A big part of what appeals to me about fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons lies in taking the world I know and considering how fantasy elements affect the people, places and things of a campaign setting. Our real world operates scientifically, with our knowledge and understanding based on things like mathematics and academic observation. We understand or seek to understand stuff like how plants grow, how to predict natural phenomena, the way our brains operate and so on through testable explanations and predictions about the universe. When I see something amazing or visually engaging from our own real world, my imagination tends to wonder — what would something like this represent in a world where magic is the foremost power in the universe? I’ve got a whole heck of a lot of bookmarks for things that pique my interest to help create real world adventure hooks for D&D, so let’s get into it.
Magic and mystery everywhere in D&D
The allure of a fantasy setting is the magic. Even in the most low magic, gritty, swords and sorcery campaign setting there’s some magic. The evil villains might be the ones wielding it, but at the end of the day magic accounts for many of the trappings of a setting, whether an individual controls magical power or it’s present through the world and creatures dwelling there. Even in the highest of high fantasy, perhaps even moreso, hidden magic abounds. Wizards, like scientists, continue studying the world to discover greater knowledge.
There real world adventure hooks share an element of hiding in plain sight. You might need something special to see them, and figuring out what becomes part of the adventure too.
The shadows cast by these water bottles look like humanoid figures watching you, and the D&D part of me immediately thought about a sort of extraplanar creature who watches the Material Plane invisibly from another plane of existence. The Ethereal Plane perhaps? These shadows don’t look too sinister although you could argue the one on the right sports a skeleton like quality. Kind of creepy. But overall they look sort of stumpy and friendly enough. They can only be seen in the shadows cast by torchlight on a moonless night, for one way to interpret this creature and the special task needed to complete in order to see them. But what do they want? One of the normally benevolent ethereal watchers has gone bad and adventurers are needed. There’s an uneasy feeling of being watched and local experience unusual phenomena. Items go missing, or people if you want the threat to be more sinister. Gathering local lore about these strange entities, learning how to see them, communicating with them and ultimately resolving the danger involving the bad seed sounds fun to me.
Grave of Antoine Michel Wemaer, a merchant-turned-pirate who died in 1837. This beautiful gravestone in Brugge General Cemetery. pic.twitter.com/JmfZb8BkQZ
— Lindsey Fitzharris (@DrLindseyFitz) December 4, 2019
Sometimes everything can be what it seems. When a Dungeon Master describes an overgrown grave marked with a skull and crossbones, players know what’s up. Pirates! And everyone knows where there’s pirates, there’s treasure. Speak with dead could be the first step to uncovering buried loot. For a quick side quest adventurers could learn the location of this merchant-turned-pirate’s treasure from the dead spirit itself, a riddle on the gravestone or a treasure map in or around the coffin. Searching for treasure could be a merry scavenger hunt or a perilous journey. Maybe it all leads right back to the grave — the treasure was there the whole time! To extend it even further, the treasure hunt’s real goal was to gather necessary items to open a dungeon beneath the grave where incredible treasure, and danger, awaits.
This is one of my favorites. Giants seems kinda big to be hiding in plain sight, but nevertheless Thomas Dambo, an artist based in Copenhagen, Denmark creates these giant wooden trolls and hides them in forests and wilderness areas in Belgium and all over the world. Giants exist in folklore in so many ways, and despite their size I like the idea of giants living just out of sight. There’s a really great movie called I Kill Giants based on a graphic novel of the same name, and while it isn’t really about giants, there’s some neat takeaways. And it’s a good fantasy drama story too. In the story the protagonist maintains wards around her home town against powerful giants. For a D&D adventure, checking on, repairing or restoring these wards gives characters a chance to explore the wilderness, engage in some magical mending and maybe encounter some giants, for good or ill.
Giant Hand Sculpture in Chile's Atacama Desert by Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázabal pic.twitter.com/yzdcWQRxhx
— 41 Strange (@41Strange) November 9, 2019
I mean…come on. A colossal hand sticking up out of the ground definitely indicates more than the eyes can see. Consider one of those fingers could be the size of a skyscraper. Looking for a megadungeon location? Exploring only the part of the hand visible above the ground could be a campaign by itself, notwithstanding the rest of the titan below the earth. I’ve seen plenty of dungeon maps shaped like hands, skulls or even entire humanoid figures. Alternatively, this giant hand could be uncovered by natural phenomenon and adventurers hired to check it out, or excavated and party called in for their expertise and knowledge to help the archaeologists.
The Inca Tern, the bird with a dashing white moustache.
(Photos: Ellen van Yperen, Salamander photography, Julia Babushkina) pic.twitter.com/nyVjm91CeP
— 41 Strange (@41Strange) November 1, 2019
Introduce a bird with a moustache into your campaign and it will almost certainly become a beloved NPC. I want to know what an awakened Inca Tern has to say. Are there more of their kind? I’m already seriously considering a mashup of these unusual avians and moogle from Final Fantasy. A memorable creature known for delivering mail, recording adventure progress or providing unique and timely shopping experiences sounds like a great addition to my campaign setting. Kupo!
D&D adventure hooks are everywhere we look. These come from random things seen on social media. Sometimes the mundane things of our own everyday world become intriguing hooks when you add bit of fantastic flair. At the same time what might seem relatively normal in a fantasy setting can feel fresh with a little extra magic hidden from view. Including fantastic details of surroundings and presenting new ideas and situations to players gives them more opportunities to express interest in the campaign world. When players are engaged, the adventure hooks create themselves!
How would you use the ethereal shadows in your game? Do you think giants could really conceal themselves in plain sight, close to civilization? How big do you think that buried hand is, along with the creature it might belong to? And most importantly, how soon will birds with moustaches show up in your games? Share your own adventure hook ideas below (seriously, I’m always in the market for adventure hooks)!