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.

7AdRenaissance.jpg

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.

InfernoByJanaHeidersdorf.jpg

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.

FlorenceByMarkSmylie.jpg

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.

PurgatorioByJanaHeiderdorf.jpg

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".

ParadisoByJanaHeidersdorf.jpg

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.

1KickstarterTitle.jpg

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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Egg Embry

Egg Embry

TSWLMelina

Villager
Last touches on The Straight Way Lost!
Last check for inconsistencies and missing infos in the text.
Tomorrow, we will replace some more hyphens by appropriate EN-dashes.
And then we're done! If all goes well, TSWL goes to the printer by the end of the week.
What a huge endeavour this has been.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

TSWLMelina

Villager
Last touches on The Straight Way Lost!
Last check for inconsistencies and missing infos in the text.
Tomorrow, we will replace some more hyphens by appropriate EN-dashes.
And then we're done! If all goes well, TSWL goes to the printer by the end of the week.
What a huge endeavour this has been.
 


Uta-napishti

Adventurer
I can tell you!
  1. It's a beautiful, thick book. The art is great. Although we saw some of the MOST amazing pieces in the marketing, the standard is high everywhere, and there is a lot of art, especially in the heaven and hell parts of the adventure. The printers and binders did a fine job, and the paper quality is good, perhaps even a bit too heavy and too shiny in parts given that some text is reversed white on dark.
  2. There is some nice 5E design of two new classes ( Artist and Philosopher ). These both affect reality in spooky probability-bending ways rather than big magical evocations. I.E. they are appropriate in pseudo-historical settings. I was impressed with the class design generally.
  3. Pretty much all the 5E canon is worked over, races, faiths, and skills all get modded to work in a historical magical setting. Everything has been adapted, much more than most setting books, but on the other hand far less radically than say Adventures in Middle Earth, Lord of the Rings Roleplaying or Brancalonia, in each of which the core classes were all replaced.
  4. There are a lot of flavorful low to mid CR monsters and NPCs in the heaven and hell chapters. These monsters are more impressive for their flavor and place in the story than for their mechanics, which-- with one or two exceptions-- are fairly unexciting. Spellcasters follow the older style of spell lists only rather than the newer WoTC monster design of placing spell like abilites in the stat block. As I am fine with the old style, this did not bother me.
  5. The English is excellent almost everywhere, not a given.
  6. The cartography is very stylish, and mostly clear.
  7. The book calls itself an "Adventure and Sourcebook" for "Adventuring between Heaven and Hell in a Fantastical Rennaisance Italy". It achieves both adventure and sourcebook with partial success.
  8. The adventure / campaign is a bit more of a metaphysical romp than I was hoping for, a real grand tour of hell and heavens in the meaty middle chapters. I appreciated this part as more of a setting book than as a runnable adventure. For me the links to Florence politics / corrupt church figures were a bit thin on character motivation to get people diving into Hell. The book has about 6 (great!) pages about how to design characters that would be intrinsically motivated to follow the adventure arc, and a Dark Secret mechanic to try to give characters some hooks the story can pull on, but I think that all of that kind of betrays a weakness in the adventure structure that we have to rely on building characters in a certain way. I suspect playtesting revealed these problems, and resulted in the discussions of motivation that are interspersed. I think these guidance still doesn't really cover for the weaknesses though. Basically instead of a grand tour of Hell and Purgatory and Heaven with sequential scenes, the material would play better at most tables broken up into pieces usable in other stories a la carte or as a sandbox. I.E as a sourcebook. The series of scenes on a timeline format also felt pretty old-school predetermined as well.
  9. Other people might love the adventure, and I haven't run it, just read it. Take my criticism with a grain of salt.
  10. Even though I wasn't crazy about the adventure structure, the quality of the pieces is high. The scenes of the adventure are vividly and clearly presented, with strong NPCs and locations. The GM guidance about how to approach and run chapters or scenes of the adventure throughout is exceptional and feels very modern.
  11. There is definitely a lot of Renaissance Magical Florence sourcebook material in the beginning and ending that I would also use as a setting for my own adventures. One warning: you will have to be able to keep straight dozens of italian human nobles, artists, thinkers with minor variations in haircut (+ facial hair for the men). The adventure freely mixes the historical figures, with made up NPCs, and mostly notes which is which. If you have a graduate student of rennaisance art or philosophy in your gaming group, they are gonna love it :p Clearly the adventure authors know their stuff.
  12. Using this as a sourcebook also has some weaknesses. There is a lot of history, lots of rules, and lots of cool places, monsters, and personages, but because they are supporting one specific adventure, there aren't a lot of loose adventure seeds and hooks lying around to start your own stories, like you might expect in a true setting book / sourcebook. There also aren't a lot of descriptions of daily life, locations, places to eat etc in the sourcebook parts -- you will have to pull the best locations out of the adventure parts and scrub off the plot to reuse them.
  13. The price is fair
  14. A promising start for this publisher!
 
