Dante's Divine Comedy for 5e – The Straight Way Lost: An Interview With Melina Sedó (Vortex Verlag)

Dante's Divine Comedy adapted for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition offers an opportunity to see a historic tale from a new point of view. I was able to catch up with the project manager, Melina Sedó, to ask what Vortex Verlag is bringing to 5e and Dante’s work.

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EGG EMBRY (EGG): Thanks for your time. What is The Straight Way Lost (TSWL)?
MELINA SEDÓ (MELINA)
: First let me thank you for giving me the opportunity to introduce our work. It is not so easy to get attention if you are a newly founded company with such an unusual first product. The Straight Way Lost is an adventure set in a fantastical version of the Italian Renaissance featuring a mystical voyage through Dante's netherworlds: the inferno, purgatorio and paradiso. It combines political intrigue, moments of terror, scenes of wonder and – hopefully – ultimate triumph in a world that is almost like ours in 1492, but with a dash of magic and other fantasy elements, like the half-known presence of elves, dwarves and other fantasy species. Most 5e classes are playable. TSWL is also a sourcebook and setting guide with extensive background information about this historical period, a description of the supernatural aspects of the world, as well as extended character creation guidelines tailored to the setting.

EGG: This is described as the “Renaissance seen through the lens of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy” present for the Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition ruleset. What inspired you to combine Dante and D&D?
MELINA
: When Benjamin [Strack-Zimmermann] from Vortex Verlag asked me to write an adventure, he gave me a free hand in choosing and designing the story – what a dream for any creative! Digging into my 25+ years experience as a GM, I naturally turned to a historical and literary setting in Italy. It offers such a wealth of mythical and historical background and I’ve been using it in two of my longest running campaigns over the years. I had also been intrigued by Dante’s work for many years. So when I started thinking about a story I wondered how Dante's still medieval spiritual voyage would feel for a group of characters from a time in which free will and individual expression were being developed as an ideal. How would they be affected by the terrors of the inferno and the wonders of paradise? And how would they change not only their world, but also the afterworlds they visit? My initial idea would have worked with several other systems as well. Ars Magica came to mind. But we wanted to make the story available to a much bigger audience and include a ton of evocative illustrations by professional illustrators. This is why our team chose D&D. And by adapting it for D&D the Renaissance world became more magical. All of a sudden, we had to integrate uncommon “professions” – the classes – and other species. So we started thinking about how these other species came into being, how they interact with the humans and what the challenges of playing them are in an historical setting. This actually influenced the entire story that now evolved around the question: what is the bond between these species and how can they create harmony to balance the magical powers of the world? So the selection of Fifth Edition as the system turned out to be inspirational in the way it fueled new creative choices.

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EGG: What levels does this campaign and adventures cover?
MELINA
: The core adventure is written for characters which start at level 3, and they will progress to level 8, but the book includes so much background material and additional ideas about how to develop this into an ongoing campaign, that you can easily extend it to the highest levels. We believe the high-level powers of the new classes are quite tempting, so carrying on is certainly an attractive option.

EGG: There are two new classes, what are they?
MELINA
: There are two completely new classes – the Philosopher and the Artist – as well as a new bard sub-class, the Courtier. All three are based on the Renaissance ideal of the “polymath”, an outstanding person with skills that cover a wide range of topics and define the progress made in this era. Leonardo da Vinci would be a good example of a polymath, as would be Marsilio Ficino and Lucrezia Borgia. The Philosopher and Artist classes depict people who transcend the limitations of their mundane colleagues through their intuitive understanding of the real, hidden nature of the world – something which is embedded in the cosmology we developed for this setting. They possess powers based on the direct manipulation of Permanence and Possibility, the two forces making the world tick. We think they are great fun to play, especially for creative, proactive players. The Courtier in many ways exemplifies the ideals of the Renaissance, often being poet, soldier and diplomat all in one. As the Renaissance writer Baldassare Castiglione put it in his famous Il Cortegiano, they represent the “golden mean” in the best possible sense.

