Friday Hooks – Return to Childhood Isles

Most children delve into their own worlds of fantasy. In some cases, it’s a fleeting thing, only alive for precious few hours. But sometimes, children breathe life to entire worlds, giving them existence beyond the imaginary.

When the world is threatened by a force of darkness, the creatures that live there look to their makers, their Gods, for guidance and protection.

Heroes from the fantasy of children seek out these children, now grown up and having lives of their own, to beg them to return to their world and help them face against the dark forces. This quest comes with risk; it is possible they won’t be able to return.

What is this about?

Return to Childhood Isles is a story, a campaign even, that explores in rough terms the mental changes that occur as children grow up. Things become darker, more realistic and less fantastic. We cling onto fantasy, but the bright colors are gone. Clarity between right and wrong is lost.

Childhood Isles is not necessarily the setting. In fact, this hook, told in several parts, relies somewhat on joint worldbuilding, and the group can call it whatever they like. It is possible to skip the initial part, where the player characters are children, but most of the story is played through in a world created by the PCs; it is only logical to assume they know it as well as the GM does.

Part 0 – Creation

The initial part of this story is when the player characters are young children, playing outside, perhaps out in rural areas or maybe they snuck into a construction site late one night. One of them has this brilliant idea of fantasy, feeding imagination into the other kids. They start playing games of pretend, becoming courageous adventurers on quests.

Maybe it is a more quiet game. Maybe one of them finds a book and some dice. Maybe they start playing in the basement. The point is though, that these young friends join together to create their own world of wonder.

For the players, this is where they create the childhood of their characters, one that reflects into the world that they create. If one of them is a target of a violent bully at school, then perhaps there is a troll in their imaginary world, terrorizing a helpless village. If one of them really likes candy, perhaps there is a whole forest made from lollipops and rivers of chocolate. If one is afraid of the vacuum cleaner back home, maybe there are mechanical monsters that suck in their victims and trap them.

Role-playing doesn’t need to play a big role in this part. The players should get to decide on certain things though, such as what the biggest city is like, what sort of creatures populate their world and so on. You can either play through this process, or you can have the players write down so and so many notes on paper and give to the GM.

Later on, the GM can add more ideas. The player characters may have created the world, but the GM can introduce minor details that the PCs forgot they created, or some things may have changed in their absence.

The world should reflect what the PCs were like when they were young, but the PCs don’t necessarily need to stay the same. In any case, something happens that forces the children to abandon their created world. Maybe they all move away, or maybe the kid who started it all was the only one who moved, and the rest of them just didn’t have the same motivation to continue.

Part 1 – The Return

At this point, the players make their characters as they are today. This story assumes that the characters all live in a modern world, where fantasy is a far distance from reality. During the time between the now and then, when the characters were little children, a lot of things have changed, and the most defining change is that they have grown up and stopped believing. They have lives, whether they like it or not.

Then something happens. Individuals from their own world suddenly appear out of nowhere. Maybe they just arrived, maybe they’ve been searching for weeks, or maybe they’ve been following the PCs just as long. But they have definitely come for them.

They ask the PCs for help, they cry for it, they beg. Their world is in peril, the world that the PCs created. They can show very compelling evidence that they are telling the truth. They know things that should only exist in their world, places created in the PCs’ imagination. Whether they look human or completely out of the ordinary is up to the PCs and the GM. Elves and Halflings may pass to humans, but anthropomorphs or centaurs will have a more difficult time to achieve that.

And they did not come alone. Whatever is threatening the Children Isles wants to make damn sure that the PCs do not help, and has sent some villains to do exactly that. They could be goblins, or maybe they are some shadowy creatures from the stuff of nightmares. But they’ve come, and they threaten the lives of the PCs.

At this point though, it is still possible that the PCs don’t have the motivation to leave everything they have to go save some imaginary world they created 20 years ago. On the other hand, some of them might be overly motivated if they have no ties to reality. This is where the goblins come in, to threaten families and friends, until the PCs realize that there will always be more goblins coming if they stay.

Once they return to the Children Isles, they’ll notice immediately how different it is. The portal takes them directly to a place currently either besieged or already conquered by the dark forces. If it’s besieged, they have a small chance of saving everyone, but it is fairly obvious that the enemy is much too powerful, both in number and strength. The capital city is doomed.

