Ideas for a Fairy Tale Campaign Setting
This week on the Campaign Trail I’m continuing to look at campaign settings that go beyond the typical fantasy worlds most of us play in each week. In each article in the series, I’ll provide notes on running a campaign (or adventure) in a campaign setting inspired by less typical D&D settings and genres such as lost world, steampunk, ancient mythology, pirates, gun-fu, sci-fi, wild west and more. My weekly game in the Seas of Vodari has my players slowly progressing towards a forest-covered island, where I’m sure they’ll encounter some fairies and other Fey. I thought that this week we could look at Ideas for a Fairy Tale Campaign Setting. I’m not referring to a trip to the Feywild, but actual storybook fairy tales like we see in movies such as Frozen, Tangled, Maleficent, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and Snow White and the Huntsman.
Fairy Tale | Prehistoric/Lost World | Steampunk | Wild West
What is a Fairy Tale?
A fairy tale is simply a children’s story about magical and imaginary beings and lands. Fairy tales are usually shorter in length and often include magic, enchantments and other fantastical elements. The tales typically features dwarves, elves, fairies, giants, gnomes, goblins, mermaids, trolls, witches and other European folkloric fantasy characters. A fairy tale is is set once upon a time and is different from legends (which involve belief that they contain some historical truth) and beast fables (which focus heavily on morals).
Getting the Setting Right
Fantasy, Romance, Comedy, Horror, Action, and other play styles can work well in a fairy tale setting. Games with lots of fairy tale elements can also work well for children who are first being introduced to tabletop RPGs or be used to scare adults. Regardless of which style of play you want to run, if you want to really enjoy a fairy tale inspired setting you should try to keep the following in mind:
- Fairy tales were originally intended for all ages, but for a long period of time, they were presented as children’s stories most famously in the form of Disney musicals. We are seeing a return to darker fairy tales in movies, books, and tv.
- Very few fairy tales actually feature fairies. The name of the genre can be traced to Madame d’Aulnoy’s Les Contes de Fées, which appeared only after literary fairy tales became all the rage. Folklore experts have even tried to give this category of stories a more accurate name such as “wonder tale”.
- Several extremely popular tales such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Rumpelstiltskin did include folkloric fairies.
Which rules are the best fit for running a game in this setting? There are lots of good matches out there for a Fey/Fairy Tale set adventure or campaign.
- Dungeons & Dragons
- Dungeonland a module for D&D that adapts Alice & Wonderland
- Rage of Demons – Out of the Abyss – this storyline coming out this fall for D&D 5e hints at a “wonderland”, but will be demon-heavy.
- Creature Crucible – Tall Tales of the Wee Folk (1989) – I just read this supplement after it was recommended to me on Facebook. This book provides society notes for DMs and racial information for players to play brownies, sprites, dryads, leprechauns, centaurs, pixies, fauns, hsaio, pookas, sidhe, treants, wood imps, and woodrakes as PCs. It also details rules for special woodland magic and provides a number of adventures (for various level ranges) in a Dreamland/Woodland Realm setting.
- Snow White – A current Kickstarter by Adventureaweek.com
- Grimm RPG (Fantasy Flight Games)
“Everyone knows the Brothers Grimm scoured the lands of their native country for folk stories and compiled them into a book that came to be known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. What is less widely accepted is that these stories had their basis in reality, or at least in truth. With the completion of the book, the Grimm Lands became something more than a fable, but something less than real.You will play children trapped in the Grimm Lands. Your powerful imagination is a blessing and curse — it gives you power in the land of fairy tales, but may also be the thing keeping you here.”
- Big Bad Hunters – “Big, Bad Hunters is a detective story set in a twisted fairy-tale world.”
- FirstFable – “a simple, elegant game designed to help adult gamers introduce young players to the joys of roleplaying. Appropriate for players as young as 6 years old, FirstFable was designed by professionals in both game design and education, and is available, free of charge, to anyone who wishes to use it.”
- No Thank You Evil – “A Game of Make-believe for Creative Kids and Their Families”
- Five Hundred Kingdoms – “You will be made into a fairy tale archetype, whether you like it or not.”
- Grimm – David Goodwin: The tv show characters, fairy tale monster hunter conflict.
- Grimm Tales – Kids vs Fairy Tales, inspired by the Grimm RPG.Big, Bad Hunters is a detective story set in a twisted fairy-tale world.
- Into the Woods – A post-apocalyptic Fairy Tale.
- Lost Girl – Characters from the tv show Lost Girl.
- Space Age Tales — Fairy Tale Characters in Space.
Classes & Races
If you are going to try to run a campaign that is heavy with fairy tale themes using a d20 system, you’ll need to make sure all the classic characters are available for play.
- Knights. A Paladin or Fighter can both work here, depending on how much divine magic you want to allow.
- Rogues. Rogues of any flavor are a great fit, especially assassins and swashbucklers. A rogue doesn’t have to be a villain. Finn in Tangled is an example of a Fairy Tale swashbuckling rogue who makes a Han Solo like arc from scoundrel to hero.
- Unlikely Heros. The hero from a humble background (or even an orphan) who ends up at the center of an incredible adventure. Any class will due and look to Jack the Giant Slayer for ideas.
- Magic Users. The old man wizard, sorcerer or any magic user fits fine here. Warlocks can fit well, especially with a Fey pacts or playing on the witch angle.
- Fairyfolk. Don’t fight it. Let people play a pixie with charm spells and flight.
- Talking Animals. Playing Puss ‘n Boots or any original talking animal PC could really work. You could even try out having the animal PC only being able to talk to one of some of the PCs (create a Princess class that has Animal Talk as a skill).
