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A World Without Heroes: A 1st to 20th level Campaign Outline
by Mike on 3 January 2022
What if no heroes had come to save the Sword Coast?
What if all of the events from Tyranny of Dragons, Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss, Tomb of Annihilation, Descent into Avernus, and Rime of the Frostmaiden took place but no heroes were around to stop them?
What if Tiamat's rise wasn't stopped and the queen of dragons now ruled over the Sword Coast from a golden ziggurat floating over Waterdeep?
What if none thwarted the demon princes summoned to the underdark and now Demogorgon rules Menzoberranzan against Orcus's undead illithids?
What if the Cult of Eternal Flame defeated the three other cults of elemental evil and now Imix sits upon a throne of molten iron in the center of the scorched remains of the Dessarin Valley?
What if Acererak's atropal devoured the souls of millions and became a new dark god nestled in the island of Chult?
What if Elturel was never saved, leaving a bleeding wound in the earth leading down to the hellscape of Avernus while the corruption of devils devours neighboring Baldur's Gate?
What if Auril turned everything north of the Spine of the World into a lifeless glacier slowly making its way south?
What if all of these things happened at once?
That is the seed for this campaign outline I call "A World Without Heroes". This is one of a number of campaign outlines I've written including the following:
The Truths of the World Without Heroes.
- Tiamat rules the Sword Coast. Having ascended from Avernus, the queen of dragons rules from a huge ziggurat floating above the city of Waterdeep as the Sword Coast's god-queen.
- The demon lords now rule the underdark. Demogorgon rules Menzoberranzan, its people now driven insane by the demon prince's chaos while Orcus has built an army of undead illithids.
- In a bloody battle between the cults elemental evil, the cult of Eternal Flame destroyed the other three and now Imix sits upon a throne of molten iron in the scorched land once known as the Dessarin valley.
- The archlich Acererak birthed a dark god fed on a million lost souls. The twisted horror lies in its creche from the dead city of Omu in the heart of the poisoned land of Chult.
- A hell-hole now sits where the city of Elturel once stood. Scheming devils led by the corrupt High Duke Thalamra Vanthampur and the pit fiend Gargauth overran the city of Baldur's Gate.
- The Frostmaiden's rime destroyed everything north of the Spine of the World and now makes its way south of the mountains threatening Mirabar and Luskan.
This campaign could start in a number of adventure-filled locations. Choosing a location to start may be an important consideration in your session zero. Each starting location brings a very different theme to the campaign, particularly in the lower tiers.
These locations include:
- Mirabar. The characters reside with the dwarves of Miribar crushed between Auril's terrible mile-high glacier slowly destroying the spine of the world and the scorched lands of the Dessarin valley and its elemental prince, Imix, to the south.
- Waterdeep. The characters scrape by, surviving in the ruins of the once mighty city of Waterdeep. The corrupted masked lords hunt down any sign of disobedience against Tiamat while criminal gangs rule the ten neighborhoods of the massive city, all of which sit under the shadow of Tiamat's golden ziggurat.
- Baldur's Gate. The characters hide in the hovels of Baldur's Gate fighting alongside the city's survivors and rebels against the devilish influences now ruling the city. They struggle against High Duke Vanthampur and her pit-fiend ally, Gargauth, as the fiendish duo crushes what little good remains in Baldur's Gate.
- Port Nyanzaru. The once lush lands of Chult now lie dead and diseased as Acererak's newly born god devours all life on the island. Undead hordes smash against the city gates of the once mighty port city while the people left inside fight for their meager existence and try to sail the poisoned seas to the Sword Coast seeking a peace they will not find.
- Blingdenstone. Travelers of the underdark hidden away from the chaos of the Rage of Demons make their way to the hidden city of Blingdenstone. There they keep the city hidden from the eyes of the warring demon princes raging through the Underdark.
Secrets of the Land
These hidden secrets help fuel the GM's imgination when running a campaign in this grim setting:
- Lord Neverember, ruler of Neverwinter and the last survivor of the Lord's Alliance, now swears fealty to Tiamat.
- The demon princes Jubilex and Zuggtmoy have wed and now rule side by side in the Neverlight Grove in the Underdark.
- Szass Tam has forged a truce with the dragon queen, although he recognizes that such a truce can never hold Tiamat back should her eyes fall upon Thay. He could be a powerful ally for those strong enough to threaten the queen.
- Imix's fire and Auril's glacier will one day crash together in a catacalysmic war. It's quite possible the minions of the two could be used against one another.
- The power of Acererak's newborn god competes with the undead nation of Thay. Szass Tam wishes to destroy the god, or perhaps capture it for himself.
- Orcus has corrupted an elder brain of the illithids and now rules over an army of undead mindflayers.
- The twin heads of Demogorgon war with one another across the city of Menzoberranzan, setting half of the city's drow against the other half. A hidden cabal of drow priestesses, still loyal to Lolth, seeks every option to destroy the prince of chaos.
- High Duke Thalamra Vanthampur completed a pact with the pit-fiend Gargauth to serve the souls of Baldur's Gate to Avernus. This pact, however, goes against the wishes of the archdevil Zariel who sees it as a betrayal.