Last edited:

TSWLMelina

Villager
I can tell you!
  1. It's a beautiful, thick book. The art is great. Although we saw some of the MOST amazing pieces in the marketing, the standard is high everywhere, and there is a lot of art, especially in the heaven and hell parts of the adventure. The printers and binders did a fine job, and the paper quality is good, perhaps even a bit too heavy and too shiny in parts given that some text is reversed white on dark.
  2. There is some nice 5E design of two new classes ( Artist and Philosopher ). These both affect reality in spooky probability-bending ways rather than big magical evocations. I.E. they are appropriate in pseudo-historical settings. I was impressed with the class design generally.
  3. Pretty much all the 5E canon is worked over, races, faiths, and skills all get modded to work in a historical magical setting. Everything has been adapted, much more than most setting books, but on the other hand far less radically than say Adventures in Middle Earth, Lord of the Rings Roleplaying or Brancalonia, in each of which the core classes were all replaced.
  4. There are a lot of flavorful low to mid CR monsters and NPCs in the heaven and hell chapters. These monsters are more impressive for their flavor and place in the story than for their mechanics, which-- with one or two exceptions-- are fairly unexciting. Spellcasters follow the older style of spell lists only rather than the newer WoTC monster design of placing spell like abilites in the stat block. As I am fine with the old style, this did not bother me.
  5. The English is excellent almost everywhere, not a given.
  6. The cartography is very stylish, and mostly clear.
  7. The book calls itself an "Adventure and Sourcebook" for "Adventuring between Heaven and Hell in a Fantastical Rennaisance Italy". It achieves both adventure and sourcebook with partial success.
  8. The adventure / campaign is a bit more of a metaphysical romp than I was hoping for, a real grand tour of hell and heavens in the meaty middle chapters. I appreciated this part as more of a setting book than as a runnable adventure. For me the links to Florence politics / corrupt church figures were a bit thin on character motivation to get people diving into Hell. The book has about 6 (great!) pages about how to design characters that would be intrinsically motivated to follow the adventure arc, and a Dark Secret mechanic to try to give characters some hooks the story can pull on, but I think that all of that kind of betrays a weakness in the adventure structure that we have to rely on building characters in a certain way. I suspect playtesting revealed these problems, and resulted in the discussions of motivation that are interspersed. I think these guidance still doesn't really cover for the weaknesses though. Basically instead of a grand tour of Hell and Purgatory and Heaven with sequential scenes, the material would play better at most tables broken up into pieces usable in other stories a la carte or as a sandbox. I.E as a sourcebook. The series of scenes on a timeline format also felt pretty old-school predetermined as well.
  9. Other people might love the adventure, and I haven't run it, just read it. Take my criticism with a grain of salt.
  10. Even though I wasn't crazy about the adventure structure, the quality of the pieces is high. The scenes of the adventure are vividly and clearly presented, with strong NPCs and locations. The GM guidance about how to approach and run chapters or scenes of the adventure throughout is exceptional and feels very modern.
  11. There is definitely a lot of Renaissance Magical Florence sourcebook material in the beginning and ending that I would also use as a setting for my own adventures. One warning: you will have to be able to keep straight dozens of italian human nobles, artists, thinkers with minor variations in haircut (+ facial hair for the men). The adventure freely mixes the historical figures, with made up NPCs, and mostly notes which is which. If you have a graduate student of rennaisance art or philosophy in your gaming group, they are gonna love it :p Clearly the adventure authors know their stuff.
  12. Using this as a sourcebook also has some weaknesses. There is a lot of history, lots of rules, and lots of cool places, monsters, and personages, but because they are supporting one specific adventure, there aren't a lot of loose adventure seeds and hooks lying around to start your own stories, like you might expect in a true setting book / sourcebook. There also aren't a lot of descriptions of daily life, locations, places to eat etc in the sourcebook parts -- you will have to pull the best locations out of the adventure parts and scrub off the plot to reuse them.
  13. The price is fair
  14. A promising start for this publisher!
Thanks so much for this detailed report. I appreciate how you took the time to go through it in such short time! ❤️
 

