Upheaval – The Dystopian Campaign


Love this picture.  Found it here.

So about 3 – 4 years ago, I was running a 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign set in a pretty standard medieval/tolkien-esque fantasy.  It was a good campaign, with what I hope had lots of intrigue, character development and conflict, as well as an interesting story.  My players seemed to be deeply vested in their characters as well as the campaign, so I didn’t want to mix things up too much, but after about a couple years or so of running it, I wanted something new to mess with.

So I posed the question to my players, asking them what they felt about trying a completely new campaign.  While they were interested in the previous campaign and their longstanding characters, the response was overwhelmingly positive, even when I mentioned that I was thinking of running a dystopia themed campaign.  I thought there would be a little push back, given the harsh conditions of the environment, but everyone was excited to try something fresh and new.  (My group is awesome)

The enthusiasm really skyrocketed when one of my players, Jarod, (who also co-DM’s with me so I can get some play time in), says…let’s make it a PARAGON campaign.  Since our group only gets to game once a month if we are lucky (though we do make a whole day out of it), our previous campaign never got much further then 6th level, even with frequency of play bonuses to experience points, so that an increase in level didn’t happen once a year.  So the idea that they would be able to start off with paragon level characters, not only made sense (as only the strong willed would survive in such a war ravaged land), but allowed them to build new  and POWERFUL characters.

So thus began the highly enjoyable process of working with my players in their efforts of making new characters, especially since they would have a relatively substantial background, given their experience starting point.  Not surprisingly, two of the four players that really took their characters by the reins and delved into their past with detailed backgrounds,  were both of my co-authors of this blog, Brightmatrix and Ness.  Brightmatrix posted his character’s background not long ago, which you can read here.

The group consisted of a deva swordmage/cleric, a drow rogue/sorcerer, a human artificer/alchemist/ritualist, a goliath seeker, a minotaur barbarian and a dwarven shield fighter.  It was a strange mix and I wasn’t sure how well it would work out.  Anyways, with the character portion now done, all I just had to come up with a campaign that would do the dystopia theme justice.

Destroyed City

Found this beauty here.

So after much thought, this is what i put together as my campaign handout:

Legends say that the gods have forsaken us…that they no longer want to deal with the mediocrity and boredom that comes from watching the races of man continuously squabble for scraps of meaningless power. Nations constantly rise and fall, from generation to generation, with never a true notion of peaceful finality.

Knowing the races of man only followed the examples of the gods themselves, it was time for a change. The gods needed to leave, in order for man to set right the disease that they’ve become. The gods wouldn’t make it easy though; if the races of man wanted to live, they needed to fight for their survival…their last chance at hope. So the gods decided to “cleanse” the people.

It started off real slow; the races of man thinking it nothing more than an earthquake or possibly a far off volcanic eruption…but it continued to get stronger… and stronger…and STRONGER.

The cataclysm showed the TRUE power of the gods. Entire cities were hurled like leaves in a tempest; lakes and oceans were completely drained, becoming nothing more than bottomless pits, fissures split open, far and wide, swallowing up towns and villages whole; entire continents shifted, ripping themselves apart; Mountains were up-rooted with ease as if newly sprouted saplings and flung in fury…one even landing upside down, its peak piercing the earth a mile deep.

It seemed as if no one could possibly survive such a catastrophe…

But some did.

The strife and turmoil left deep wounds in those that survived, turning them into a vicious, visceral and tainted being.

The surface got hit the hardest, having no shelter from the above ground calamities and so the denizens of the Underdark saw this as their opportunity… and have begun to surface, taking what they believe was always rightfully theirs.

The Fell, now so overpopulated with lost souls and the dead from the cleansing, has burst open; the binding torn, which kept this world and the Fell apart. In essence, the two worlds have fused and become one; a twisted, infected and foul world….

Not only have the inhabitants of the fell found their way through the gaping holes of the tear, but the feelings of fear, despair, apathy, hopelessness and madness have as well.

Safe locations are few and far between and those that truly think themselves safe are either delusional or sick with madness.

The world is nothing as it once was. Families and generations have been ripped apart or lost entirely. The world is in a wanting state of restoration and renewal, but mostly…is encompassed in darkness.

The legends say that the gods have forsaken us… but those legends have only been told for 2 years.

What I wanted to accomplish:

Personally, one of the most interesting and attractive things to me as a player, really in any RPG setting,  is the joy of exploration.  Exploration of the story itself, of all the characters in the group or the NPC’s, the exploration of the world that someone else has created, as well as the journey of exploration to understand my own characters motivations and goals.  This is something I wanted to give my players.

Since the world is nothing like it once was before, everything has to be “re-explored” in some form or fashion.  The town that was next door could just as easily been swallowed into a fissure, hurled miles away, buried by tons of rock or debris, in complete shambles or perfectly untouched, by the grace of the gods.  I did this specifically in order to not only allow the PC’s to have limited knowledge, but so that I could encourage the exploration of the new landscape and to foster discussion, survival tactics, questions and thoughts about the world.

I also wanted them to help shape the world through their backgrounds.  When a city name came up in their backgrounds, I would add it to the list and put together a background for it.  They might have an idea of where their home or city was, but it most likely isn’t there now and it doesn’t help that the players don’t even know WHERE they are now in comparison.  So it was meant to create angst, by not having little or any information to work with, but also the encouragement and pleasure of exploring a new world, where there are little expectations of what they will find in their journey.

What I really loved about this method, was that I didn’t have to create an entire world at once, I just took their current location, created a bunch of locations in a 25 – 50 mile radius and allow the PC’s to explore at their pace and on their own time.  It may not seem like much, but with all roads destroyed and numerous dangers, there is no expeditious way to travel.

I also had to make sure I could get the feeling of hopelessness and despair effectively to the players, not only of the world, but for their characters as well.

Going forward, I plan on talking more in depth as to how I’ve done this, recapping and talking about some more of the characters in this campaign, as well as how it’s moved along thus far.

I would love to hear your feedback, whether it’s a DM providing advice or thoughts, players reactions to how they would handle being in a dystopia themed world, or even just some general thoughts or questions.


About jinx_the_bard

Longtime Dungeon Master, tabletop and video gamer. Been playing D&D and Shadowrun on and off most recently. Ran a post apocalyptic, paragon, 4th edition D&D campaign for a couple years. Running a 5th edition campaign now called "The Fall of Astia". Enjoy Borderlands 1, 2 and even the Pre-sequel (which I tend to play with fellow author Ness), Fallout 3 and 4, Bioshock and Skyrim. (Games this good never get boring) I also indulge in Magic The Gathering, mostly in the Legacy and Modern formats. Please feel free to contact me at dungeonmaster.bm@gmail.com for any questions, thoughts or things you'd like to see featured on our site.

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