What follows is the backstory for a current campaign I'm running.
This is based on the old 3.5 edition of Forgotten Realms, and picks up from the end of that timeline. I use a lot of canonical details, but certainly make up the lion's share for myself.
One of my players (my wife and partner in crime) got a look at this (she is acting as a bit of a sleeper agent within the group to help me facilitate, so I let her read my reasoning and campaign notes), and she felt like I should put this up somewhere, for other GMs to see.
Normally, I wouldn’t share what is essentially just my little schemes, but one does not enjoy a long, happy marriage by ignoring one’s wife’s suggestions. So, it is with a tremendous amount of ego that I present to you the Fall of the Realms.
It's a little long. I would have cut it up behind some spoiler tags, but I just couldn't figure the HTML out.
For those of you who manage to wade through this massive wall of text, I thank you for your time and sincerely welcome any feedback you may have for me.
This campaign marks a rather unique undertaking for me as a GM. I am, for all intents and purposes, ending a campaign world. That is a non-negotiable aspect of this campaign’s story arc. There isn’t anything the PCs can do to stop it. Their role is to do what they can to survive it, and to help mitigate (but not divert) the disastrous fate that awaits their world.
That might seem like a fairly totalitarian position for me to take as a GM. After all, player agency is a critical part of any game. And, to be honest, I have certain reservations about what I am going to do. However, I should elaborate before I do too much more self-analysis.
Over the course of my decade (plus) experience as a gamer, I have probably run dozens of ‘events’ in the Forgotten Realms (that’s including one-shots, campaigns, campaigns that turned out to be one-shots, etc). It was the first fantasy setting that I ever gamed in as a player, and it is the site of many of my most successful, longest run campaigns (at least it was before I got the idea of using video game worlds as campaign worlds). It represents a critical aspect of my gaming history, and is a long-standing piece of D&D canon.
And I think it’s time for it to go.
The Realms are bloated with power and crowded with overdone, incredibly well-detailed (but no longer compelling) locations. The NPCs have run out of reasons for not taking over/saving/destroying the world by now (there isn’t a single cannon NPC that I can recall who doesn’t sit comfortably in the epic levels). The gods wander around, bickering over portfolios and occasionally showing up to wreck mortal face in person. Ryan and I joke about the janitors in theRealms disposing of dozens of +4 Rings of Protection after parties, since they are just given out as favors.
The Realms are overdone. The map itself feels crowded to me. Any campaign of global significance is reduced to coming up with a good reason why the actual good guys don’t seem to do anything anymore. Sure, there’s that old chestnut about the balance between good and evil, and if they exert their power unduly, then the bad guys blah blah blah. It’s flimsy, it’s stupid, and it won’t hold up anymore, at least not for me.
Does it really have to be that way? No, of course not. We are GMs. We are greater than gods. I’m completely within my power to run a different kind of Realms, with reasonable NPC presence and more accessible content. But there is just something about the insanely high ambient power level of the game that, ironically, seems to suck the magic clean out of it. Oh, your character completed some ancient ritual of a long-forgotten proto-elven empire, thereby earning the right to claim the ancient Crown Blade of Myth Agnor’inall? Elminster did that twice; once because he needed the Blade to slay the Infinite Dragon of the Ultrian Mountains, and once because he was trying to bang this elven chick with disproportionately huge boobs. The elf chick was also a goddess. And a living spell. And a Manshoon clone. Created by Zass Tam, who is actually the god Bane in disguise, but who can’t remember what he is, but is also a female drow sex-cleric who has all the lesbian sex and forces men to watch, and sometimes involves them. In the teleporting, interdimensional flying cities of Nethril. Ruled by wizards made of shadows. But good job getting your new sword. I’m sure it was really hard to get. For you, I mean.
You know what?
Screw the Forgotten Realms.