Elder Evil

Villager
I can tell you!
  1. It's a beautiful, thick book. The art is great. Although we saw some of the MOST amazing pieces in the marketing, the standard is high everywhere, and there is a lot of art, especially in the heaven and hell parts of the adventure. The printers and binders did a fine job, and the paper quality is good, perhaps even a bit too heavy and too shiny in parts given that some text is reversed white on dark.
  2. There is some nice 5E design of two new classes ( Artist and Philosopher ). These both affect reality in spooky probability-bending ways rather than big magical evocations. I.E. they are appropriate in pseudo-historical settings. I was impressed with the class design generally.
  3. Pretty much all the 5E canon is worked over, races, faiths, and skills all get modded to work in a historical magical setting. Everything has been adapted, much more than most setting books, but on the other hand far less radically than say Adventures in Middle Earth, Lord of the Rings Roleplaying or Brancalonia, in each of which the core classes were all replaced.
  4. There are a lot of flavorful low to mid CR monsters and NPCs in the heaven and hell chapters. These monsters are more impressive for their flavor and place in the story than for their mechanics, which-- with one or two exceptions-- are fairly unexciting. Spellcasters follow the older style of spell lists only rather than the newer WoTC monster design of placing spell like abilites in the stat block. As I am fine with the old style, this did not bother me.
  5. The English is excellent almost everywhere, not a given.
  6. The cartography is very stylish, and mostly clear.
  7. The book calls itself an "Adventure and Sourcebook" for "Adventuring between Heaven and Hell in a Fantastical Rennaisance Italy". It achieves both adventure and sourcebook with partial success.
  8. The adventure / campaign is a bit more of a metaphysical romp than I was hoping for, a real grand tour of hell and heavens in the meaty middle chapters. I appreciated this part as more of a setting book than as a runnable adventure. For me the links to Florence politics / corrupt church figures were a bit thin on character motivation to get people diving into Hell. The book has about 6 (great!) pages about how to design characters that would be intrinsically motivated to follow the adventure arc, and a Dark Secret mechanic to try to give characters some hooks the story can pull on, but I think that all of that kind of betrays a weakness in the adventure structure that we have to rely on building characters in a certain way. I suspect playtesting revealed these problems, and resulted in the discussions of motivation that are interspersed. I think these guidance still doesn't really cover for the weaknesses though. Basically instead of a grand tour of Hell and Purgatory and Heaven with sequential scenes, the material would play better at most tables broken up into pieces usable in other stories a la carte or as a sandbox. I.E as a sourcebook. The series of scenes on a timeline format also felt pretty old-school predetermined as well.
  9. Other people might love the adventure, and I haven't run it, just read it. Take my criticism with a grain of salt.
  10. Even though I wasn't crazy about the adventure structure, the quality of the pieces is high. The scenes of the adventure are vividly and clearly presented, with strong NPCs and locations. The GM guidance about how to approach and run chapters or scenes of the adventure throughout is exceptional and feels very modern.
  11. There is definitely a lot of Renaissance Magical Florence sourcebook material in the beginning and ending that I would also use as a setting for my own adventures. One warning: you will have to be able to keep straight dozens of italian human nobles, artists, thinkers with minor variations in haircut (+ facial hair for the men). The adventure freely mixes the historical figures, with made up NPCs, and mostly notes which is which. If you have a graduate student of rennaisance art or philosophy in your gaming group, they are gonna love it :p Clearly the adventure authors know their stuff.
  12. Using this as a sourcebook also has some weaknesses. There is a lot of history, lots of rules, and lots of cool places, monsters, and personages, but because they are supporting one specific adventure, there aren't a lot of loose adventure seeds and hooks lying around to start your own stories, like you might expect in a true setting book / sourcebook. There also aren't a lot of descriptions of daily life, locations, places to eat etc in the sourcebook parts -- you will have to pull the best locations out of the adventure parts and scrub off the plot to reuse them.
  13. The price is fair
  14. A promising start for this publisher!

Hi Ryan,

Thank you very much indeed for the well-reasoned, thoughtful and comprehensive review, including the criticisms! The praise, meanwhile, has put a spring in my step today, so thanks for that as well! Please do let us know if and when you get to play the adventure, it would be interesting to know what you make of it in practice.

Cheers,
Andreas
 

Elder Evil

Villager
I'll be interested to see how this is received!
You and me both! :)

Here is a link to another first reaction to The Straight Way Lost, this one an unboxing video by Fabio from Italian Youtube channel Coboldo Channel on his Instagram:



The text accompanying the video says:

“The Straight Way Lost has finally arrived at Cobolda!
A manual for #dnd 5e that takes Dante's themes from the Commedia and combines them with those of 15th century Florence, giving further insights to those who have already picked up the fateful Inferno from @acheronbooks! 🔥🔥🔥 (if not, don't miss it!).
This volume in fact contains not only a city setting but also unexplored places such as Hell, Purgatory and Paradise so as to create an exciting adventure for lovers of the genre that can last even years!
The work seems to be driven by love and dedication for both Dante (and his work) and the Italian Renaissance and this is already a guarantee for what at first glance appears to be an excellent product.
What can we say then? Thanks to Vortex Verlag for this fantastic volume!”

Getting at least a preliminary thumbs-up from Italy is a very nice thing. I look forward to a full review from them.
 

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