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EGG: For the Warlock, you’re revising the patron. What can you share about how the new patron ties into the setting?
MELINA
: Our team always loved the idea of alien entities influencing the powers and magic of player characters but we wanted more detail about the patrons and what the connection was like. We therefore introduced three detailed sets of patrons with individual boons who actually appear in the adventure. The fey and infernal patrons are NPCs whom the adventurers can conceivably meet and therefore create a bond with. The third group of patrons – the Titans – replace the “Old Ones” and are open to characters with dwarven ancestry as they are linked to the origin story of our dwarves. They are less present in the adventure, but can be further introduced in a sub-plot or a continuing storyline.

EGG: There are new monsters and fallen angels. What can you share about the bestiary of this campaign?
MELINA
: The majority of our monsters are either of fey or infernal provenance. The fey creatures are based on Italian folklore as well as our own ideas. The infernal monsters and fiends are partially inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy, but we have exchanged quite a few guardians of the hell circles and thought up some nasty beasties based on ancient mythology and the ideas of our illustrator Jana Heidersdorf who has a fabulous knack for the absurd. After all the characters will journey through hell approximately 200 years after Dante. The ranks of the fallen angels and their minions are in constant upheaval! But, maybe worth mentioning: fighting is always only one of many options to overcome a foe in our adventure. The Straight Way Lost will offer many possibilities to solve any perilous situation with cunning or fast and clever talking.

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EGG: Renaissance Florence, Dante, and the political and religious situation during that time are daunting topics for those without a heavy background in history. Will the book break the worldbuilding down into easy to communicate options for the players?
MELINA
: Certainly! Not only do we introduce such matters throughout the seven acts of the plot in small portions, but one of our background chapters is devoted entirely to describing the world in 1492. Short paragraphs present Humanism, Women in the Renaissance, the Church, Warfare, Italian and European Politics, and much more. They are meant for the players and GM alike. The GM is of course free to research on his own, but everyone should feel comfortable playing in our Renaissance setting after this introduction. Also worth noting: it is after all a fantastical Renaissance Italy, so the GM is free to adapt specific aspects of everyday or political life to the needs of the group. An example: the position of women in the Renaissance was of course not comparable to the one we hold in modern society. We describe their situation in the background chapters, but if the group chooses a more liberal approach to allow for a female mercenary leader or banker this will be possible without having to change the story.

EGG: There have been other projects that combine 5e and Dante. How does TSWL compare with campaigns such as Acheron Books' Inferno - Dante's Guide to Hell for 5e?
MELINA
: So… I had already finished writing the adventure and we were moving to the mechanics-building phase when we became aware of the Inferno Kickstarter. At first, we were a bit shocked to see that someone seemed to have had the same idea just then, plus it sure looked great. When we looked at the information on the Kickstarter page, though, we found that Acheron seemed to have taken quite a different approach. We decided not to look too closely at Inferno since we didn’t want to be in a position where we might be influenced by it, so none of us has read it at this point. Judging from what we have seen, the two products are quite different in a number of ways. Our book is first and foremost an adventure set in a semi-historical setting which happens to involve a journey similar to Dante’s, but different in ways that illustrate the progression of values and ideals towards those of the Renaissance. The journey will see the characters pass through all three of Dante’s netherworlds (with the trip through the inferno being just one act out of seven) on a mission to “heal” the world. And this is where the focus of TSWL really lies, and what subsequent adventures or a campaign evolving from it will deal with: our secretly broken world and its fate, with the netherworlds offering a spiritual journey the characters must undergo before they are fit to be its champions. I do suspect that if you already have Acheron’s Inferno you could use it as a great resource and inspiration to enrich or modify The Straight Way Lost. And maybe vice versa!

EGG: That's an excellent point. Who are you working with on this project?
MELINA
: Our team is quite international. Apart from me as main author and project manager, there are Ben and Michel Strack-Zimmermann from Germany who run Vortex Verlag and have contributed to the game mechanics. Andreas Wichter (currently living in France) has co-authored and edited the book and designed the powers and mechanics for the new character classes. Our illustrators are Mark Smylie (USA), Jana Heidersdorf (Germany) and Gwenevere Singley (USA). The layout is by Thorsten Janes (Germany) and our media professional is Heather O'Neill (USA). Our proofreader Neil Kingham (Paladin RPG) is from the UK and our historical advisor Ralf Parino is German. The miniatures are designed by “The Printing Goes Ever on” and sound files are created by "Tabletop Audio".