The Book of Elder Evils gives a dozen examples of world-ending disasters that a GM can bring to bare against his campaign world. The options include an extra-terrestrial world-cancer comet, a macro-gargantuan leviathan whose stirrings can literally throw continents into orbit, and an endlessly regenerating greater demon who has the power to unite the nine hells against all mortal life. While a couple of the allegedly world-beating monsters in the book are rather pathetic (I’m looking at you, Father Lymic, with your sorry CR 18 ass), some of them are actually pretty badass.
And then there is Atropos.
Tragically placed first due to the merciless tenants of alphabetical order, Atropos is really the premature ejaculation of the Elder Evils book. After facing down the World Born Dead, six horny alien statues all trying to screw a space angel so that the planet can be host to their alien babies just isn’t that impressive (that scenario is, literally, the PCs must cockblock the antagonists before they manage to hump their way to global supremacy. And when I phrase it that way, it actually sounds marginally playable. It isn’t).
As written, Atropos is a skull the size of a moon; the remnant of the progenitor god who created all life in the universe. It apparently regrets this decision, and has been looking for a way to undo it ever since. In practical terms, Atropos is a planet eater. Its approach instigates a global undead uprising, and its scenario ends (unless the players stop it) with the total consumption of all positive energy on the target planet. Even in a book with a giant psychic praying mantis who is trying to extinguish the sun, Atropos is without a doubt the scariest thing a GM can hurl at his world. So I’m going with a heavily modified version of that Elder Evil for my own world-ending needs.
This is the last campaign I will ever run in Faerun. Either it will be obliterated or it will evolve into something new (I’ve had the phrase ‘The Forsaken Realms’ rattling around in my head for a while now), but no matter what, it’s time for this world to change.
Here’s how it will happen.
I’m utterly unsatisfied with the motives of the Elder Evil as written, but the mechanics and flavor of Atropos are top notch. So, with considerable assistance from Ryan, I started an extensive rewrite of it, as well as a rather complex timeline adaptation that will inescapably tie this Elder Evil to Faerun’s past, and to its inevitable demise.
The first thing that had to go was the name. I get it, the Greek fates, snip the lifethread, yadda yadda. Hate it. Also hated the idea that this thing could be motivated by some sort of ‘Oh, , I super seriously didn’t mean to create all of the universe, man is my planet-sized face red’ mentality. Daniel and I briefly discussed the idea that it might be post-sentient; a being so powerful that it doesn’t really think, per se, but rather is guided by some alien and unknowable motivation. However, I eventually came to reject that idea, based on simple personal preference. For me, when an antagonist has no motivation we can ever hope to understand, it ceases to be a compelling antagonist. The tornado that tears up your house and drops a truck on your wife may have ruined your life, but it’s impossible to actually hate the thing. It had no motivation. I need more from my antagonists than that, especially one which is designed to fell an entire campaign world. Mind you, the players may never know the extent of its motives, but it needs some for me to at least take it seriously from a narrator’s perspective.
From this was born Oblivion the Destroyer.
(I know, a little cliché, but you know what? Classics are classics for a reason).
Oblivion never existed, as we would define it. Its natural state is one that begins outside our current understanding of what it even means to exist. But its current form is not its natural state. The moon is not its skull, but rather its ship (an image that Ryan and I kept returning to was a beshadowed figure sitting on an immense necrotech throne, wired into the surrounding neurocircuitry). That entity is the type of being who could have given Ao (the Faerunian over-deity) a seriously hard time, and in fact did, at some point in the multiverse’s history.
Why Ao and Oblivion fought is a matter of theoretical debate, if anyone even has the wherewithal to ask the question (and, given Ao’s penchant for erasing evidence about his own existence, none probably do). Maybe the answer is as clichéd as the old order vs. chaos bit. Maybe it was over territory, or mating rights, or something. The ‘why’ has been lost to time. What matters is that Ao did something drastic in his attempt at destroying Oblivion; he created Toril, and a dozen other planets like it. He created gods, who then created mortals, who then went about their lives, fussing endlessly over things that truly did not matter, completely unware of the cosmic danger that they faced. In the face of absolute annihilation, Ao selected Life as his weapon of choice.
