D&D5 Campaign Seed
This is a campaign seed for a fantasy campaign loosely named “the Lich Kings of Avalon.”
At the height of the King’s power, basking in the glow of victorious battles, wise in years but still spry in body, and a Kingdom at peace, the Necromancer came to Court. The Necromancer offered the King a simple bargain: he would grant the King and Queen eternal life in return for the Necromancer and his ilk to live openly… plus a nominal fee. He had arranged financing with the Transmuter Bankers, the Necromancer said, for the magic over several years with reasonable terms – not an issue for a King with infinite time.
The King’s advisors were aghast. The Clerics of Good railed. Sire, they said, this is Black Magic. Your soul is in jeopardy! The Gods oppose working with the Necromancers! Your ancestor banished them for a reason! Do not accept this bargain!
The King looked at his second son – his eldest and first Heir dead from disease contracted in battle these ten years past – a boy of ten years who may not live to see fifteen. His other two living sons were young. He thought of his forebears who had the good fortune live long and to die slowly of strokes and dementia. Ten years, the King thought, barring his luck holds, until the inevitable downslide. His beloved Wife and Queen, his wisest councilor, she too would soon fade and pass away. What would become of his Kingdom? His great victories? His lands and treasure? Would these boys rule and grow his Empire or would they, like all other boys fortunate to inherit peace, squander it all foolishly?
The King banished the Clerics of Good from his Court to go minister to the smallfolk in the Shires. He signed the papers of the damned Transmuter Bankers (so much more evil and terrible than Necromancy with their usury and compound interest and their promises of turning Flesh to Stone for non-payment). He revoked the law set by his ancestor against establishing a Necromancy Guild in the Capital City. And he gave the money to the Necromancer.
Afterward, a group of High Lords and Clerics who opposed the King’s choice of entering Undeath planned a coup. They meant to destroy the thing that was their King and replace him with his ten year old son. They struck the Palace through the sewers in the blackest night but the King anticipated their actions. The Diviners had tipped off the Crown and those fortunate plotters who escaped scattered into the countryside.
Those plotters discovered and identified by the smallfolk of the Shires fell upon them and took it upon themselves to mete out the King’s Justice. They loved the King and Queen and those who struck against them found a bad end hanging from a gallows in some unmarked barley field.
The Kingdom carried on much like it always had in the reign of the King. Some feasting moved from the brightness of day to after the night and Government in the Capital began operations later in the day. The King required more tenting to watch the Jousts and Tournaments. But the Camelot the King built glittered on its Hill, a beacon of Might and a source of capital. The small people carried on as they always had, doing business, making money, plowing land, having families and living lives. The Kingdom found new stability and predictability. May the King live forever!
The King elevated the Clerics of Gods of Kingdom and Law to the places in his Court vacated by those of Good and Peace. He had no interest in nattering priests concerned with his immortal soul when he now had an immortal body. Freed from the concerns of primogeniture succession, he then settled in to rule for a thousand years just as foretold in legends. He was now the Once and Future King.
Quietly, the Necromancers opened a chapter house in the Capital City for business.
The first ten years of the Risen King’s reign saw unprecedented expansion and War. A King with no fear of Death has no fear of battle. And a King with an infinite lifespan has no fear of paying down his war debts. For the Good of Kingdom and Crown, the King reopened War with his neighbors, lead his troops into battle and began a merciless war of conquest.
This could not stand. The other prosperous Kings (or at least those with a tax base they could squeeze) would not watch idly as this obvious military advantage graced their mortal enemy. While the Risen King raided lands and burned villages, other Kings used their own networks of Diviners and Spies to bore into the Risen King’s Court. Once the other Kings, too, understood what they needed to do to compete, they reached out to the Necromancer Guild.
These were the salad days for the Necromancers. Celebrated in Courts and rich with other men’s financed debt, they traveled from Kingdom to Kingdom and Duchy to Duchy to offer the gift to military supremacy through eternal life. Everywhere the Gods of Good opposed them, but the Necromancers and returning spies pointed out the Kings could supplant the Gods of Good with the Gods of Law and Right and their Kingdoms would be even stronger. Take the Undeath, finance it through the Transmuter Bankers (always ready with the paperwork), give up one mundane life for a life befit of true Royal Blood, and break your Kingdom from the stranglehold of succession and failure.
Those who could mortgage their Kingdoms did. But those who could not swiftly became vassal states of Empires.
The Risen King continued to reign a hundred years more with his Queen at his side. Powerful beyond measure, he ushered in a new Golden Age. His sons grew up, married, grew old, founded Ducal Houses in the Kingdom, and died. His grandsons grew to adulthood and stepped into the roles once held by his sons. Soon they too married, grew old, and died. Great-grandsons did not know a time without the Risen King on the Throne. Great-great-grandsons were not sure their role in the Crown should the Crown ever fall. Were they even of Royal Blood any more? What was Royal Blood?