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EGG: Beyond The Straight Way Lost, what else are you working on?
MELINA
: TSWL is our first original project as a company, but we are already thinking ahead. We've got some more quasi-historical settings up our sleeves as well as a high fantasy world designed by Ben Strack-Zimmermann. But apart from that, the core team members still have regular occupations. Myself, I am a psychologist who has been making her living as a teacher and organiser for Argentine Tango for the past 22 years. The Straight Way Lost was born as a direct result from the pandemic in which my profession was very much on hold. I am so grateful to Ben who asked me to write a roleplaying adventure for him. Never had I thought that all of this would turn into such a huge endeavour. Now I cannot wait to tackle the next project. But first, we have to survive the Kickstarter!

EGG: Thanks for talking with me. Where can fans learn more about your work?
MELINA
: Please visit our website and our Kickstarter. We will go live on July 11.

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The Straight Way Lost - Sourcebook and Adventure for 5e from Vortex Verlag
  • “Adventuring between Heaven and Hell in a Fantastical Renaissance Italy – Going live on July 11, 2023!”
Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program, Noble Knight Games’ Affiliate Program, and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG, Noble Knight Games, and Amazon.
 

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Uta-napishti

Adventurer
Just want to say this sounds like a terrific product. Super interested to see how you've let the fantasy poke through into the real world here and there. And that art you've shared is terrific! It's superior to the level even in Wizards' hardcovers.
 


SWLBen

Villager
Just want to say this sounds like a terrific product. Super interested to see how you've let the fantasy poke through into the real world here and there. And that art you've shared is terrific! It's superior to the level even in Wizards' hardcovers.
Thank you, we are very proud of our artists. They really delivered.

There is actually quite a lot of fantasy going on in the game, but it is (mostly) hidden at the start. Once the party leaves Florence, their encounters with the supernatural will become more frequent. And then there are the Dante otherworlds, which are completely alien of course. But one of the things that the game is realy about, is how fantastic the world will be in the future. That will, in part, be up to the players.

I just realized that I sound like a video game marketing voice at the end of a trailer. "The fate of the world is in your hands", "a game where your choices really do matter", argh, someoone hit me with a cushion, I am becoming corporate!
 

SWLBen

Villager
Well art is subjective. While I like the art previewed, I definitely don’t find it superior to WotC art. But different people, different tastes!
True that. I really like a lot of the in and the WotC books. I like quite a lot of art in pen and paper gaming, come to think of it.

Feels nice if you get mentioned in the same breath as other quality books, though. :) I do think we bring something unique to the table, though. I haven't really seen much that compares to the art of Jana Heidersdorf in role-playing, and I love it that we have chosen her. She can do eerie so well. Mark Smylie has been in the business for many years (Artesia comics and rpg come to mind), and he might be more conventional (though that is the wrong word), but he knows his renaissance and he is unbelievably good with clothes and architecture. He also painted a lot of nice maps and schematics. And Gwen Singley - I don't even know where to start. I would probably chose her if I had to chose someone to illustrate my own fantasy world (Yes, I am a gm since forever, and yes, of course I have a world!). The level of detail in her paintingsis amazing, we have one of a dwarven cottage in the mountains which is just so wonderful, there are all these roman details everywhere... She is so good at painting beautiful things, people actually enjoying themselves, places where you actually would like to be. I think I love her.

Sorry, I got carried away. Again.
 




TSWLMelina

Villager
Hello everybody!

We are super excited.
Our Kickstarter for "The Straight Way Lost" ends today at 20.00 CEST (1 p.m. Eastern).
We have reached our funding goal and have unlocked a few stretch-goals along the way.
We'd be happy about some more last-minute pledges from the RPG community. So, if you like what you saw and heard so far, please consider backing now. :)
Thank you!

Almost forgot: Mark Smylie just sent us the third of his battle maps that are available as ADD-ONS for TSWL. I am absolutely in love with them. <3
 

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TSWLMelina

Villager
It has been quite a ride!
Our kickstarter has ended successfully. I think we did quite well for absolute newcomers by reaching more than 170% of our funding goal. Now we are starting to manage pledges and finishing the book.
Delivery should start latest in November, which is also when TSWL will become available on DriveThruRPG and in our shop. If you missed our kickstarter, why don't you bookmark our site: www.thestraightwaylost.com
Thank again Egg for giving us the opportunity to present or first - but not last project! :cool:
 

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