Dear Connor: Thoughts On A Disney Campaign

Dear Connor,

So, having not Kingdom Hearted, and not been in your talks at work, I don’t know, really, how useful I can be without many questions on my part. But I will do what I can to explain things about RPGs in a useful way.

Due to how stupid language is, a “campaign” can refer to multiple things. For instance the J-Team campaign could mean the group of characters that make up the J-team, the group of players that make up the j-team, the Tuesday night game slot, the version of the Forgotten Realms you guys are in, the story that’s happening in it, and a few other things. Referring to any bit of that stuff as “the campaign” is not inaccurate, but it is not precise. A lack of a precise gaming language complicates conversations about the hobby, and it means that writing like this starts with me defining terms that feel like they should be common.

Campaign Frameworks

Database and Homebrew are also words with many connotations, depending on how precisely you label terms. Hence my initial confusion at your question. While there are records of adventures people play, stories people tell, and plenty of things people have made that you can buy, I don’t think they have what you are looking for.

Which, other than “Has Disney Villains as, well, the villains,” I don’t know what you want in the game. This first part of it is what I refer to as the “Campaign Framework.” In video game terms, there is a difference in how Single Player games and Multiplayer games are designed to be played. You can have some incredible experiences in either one, but they aren’t (likely) going to be the same type of experience.

So, with the DV being the Villains, this could just mean that you want to do a handful of boss fights with these Big Bad Evil Guys (BBEGs), who ever they are exactly. There would likely not be a lot of story, just a loose pointers to the fights, which would be the main focus, set piece battles and tough memorable fights.

Of course, as fun as fights in D&D can be, people like other stuff on occasion. So with some tweaks to the campaign framework, we can add some things of interest, with its accompanying complexity. Give each villain a dungeon you have to wind through before facing and you get basically the Legend of Zelda Series. You can add mysteries, cities, NPCs of all shapes and motivations, expanding the framework out.

One problem with that is while Player A might be thrilled at all of the cool stuff added in, Player B just wanted to punch Jafar in his smirking malicious face. And so all the added stuff is just going to be boring for most of the adventure. There is all sorts of things you can do to patch things like this, but for now, just keep in mind that all players, including the DM, enjoy different things. Getting as many people on the same page as possible is one of the secrets for a harmonious table.

So when starting to design a campaign, the framework is important to keep in mind when pitching the game to others.

Is D&D a Good Choice?

After you have your framework generally set up, it’s time to take a look and see if D&D is worth sticking to as your RPG. If you haven’t played many other TTRPGs, it may be hard to learn if something is better or not.

The thing is that D&D is really good at running Dungeons and Dragons.  As it’s editions have refined it, purifying the core of the game, it’s lost some of its roots in stories. You can make it work, but it is probably going to be actual work to make it good. (Fun and awesome can happen accidentally, so they aren’t our goal)

As I mentioned, this falls on your framework to inform you of what you need. Your player base is also key. It’s a LOT EASIER to run a game where you are kitbashing systems together if you and your players know the core system really well. But that aside, if you’re doing a cool set piece battle as the focus of your campaign, D&D is pretty solid at cool fights like that. But if you’re doing a mystery, or a game where a cleric, a druid, and a tiefling sorcerer don’t fit into the world, well, D&D is less of a good option for you.

(While it’s not great for the big set piece battles, my specialty system is great for putting together characters that would be impossible in other RPGs)

The Party

As the individual characters will be up to the players, there isn’t much I can say of exactly how they will play once you have built your framework. I will mention that from my limitied understanding of how Kingdom Hearts plays, the main character has a team that assists in the big quest/combats. That makes it a lot easier to convert to a TTRPG, as that’s essentially what D&D is, although in most games, the party is all equals, and there isn’t a designated “This is The Hero” character

That doesn’t mean that the game can’t be played like that, however. You just need to be clear when pitching the game that one player is going to have this central role, that only one player will have that role, and if you want to be the Hero, you have to have a more solid attendance. (Running a game when the targeted main character is absent SUCKS.)

I would be interested in playing second fiddle to someone’s story, but I’m weird on occasion.

If you’re not doing a single hero of destiny, you have to decide a bit on your party is put together. Are the heroes going to be Disney cops from the Big House of Mouse? Are they tourists in a game over their heads? This is part of your Campaign Framework. You need to make sure the Tone of your Framework is consistent, so having Tourists who won a contest and are ecstatic taking pictures and stuff doesn’t mesh with a dark and gritty world where they have to defeat the 8 Usurper Kings in combat.

I mean, it’s your (and your players’) game, so do what interests you, but at least think about the tone.

The level players start at, how quickly/if they ever level up, the rate and rarity of magic items, all are things you should have an idea of, before you start crafting your story.

A Sample Disney Boss Fight

Everyone’s opinions of what a character translates to are different, of course, and I’m not going to include any numbers for defenses, attacks, and so forth. The conceptual idea of the fight is what I want to lay down. Balancing the numbers depends on player levels and stuff like that, things you need to think about a LOT, so we’ll skip it for now (its also kinda complicated and an art more than a science, so, yeah.)

When thinking about Disney Boss Battles, the super interesting one to me is Jafar’s fight in Aladdin. A lot of the other Villians are simple character vs character slogs, although the Beast versus Gaston was a good D&D fight (Gaston was the Player!) But yeah, Jafar.

The cool thing about the Jafar fight (and probably any finale fight) is that there are stages of how the fight progresses, where as soon as the Heroes gain the upper hand, Jafar changes the rules with some snappy dialogue.