- Hunter/Woodsman. The ranger fits well into a fairy tale setting, we see Chris Hemsworth show his expertise in the forest in Snow White and the Huntsman.
- Bards. Ariel in The Little Mermaid could be a powerful bard. The Pied Piper is another example from fairy tales. The traveling minstrel is a great fit for the tavern or royal court.
- Clerics & Monks. Clerics and monks can fit into fairy tales. You can play in the healing skills like in the movie Tangled or look to the amazing The Secret of Kells (2009) for ideas.
- Princesses. Kids and grown-ups are going to want to play Princesses, but modern Princesses are not damsels in distress. Any class with a noble background can be used or create a custom Princess class that matches. Even better, if they really want to run knights and princesses – try a more flexible and narrative system like FATE. If you are running d20 and players want a “princess”…
- Fiona from Shrek with her strong unarmed combat skills and the other combat princesses
- Rapunzel from Tangled with her amazing healing abilities
- Elsa from Frozen who is a strong elemental caster
- Humans. The default race. Try mixing it up a bit and adding in some diversity to avoid having only white Europeans.
- Elves & Eladrin. I’d skip the small Keebler-style elves and keep elves as long-lived forest dwellers. If you want to push some serious Fey elements then throw some eladrin in too.
- Halflings. It seems like dwarves are more popular in fairy tales, but I think that halflings would fit fine.
- Dwarves & Gnomes: “Hi-ho, it’s off to work we go.” Dwarves and gnomes often look similar in many fairy tales and I think having one of both of these races as options fits perfect in this setting.
- Pixies, Sprites, Brownies, Fairies. Yes! All of these belong and you should consider offering them as balanced PC options. The brownies in Willow are awesome and I’ve seen some decent Pixie race build for D&D 5e floating around.
- Other Races. Introduce whatever you like, but the classic fairy tale type races play best in a fairy tale setting. You might consider offering changelings as an option. If you really want to open things up you can provide PC racial options for brownies, sprites, dryads, leprechauns, centaurs, pixies, fauns, hsaio, pookas, sidhe, treants, wood imps, and woodrakes.
Allies & Enemies
- Unicorns & Pegasus. Epic mounts.
- Satyrs & Centaurs
- Bluebeard. A wealthy aristocrat and serial wife murderer with countless aliases you can use.
- Talking Animals. The Big Bad Wolf, Puss in Boots, The Three Bears. Talking animals seem to be found to act as friends as often as tricksters. Beware the fox.
- Giants. Fee-fi-fo-fum!
- Fomorians. According to mythology, a semi-divine race who inhabited Ireland in ancient times.
- Boggarts, Goblins, Leprechauns, Imps
- Gremlins. If you are doing modern take, these work great as they love to ruin machinery – especially planes.
- Changelings. The offspring of a fairyfolk that has been secretly left in the place of a human child.
- Werewolves. Sometimes the big bad wolf is the person you least suspect. See Red Riding Hood (2011) for ideas.
- Trolls. Throw them under a bridge with riddles or anywhere for a tough and iconic fight.
- Ogres. These monsters used to be horrible baby eating monsters until Shrek came along.
- Dragons. Kill the dragon, save the princess, get the treasure. A classic D&D and fairy tale story, why skip it?
- Evil Wizard
- The Wicked Witch. A witch, hag or crone is an old standard in fairy tales from Hansel & Gretal to Rapunzel. The only good wicked witch is one burned on a stake or cooking in an oven.
- The Meddlesome Fairy. This character is seen in fairy tales such as Cinderella and Maleficent. Bargains even with good natured fairies should be carefully considered. Let’s lump in fairies, dryads, nymphs, pixies, satyrs, brownies and sprites all together.
- The Charming Prince. It seems like the charming prince is the bad guy these days, like we saw in Frozen.
- The Beautiful Damsel. Take this archetype found in most fairy tales and turn it into a trap where a wicked witch, succubus, siren or some other monster is impersonating a beautiful damsel. If she is good, then maybe a reward can be won?
Get Enchanted. Mix the real world with the Fairy Tale world. This is done well in the movie Enchanted and on the TV shows Beauty & the Beast (1991 & 2012), Once Upon a Time and Lost Girl and in comics in Fables. You can also change the setting to outer space or try post apocalyptic.
Fracture It. Take a well know fairy tale and change the characters, setting, points of view, or plots. Maleficent is a great example where we get a new take on Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the so called villain. Shrek takes the ogre fairy tale monster and turns him into the hero.
Leave Europe. There are tons of other places in the world with their own folklore to draw from. Take a look at Japanese, African, Native American or any folklore from outside of Europe.
Try More Recent Works. Stardust, Ella Enchanted, Peter and the Wolf, The Neverending Story, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz are other examples of more recent fairy tale stories.
Sources for More Fairy Tale Ideas
TV. Beauty & the Beast (1991 & 2012), Once Upon a Time and Lost Girl.
Movies. Frozen, Tangled, Maleficent, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), Jack the Giant Slayer
(2013), Snow White and the Huntsman, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Labyrinth, Ella Enchanted (2004), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and all the other Disney Princess movies.
Books. Perrault’s Cinderella, The Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, Stardust (Neil Gaiman).
Comics: Check out Fables, similar to TV’s Once Upon a Time, but way, way better. Fairy tale people have been forced from their homeland to New York City.
Podcasts. The Gameable Disney Podcast provides excellent analysis of every Disney movie and how you could use each as a setting for a RPG campaign world.