<Featured image from Deepest Catacombs>
I recently realized that I have a specific style to the Dungeons & Dragons adventures that I tend to homebrew and run, which I have taken to calling “Four Color Design.” This is an expansion on my previous Somebody vs Anybody theory, where this is “Somebody.”
Back in the day, specifically the ’40s and ’50s, comic books had a distinct art style, where the picture was created using four distinct colors, Red, Yellow, Blue and Black. The way these colors were dotted across the page created other colors, and this time period was called the Golden Age of Comics, which is really what I’m referring to.
These stories had tropes that were fun, simple, and easy to follow from one issue to the next. They jumped right into the action, and a lot of assumptions were made about the heroes, that were then deepened or flipped later, during the Silver (’50s-’70) and Bronze (’70-’85) Ages. Back then, heroes had supersuits that seemed to materialize when they became heroes, and had super weapons or tools they used that became iconic to their character. This is why Captain America is never seen without a shield, but newer heroes like the Punisher don’t have a single iconic piece of equipment, but just a general vibe of stuff.
I will say, the Eberron setting is really well designed for this type of adventure, with the category of “Swashbuckling Noir,” but you can make any setting fit, as it’s more of a design style than based on actual fantasy elements.
Like most things in D&D, it all starts with character creation and Session 0. This is a type of adventure/campaign that you really want player buy-in for it to work. If your group wants to do the MurderHobo thing, it’s not really going to work here. But if they want to make some iconic heroes, then this is the style to try.
First of all, when your players are creating the characters, encourage them to come up with a theme, or strong idea, for their characters. These heroes aren’t just anybody off the street, these are people that almost seemed destined to be great. Alliterative names is a shorthand for a hero (Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Stephen Strange), as well as villains (Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor) or even teams (Suicide Squad, Teen Titans).
Then, make sure that each character has something going on outside the party. This might be a part-time job, like reporter (and they report on their own adventures), they might have a spouse or significant other who they need to check on, or some secret that the rest of the party doesn’t know about. If your players need help with this, give them the question:
These other things, outside of adventuring, helps make these characters “Badass Normals,” or people that are spectacular despite being real, regular folks.
As you make your party, consider adding sidekicks, or pets, to the group. Sidekicks can be kids who want to learn about adventuring from one of the PCs, such as a Knight’s Squire, Robin, or the Wizard’s Scribe. MCDM has a great Retainer system in their book Strongholds and Followers, which is all about the sidekick. These characters should be weaker than the party level, preferably by 2 or more levels, but they grow with the party. Pets are also great, as we see Trinket from Vox Machina, The Falcon’s Redwing, or Krypto the Superdog. While these characters should usually be run by a single player, they should be treated like they belong to the party as a whole.
Lastly, and this is for you as the DM to keep secret, is think about their themes, and what magic items would go really well with them. A common magic item in D&D is the +1 weapon, but that does nothing to help create an iconic character, that is only for mechanics and number help. No, we want to look through magic items and find something that fits very specifically with each character. Perhaps even find a few, one for each tier of play. We won’t give out a ton of magic items, unless they are potions and scrolls, because we want them to feel like this specific item really is part of their character, not just a tool to use.
If we have a aquatic type character, then during the first adventure they can find a Trident of Fish Command, at Level 5 they find the Mariner’s Armor, Level 10 they find a Cloak of the Manta Ray, and Level 15 they find a Emerald Elemental Gem to control Water Elementals. While these aren’t particularly powerful, especially when you get to Level 15, the synergy they create does allow for some really interesting abilities, especially if you allow effects to stack on top of each other.
You might say “that style would only work if you know the party is going to be in or near the water at all times,” which leads me to…
Now it’s time to move on to the actual design of the adventure you’ll put before your party, or the whole campaign if it works out.
To start, we are going to give our party a city to call home. This is where we will return to after every adventure, where we can build a home, both literally in the sense of a physical location that we own/control, and figuratively, in that we will start to meet other people in town. You might not know the Mayor/Baron of the city at Level 1, but by Level 3-5 he will definitely make it a point to meet you. You’ll get to know the local vendors who you can buy your Healing Potions from, or to repair your weapons.
