Campaign Idea: March of the Hellgates

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I’ve been inhumanly busy lately, between my schoolwork, the two tabletop campaigns I’m running (and the one I’m playing in), my job, and pursuing a post-graduation job, but I still have tons of ideas bouncing around in my head for games to play, and I’ve recently had an idea for a kitchen-sink campaign setting that’s got me very excited, if very wishing I had more free time.

The name of this setting would be March of the Hellgates. The setting centers on the world of Astacia, a high-magic, D&D-ass D&D setting full of wizards and magic and arcane secrets and monsters. The one thing this setting is missing is divine magic. While the concept of religion exists, the idea of divine beings having a tangible effect on the real world, at least an undeniable and traceable one, does not.

Everything’s going swimmingly in Astacia until, one day, a hundred years ago, these great fiery portals called Hellgates open up across the land. Demonic armies literally spew forth from these rifts, razing the countryside, reaving armies, and enslaving the populace. To defend against this threat, eight of the greatest sorcerers, now known as the Sorcerer Kings, perform a ritual that destroys their physical body, but allows them to ascent to astral beings, and in this brief moment where they are able to maintain their power in the Material Plane, they carve massive swaths in the demon armies and force them to retreat.

The Sorcerer Kings vanish, unable to contain their power into material bodies for any longer, and the devastated Astacia is forced to rebuild. Riding on the end of the conflict, a mageocracy (that is, a government controlled by magic users) called the Arcane Protectorate establishes itself as the new high power in the land. The reasoning is that magic users are what literally just saved the world from destruction, so why not put them in charge?

While the Protectorate isn’t totalitarian per-se, they are an extremely bureaucratic and self-concerned organization, which meant it was a while before they tackled their first big problem: the Hellgates. When the last demons retreated through the Hellgates, they weren’t closed behind them. They were just sort of left open.

Finally, an expedition team is mounted to travel through a Hellgate, and this is where the meat of the setting is. When the team reaches their destination, they find themselves not in Hell, but another world, one called Mendallen. Mendallen is a desert world, currently controlled by demons, but most decidedly not the origin of the demons. In fact, as it turns out, the Hellgates serve as a sort of highway service connecting the assorted worlds that the demons have invaded at one point or another, thus establishing a multiverse ripe for exploration.

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That’s the meat and potatoes of the setting. Astacia serves as the “hub” for the game, out of need for a focal point, and its unique standing as a world recently (in the grand scheme of things) invaded by demons. Some of the worlds connected by Hellgates are under demonic control. Others, like Astacia, are not. However, the common trend is that control is inescapable. All of the worlds that resisted demonic occupation did so by instead submitted to an alternative evil.

Take the world of Covina, for example. Heavily inspired by D&D’s Ravenloft and Magic the Gathering‘s Innistrad, Covina is a densely wooded, dark gothic world, one where citizens hide behind their town walls at night out of fear of the monsters that lurk in the shadows. Covina is host to a variety of horrifying monsters, such as vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and most interestingly, a cosmic horror-scale monster called T’sholoth that lives in the ocean. T’sholoth is horrifying: it mutates and aggravates the monsters in the night, it drives men mad with whispers in dreams, and it basically has stunted all civilization on this world by forcing people to cower in fear.

However, when the demons invaded Covina, T’sholoth pretty much single handedly obliterated them, both with hordes of mutated monsters and its own direct involvement. T’sholoth is an unspeakable horror, and the damnation of the plane, but were T’sholoth defeated, the demon armies would easily conquer Covina.

That’s the core question of Astacia. Astacia freed itself, but now the Arcane Protectorate wields absolute authority. While the Protectorate hasn’t necessarily done anything too bad yet, they’re still extremely concerned with maintaining power, to the point of heavily regulating magic users, and making a point to research, perfect, and grandstand with powerful instruments of war. Their taxes can be rough, their punishments severe at times, and they have a tendency to be very paranoid.

Not only that, but the Sorcerer Kings are still a presence, even if not a physical one. Those who reach out to the Ethereal Plane can sometimes be visited by a Sorcerer King, who might bestow knowledge or a quest upon the traveler. The extent of their power is unknown, as is their motivations. On top of that, they’re completely unmatched: the Protectorate has no idea how to reproduce the ritual that created them, despite constant experimentation. Are the eight Kings going to become watchful guardians of the realm, or oppressive god-like beings like T’sholoth?

I think this idea is ripe with fascinating, interesting ideas. If done will, a campaign could take place within a single world (like a group of monster hunters surviving the woods of Covina, or a caravan of traders wandering the desert of Mendallen), or could span multiple worlds as a party travels the multiverse. Any genre of fantasy wanted can be explored here by just travelling to a new plane, and anything boring can just be left.

However, there are three things that make me very excited about this setting, that make me want to run it ASAP:

1. Higher powers are weird

Paladins are banned from this campaign, clerics draw their power from the ethereal Sorcerer Kings, and the gods, if there are any, don’t regularly make their presence known in this world. There are definitely great forces in this setting, but what they want and exactly what they can do are far more ambiguous than most high-fantasy settings.

2. Heavily exploration focused

This campaign is built from the ground up on the premise of going to new, bizarre places. The sheer variety of places to go, things to encounter, and problems to solve is multiplied exponentially by having a variety of planes, meaning you can do a sandbox-style game in such a setting fairly easily.

3. Weird magic

Sort of following point 1, magic in this world is bizarre and doesn’t work in a very well-defined way. While the Protectorate tries its best to normalize and control magic, things like the Hellgates, the ascension of the Sorcerer Kings, T’sholoth, and other oddities mean that there is plenty of magic that is just nothing but question marks. In my opinion, I think that makes for the best kinds of magic.

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