The Kingdom was always externally at War but always internally at peace. The threat of Civil War by succession was gone. There were the other Lich Kings of Avalon to fight, to take their towns, to raid their Empires, for the good of the Kingdom. Where there was no War, trade and industry flourished. Where there was War, it was merciless and brutal.
We are always at War but we are always Winning. The Gods save the Mighty Risen King!
The Lawful Gods of Might, Stability, and Kingdom supplanted the Gods of Good. The Necromancers openly spread through every country and Empire. They became wealthy beyond imagining offering legal Turnings to those of High Nobility but never the greatness of the Turnings offered to Kings. Social class dictated undeath. Vampires lounged in the Great Courts and convinced the Risen King to pass laws allowing their legal and noble right to feast upon the peasantry and bathe in their blood (the Kingdom has so many we will never miss a few!) Revenants, once great Generals and now Ever-living, haunted their black suits of armor on the fields of battle. Undeath became fashionable.
Did Undeath corrupt the minds of the Lich Kings? They ruled, for good or for ill, as they always did among their Undead Courts. External to Court politics, the Kingdoms and Empires were much the same. Was this the king or his succession of advisors, some undead and some the grandsons of his original advisors, maintaining eternal stability and peace within? Or a blessing of Undeath?
And did it matter?
The Once and Future King had returned to all the Great Courts of the World. May the Lich Kings of Avalon rule forever!
The Murder Hobos of Avalon
It is not entirely obvious from the outset that the undead run the Kingdom. Much of the truth of the dealings with Kings and necromancers never became popular knowledge outside a few Government officials, High Nobles and highly ranked Clerics. The Crown’s propagandists long persuaded the populace the King’s unnaturally and bizarrely long life is a blessing to the Kingdom. Sure no one sees the Queen much any more in public. The King rides through towns in the countryside in an enclosed carriage. He sits under his special tenting at his tournaments. In armor, the King appears with his visor closed and that dark visage around him is simply his God-given powers over Men and Dwarf and Gnome and Half-elf manifesting.
Besides, the doings of Kings, Dukes and Earls are so far removed from the lives of the villages they might as well be on another planet. For most people, as long as the Kingdom carries on and doesn’t bother them, they support their King. Only through slowly peeling back the onion skins of lies and deceit surrounding the King and his Court does the horrible Truth finally emerge.
The War against the Risen King is a Shadow War. The Risen King is too powerful to fight in the fields army to army in great cavalry charges. Freedom from eternal peace and stability and life given back to the Living requires plots, spies, plans, assassinations, and murder. It needs dubious Murder Hobos.
Who Fights the Risen King?
The Risen King enjoys broad based support throughout his entire realm. Few will publicly raise their fist against him lest they be dragged off and properly lynched. But some would like the Kingdom – and all Kingdoms ruled by the Undead – returned to the hands of the true Living, even if it means enduring the chaos of succession.
* The Vassalized Kingdoms subjugated mercilessly by the Risen King as part of his Eternal Empire are not ruled by undead. They are not great and glittering Kingdoms on a hill. Their Courts are not filled with overdressed Vampires and the occasional Wraith. These are the tax base for the Risen King’s eternal war, kept poor and forced to the soil so the King can squeeze pennies from their blood. They remember a time before the Risen King and the other Kingdoms of the World. They remember when Necromancers were evil and not celebrated wizards and advisors to great Courts. They remember when the Gods of Good were not hunted to the edges of the World.
However, representatives of the Vassalized Court who may or may not harbor their own dreams of attaining eternal life of a sort for themselves. Outwardly their motives are noble – freedom from oppression for their people – but inwardly they want what the Risen King has: power. If they destroy enough of the undead Lords and seize their lands, they, too, could treat with the Necromancers.
* Underground Clerics of the Gods of Neutral and Chaotic Good. While some of the Gods of Peace, Hearth, and Home are unequipped to fight Courts of Undead, many Good Clerics follow Gods of Light and Nature. Gods of Light may provide warmth and light when all around is dark but they can also burn the Undead with focused laser fire. Nature has horns and teeth. The King’s Agents may have pursued these Clerics to the edges of the Kingdom and forced then underground but these Clerics still hold their sermons in homes in the Shires of those who hold to the Old Ways.
* Great-grandsons of the Risen King who want their Blood Right as King. Via primogeniture they claim the right of the Throne and Kingship but a long dead King occupies their Throne. They have money and their have their Ducal Lands but they want the Throne and are willing to open a bloody war to get it. Problem is there is now more than one of their little group who also can claim the Throne. Backing one Great-Grandson may mean opening Civil War with another.
