Excerpts Archive | 12/22/2008
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Excerpts: Campaign Arcs
Open Grave

In today’s Open Grave preview, we introduce a new campaign arc. In addition to inspiring exciting and challenging individual encounters, undead can be the impetus for an entire campaign. Although mindless and animalistic undead are largely useful only as singular threats or as the servants of more powerful opponents, potent and cunning undead are best employed as longstanding foes. Interaction with these creatures and their servants can form the heart of an extended series of adventures.

The Vampire Kingdom

In a kingdom ruled by vampires, the PCs work against and eventually overthrow the inhuman sovereigns. This lengthy struggle gives the characters a chance to deliver millions of innocent people from predatory oppression.

Heroic Tier: Freedom Fighters

At the beginning of the campaign, the characters are either wandering travelers who encounter terrified refugees or, perhaps even better, citizens of the vampire kingdom who have decided enough is enough, and have vowed to protect their fellows from the murder and oppression of the vampiric caste. In either case, the PCs begin near the outskirts of the kingdom, where the major threats are an occasional lair of minor undead, or ghoul-led zombie hordes that the vampire overlords send rampaging across the land to “maintain order.” Initial adventures include escorting and protecting families that are attempting to flee the kingdom and clearing out local concentrations of monsters (mostly undead) that the rulers see no reason to displace.

At this stage of the campaign, the ruling vampires are little more than a distant and looming threat. The party does not come into direct conflict with them. Instead, the characters deal with lesser threats. While doing so, they learn the names of the distant cities where vampire lords, earls, dukes, and even the vampire king rule with bloody certitude.

As the characters ascend into the upper part of the tier, they move from one of the outlying villages to a larger city, where they encounter evidence of more systematic depredations. Vampire spawn run rampant through the streets each night. They are the cast-off corpses of victims feed upon by the vampire lord who rules the city. At first, the PCs’ freedom-fighting efforts dispatching the spawn and finding their daytime lairs is beneath the notice of the lord. However, the undead noble eventually becomes aware of the elimination of the spawn. At that point, the PCs face an ambush in their base, an attack upon friends or loved ones, or a betrayal by an NPC close to them—or perhaps all three.

Near the end of the heroic tier, the characters graduate to taking down vampiric authorities. At the culmination of this tier, the PCs destroy the local vampiric rulers, their spawn, and the lesser undead that serve them. This major victory sets the area free from the clutches of the undead and encourages others to join the revolutionary cause.

Paragon Tier: The Vampires Strike Back

The characters’ triumphs within the city they freed from vampiric bondage do not go unnoticed in the wider kingdom. Word of the PCs’ efforts spreads to the common populace and sparks similar revolts in neighboring cities. The vampiric nobility unleashes reprisals, but none of these attacks initially targets the PCs. However, the characters hear news of terrible destruction in neighboring cities whose initial revolts are quelled bloodily.

At this point, the characters can coordinate a local uprising of several hundred against the forces of the undead. It might be interesting to play out a portion of the uprising, with a large-scale battle using fifty or more miniatures. However, such battles should be the exception—the PCs spend most of this phase of the campaign in smaller-scale conflicts against a few powerful creatures in sensitive areas. The characters face increasingly powerful opposition, because the ruling vampire lords gradually realize that these heroes might be the deadliest threat to their rule. The characters could learn about, and seek to retrieve, an ancient relic of a previous age—perhaps the vampire-killing regalia of an ancient hero secreted in a lost tomb, guarded vault, or other difficult-to-reach site. For the most part, the PCs spend their time driving back the vampire-controlled forces, sometimes as the leaders of a large military force, but more often as adjuncts to the ragtag living military.

As the PCs reach the end of the paragon tier, they face an assassination attempt orchestrated by the vampire lords from the capital. Perhaps one of the principal NPC lieutenants or friends is imprisoned, serving as bait to lure the characters into a trap. The plot should be a real and deadly attempt to bring down the PCs. Make sure to work in a sneaky or treacherous aspect, one that involves intrigue and betrayal. The vampire lords are cunningly evil; they would greatly enjoy humiliating the characters before destroying them.

Epic Tier: Final Showdown

PCs who defeat the assassins are in a position to consolidate their control of the splintering kingdom. As a result of the party’s efforts, the region under the control of the living continues to expand, providing access to new allies, as well as the funds from liberated treasuries to outfit a real army. The characters also have an opportunity to take an active role in helping to organize the newly freed regions of this kingdom. They can suggest ways to stamp out bandits, to quell counterrevolutionary activity, to organize ruling bodies or institutions, or to find and appoint the most capable leaders. PCs capable of performing rituals can help rebuild and improve the free regions with magical infrastructure. Others can organize militias and police forces to hunt down spies, traitors, and infiltrators from the vampire-ruled portions of the kingdom.

As time passes, only the capital city and its immediate surroundings remain in the clutches of the vampire ruler. The nobles are all high-level vampires with a variety of unique abilities. This nobility becomes so desperate that it enters into a bargain with the Demon Prince of the Undead and asks Orcus to send a horde of demons to help retake their kingdom.

A plague of demons issues from the capital city. The PCs must defeat the demons attacking the rest of the kingdom, as well as the monsters guarding the capital. They must make their way into the city, battling a few exceptionally powerful demons, death knights, and liches. Finally, they arrive at the court of the vampire ruler. While the PCs are engaged, the vampire lords are gathering up powerful artifacts of undeath that have the potential to render the entire kingdom lifeless. With these items, the ruler and a chosen few can perform a final ritual in a special unsanctified Abyss location prepared by Orcus. In the end, the PCs must travel to the Abyss to put an end to these monsters. After defeating the ruler (a creature as powerful as any of Orcus’s exarchs, and perhaps even allied with them), the PCs are finally victorious.

Other campaign arcs within Open Grave include:

A Dread and Singular Enemy
One of the simplest, but richest, ways to use undead in your campaign is to focus on the defeat of a single exceptionally powerful and dangerous undead foe. In one such approach, the PCs discover that a seemingly unrelated series of events are all part of a plot by an ancient lich to gain its freedom and wreak havoc across the world.

The Outbreak
This campaign arc focuses on a singular and terrible event—a massive outbreak of undead. All across a kingdom, or perhaps even a larger region, the dead begin to rise. Zombies and skeletons claw their way out of graveyards, wraiths and specters proliferate in the night, and more powerful undead begin to openly prey on the living by day. The PCs must deal with a world gradually being overrun by the undead.

Thursday: A look at rituals, the Sword of Kas... and the book's table of contents!