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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Planetorn: A Big, Hairy, Audacious Campaign

by Ken Newquist / June 7, 2007

A while back at My Play,  Gerald Cameron proposed the idea of the "BHAC" (Big, Hairy, Audacious Campaign), the sort of campaign that's earth-trembling huge its shear audacity and (I'm assuming) its variance from the norm. 

He throws out one example: normal D&D campaigns usually have a home town or city ... what happens if that city is build on the corpse of a tarrasque? It spawned a corresponding conversation over at Treasure Tables, with examples like a world overrun by vampires, a world in which everyone has superpowers, and one where giants rule over millions of humanoid slaves.

Planetorn is one such campaign idea. It's been kicking around in my head for years, and is based on a simple idea: what if we had a campaign where anyone could use whatever fantasy-based d20 book they wanted?

That may not sound particularly audacious to some, but our normal campaign is set in the World of Greyhawk, and we try to keep the campaign operating on a fairly even keel, without too many funky new spells, powers or prestige classes mucky up the works. We don't want to break the world we've been playing in for over a decade.

Breaking the Great Wheel

Planetorn begins broken. In the campaign setting, the ancient war between good and evil has spun on its axis, as the forces of Law and Chaos suddenly strike out at one another. The Blood War pales in comparison to the terrible power unleashed as an even more ancient battle resumes between the fundamental laws of the universe.

The campaign opens as chaos storms break over a thousand Material Planes, ripping millions of inhabitants from them to feed the power of the Lords of Discord. Entire cities are torn from their foundations and set drifting across dozens of planes, some burning instantly in the Elemental Plane of Fire, some hopelessly lost in the Layers of the Abyss and some spinning off to form their own demi-realities.

The player characters were drawn from just such worlds, and have managed to huddle together in Neverlast, a former Material Plane city that was lucky enough to be ruled by a powerful archmage, one who was able to throw down a reality-altering seed to prevent the city from being absorbed by the planar madness.

Just weeks after the eruption of the chaos storms, Neverlast has become a major hub for Planetorn refugees, a few of which are determined to figure out exactly what the hell is going on.

The campaign will see these investigator/adventurers caught up in a planar firestorm as they discover the cause of the ongoing war, undertake epic adventures to the weirdest corners of reality, and ultimately have a shot at ending the conflict … or the universe

Big Hairy Apes

The first audacious part of the campaign is its "and the kitchen sink" approach to the rules. This campaign is meant to be broken and to be balanced by its very brokenness. Want to play that psiknife/psychic warrior/egotist using all of Malhavoc Press's extra rules? Go nuts. 

Got a bunch of cheater spells you want to pull in from the Forgotten Realms and every other setting you laid your magic-addicted hands on? Bring it on.

The warblade from the Book of Nine Swords, hexblades from Complete Warrior, witches from Arcana Evolved and something really weird and broken from Mongoose?

Done, done, done and, sure what the hell.

It will undoubtedly give rise to some very strange characters of varying power levels based on the rules that spawned them … but that's ok. What balances this, at least in the terms of the Planetorn campaign, is that people are playing the characters they want to play. They finally get to pull out that book they've had squirreled away for the last three years, and can pull out all those feats that would never make it into the regular D&D campaign.

Moreover, to give everyone a chance to truly trick out their character, I'd start them off at 12th level, which gives them plenty of opportunities to take whatever feats, spells and prestige classes they might be interested in, but still gives us plenty of room to level up into even more broken territory.

Storming Reality

The second, equally audacious part of the campaign is its planar setting, particularly the nature of the locations the players go to. A planar campaign gives the game master to paint on an awesome scale, one unlike anything players have ever encountered before.

  • The Ice Cliff of Doom: The adventure takes place entirely on the face of an immense Abyssal ice cliff which stretches for thousands of miles up, east and west … and the PCs need to climb up it, using ladders, stairs, handholds, ice picks, and whatever else they can find. Imagine battles in which players constantly face the possibility of falling to their dooms on the rocky floor far below.
  • A Sky Full of Islands: Somewhere on a corner of the Elemental Plane of Air, huge islands of rock fly about, crashing into one another, causing bizarre rings of material that stream about, causing painful storms of destruction
  • The Infinite Inferno of Dras: A demiplane consumed by intense fire that makes the Plane of Fire look like a vacation spot. Intense fire that can instantly dispel protective magics, ruled by fire monsters of size and strength never before seen.

 

I'm focusing on physical conditions, but imagine planes of extreme emotion (Will save or be ridiculously happy), areas of extreme law that try to compel players to start taking actions like the normal denizens of the plane, and so on. The idea is to create environments unlike anything the characters (and their players) have never seen before, where the conditions the players find provide as much of a challenge as any monster, trap or villain.

Moreover, I see the potential to create planes with custom rules unique to that location, perhaps something drawn from a source book (a custom rule you'd never allow into your main campaign) or something else entirely, like a home-brew wild magic system or a critical hits system that only operates within that mini-reality (I can just imagine the players now saying "no, no you don't want to go there … very dangerous, see?" and then holding up a stub).

"If someone asks you, if you're a god…"

I envision Planetorn as being a one-year campaign ending with a climactic battle against Usurpers responsible for the chaos storm that spawned the setting as the characters themselves reach 20th level (or thereabouts).

Should the campaign prove to be popular enough though, it's possible to take it into even more audacious territory: godhood.

Ascending to godhood (and then proceeding to slaughter every pantheon you could find) is something almost every gamer did in grade school. As a result -- and because d20 can get bogged down in mechanics at very high levels -- we don't see many "god" campaigns nowadays.

With Planetorn though, it's the natural evolution of the campaign. With this sequel, the heroes would find themselves on the path to godhood (at least hero-gods, but perhaps demigods as well) as they fight some new epic threat to the multiverse. The campaign would probably run about six-to-eight months, with players gaining divine status about half-way through. This gives them the opportunity to actually gain followers and use their new powers before the campaign's end.

The Uncertain Future

Will Planetorn ever come to be? I don't know. I could see it as the capstone of our Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 campaign before a conversion to 4th Edition (assuming we convert, which is by no means assured). It would also make for a good break from the ordinary, knocking us out of our familiar Greyhawk grove while at the same time allowing us to try dozens of different rule mechanics.

If nothing else though, it makes for a good thought experiment in campaign design … and it's certainly made my list of settings I'd like to run.