In opening D&D news Greg and Shelly talk Critical Role: Call of the Neverdeep, Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons as well as the Dragon Talk survey we’d love for you to fill out! Find the link below and make your voice...
This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
MONDAY NIGHT. Over a thousand islands comprise the Dragovar Empire, a sprawling and decadent dragonborn dominion of undisputed power facing threats external and internal. The heroes have just overcome an external threat posed by the Far Realm by thwarting the machinations of Starlord Evendor and freeing the enslaved Myrthon Regency a Dragovar vassal state from Evendor's mind flayer allies. However, some military leaders within the Dragovar Empire aren't ready for the war to end. Even though the Myrthon Regency no longer poses a threat, they seek to press the attack and take their fleets deeper into Myrthon waters. Why? Because the Emperor is believed dead, the Dragovar capital is in chaos without strong leadership, and these dragonborn officers are hungry. They need a war to nourish their bloodlust, and they need the spoils of war to satisfy their draconic greed. For all the damage Starlord Evendor and the illithids have inflicted, they call to Bahamut for justice and Tiamat for vengeance, yet the gods do not answer their prayers.
Ardyn, a silver dragon who seeks to overthrow the corrupt Dragovar government, has a small but powerful group of Bahamut-worshiping knights at her command. Conversely, the Vost Azaan, a sinister offshoot of the Dragovar secret service, serves Tiamat's interests by covertly seeking vengeance against the empire's enemies, in particular those responsible for enabling Starlord Evendor's rise to power. Between these two secret groups stand the heroes the ones who can tip the balance, if they dare. The problem is, unlike Ardyn and the Vost Azaan, the heroes are not entirely convinced the Dragovar Empire is worth saving.
The truth is, when it comes to my D&D campaign, I draw more inspiration from nonfiction than fiction. I find the stories of real people infinitely more fascinating than their fictional counterparts, even though fictional characters are often based on real people. There's something to be said by going right to the source.
For example, when I was creating the Iomandra campaign, I wanted to model the Dragovar Empire after ancient Rome, and so I read books on the subject not stories set in a fictional version of Rome, but biographies and histories and encyclopedia entries describing Rome and the actual people who lived there during one of the most romanticized periods of human history. I studied Roman philosophy, government, conflicts, and key personages whose accounts are fairly well documented. My goal wasn't to become an expert on ancient Rome, but to plant some ideas in my brain . . . ideas which would hopefully bear fruit and become adventures or key NPCs in my campaign. That was five years ago, and I'm unsure of the extent to which all that reading has sustained my campaign or informed the choices I've made. However, were you to ask my players what they think of the Dragovar Empire, they'd tell you that it feels like ancient Rome, riddled with corruption and internal strife and teetering on the edge of oblivion. But unlike ancient Rome, the Dragovar Empire has powerful heroes to save it.
One of my more recent inspirations is a book titled A Short History of Nearly Everything, written by Bill Bryson and first published by Broadway Books in 2003. The book is a gripping account of history going all the way back to the birth of the universe, and though it presents fascinating explanations for many truths that govern our existence, I find myself drawn to the human stories contained within the accounts of the people who've made history with their discoveries and theories. Some of these people are celebrated and renowned, while others have been overlooked and nearly forgotten . . . or, in some cases, all but erased from the annals of history by their rivals.
Early on in his book, Bryson tells the story of an English country doctor named Gideon Algernon Mantell, who I'd never heard of before. Chances are you've never heard of him either, but his story (as told by Bryson) is so spectacular and tragic as to warrant brief mention, for purposes of illustrating a point:
In 1822, Mantell stumbled upon a walnut-sized stone that later turned out to be a fossilized tooth belonging to a rather large creature from the Cretaceous period in Earth's history. In short, he made the first dinosaur fossil discovery on record. However, Mantell was an amateur paleontologist at best, and he was strongly urged by an acquaintance to research his discovery in more detail before submitting a paper to the Royal Society, leaving open the window for said acquaintance (a Reverend Buckland) to steal Mantell's thunder and be credited as the discoverer of this ancient line of Earth creatures.
Mantell's life continued to be riddled with failure, for though he began collecting more fossils and publishing papers, no one paid him much notice. This preoccupation ultimately harmed his practice and ruined his family. Mantell was forced to sell his fossil collection to make ends meet, and his wife and children left him.
While Mantell wallowed in destitution and obscurity, there arose a star in paleontology named Dr. Richard Owen, who coined the now-famous term dinosaur. In his book, Bryson describes Owen as "gaunt and sinister, like the villain in a Victorian melodrama," and "the only person Charles Darwin was ever known to hate." For all his education and gifts, Owen was fond of taking credit for other men's discoveries and ruined the lives of people he disliked. In 1841, the entirely unsuccessful Gideon Mantell fell from a carriage, became entangled in the reins, and was dragged some distance across rough ground. The accident deformed his spine and left him crippled. As Bryson puts it, Owen seized upon this opportunity to expunge Mantell's paleontological contributions from record, renaming species that Mantell had named years before and claiming credit for their discoveries. Just as the carriage accident all but destroyed Mantell's body, Owen all but destroyed Mantell's body of work.
Owen's "transgressions" (as Bryson so eloquently puts it) were becoming the subject of much debate within the Royal Society, but even a tarnished reputation couldn't stop him from becoming the father of London's Natural History Museum. As for Mantell, he took his own life in 1852. Following his death, Mantell's deformed spine was removed and sent to the Royal College of Surgeons where, ironically, it was entrusted to Richard Owen and kept for all to see in the college's Hunterian Museum.
A statue of Richard Owen stands in the main hall of London's Natural History Museum. Alas, the same cannot be said for Gideon Algernon Mantell.
The devious Richard Owen and the sad story of Mantell's spine inspired an NPC villain in the Iomandra campaign: Zarkhrysa, the dragonborn leader of the Vost Miraj (the Dragovar Empire's secret service). Several sessions ago, the heroes stormed the Vost Miraj headquarters in the Dragovar capital city and made their way to Zarkhrysa's office. There, atop Zarkhrysa's desk, they found the skull of her dragonborn predecessor. Did Zarkhrysa have a hand in her predecessor's demise? Perhaps. The skull might be a trophy and a symbol of her rise to power, or it might just be a reminder of what happens to those who aren't careful in her line of work. The heroes also found several scrolls in Zarkhrysa's desk, each one bearing a Speak with Dead ritual. From this discovery, the players concluded that Zarkhrysa was using ritual magic to learn her predecessor's dark secrets . . . and now the heroes could learn them as well.
Truth inspires fiction. In particular, Richard Owen and Gideon Mantell inspired me to create a villain who not only kept the skull of her unfortunate predecessor but also used it to further her dark agenda. Now the skull has fallen into the player characters' hands, and there's no telling what they might learn from it.
If you're a Dungeon Master searching for inspiration to keep your campaign afloat, you can do worse than steep yourself in history, for within history's vault are countless stories that will tickle your imagination and spark ideas. You can do much worse than pick up a copy of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which has lots of human stories to plunder. For instance, did you know that the man after whom the Geiger counter is named was a Nazi who betrayed his Jewish colleagues to the Third Reich, or that the man who invented chlorofluorocarbons (which Bryson calls "just about the worst invention of the twentieth century") was strangled to death by another of his not-so-great inventions? Yeah. Go read the book.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,