, which is great - my players are exploring an Iron Age alternate Mystara, and are currently mid-jungle on the Isle of Dread. That being said, I've also had some really great times running little mini-campaigns that only last a few sessions, but are just long enough to let quite memorable stories and concepts develop through play. In the last few years I've run mini-campaigns in space, in a kind of fantasy Victorianesque city (this let me work out my Blades in the Dark-inspired urban intrigue itch), in a fantasy urban stronghold inspired by Dark Sun's Athas, or in a gonzo post-apocalyptic dystopia. Some of these were 'meh', but some led to really memorable gaming experiences. The nice thing about running something with a short life expectancy - say, 2-6 sessions - is that you can really lean into developing what you're interested in, play around with it, and then wrap up with a satisfying finish right around the time you are (if like me) getting distracted by some other shiny campaign concept. 

Anyway. Thank goodness for chances to keep the long-running stuff going too. However, for those of us who may want or need some short diversions as well, it's useful to keep the mini-campaign in mind. 

But how to settle on the next mini-setting, when you don't just want to run some 'default' D&D?

During the recent D&D settings sale on DTRPG, I picked up a .pdf copy of the 4e Eberron setting guide just to read, as I'd never really learned much about the setting and I thought it looked fun to check out. One thing I've noticed is that Eberron is often pitched as "D&D, but mixed with Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Maltese Falcon." In other words, Eberron is designed for playing out stories that use D&D tropes in combination with elements from noir mystery or pulp adventure. Not a bad concept. Pay attention here to the use of modern narrative media to evoke a bunch of tropes that quickly communicate what you're stuffing in the blender with your D&D. Those trope-packages can convey an awful lot of potential in a single sentence.  

This afternoon, I was thinking about this, and I wondered what kind of crazy settings I could come up with using a random assortment of narrative media worlds! So I took about 5-10 minutes to brainstorm some stories, books, movies, games, or other concepts that were close at hand, or that I've thought about recently. I then edited them into a questionably-grouped d20 table, which allows for random generation of setting concepts never meant to be! 

So, in what follows, I'll provide my d20 table, then list a bunch of results I got from rolling 2 or 3d20 on the table. Finally, I'll call out a few ideas that looked particularly interesting, and see what it might look like to develop them out to paragraph length. 


Alright, so here's the idea. 

Imagine D&D, but with elements of...

1    Conan's Hyboria
2    John Carter / Buck Rogers / Dune
3    MechWarrior / BattleTech / Pacific Rim
4    WWII - especially the Italian campaign (because reasons?)
5    Necromunda / Inquisimunda
6    A Wizard of Earthsea / The Riddle-Master of Hed
7    The Matrix / Neuromancer
8    The Avengers
9    Tintin / Indiana Jones
10    Mission: Impossible / Sneakers / 007
11    Harry Potter
12    Call of Duty / Rainbow Six
13    Around the World in 80 Days
14    Rock Band / Guitar Hero
15    Sherlock Holmes / Murder on the Orient Express
16    Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. / The X-Files
17    Babylonian mythology
18    The Scarlet Pimpernel / The 3 Musketeers / Pirates of the Caribbean
19    Island in the Sea of Time (in a nutshell: a modern ship and community are time-zapped into the bronze age)
20    Gate of Ivrel (in a nutshell: in what looks like a typical fantasy realm, the portals built by bodysnatching alien pregenitors must be closed for good)


Right. So here are some generated campaign pitches. I actually generated about 2x these, but these are the ones I picked to show. 

"Imagine D&D, but with elements of MechWarrior, Sherlock Holmes/Murder on the Orient Express, and a touch of Wizard of Earthsea..."

"Imagine D&D, but with elements of Conan the BarbarianMechWarrior, and Around the World in 80 Days..."

"Imagine D&D, but with Conan's Hyboria, Harry Potter, and Necromunda..." [WHAAAT...]

"Imagine D&D, but with elements of Babylonian myths, cyberpunk (Neuromancer/Matrix), and a touch of Guitar Hero..."

"Imagine D&D, but with elements of WW2's Italian campaign, Guitar Hero, and The X-Files..."

"Imagine D&D, but with elements of Necromunda, Call of Duty, and Guitar Hero..." [Ok, I just rolled up the Oldhammer Rogue Trader 40k setting, didn't I? Any Eldar Harlequins in the house?]


Ok folks, now I'm going to pick 3 of those that jump out at me, and try to flesh out each one in a paragraph-length setting/campaign pitch. Bonus points for Gryffindor if I can make them really zany, but still be something I might want to run. Let's see...

Oh, and to make this more of a challenge for myself, and to either 1) frustrate you with low-quality writing or 2) inspire you to get more done in short periods of time ... I'm setting a 5-minute timer as I flesh out these settings. 


"Imagine D&D, but with elements of Conan the BarbarianMechWarrior, and Around the World in 80 Days..."

Yeeeeeah. Ok, let's do this. I'm setting a 5-minute timer. And...go...

So there's a big swampy basin with fallen kingdoms' ruins all over the place, of course. And the heroes are couriers or racers or something - it's too dangerous to just travel on foot or boat across the swamp, so PCs are among the elite adventurers who run giant magic golem steeds on circuit uniting the points-of-light settlements in the setting. Let's say there's a 'riders' guild' that keeps trying to muscle in on PC profits, too; and there's a kingdom that is threatening the resource supply of the thing that powers the golem-steeds. So, PCs might do jobs like: carry desperately needed food, intelligence, or medicine to distant communities (Iditarod-style!); plunder ancient tombs they encounter along the way; joust with challengers from the Guild trying to shut down the traffic lanes; or even get called up to fight in battle against the ever-threatening hordes of barbarians or memory-ghouls from the land of Nekheb. Or something. 