The proliferation of life throughout the universe affected Oblivion, restraining it into a truly physical form and limiting its ability to reach across cosmic distances with its powers. Ao used his very essence to disperse true, evolving, self-sustaining life on thirteen worlds, with the hope that somehow, this life would evolve to the point that it could stand against Oblivion without the need to rely on a divine spark, because, you see, Oblivion is functionally immune to divine magic. It devours the essence of the divine, be it at the heart of a star or in the heart of a god. No, Ao needed life, not divinity, to countermand Oblivion’s infinite powers.
But life itself is only a stall-tactic; Oblivion is endless, and it cannot truly be contained. It is only a matter of time before it fells every world that hosts a shard of Ao’s essence, and then not only will it extinguish all life, but it will unmake the very idea that life could exist at all.
Of the thirteen key worlds, three hosted life that was powerful enough to make a genuine effort of it. The Throne World, the Shield World, and the Heart World. The Throneworld fell to Oblivion despite its citizens’ most desperate efforts, and its survivors have proven to be one of the most sickening plagues on sentient life. The Shieldworld was destroyed after millennia of warfare with Oblivion, and its demise has heralded the return of Oblivion to the core systems.
The Heartworld, aided by the Shield and Throne, once drove Oblivion back. It injured the beast once, thanks to the power and unyielding strength of its most favored race. But now, bereft of allies and a shadow of its former self, the Heart World, Toril, stands alone in the Nightsea.
And the Destroyer approaches.
And Ao has gone silent.
Faerun’s history is generally divided into eras, based on the dominant species of the time. The current age is that of Humanity, but Dwarves, Giants, and Elves had their chance, too. All ages eventually end, as no race is powerful enough to truly dominate the entirety of Toril. But if you go back far enough, you find that there is one race which ruled Faerun with the kind of absolute authority and power that should have been built to last.
Why don’t dragons rule the planet?
Think about it for a second. They are huge, virtually immortal, incredibly physically powerful, and each and every one of them is a sorcerer. They have greater-than-genius level intelligence, they value magic items, and even a single one can engage a division of lesser military forces in direct combat, assuming they don’t simply decide to rain spells and breath weapons down on their foes from low orbit.
Dragons are ingenious, long-lived, organic death machines, whose personal might rivals any demon or archon, and who, as a society, once controlled the entirety of Toril. The lesser races lived beneath them as servants, slaves, and concubines, and the dragons existed virtually unchallenged by the myriad threats of their admittedly dangerous world.
So, what happened? Why are dragons now aloof, solitary creatures, who are apparently completely content to sit in holes all day and sleep on top of piles of stuff, stuff that they apparently desperately hoard to no end other than the knowledge that they have it? Why do the races that were their slaves and whores now wield their most potent magics and abuse their most ancient artifacts? What the **** could bring down the continent-spanning enlightened draconic imperium?
Well, the Elves did, if you want to get specific. The Elves were the first, most favored servants of the dragons; long-lived, intelligent, apt students at the arcane. And it was the Elves who constructed the most powerful mythallar in Faerun’s history, crafting a magic spell of global range, a spell powerful enough to affect the mind of every single dragon on Toril, no matter how ancient.
The Dracorage mythallar was designed to destroy dragonkind. Its function was simple, really. When the Kingkiller Star streaks across Toril’s sky (not a star, actually, but a comet on an unpredictable circuit through the Nightsea), the mythallar activates by drawing power from the comet itself. Over the course of a week, dragons anywhere on Toril are provoked into more and more heinous acts of violence, driven insane by a global, species-targeted insanity spell.
The first activation of the Dracorage caused the dragons of old to destroy their own cities, murder their own kin, and scorch their whole empire to the ground. The mythallar, hidden away behind wards designed to stop any dragon from ever finding it, activates roughly once every five hundred years, ensuring that most dragons do not survive beyond full adulthood. Those who do manage to survive the Rage by retreating to other plains or by entering long periods of hibernation.
