Twenty years ago, the Temple of Elemental Evil rose, Oerth fell, and the Elemental Apocalypse began. Vortexes of power – unleashed by factions loyal to the four elemental princes – devastated the world with concurrent apocalypses; city-shattering earthquakes, nation-drowning tidal waves, forest-consuming infernos, and punishing hurricanes.
Gods died, slain by the ascendent Elemental Princes who then used their power to enhance their own. The princes battle for supremacy in hopes of being the ones who finally unleashed their master, Tharizdun, the imprisoned god of entropy.
On the borderlands of the Yeomanry, a lone keep stands. Once a bastion of good, it is now ruled by Blyze, one of the Burning Eyes of Imix, Elemental Prince of Fire. His forces rule the surrounding countryside, forcing the local people to serve him and binding power-hungry adventurers and strange monsters to his will.
Still, a few people remain free. Hidden beneath the old monster-infested “Caves of Chaos” are the Caverns of Hope. The caverns serve as a refuge for humans, gnomes, dwarves, orcs, goblins, half-medusas, and other sentients unwilling to serve the destructive whims of the elemental princes.
But they aren’t just hiding. Over the last 20 years, a new generation was born. Many have been training all their lives to take the fight to their oppressors … and the time for that fight is now.
The Keep on the Borderlands must fall!
A few things inspired the Elemental Apocalypse campaign:
- The Blackrazor Kids campaign, in which the adult gamers in our long-running Blackrazor Guild gaming group taught Dungeons & Dragons to our kids. The game used the original B2 Keep on the Borderlands module, updated to Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.
- “The Secret of the Keep on the Borderlands” post at B/X Blackrazor, points out that it’s the Keep, not the Caves of Chaos, that has the best treasure and rich stuff in the module. Thus, if loot is the name of the game, then the adventurers should be targeting the keep, not the caves.
- Our Redshirts campaign, in which we played low-level Blackrazor Guild members going up against the resurgent Temple of Elemental Evil.
The second post got me thinking. What if the Keep was the target? And what if – to keep things heroic – it had been conquered by nefarious forces? The original B2 adventure included a sort of proto-Elemental Evil group known as the Cult of Evil Chaos. Given Tharizdun’s connection to entropy and destructive chaos, it didn’t seem like much of a leap to make the elemental connection.
Today the Borderlands, Tomorrow the World!
But why stop at Elemental Evil conquering just one keep? What about the world? What if the Redshirts had failed to prevent the return of the Temple of Elemental Evil? Heck, what if the original temple – and the Elemental Horde associated with it – wasn’t defeated?
What would a world torn by 20 years of elemental apocalypses look like? Larger-than-life villains, infused with planar power. A desperate fight to save what was left of the world. And lots of opportunities for adventurers to step up and be heroes!
I envisioned a campaign where larger-than-life heroes take on impossible odds … and look good doing it. I wanted players to take the sort of risks we see in Savage Worlds, where people happily jump off cliffs, knowing that somehow, someway, they’ll save themselves on the way down.
I pitched it to our group as our next campaign … and we decided to go with it.
To reinforce the over-the-top heroics we’re looking for, we’re using the following rules for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition
- Higher Level: Characters start at 3rd level.
- Bonus Feats: Characters get additional feats at 1st, 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th level).
- Liberation Dice: The single Inspiration die is replaced with three Liberation dice. Each die can be used to do the following:
- Re-roll any result
- Double damage
- Change a minor story aspect
This last bit takes its inspiration from games like Savage Worlds and Cortex, where bennies can be used to greatly impact gameplay by rewarding risks and incentivizing role-playing. I find that players tend to hoard their Inspiration die for truly desperate situations, and that Game Masters often forget to award them (or ignore them entirely). I wanted a fast-and-furious dice economy, where players frequently used the dice, and replacements fell like rain (to quote how such mechanics were used in a Battlestar Galactica Cortex game I played in many years ago).