* Agents of other Lich Kings of Avalon pretending to be employed with the Vassalized Kingdoms or the Gods of Light. The Wars have long stagnated between Kingdoms and the only way for one Kingdom to gain an upper hand over another is for a Lich King to find a quick True Death at the hands of enterprising Murder Hobos. That way, the other Kingdom’s hands are clean, a Kingdom falls into complete Chaos, and the War shifts from equilibrium and into another Lich King’s Court.
In the hundred years of stability, stagnation and growth, Kingdoms have had plenty of time to work out the kinks in their elaborate spy and Divination networks. All they need is to make a move. In the name of Good and Freedom.
* Enemies of the Necromancers who want their little Guild closed down, them removed from world Courts, and cast back into the Shadows. While they rarely dabble in undeath themselves, they are the peddlers of the high fashion of the nobility. They bring eternal life to the Courts and guarantee endless War and Empire. Destroying the purveyors of undeath will begin to free the world from their pernicious presence. But they are rich and powerful and have high up friends and will not go down without a fight.
* Relatives of those murdered and fed to the Undead Courts for their blood feasts to maintain their eternal lives. One of those vicious Earl Vampires ate a wife, a son, a family in wartime – legally. The endless cruelty and evil must come to an end and the lives of the dead revenged in Holy, Purifying Light.
* Demons of Chaos and Hell who want their souls brought to them in payment for services rendered. Eventually that bill for eternal life comes due and the demons want their flesh. The Necromancers may or may not have mentioned this part. Sometimes they forget.
* Transmuter Bankers who want their debts paid in full and are willing to have eternal life forcefully removed from a client and liquidate those estates to get it.
* Disciples of Chaos who simply want to watch it all burn for their own glorious financial gain.
The fight against the Risen King is a long slog. One cannot merely walk into the Court and kill a century old King. Besides, many have tried. One needs to get through his layers of protection, chip away at his support, and murder his most powerful vassals before coming face to face with the King. And, in the mayhem aftermath, there are 10 more Kings out there just like him.
Law vs. Good
This is a story designed to turn the normal fantasy Good-Evil axis on its side and ride along the Law-Chaos axis. If you want to turn this campaign seed into an actual campaign, the recommendation for constructing the first few sessions is:
1. Start the players off in an oppressed vassalized Kingdom saving villages from standard orcs and trolls and leveling;
2. Encountering clerics of Good and Light to spin out their tale of being banished to the edges of oblivion;
3. Come to the attention of Agents – either of the Vassalized Kingdom or an enemy Kingdom – and employ the Murder Hobos to destroy an undead lesser Noble Lord and let them figure out how to accomplish that task;
4. Leave clues that the undead conspiracy goes all the way down.
After this, it is more about PC choice than unspooling a complex plot. Preference is to making all the “Good Guys” appear Good with loads of dark Neutral Evil motives. The Undead Courts and the King are, without a doubt, undead, but only some of them are evil. But this is only a suggestion – don’t run campaigns on rails.
The Risen King entered this contract with the best of intentions; these Kings and High Lords are the disciples and Saints of the Gods of Law. Do the Neutral Gods care if their most powerful agents in the Realms are dead as long as their power extends down to the smallest freeloader and feeblest villein? Law is a powerful construct. It crafts Governments, it holds together Kingdoms,and it pumps life into sprawling Empires. The Risen King has provided stability for his people and might against his enemies. If a Lawful Good God must face outcomes that expands his Domain in spite of embracing some Evil, does he send in the Murder Hobo death squads anyway?
Yes, those filthy fashionable Vampires of the Risen King’s Court are ridiculously evil but they were ridiculously evil when they were alive. If the PC choice is to go after the Risen King and kill his Undead Court in the name of Good, remember this is also in the service of Chaos. The Vassalized and oppressed home Kingdom will definitely be freed in the aftermath of disturbing a century of expansion and stability. And maybe that is a victory condition for the PCs. They will leave a Civil War in their wake.
Lay out the philosophical dilemma, provide the choices to the PCs and see what happens.
Writer’s Note: Big thanks to Beth McCoy and family for providing me with this idea! It’s a good one. Also I listened to tons of White Zombie while writing this.
I started constructing this as a D&D5e campaign and now I wonder if it isn’t better as a weird sort of Night’s Black Agents Fantasy game or a Dungeon World game. Running this with Gumshoe would take some interesting rejiggering of the system to make it work but it’s loose enough to fit into most molds. And of course Dungeon World would allow the players to “fail up.”