The PCs, along with a guide or two, can escape the city. There is a secret tunnel or a magic stone that teleports them outside. They need to get there during the massive battle, or they need to stay out of sight while sneaking through the camp of dark creatures.

Part 2 – Exploration

The second part of the story is exploration through the PCs’ childhood fantasies. There are monsters, such as trolls who bully the lesser people or mechanical vacuum creatures, but also forests of lollipops and rivers of chocolate. It is a lot like how they remember it, except that it has taken some dark turn. The rivers are polluted or controlled for money, the forests are cut down, and the trolls have been captured and trained.

What should shock the PCs is that it’s not the enemy that is doing all these things, but the people who live in this world. Kings have become greedy, money and power weigh more than decency and kindness. War has spread, monsters have been weaponized, and magic that brought wonder and joy to the world has been corrupted.

But the war ended, at least temporarily, when the peril arrived and threatened the Children Isles. At first, the nations furthest away didn’t feel threatened and continued to focus on their own problems. But when the Enemy’s forces began to come closer and closer, the nations of the Children Isles began to see how this threat would doom them all if they wouldn’t join forces and help each other fight against it.

The kings and lords still bicker against each other, and on occasion there are stabs in someone’s backs, but never any direct conflict. This is the main reason why the PCs were brought. As the creators of the world, they would need to unite it against the Enemy.

This is no easy feat, but they have the slight advantage of being considered the ones who created the Children Isles. The only problem is to convince the lords and kings that they are who they say they are. If there are no humans in their imaginary world, this becomes much easier.

The other option is to seek out the Oracle, a man or a woman who is renowned in the Children Isles for their knowledge of all things. When they speak, kings will listen, and the people will believe. The next part is a bit trickier, as the kings are not necessarily inclined to do as the Oracle suggests.

Second problem, is that the Enemy has captured the Oracle for rather obvious reasons. The PCs would need to save the Oracle in order to be listened to.

Part 3 – Intrigue

This is where the PCs need to visit the different nations and acquire their assistance. Even if the kings and lords believe that the PCs are pretty much Gods who created their world, they are greedy enough and petty that they wouldn’t do it without the PCs doing something for them first.

Some ideas follow:

  • One or more kings are too greedy to help. They demand the other nations pledge fealty to them before they can offer any help. The real problem is that their forces are big enough so that they are really needed.
  • A king demands the retrieval of an artifact, either lost or stolen centuries ago. It is a powerful artifact, and once this war ends, this king could become a threat to the Children Isles by themselves.
  • One king really hates another, and refuses to help unless that king is somehow taken out of the picture. One king or the other needs to be taken care of (i.e. killed) so that a more helpful king can take their place, or another solution is needed.

Part 4 – Confrontation

Finally, once all the pieces of the puzzle have brought to their places, it is time to stop playing defense and bring the fight to the Enemy. It won’t be easy, as the Enemy is entrenched in their fortress, deep behind the Enemy’s lines.

While the Children Isles’ armies fight against the Enemy’s armies, the PCs can reach the fortress relatively unharmed. It may not be easy, but it’s not impossible.

Fighting their way to the top of the highest tower, where the Enemy commands their army, the PCs are faced with what threatens the Children Isles: a human child!

But it’s not just a human child, it is one of their childhood friends who used to play with them. They might begin arguing what is going on, why this old friend of theirs is destroying their imaginary world.

The reason is because they need to. Because the world is already in ruins, and it needs to be completely destroyed so that it can be rebuilt. The nations may have joined forces now, but for how long? As soon as this war ends, another begins. It needs to be purged.

There are two ways of ending this. Either the PCs convince their old friend to stop this willingly, or they must take them down. If they resolve this using the latter method, the effect will be near instant. The fortress will shake and crumble, and the Enemy’s forces will flee the battlefield. The former will be less destructive, but the Enemy will reach the battlefield themselves to stop the fighting and withdraw.

What happens next is up to the players and their characters, but the Enemy is not wrong in their prediction. As soon as the threat has passed, another war begins as someone breaks their truce or stabs someone in the back. The Children Isles are beyond fixing themselves, but not beyond being fixed.