The dragons will never rebuild. Their ancient civilization lies in ruins under generations of corpses they themselves are responsible for. The Elves broke the spine of the most powerful beings to exist.
With some help, of course.
Oblivion tried to kill the Heartworld once before. During the height of the dragon’s rule, they established outposts on nearby planets and moons, and their farseers were well aware of the approach of the World Born Dead (remember, in the rather ridiculous Spelljammer settings, dragons could travel between worlds without the aid of magic or technology. These things are way, way scarier than we give them credit for).
The dragons, united by the common cause of defending their world from the oncoming nightmare, used their superior power and magic to fight Oblivion in the skies above Toril. They trained endless legions of elite warriors from their servant races as shock troops, and all life on Toril watched as the great wyrms stood against a foe worthy of their power.
As the Destroyer descended on the Heartworld, the dragons of Toril, under the leadership of their great generals Bahamut and Tiamat, launched a magitechnical weapon of gargantuan proportions, shattering Oblivion’s hull and critically damaging its systems. The weapon, unlike any that had been used against the Destroyer previously, was powered by something which could even cause Oblivion harm: the weaponized life-essence of all of dragonkind.
Before Oblivion’s first approach, the dragons of Faerun were true immortals. That spark of unending life was the charge that drove their weapon, and it was at the cost of that spark that they carried the day.
Its defenses shattered and its frame damaged in a way it had never experienced before, Oblivion retreated. It knew that its injuries were such that it could not regenerate without a huge power source. It retreated to the borders of the Nightsea, looking for weaker worlds to consume. Toril was simply not worth it.
The triumphant dragons of Toril, now greatly diminished due to the sacrifices and losses of their war with Oblivion, turned to their servant races (ironically, the very races that would overthrow them) in order to safeguard the world against future incursion. All over Toril they established beacons of energy that would warn the lesser races, should the Destroyer ever threaten to return. Each beacon was both a lookout point and a training node, where every few generations, heroes of the lesser races would be called to rise above their peers, ready to stand alongside their draconic masters in the event of another cataclysm.
Generations passed, and the dragons rebuilt their damaged empire. They scribed the lessons learned from their battle with Oblivion, as well as detailed instructions on how their superweapon might be brought to bear once more, should it become necessary. They had done the impossible; they had driven back the Destroyer, and there was nothing to stand in the way of their endless prosperity.
But Oblivion did not go quietly.
The Destroyer came close enough to Toril that some of its impossibly corrupt structure, the bone, blood, and sinew of Oblivion’s hull, actually rained down onto the planet during its battle with the dragons. These pieces, not truly intelligent but possessed of an eerie sentience, burrowed into Toril’s surface, hiding themselves from the dragons. There, Oblivion’s essence began the slow, deliberate job of corrupting the world that had come the closest to defeating it.
This material (which I am calling Necronium until I get a better name) helped provoke the uprising of the Elves. After corrupting the minds of many of the dragon’s most powerful servants, it subtly presented itself as a material on which they could base the Dracorage Mythallar. And as the empire of dragons burned, the Necronium deposits all over Toril hummed in glad anticipation for the day when Oblivion would return and claim them.
In the absence of the dragons, the lesser races rose up from the ashes. Demons, Elves, Dwarves, and eventually humanity would all come to claim the draconic heritage that embodies Faerun. The dragons are a broken, fragmented race, now unable to amass anywhere near the considerable power they once wielded. Their ancient knowledge and technologies are scattered, shattered, and forgotten.
Millennia have passed.
The gods of Faerun provoked the Times of Troubles, leading to global strife. Civilizations rose and fell, deities were born and destroyed, and life carried on. The legacy of the dragons made the beings of Toril strong, and the horror of Oblivion the Destroyer was forgotten.
But Oblivion has never forgotten Faerun.
