Dark Knight Returns remains one of my favorite comics of all time for a variety of reasons. While it doesn’t tend to stand up in most people’s minds against its contemporary, Watchmen, it ends up tackling some of the same themes but with characters we know inside and out. It’s also, to me, the pinnacle of the “gritty” Batman before it goes off the deep-end. (Batman: Year One is of course also great for its depiction of Batman, but I feel like that version is a lot more hopeful.)
However, buried in the backstory is an idea that I’ve thought could apply to a D&D campaign, and I used it as the germ of an idea for an entire campaign setting. In DKR, superheroes have left, retired, or (in one notable case) become employed in secret for the government. We’re told that there was a backlash against the superheroes that caused the people to no longer accept them. In one internal monologue by Superman, he says that with the Batman returning, the people will come after them again, and that “we must not remind them giants walk the Earth.”
So what if we imagine a D&D setting where monsters are pretty much under control, the world has been saved enough, and ordinary people just want to get on with their lives? In short, it’s the “future” of D&D where adventuring has been banned.
I’ve always wanted to do a deconstructionist take on the implied D&D worldview. My supposition has long been that in any realistic economy, adventurers pretty much destroy any economy they come into contact with. They bring with them huge amounts of long lost wealth back from any dungeon which infuses anyone who deals in goods and services they need. Any town would thrive on the money the adventurer’s bring. The wealth disparity between a commoner and even a low level adventurer would be huge. It would be more important than the tourist trade. Additionally, the promise of wealth would drive more and more people to take up the life of an adventurer. Yes, the risk is high, but the rewards would make even a few jaunts enough to support a poor family for a long time, somewhat analogous to how many societies sent a family member to join a Church to get the money to survive.
(You can feel free to disagree with any of these assertions, but they’re true for the purpose of this idea.)
So, adventurers become more and more common. Dungeons get cleared faster and faster. More and more people learn to depend on the wealth they bring. Larger and larger parties are formed. Escalation happens everywhere.
Eventually, there are no more unexplored dungeons, and entire species of monsters have been wiped out. All the cities and people who had been depending on new influxes of magic and gold pieces find that their currency has been made almost worthless, and now there’s no more of it to be found. It’s a fantasy world depression.
Different kingdoms deal with the issue differently, but it boils down to there being no more adventurers. Life becomes just plain more ordinary, even with magic being around, it is focused away from fireballs and more towards heating homes. High level warriors take town guard desk jobs. The few that thrive on combat go… somewhere else.
Time passes, and the history becomes murkier, with people forgetting what the old days were like. But then of course… the creatures begin to return. Danger starts to creep its way back in. Perhaps mentored by a hero long thought gone, a group of adventurers take up arms to protect what they care about, and adventure into a world that forgets their kind, and those in power have an interest in making sure that the age of heroes doesn’t come back.
That, of course, would be the party, and could play off the ideas in Dark Knight Returns. Then when they get to higher levels, they could be the catalysts for a new age of heroism, like what happens in (the underrated) Dark Knight Strikes Again. Sounds like an epic campaign to me.