There are some additional twists and options below:

  • The Enemy represents the childhood memory that clings to its dream. They are willing to destroy the world they created because it has turned sour, but doesn’t seem to view it as anything other than a playground and won’t see the living creatures as such. The Enemy is not a child, but has gained powers to return to their childhood, if only in appearance.
    • It is also possible that the Enemy really is a child. Back in Part 0, it is possible that the friends stopped playing together when one of them disappeared and was never found again. Perhaps they reached the Children Isles.
    • Maybe the Enemy is not their childhood friend, but a kid who didn’t get to play with them. Their resentment might have fueled their ideals to create the world of their dreams.
  • The Children Isles cannot be saved from the inside, but that doesn’t mean the PCs can’t save it. Rather than destroying it and rebuilding, they can mold its progress. It is a long process, but when it’s complete it has become a much better world.
  • The PCs are more powerful than any single being in this imaginary world, save perhaps the Enemy. In fact, their powers are mostly limited to their imagination. Game mechanics that support powerful characters are more ideal, or mechanics that support godlike abilities.
    • This is not saying that the PCs are Gods the moment they enter the Children Isles. Upon their arrival, they are little more powerful than how they were in the real world. They would still struggle in a fight, but they would still notice minor powers that seem supernatural where they come from. It is only by the time they face off against the Enemy that they realize just how powerful they can become, which is very.
    • Alternatively, the PCs are not as special as everyone would have hoped. In fact, they are no more special than any other creature on the Children Isles. But that doesn’t stop everyone from believing, it just becomes harder to live up to those expectations.
  • The standard assumption is that the Children Isles is a fantasy setting, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Kids can just as well create a science fiction world, or one with superheroes, or anything else.
    • In case of a science fiction, some things might change. The nations become planets or empires in a joint galaxy. The kings become galactic emperors or senates. Traveling from one place to another is done via spaceships, and the Oracle might be a powerful computer.
    • In case of superheroes, the world is not much different, except the corruption of power has the ‘heroes’ running governments with iron fists. Every hero has their own ideas of justice and what is right or wrong, and each one intends to educate the others.
    • The Enemy forces are always outsiders though. They might be from a different galaxy, or they might just be space invaders. But the Enemy is always a force that could potentially destroy everything.
  • It is quite possible that the PCs decide to join the Enemy and destroy the Children Isles instead of saving them. In that case, the battle that was to serve as a diversion becomes the final battle for the Children Isles.
    • Eventually, the kings and lords will overcome the Enemy’s forces and reach the fortress. The Enemy will fall, but not without taking down half of the kings and their armies.
      • The rest will return to their homes once the battle is won. Each nation’s military force has been weakened enough so that no one can wage war against another. Monsters that were kept in check run wild once more, and the armies have their handful pushing them back. There is no war for generations while the nations rebuild.
    • If the PCs fight with the Enemy against the kings and their armies, it is very possible that they might win, especially if the very nature of them being the creators of Children Isles grants them powers (as discussed above).
      • From here, rebuilding the Children Isles begin. It is a slow process, but there is no war. The Enemy, now referred to as the Savior, sets themselves as the ruler over everything, but the others start to feel the Savior has no control over their own ambition.
      • The Savior begins making plans. It was not easy, but they managed to save this world from itself. Why shouldn’t they do the same for their own homeworld?
  • Every good fantasy needs a villain, and it is possible the PCs created one when they were younger. Perhaps it was an evil warlord inspired by their math teacher. Perhaps it was a corruptive witch inspired by the old lady with cats. Whoever it was, their legacy continues.
    • The old villain of their nightmares is actually the one controlling the Enemy to destroy the Children Isles. They intend to control the Enemy as a puppet to further their goals.
    • On an entirely different side of the coin, the old villain is actually the only one who is genuinely trying to save the Children Isles, and is willing to help the PCs. In fact, it was the villain who sent for them.
  • A Part 5 can be added to the story, which is the PCs return to the mundane world. They’ve lost all their special abilities, but their view on the world has hopefully been changed for the better. The world may not be such a great place, but even the ordinary can be special enough to change it.

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