The Destroyer has managed the unthinkable. The distant Throneworld, heart of the Illithid empire, fell to its awesome power (without allies from the Heartworld, the noble Illithids could not stop Oblivion’s descent). Survivors of the Throneworld, scavengers and criminals relegated to the outskirts of their world’s off-world colonies, swept in like locusts in the wake of Oblivion’s departure, and used their incomplete understanding of their own people’s psionic technology to catapult themselves into their own past (and subverting the evolution that would lead the Illithids to gain the strength necessary to stand against Oblivion in the first place).
The Shieldworld, Orin, held against Oblivion for a thousand years of siege. Without draconic support from the Heartworld or its Illithid allies, the brave Orin made a phenomenal stand against the World Born Dead. But Oblivion is limitless, and in the end Orin fell to the Destroyer as well.
Back on Faerun, an archmage named Sammaster, a chosen of Mystra and Elminster’s contemporary, has a dire epiphany. Through the translation of an obscure, ancient text (penned by some mad Elven wizard, alive during some long-forgottendracon-ruled empire, or something), the archmage comes to the realization that the future of all life on Toril is to be ruled by dragonkind. But not just any dragons; Sammaster, founding member of the Cult of the Dragons, uses his incredible natural talents as a necromancer to ‘invent’ the process by which dragons can be turned to Dracoliches. This wizard has stood on the shoulders of the elves, who in turn pilfered their magic from the corpses of dragons, and has come to the ‘logical’ conclusion: dragons must be turned into zombies, for the sake of the future.
That is clearlymadness. The chosen of the goddess of magic (who, by the way, lost his powers when he raped and attempted to murder another chosen) has taken his considerable arcane gifts and done what? Dedicated himself to corrupting the remaining dragons of Toril. Why? He’s pretty sure it’s important that it happen. Sure, he’s got some convoluted rationale to go along with all of it, but the bottom line is this: Sammaster is a walking servant of Oblivion, twice removed. Anyone who gets a good look at his staff will not recognize the alloy that it’s made from; unless, of course, they’ve seen Necronium before. The substance enhances necromancy ridiculously well, why wouldn’t a necromancer use it as his spell-focus?
Without anything to stop it, Oblivion approaches. And ahead of its arrival, its vast necrotic aura has already started reaching Faerun. Necronium alloy all over the planet is waking up, energizing at the approach of its master. The dead will begin to rise, first in isolated pockets, then in bigger and bigger numbers until, at the very end, the dead will vastly outnumber the living.
The Necronium in Sammaster’s possession has whispered to him a secret long held, one that it knows will ensure that nothing stands in the Destroyer’s way; it has told him the location of the Dracorage Mythallar. Even now, he unknowingly conducts a massive spellwork that will infuse the Mythallar with enough necrotic power to turn every dragon on Toril into a dracolich, all to be immediately enslaved by the rapidly approaching World Born Dead.
The gods, inherently reliant on their Spark of divinity for power and sustenance, are more or less blind to Oblivion’s approach. Some have sensed a disturbance, but none can fathom the nature of that which streaks across the chasm of night towards Toril. By the time they come to understand this threat, they it will already be too late. The world stands on the absolute brink of destruction, though none yet know how near.
And in a mountain range in the Silver Marches, far from anywhere of significance, a star hanging over a temple lights up in the night sky. The beacon, sensing the approach of its ancient target, transmits a warning to the draconic warriors and servants who are supposed to be waiting, screaming that the World Born Dead once again approaches Toril. It powers up the war-temple below, where instructions and weapons await the hands of servants ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their masters in defense of their world.
And no one is there to hear the message.
Except a bunch of teenagers, whose nearby town has a strange, timeless, and apparently sourcesless tradition, that when a particular the star glows, children are sent to the temple to bless the waters. This traditional first adventure is always carefully guided by the adults of the community, and is a rite of passage for anyone of-age when the star glows gold.
Of course, no one alive can remember what it means when the star glows red…
And that's where the campaign begins.
I hope you found this cool. Obviously, I have taken great liberties with the FR setting and story, and just tried to really make it my own.