Let’s say that we do have our home base city be a coastal port city. Now we can have building threats, such as Sahuagin, Merfolk and Merrow, Pirates, and in the end a Kraken. When you finish an adventure, you can find out that the villain was working with/for/against another local Big Bad, and now you have a lead to figure out who they are and what they are up to.
However, a great aspect to the Four Color Design, is the Big Bad Evil Guy. All great heroes have their iconic enemy, that they are constantly either fighting, or tracking down. You can run this two different ways, either there is one Mega-Villain, and the party starts with the lackeys, and slowly work their way up, learning the secret weaknesses and where to find the villain, or a weaker villain that always manages to just barely escape, letting them also get stronger with each appearance.
A cool BBEG for our coastal city is a Storm-themed villain. It might be a Storm Giant whose minions are raiding the coasts for people/supplies, or it might be a cultist to the Storm God who is trying to summon their wrath. The first time you fight, they might be casting Shocking Grasp and Thunderous Smite, but then as we all get stronger, in the next fight they are breaking out Lightning Bolt and Wind Wall, and in the final fight they are casting Chain Lightning and Meteor Swarm, showing that they are also becoming better as you go along. They acquire Magic Items like Javelin of Lightning, Wand of Lightning Bolts, Winged Boots, or a Blue Sapphire Elemental Gem to control Air Elementals. I want to also point out, I have no idea if these spells all belong to the same class, because it doesn’t matter. NPCs do not follow the same rules that PCs do. Use Wizard or Cleric to balance out the Spell Slots/Action Economy if you need, but ignore restrictions that get in your way from running a cool villain, because the rules are designed for PCs.
Now, our Storm villain is attacking our Coastal city, make sure that they are threatening, in addition to the city itself, a specific person that the party has met. Perhaps they are going to sacrifice the Blacksmith’s daughter, or have desecrated the local temple, or sank the Fishing Guild’s Fleet. Something that the party can place the source of the danger on a specific NPC that you can play as being specifically in jeopardy.
If it’s ever not obvious what the next threat/adventure should be, then your first reaction should be to look at the characters. What about them and their backstories can you mine for content? This should be the primary source of inspiration for you, because, again, you want them to be central to the story. It’s usually easiest to start with whomever has the most fleshed out backstory, but make sure everyone gets a chance to be in the spotlight, to be the leader of the adventure, and directly impacted by the threat.
One thing to note, is that often times people confuse Silver Age tropes for the Golden Age. In the Golden Age of Comics, the Comics Code Authority had not yet been created, which means that they weren’t specifically for children. People think of old comics as being “campy” like in the Adam West Batman when Batman and Joker were in a surfing competition. This is not part of Four Color Design. Comics were not just for kids in the Golden Age, they were for adults as well. Feel free to have your darker themes, romance, hard-boiled mystery, political influence, etc. because Four Color Design can be just as dark as a Dark-n-Gritty campaign, just with a different Point of View.
There’s no need to really get into the inventory management part of D&D in Four Color Design, because it’s not exciting. You really want to cut out all of the boring parts of the game. During lower levels, the only things for sale are things they can afford, and as they become higher level, suddenly local vendors are bringing in more interesting equipment, most likely FOR the party to purchase. The archer never runs out of arrows, until they roll a Nat1, which can be the classic moment of “You reach into your quiver to find it empty.”
Speaking of which, you don’t need to roleplay every transaction, unless it’s interesting or plot-related. If it’s not a Gilmore’s Glorious Goods or the Blacksmith who’s daughter is captured, just let the party say that they went to the market and picked up a new Healing Potion or whatever.
Then, when the time comes, lets have some fun Special Edition One Shots. This could probably be it’s own article, but when a holiday comes around, find a way for the main tension to pause, and you instead have a one shot, with the same characters, canonical with the current campaign, but they have to fight the rogue cherubs that are making strangers fall madly in love (Valentine’s Day) or whatever. There also has to be a One Shot where the heroes lose their powers, as that’s a classic.