Part of the fun of running a twisted campaign like this is bringing in unlikely allies and quest NPCs. Here are a few we might consider:
- Szass Tam. The lich ruler of Thay may not like all these new big players in his sandbox (ahem). Once the characters show their quality, the lich may recruit them and offer them powerful weapons to defeat the new rulers of the Sword Coast. Of course, he may just as likely betray them if it serves his interest.
- Acererak. Perhaps the archlich got more than he bargained for with the birth of a new god. Parenthood isn't for everyone it seems. Maybe the being outstripped Acererak's own power and now the archlich seeks the god's end.
- Manshoon. The former lord of the Zhentarim may have changed his position now that the other rulers of the Sword Coast are gone. Perhaps the Zhentarim are the new Harpers and one of the remaining clones of Manshoon serves as their leader, hoping to return order to the chaotic Sword Coast.
- Iymrith. The ancient blue dragon sorceress may have found her loyalty to Tiamat waning as she sees the dragon queen's results first hand. Like Brutus to Caesar, betrayal may be inevitable and the characters may be just the knife she needs to slide into Tiamat's back.
- The Xanathar. The crime lord of Skullport may not appreciate the new leadership floating above Waterdeep and seeks heroes willing to make life harder for the dragon queen and her corrupt masked lords.
- Halaster Blackcloak. The once mad mage of Undermountain may be one of the few beings left who possesses the power to push back the gods, demon lords, and elder evils that now walk the Sword Coast.
- Lolth. Sure, having the demon princes battling each other in the underdark has been fun. The twin heads of Demogoron have done their jobs of culling the weak and raising the strong, but enough is enough. It's time for this to end. And who better to end it than these new heroes who seem to be making a name for themselves.
- Zariel. Seated upon a throne on the dead city of Elturl floating in the river Styx in Avernus, the archdevil of Avernus does not like the growth of power she sees with the fiend Gargauth. Deep within her, a spark of good still hopes the heroes can overcome the fiends devouring the souls of those she once served.
As you can see, many of the once former villains in the Sword Coast could become fun allies as the titans walk the land.
Quests and Adventures from 1st to 20th Level
Rather than list out individual quests for each tier, considering that a group could start in numerous areas, I'll describe instead the types of quests characters might go on at each tier.
One great advantage of a campaign like this is that we can use a lot of material from existing published adventures including Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss, Tyranny of Dragons, Tomb of Annihilation, Descent into Avernus, and Rime of the Frostmaiden. We can pilfer a great deal of locations, maps, artwork, and NPCs from these adventures for use in our own dreadful campaign. Players who have played these adventures can enjoy returning to these people and places with this new spin.
1st through 4th Level: Facing Local Problems
At the first tier of play the characters likely face problems local to their starting location. They may battle invading forces from one or two of the titans now ruling over the Sword Coast but at this level, they cannot hope to face one of the beings. Instead, their goal is to help those who remain survive under the iron grip of the beings who now rule the land.
Quests in this tier might include rescue missions, reconnaissance missions against enemy strongholds, defeating local tyrants, defending local strongholds, and saving those who cannot withstand the terror of the titans now ruling the Sword Coast.
5th through 10th Level: Breaking Regional Barriers
At the second tier of play, the characters will begin to break into new areas, seeing the effects of more than one of the titans ruling over the Sword Coast. They may begin small revolutions against local lords allying with these mighty rulers. The initial stages of plans to push back, maybe even defeat, the lords might begin to take place.
Quests in this tier might include aiding refugees leaving one area for another, bringing important messages to new lands, bringing together networks of resistance across the lands, disrupting the plans of mid-level leaders of the arch-villains, seeking forgotten secrets of the Sword Coast, and finding lost artifacts that can aid in the war against the titans.
11th through 16th Level: Dethroning the Elder Evils
Once the characters hit tier three they're ready to begin taking on some of the less powerful elder evils such as Imix or the demon princes in the Underdark. They might pit one elder evil against another, perhaps even allying with one to defeat another before betraying the first. This whole part of the campaign may play out like Fistful of Dollars, with the characters pitting one great evil against another. In the latter part of this tier, they should be powerful enough to fight and even defeat a number of the titans. Doing so, however, creates a vacuum other titans soon fill, making it that much harder.
Quests in this tier might involve retrieving the weapons needed to defeat the titans in long-forgotten vaults, secret missions to pit one arch villain against another, infiltration into the lairs of the lower titans, and the assassination of generals.
17th through 20th level: Godslayers
Finally the characters reach the level of power to face the gods who have taken over the Sword Coast including Auril, Acererak's atropal, and, of course, Tiamat.
Many of the quests and adventures in this tier involve infiltrations of the lairs of the gods, defeating their last lieutenants, and facing off against the gods themselves.
A Dark "What If"
Campaigns like this are a fun way to take the common understandings of the published adventures within the Sword Coast and turn it on its head. It makes those who know the Realms open their eyes and mouths wide as their head spins with the implications of so many elder evils ruling over the Sword Coast at once. It likewise shakes up our own imaginations, opening up tremendous possibilities for powerful campaigns.
Use the ideas in this article to fuel your own "what if" scenarios and let your imagination run wild!
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