My “Campaign Ideas” section is an idea I’m trying where I talk about concepts for a game. Not full-fledged adventure paths, but rather a theme that you can build your game around. This is a sort of practice for me getting back into writing, and hopefully will build toward me writing full-fledged adventure modules. For now, though, enjoy this campaign idea: Your Shining Armor Won’t Save You.
System: D&D, GURPS Fantasy, or BRP.
Magic Level: High
“Your Shining Armor Won’t Save You” is as a campaign where your players build themselves as the heroes of the realm, larger than life paragons of their ideals who can stand up to anything the world throws at them. In this game we take these heroes,build them up, and then put them in entirely over their head.
The trick, though, is that the campaign is not particularly grimdark on the regular. The world is normally happy and bright, with the heroes being the heroes of a high fantasy world rather than a low fantasy one. The first major arc of the adventure should keep that bright, energetic tone with the heroes triumphing over the villain (and his horde of orcs or lizardfolk or whatever) and maybe even fighting a dragon of some kind. Keep this tone until about level six.
Then, flip things. The sort of adventures that need your attention once you’re past the level six range stop being the stuff of high fantasy and adventure. You start dealing with dark and forbidden magics, adult dragons have grown out of being the subject of heroic tales and have grown into being the creatures of nightmares. The creatures that dwell in the dark corners of the world, while far less active than the ones fought by the heroes earlier, are powerful enough to drive your heroes to madness and beyond. The game switches from Forgotten Realms to Call of Cthulhu. The heroes don’t change, and are still brave and bold and mighty, with magic blades and polished plate armor, and that still might not be enough. And when it’s not enough, that’s when the fear sets in.
You don’t want every adventure to delve into the realm of terror, but once the first one does the players will know that it’s possible. Once it’s possible, that little bit of fear that the monsters in the ruins might be much more dangerous than an angry giant or a tribe of hobgoblins will be constant, and that’s what you want.
What sets this apart from normal horror RPGs, such as Ravenloft or Call of Cthulhu is that in those games the players spend character creation preparing for horror. The ever-present nature of grimdarkness and fear mean that the cosmic horror stops being novel and players start building and upgrading their characters explicitly to deal with the oncoming insanity. Also, starting the characters off in horror makes it harder to get attached to them. Plus, in standard Call of Cthulhu the characters can usually leave. The player doesn’t, but they have to justify in some way why the character doesn’t. In this campaign, the player characters aren’t just some heroes, they’re THE heroes. Even if they’d like to retire, they know that if the Shoggoths come to town or the Great Old Ones begin to stir that they’re the only ones who will have any chance of stopping them. They could ignore the things in the darkness, sure, but they know it will catch up with them eventually and if they wait for that moment then they’ll be facing the darkness all alone.
The obstacles that come with this game are keeping things balanced. You don’t want to oversaturate your world with grimdark, but you also want it to be frequent enough that it stays a palpable threat. You also have to balance the fact that you want the Cthulean elements to be a surprise, but you don’t want your players to suddenly find themselves in a campaign they just didn’t want to play. With that said, though, if you can manage all of these challenges this could be an extremely exciting campaign.