1 minute left. 

Ah, and there should be a race to see who can travel around the whole setting-circuit on golem-steedback within...sure, 80 days! Or just a race. Anyway, if you win the race, you win the campaign McGuffin, and if you lose the race, you lose the mini-campaign. That's harsh, baby, but so is Conan! 

(Done with 19 seconds left). 


"Imagine D&D, but with Conan's Hyboria, Harry Potter, and Necromunda..."

Um. Ok, this should be interesting. 

Yeah, so ... angsty teenage PCs are bonded/indentured magic servants (or hey, perhaps some even have a more positive relationship with) different gangs/factions in a great, seething fantasy metropolis that is very slowly sinking into the Marsh That Shall Eat All Things. Naturally, this city is the final bastion remaining to can safely venture just a little ways out into the marshland to plunder ruins of the old cities That Were. Back home in our city, it's all a mess of brutal gang warfare and scheming wizards' factions. Unfortunately it's probably the wizards who got us into this mess, and they are hated something awful. This means that the players's magical characters aren't just ENSLAVED by the gangs...the gangs they serve also provide muscle to protect the PCs from the raging mobs. Oooh, how terribly grimdark. Ok, to offset that, this is also a campaign that focuses on the friendships you make, the bridges you're able to cross relationally, and the good you're able to (try to) do before the world burns (or sinks). Hmmm. 

1 minute left. Not sure how this is doing. 

Oh, and there must be dinosaurs. Plesiosaurs that swim through the flooded streets. Maybe there's an overarching quest to drain/save the known world, unless the GM really feels like hitting the grimdark hard. Weep, lament, cue the violins. My time's up. 


"Imagine D&D, but with elements of WW2's Italian campaign, Guitar Hero, and The X-Files..."

Ok. I had a bit of an inspiration-flash as I was typing earlier, but nobody will know I'm cheating the clock, heh heh...let's build on it. 

So. There's a fantasy war going on. PCs are soldiers on one side (naturally, the 'good guys'). The big picture need is to advance across this war-torn land and win the warn. Unfortunately...there are a bunch of ancient horrors awakenening in the crypts beneath our battlefields...apparently our conflict is waking the dead. Gulp. So, elite PC commando teams need to go dungeon-crawling to make the dead stay dead, rather than becoming an operational threat to our forces. However, the dead don't really die because you ask them to. That's right, you need THE BLAZING POWER OF RIGHTEOUS MUSIC! Hmm, does this mean that EVERY PC HAS TO BE A BARD? Haha, that seems appropriate. 'Combat Bard Commandos of Doom.' Oh, and be sure to watch out for the constant patrols sent by The Other Side. They aren't dead (yet), so your righteous music won't help much against them; that's why we're sending you in with the bow and arrow, sword, and bandages, right? Any treasures found while dungeon-crawling should be reported promptly up the chain of command. You'll do that, right? Won't you? 

Naturally, each new hex into which your heroic army advances will have a different kind of terrible, dead menace underground. The mini-campaign should have a bit of a 'monster of the week' flavor. For best results, make sure some of the underground horrors follow the PCs back to camp, either raiding the fortified camp at night or ... better yet ... possibly possessing the company commander. Are you sure he's still ok?  That last order...


Well, how'd they do? I think #1 looks fun, and #3 could be fun if done well. #2...Not so sure. 

But don't just use my lousy tables or take my worthless word for it! If this looks useful (or at least fun...) then get cracking on your own! Snatch some inspiring media and get rolling ... before you know it, you'll be leading your players through a savage realm in which warrior queens like Miss Piggy ride motorized velociraptors against Elizabethan vampire principals! Or, you know, something like that...

Either 'you're welcome,' or 'I'm sorry.' 

Happy Gaming. 


  1. Neat idea, but I'd probably drop Guitar Hero and use Baron Munchausen/ Island of Dr Moreau / Walter Mitty instead in my list.

    1. And that would be fine, of course! The process here should work best as a way to formalize any specific individual's current tastes, then randomly provoke unexpected connections among their listed motifs. To be honest, I'd likely write a different list for myself if I were to rewrite this tomorrow (I'd probably add Gormenghast, for example, now that I think of it). Nothing wrong with treating this template as something that can and should change, even on a whim, to suit whatever grist you want to grind at the moment.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Your post inspired this abomination:

    Hope you are proud.

    1. Heehee - behold, what horrors I have unleashed!
      Thanks for letting me know. ;-)

  3. I made a thing

    1. Cool! Left you a comment on your page.

    2. Thanks for checking it out and thanks for the comment!

  4. So first roll set I got was:

    4) WWII - especially the Italian campaign (because reasons?)

    10) Mission: Impossible / Sneakers / 007

    3) MechWarrior / BattleTech / Pacific Rim

    Essentially dieselpunk WW11 DND with giant mechs.

    I can dig it.

    1. Hah, that sounds fun indeed!
      Do you know of the 'Atomic Robo' webcomic? There was a sequence in which the titular robot fought Nazi war-machines during WW2's Sicilian campaign. See, your dice were just working with precedent!


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