You can’t keep the script to what was in the movie. You want the players to have seen the source material, so they can visualize what’s happening and really appreciate it, but if they know how to verbally trick Jafar and all that, then that’s boring. You need to lay the seeds of it being different whenever you can.

But: Throne room, party rushes in to confront Jafar the Sorcerer.

First thing to note, Jafar doesn’t kill. And not just because of a Disney PG rating. He’ll send you off to die, sure, but he loves the idea of your suffering more than your death. Aladdin, dying alone in a frozen wasteland, after having been outed and knowing Jafar has corrupted his best friend? Now THAT is how you do it. So lets give Jafar the Sorcerer a Passive Ability

You’ll get what’s coming to you: When a spell of Jafar’s would drop an enemy creature to 0 HP, they are immediately stabilized and transformed into some harmless form. They remain like this until the effect is Dispelled, or until Jafar is defeated.

This is a powerful ability, as it negates the players’ option to use unconsciousness as a revolving door, so kick his offensive CR up a few notches when calculating things. It’s also worth noting that this is a great ability for a GM to have in a boss. You could easily start a campaign with the players trying to fight Jafar, get overpowered quickly, then wake up at the plot because Jafar put them there.

Next, Sorcerers are fairly squishy, so let’s build a reaction to take care of that.

Defensive Zap: As a Reaction When Jafar would take damage, he instead takes 0 damage, and uses his Zap Attack against that source.

So he can turn massive damage into nothing, which I can tell you, is very annoying. (Nilbog!!!!) Let’s build his standard attack…

Zap!: A creature you can see within 30 ft must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw. On a failure, the creature takes [DAMAGE] and the creature is either knocked prone, or moved up to 15ft in a direction of your choice.

So a Dexterity save is intended, because once Aladdin has enough levels, he will just evasion it, and not have to worry. But Jafar can do all sorts of battle field control with this ‘spell’ that’s the main use of it. Maybe it should slide characters and knock prone, unsure. But the spell is there mostly to frustrate players. And defend the lamp.

Not so fast!: As a Reaction, Jafar can use his Zap on a character who is adjacent to the Lamp.

And this fight is supposed to be amazing, so let’s give Jafar some Legendary Resistances and Actions. How many he gets depends on CR, of course. But…

Legendary Actions: Jafar has 3 Legenday Actions he can use. He can only use one at ta time, and at the end of another creature’s turn. Jafar regains all spend Legendary Actions at the Start of his turn.
ZAP!: Jafar uses Zap
Enchanting Gaze(2 Actions): A creature within 30ft of Jafar must succeed on a Wisdom Saving throw or become charmed until the start of their next turn. They then make a melee attack against an adjacent creature.
Cast A Spell (3 Actions): Jafar casts a spell.

There, that should be fun. Load him up with some spells as a spell caster (tho he may make a better Warlock than a Sorcerer, on paper) and he’s ready for Round 1.

He’s not alone for round 1. There’s some guards in the room that rush to defend, and have Jafar toss some Animate and Conjures to provide a bit of color to the fight. As much as he can ignore a damage source once a round, 5 dudes surrounding him and hitting him a bunch is not something he can really stop. The extra dudes keep the party from being able to strategically get in position to deal with his tricks. If a single focused player is trying to deal with Jafar, well, he’s going to be pushed and proned a lot, probably in front of guards and such, ready to do some melee.

Speaking of tricks, round 2, he’s going to assume a new form! Play up the cinema, wait for a dramatic moment and don’t lock yourself into a snake. That’s his motif, sure, but leave some wiggle room. Find a monster of appropriate CR, use the cutsceen to wipe annoying spells if needed, and make part 2 simple and straight forward. This should be rather terrifying, although, mechanically, it should be less complex. A breather before round 3.

We need to talk about the Genie and Motivations. Actually, I don’t know if I talked about how you can have the flavor of the villain, like an arrogant sorcerer, without actually using any of the Disney stuff. Case in point, where is the Genie? If you’re going a Disney route, he’s not doing much just kind of off cheerleading. Let him subtly help people up from prone, give them inspiration, things like that.

On the other hand, if this isn’t Disney, then he isn’t there and the 3rd form of the boss will be much different.

The Lamp is a fake Macguffin. It’s there on display in the throne room, but it’s a duplicate and when Jafar can’t stop the heroes from grabbing it, he laughs, the lamp turns to sand, and he holds up the shrunken lamp on a chain. I mean, if you want your thief to sneak it away, go for it, it can make for some interesting play, but, as written, Jafar needs the Genie under his control to activate Stage 3.

How ever it is worded, the party is going to fight a genie of some kind. The Genie Statblock are all CR 11, so take your pick for a decent boss flavor. It could be that Jafar transforms into a djinn as his 3rd form, or he calls forth the slave of the lamp to fight them, or something else entirely as he tries to run. Cheat as hard as you can for good cinema, but, at the end, assuming the party wins, they have saved a kingdom, a sultan and the princess, defeated an evil sorcerer, and obtained a Genie and they can go where the story heads from that.

Skraz

There is a lot of potential in a “Disney” game, it all depends on what you want out of it, making sure the players are all on the same page for expectations, and that if you’re going to do the work, you really DO the work, as this would be a game you have to put real effort into.

But, I think you could reap good rewards.

I’ve endeavored in this letter to answer questions you didn’t ask and ones you didn’t even know to ask, but I’m sure there are more of them. Feel free to ask and I will answer. (Although it might not require a letter!)

Sincerely, your Gamemaster, Matt

Cheers!

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