After several years of running tabletop one-offs I decided to try a campaign format that would let casual players hop in and out without straining disbelief while allowing for dedicated players to get more deeply involved in the world. I rebooted a campaign that I had tried to run in University but which had floundered due to my lack of follow-through back then. It has been my first successful tabletop campaign, we are currently at forty-three sittings and the plan is to wrap it up in May. I thought that I’d share the premise here as well as PDFs of the Guildmember and Guildmaster info sheets.
It is said that no greater glory has ever graced the material plane than the Imperial Capital of the Elves, Maelyl Vaerdos. This glorious city sprawled over an entire continent and was filled with wonders undreamed of by the civilizations that came afterwards. In a single horrid night all of this was lost, the whole continent laid to waste by a great calamity that sank half of it beneath the sea and left the whole of it haunted by innumerable spirits by night. It was years before foolhardy adventurers returned here, risking their mortal existences in the pursuit of long lost Elven riches. You are one of those adventurers.
The concept is that the three players who are available on a regular basis are the founding members and guild masters of an adventurer’s guild that’s exploring/looting the ruins of a vast ancient city. Each of the guild masters has a deep personal motivation for this – one is a merfolk looking for a cure for a family member cursed by an ancient elf artifact, one is a sentient construct looking for a ‘sibling’ that disappeared in the ruins, and one is an ancient undead elf looking to understand the cataclysm that destroyed his nation (found in the first sitting buried under a collapsed building). Players who have less availability are guild members who have other professions and who only join up with the guild to adventure occasionally.
I’ve highlighted nearly a hundred points of interest in the ruins to serve as adventures with some clearly identified through gather information as being way above their challenge rating or environmentally challenging (there’s a very hot ruin for instance) while most of the others I plan to adjust to be appropriately challenging. There are also several settlements around the ancient ruins which can offer alternative adventures to dungeon crawls (for example; a rival guild might abduct one of the guildmasters who has intimate knowledge of the ruins necessitating a rescue mission, the guild could get political by freeing some elven slaves from one of the more evil settlements, etc). Each night the ruins are haunted by innumerable elven ghosts which put a time limit on exploration and along with aberrations below ground / magical beasts above ground explain why the ruins haven’t been completely plundered by this point.
I’m trying to keep things in the “sweet spot” as long as possible, in Pathfinder I feel that that’s from around level 8 to around level 16. I’m not using experience points but just ruling that everyone active or inactive is the same level. That means that the primary power differentiation will be wealth which, of course, has lead to some extreme disparities…especially since I let the players handle wealth distribution. I balanced this out a bit by having massive purchases available, including Guildhalls in each major settlement, an airship, and various upgrades to those.
History of the Continent
While each society has it’s own telling of how the planes came to be aligned as they are, the most ancient of the outsiders tell it this way. Long ago when the elder deities were still young, the First gave them the blank tapestry of the planes to cultivate great works from. In the beginning they focused their efforts on the material plane, giving it shape and form before bringing the first mortal life into being – the lower animals and the Giants. After eons, they set their sights afar to the outer planes and began to imagine the works that they could do there. So it was that the elder deities created the younger or native deities. Splitting the land asunder the elder deities gave dominion over each continent to each pantheon of younger deities and then departed the material plane for the outer planes.
The native deities in turn populated their continents with sapient races formed after their likeness. As the individual races slowly matured, some of them in turn experimented with magic and created still more races of animals and monstrous beings. Of the races given life by the native deities, none were more majestic and powerful than the dragons. With each member possessing near immortality, strength equal to an army of the lesser races, and magical prowess equal to an archmage, the dragons never had the need to organize themselves into complicated societies like some of the other races. Instead, each brood loosely pursued their interests. So it was for eons until Ysrocha, long weary of overseeing creation, slew one of her sibling deities in a petty squabble and first whet her appetite with divine blood. Through deceit and trickery, Ysrocha overcame the remaining draconic deities and consumed them one by one, adding their power to her own. Her now insatiable hunger turned to the lands of the elves, where she swiftly consumed five of the Elven deities and all life that came within her grasp. The four remaining Elven deities, Mystanto, Rhy’alas, Ursan, and Mru’orda, lead the greater part of their race in flight. This exodus was to last over two hundred years while Ysrocha feasted on the rich lands before her.
The elves and their surviving deities finally settled on a savage continent ruled by beastly deities who were tamed by the Elven deities and taken as mounts. In time, the surviving elves built a great civilization and not only reclaimed their former glory but with renewed purpose actually surpassed it. The Elven deities upon their divine mounts actively lead this renaissance of their people, never forgetting the horrors that Ysrocha had inflicted upon them and plotting the gluttonous deity’s downfall.
Over thousands of years the elves built a great Empire uniting many of the other races under their influence and transforming the savage land into one vast capital city. The named it Maelyl Vaerdos, the land of Second Birth. During this age Ysrocha visited devastation upon other lands and consumed many more deities before settling into a deep slumber. This slumber was only disturbed when a vast army of elves, lead by their deities mounted on divine steeds, came against Ysrocha and after a great battle cast the devourer down, binding her in a great stone and sealing her power away. The elves then carried the imprisoned Ysrocha back to Maelyl Vaerdos and placed the great stone holding her in a great golden pyramid that had been built to hold her for the rest of eternity.
With the devourer overthrown and most of the material plane under their dominion, the elves and their deities were content to enjoy their splendor and wealth. In this era their artistry, spellcraft, and lore surpassed any that had come before them. But it was not to last… The end came swiftly and without warning. Horrors from beyond the abyss appeared in the midst of Maelyl Vaerdos, unleashing death and destruction upon the glorious city. The continent quaked as a great power struck it, causing the lands to the west of the great mountains to sink into the sea while lifting up the lands to the east. A great scorching wind made the once fertile land arid in a fortnight. The slain elves did not pass peacefully into the afterlife but rose up when the sun set and haunted the ruins of their homes. The deities of the elves did not depart with the few survivors who escaped this cataclysm but remained in Maelyl Vaerdos braving the horrors.
It was long before any dared to journey back to Maelyl Vaerdos after cataclysm, what they found there was a wasteland ruled by night by the displaced spirits of the slain elves and by day by the burning sun. Great beasts imprisoned for the amusement of the once great city now lived in its ruins while further in the depths horrors that should not exist sulked.
In time, greed proved stronger than prudence. Expeditions warded parts of the wasteland against the spirits of the fallen and fought off the beasts that ruled the land. A new market was created around pillaging and looting the ruins, the great works of the ancient elves being highly desired by the outside world. Three cities sprung up on the borders of the wasteland to outfit and support adventurers who risked their mortal existences in the pursuit of long lost elven riches.