The campaign begins with the player characters as members of Caverns of Hope. The community is under threat from Bylze and the forces of the Burning Keep, who constantly seek out such communities to loot and enslave. Bands of adventurers hired by the keep are exploring the terrain surrounding the keep – delving into old mines, descending into forgotten caverns, exploring the ravines, and probing the burned remains of forests.
Meanwhile, the terrain is transformed by elemental incursions. It’s not a wasteland – there are places of rampant growth as well as devastation – but there are likely to be canyons where none existed before as well as spontaneous mountains.
For the first season of the campaign, likely focusing on the Burning Keep, I’m going to treat it as a sort of hex crawl, with a number of keyed hexes where interesting things are happening. I also want to have some named wandering monsters to harry the player characters with, and some unique elemental terrain for more challenging/inspiring locations. I also want to borrow from Dungeon World and have a few fronts going – factions allied with and against the Elemental Princes who have agendas that move independently of the player characters.
After Season 1 – which I can see ending with the sacking of the Burning Keep – then things will likely open up. I see lots of options for cool interplanar travel and combats as the heroes try and defeat Elemental Evil once and for all.
But first, the Keep!
Elemental Apocalypse Inspiration
- Pinterest: Elemental Apocalypse – A collection of artwork drawn from across the internet.
- Pinterest: Elemental Apocalypse Battlemaps – Elemental-inspired battle maps.
- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (movie) – The epic fight between the dwarves and Smaug in the dragon’s lair is the sort of dynamic battles I want to see in the campaign. Go big! Use the environment! Relight the furnaces using a series of acrobatic maneuvers! Backstab the dragon! (or drown it in gold!).
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy (movie) – Legolas running up collapsing stairs. Legolas surfing a shield. Legolas sliding down the trunk of an oliphant. Strider, ahem, tossing the dwarf.
- The Chronicles of Riddick (movie) – After the horror of Pitch Black (in which three suns are eclipsed, and monsters come swarming out into the darkness), the anti-hero Riddick faces off against the death-worshipping, galaxy-conquering Necronomongers. I loved the gothic, overbearing imagery of the death cult, and the sight of Riddick taking the Necromonger throne offers echoes of Conan the King.
- Red Dawn (movie) – While Red Dawn (the original, not the remake) is a depressing tale of World War III, as a tale of speculative insurgence it works great … and provides plenty of inspiration for the desperate-but-heroic Elemental Apocalypse.
- Underworld (movie) – Selena is a vampire assassin who dedicated her life to hunting and slaying werewolves. In this movie, the vampires and werewolves go to war, with scheming within the individual factions causing a variety of betrayals. It’s a triumph of style over substance – Selena kicks ass and looks great doing it.
- Willow (steaming series) – Set in the same universe as the 1980s fantasy movie of the same name, the series picks up 20 years after the movie leaves off. The iconic wizard (well, something like a wizard) Willow has a central role, but he’s working alongside the next generation of heroes. I love the music that plays over the end credits, particularly Rina Sawayama’s cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”.
- Kendall Keep Map (keyed)
- Kendall Keep Map (battle map)
- The Weem: Caves of Chaos Maps Reimagined
- Breeyark: The Keep on the Borderlands Wilderness Map – In Hexographer!
- Breeyark: Keep on the Borderlands Mapping Scales
- Reddit: Greyhawk Map, with Adventure Locations
- Greyhawk Wiki: Imix: Prince of Evil Fire Creatures
- Greyhawk Wiki: Ogrémoch: Prince of Evil Earth Creatures
- Greyhawk Wiki: Olhydra: Princess of Evil Water Creatures
- Greyhawk Wiki: Yan-C-Bin: Prince of Evil Air Creatures
- Greyhawk Wiki: List of Greyhawk deities: Used to determine which gods will live … and which will die.
- Canonfire: Moons et al of Greyhawk
- Breeyark: Keep on the Borderlands Resources